Alentejo: Remnants of ancient civilizations in Portugese region


Is it yesterday today?" my 3-year-old daughter asked.

The Alentejo region of Portugal certainly felt that way. On a road trip with our three children (ages 3, 7, and 10), we planned to drive from Rota, Spain, to Lisbon in one day and spend time exclusively in Portugal’s capital city.

But we changed our itinerary after I read that the Alentejo region boasted climbable castles, touchable history and relics that dated back thousands of years.

After about a half-hour drive from the Spanish-Portuguese border, we arrived at the Herdade da Retorta Bed and Breakfast just outside the small town of Serpa. The owners greeted us in their parking lot with a handshake and kisses on cheek.

The 100-year-old country house features large bedrooms with their own baths and adjacent sitting rooms. The hostess immediately took the kids to pet the "goat that never grew up" in their barn and then showed them how to play billiards on the second floor of the house.

In the morning, we enjoyed a homemade breakfast, and afterward the kids ran up to a rooftop loft where the owners provided guests with oil paints, watercolors and canvases. Once my children had finished their masterpieces, the owners insisted the paintings were to remain at the scene — in case one of the kids turned out to be the next Vincent van Gogh.

We then headed off on a daylong trek back in time.

Our first stop was Serpa’s Moorish castle atop a hill. As we drove up the narrow cobblestone streets flanked with whitewashed homes, we passed an Arab water wheel perched between the old city walls. Beyond it stood the Serpa castle with its courtyards, stairs and overlooks of the town and countryside. Its foundations dated to the days when the Moors had conquered the region. The kids ran along the outer walls and found a staircase they insisted had once been a cauldron.

A 20-minute drive from Serpa is the town of Beja. It offers much to see, but we came for a specific purpose: to visit a lost civilization. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 and swept all the way to Portugal, founding new settlements as they moved west. By the early 700s, however, invading Moors killed the Visigoth leaders and the kingdom vanished.

Beja preserves a vestige of the Visigoth past at the Santo Amaro church, now a museum. We saw a decayed Visigoth sword, a stone slab with writing and columns decorated in seventh-century geometric designs.

Afterward, we walked along the cobblestone streets, sighting Moorish-inspired azulejos — richly painted ceramic tiles decorating the outside of buildings.

About 20 miles from Beja, the fairy-tale town of Evora holds rich splendors such as the Se cathedral with its pair of unmatched towers and craft shops down pedestrian-only streets. We easily found the Conde Vila Flor Square in the city center with a magnificent Roman temple. Dedicated to the goddess Diana in the second or third century, the ruins stand as a reminder that before the Moors and the Visigoths, Portugal had been part of the Roman Empire, in a region known as Lusitania.

We kept our visit in Evora short because we had another stop that would take us even further back in time. After stopping at the tourist information center to pick up a "megalith map," we drove about six miles outside the city to large stones left by Neolithic hunter-gatherer communities more than 7,000 years ago. The Portuguese have preserved almost 100 menhirs (large upright standing stones, often with inscriptions from Neolithic times), 800 dolmens (single-chamber tombs), and several other megalithic structures in this region.

We narrowed our visit to two sites. Trusting our tourist map and the well-marked road signs, we passed through the little town of Guadalupe and turned onto a dirt road with cork groves on either side. (The Portuguese are famous for their export of cork for use in wine bottles.)

At the very end of the road, we came to the "Portuguese Stonehenge" — the Cromlech of Almendres — where 100 monolithic stones formed a circular enclosure that once had astrological significance. My 10-year-old daughter, Nadia, ran through the maze and discovered mysterious circles etched into a stone.

We then headed to the town of Valverde, following signs that took us onto a narrow unpaved road to an abandoned parking lot shaded by an oak tree. The kids forged ahead, rushing up a hill to a massive stone structure — the largest in the Iberian Peninsula — known as the Dolmen of Zambujeiro. Seven stones, all more than 25 feet tall, leaned together forming a chamber.

Although the entrance was closed with plywood and secured with modern-day concrete blocks, the chamber fired our imaginations. This could have been a tomb or a place where people held religious ceremonies. Archaeologists date the stones to somewhere around 4,000 B.C.

We returned to the paved road, driving through green pastures dotted with black pigs and goats. A stop at a snack shop in Valverde brought us back into the present.

While my daughters munched on potato chips and drank sodas, I said, "We’ve seen a lot of different yesterdays."

"I like the chips," my 3-year-old answered.

I couldn’t agree more.

Barbara Zaragoza is a dependent spouse living on the naval base in Naples, Italy. Her blog, "The Espresso Break," about the food and nooks of Naples, is at http://theespressobreak.blogspot.com.

Know and Go

Where to stay: Herdade da Retorta, Monte da Retorta, Apartado 59, Serpa, has four double rooms, a two-bed room, and a suite, with the doubles starting at 70 euros. Its e-mail address is geral@herdade-da-retorta.pt, and its Web site, with location and additional contact information, is www.herdade-da-retorta.pt

Where to eat: A Tradicao, Alameda Abade C. da Serra 14, Serpa. Located in the center of the town, this restaurant serves traditional cuisine, including ewe’s milk cheese and black pig — a locally raised pig.

Nadia Zaragoza, 10, leans against one of the stones in a Neolithic stone ring near Evora.