Ready for a change of pace? This holiday option may just be the perfect remedy for an eco-friendly trip with thrills
Recent record temperatures across the globe are a stark reminder that every aspect of our lives has a direct bearing on climate change, which in turn is already having a very real effect on our lives.
So when I got a chance to visit Alentejo as part of an initiative to showcase the region as a travel destination and to marry that with the other great love in my life — motorcycles — I jumped at the chance.
The Rout-E project, an initiative of Visit Portugal, is all about sustainable tourism. The idea is that you fly into Lisbon, Porto or Faro, rent an electric car or motorcycle, and choose from one of five routes — Porto and the north, the centre of Portugal, Lisbon, Alentejo or the Algarve — along which are dotted places of interest to visit and stay.
All of the suggested hotels and many of the stop-off points have charging points, leaving range-anxiety firmly at the back of your mind, but more about range later.
Anyone familiar with Portugal will already know that the country represents just about the best value in this region of Europe for eating out, accommodation and transport.
Having caught a late flight into Lisbon, we take a two-hour transfer to the Tróia peninsula, on the Sado River estuary, and spend a comfortable night in the Aqualuz Troia Lagoa hotel.
Under normal circumstances, you pick up your bike (or car) at a Hertz depot at the airport, but seeing as I’m a guest, the nice people at Visit Portugal have arranged for our bikes to be waiting for us outside the hotel the morning after our arrival.
My steed for the next few days is a Zero DSR fully-electric motorcycle. To the uninitiated, it’s an electric equivalent of a mid-sized motorcycle, with a top speed just shy of 200kph and a maximum torque figure of 190Nm. In other words, it goes like a hot snot but handles a hell of a lot better.
The manufacturer claims a range of somewhere in the region of 350km from a fully charged battery. And they’re not wrong — if I left the bike in ‘eco’ mode, rode very gently with a slight tailwind, and had no ascents along the way, I could conceivably achieve this distance between charges.
Except that nobody really rides or drives in eco mode, you generally don’t have a tailwind for your entire journey, and most roads I travel tend to have both ups and downs.
In fairness to the people at Zero, they do precisely what every other electric vehicle manufacturer does when it comes to range estimates — they quote the maximum achievable figure. But in real-world riding, you’re really looking at half that range.
This is no bad thing when you’re on a holiday that’s all about sustainable travel — it makes you slow down and absorb your surroundings, rather than riding or driving through them simply to get to your destination.
We ride south along the peninsula and stop and Praia da Comporta, a long beach that sits on the south of the Sado Estuary Nature Reserve. After considering a quick dip, we opt instead for a coffee before heading west through roads that traverse the famous fields of Comporta.
We stop to take a look at the curious village of Carrasqueira, situated on the mouth of the Sado River and essentially sitting on stilts and housing the traditional huts of the local fishermen.
Pousadas are state-run historic hotels — often former convents or abbeys — that were taken over and refurbished by the Pestana hotel group in a public-private partnership. The result? Architecturally striking hotels at bargain prices throughout Portugal.
We stop for a lunch of pork cheeks at Pousada Castelo Alcácer do Sal, a stunning Baroque building where you can get a double room for a very respectable €120 for two sharing, with breakfast.
Back on the road and we stop for a walk around Santa Susana village, a typical Alentejo village, where we go in search of snails to eat at the O Coelho bar. One of our companions has told us the village is famous for the delicacy. Alas, they don’t have them on the menu today, but at least we now know it’s not just the French who like to nibble on these little morsels.
Back on the bikes again and heading for our hotel for the next two nights, I take in the rolling landscape dotted by cork oak trees. You are far from the hustle and bustle of the Algarve or the big bustling cities of Lisbon or Porto. Life seems to go at a far slower pace in Alentejo, which is just as well because the bike range is getting perilously low.
We take a guided tour of the castle that looks over the town of Montemor-o-Novo, a short distance from Évora, the capital city of Alentejo.
The impressive castle was most likely built on the remnants of an ancient Muslim fortification and served as the first line of defence from the Kingdom of Castile, owing to the town’s close proximity to Spain.
But today it’s serving as the last stop of the day for a group of hot and thirsty travellers who are now a mere 27km from their lodgings, the Ecork Hotel in Évora where, after a welcome dip in the pool, a traditional dinner of cod with boiled potatoes and a quick night-cap, we hit the hay.
Bikes fully charged the next morning, and it’s off to the nearby city of Évora, where our host for the day is Professor Libânio Reis, a fountain of knowledge about Évora’s rich history.
As we stroll with him around the old town centre, we learn that the city sat at a crossroads of the Roman Empire until the 14th century, how in 1536 it was the first house of the Portuguese Inquisition, and that it was the second city after Lisbon during the 15th and 16th centuries. I could write a book with all the fascinating facts Professor Reis shared with us, and I’m sure he has written a few.
The professor joins us for lunch at Howard’s Folly, an art-inspired winery and charitable foundation that is the brainchild of entrepreneur Howard Bilton and wine-maker David Baverstock. At the winery’s restaurant, we feast on beef carpaccio, cod in panko breadcrumbs and steak in balsamic vinegar. We leave well fed and content.
My visit to Alentejo coincides with the hottest May on record in Portugal, so I’m quietly relieved when our guided visit to the Palais Royal in Vila Viçosa doesn’t work out. It’s damn hot and the charge on the bike is critically low once again, so we gently ride the short distance back to the Ecork Hotel Évora.
The next morning, we set off on a 10km spin to the Almendres Cromlech, a sort of Portuguese Stonehenge comprising an impressive collection of megalithic stones, the largest such site on the Iberian Peninsula and one of the biggest in Europe.
From there we head west again, this time to the beautiful town of Monsaraz, a sort of medieval fortress in the sky, with commanding views over the Guadiana River and across the border to Spain. On the way to Monsaraz, we stop at a pottery shop typical of the region, Pottery José Cartaxo in the village of Corval.
At our final lunch of the trip before heading to Beja, where some of our group are staying for the evening while I head back to Lisbon ahead of an early flight the next morning, we sit in the dining room of the Montimerso Skyscape Country House Hotel.
Gazing across the lake and reservoir that frames the foreground as Spain beckons in the background, I can’t help but think that this type of holiday is a bit of a hidden gem. We have only travelled a total of 450km over three days, but we’ve slowed right down and seen Alentejo in minute detail, savouring every minute of this hidden side of Portugal. We’ll be back.
ALENTEJO, PORTUGAL See visitportugal.com
■ There are five suggested driving/riding routes on Rout-E: Porto and North, Centre of Portugal, Lisbon, Alentejo and Algarve. ■ Daily flights from Dublin to Lisbon, Faro and Porto — see aerlingus.com and ryanair.com for details.