You could logically expect a well-preserved, 800-year-old country to feel like a great big museum – all velvet ropes in the king’s bedroom and commemorative plaques. Portugal, though, apparently didn’t get that memo. Ancient as it is, this land is also the master of reinvention, and today the country has a retro-modern vibe that is utterly Portuguese.
Susana, our good friend and Classic Journeys’ expert local guide, says it’s because “in Portugal, we live with the past all around us, but we absolutely refuse to live in the past.” A day in Évora proves her case, hands down.
Lording it over the golden plains of the Alentejo, Évora is a beautifully preserved medieval town with everything from cathedral to Roman ruins. But don’t imagine for a second that it’s trapped in amber. It’s a university town too, and the energy is impossible to miss. Fourteenth-century storefronts house art galleries; a restaurant is as likely to specialize in the classics (cozido à portuguesa, anyone?) to 21st-century twists. History matters intensely, but the story refuses to end there.
Around here cork is seriously cool – an old-as-the-hills trade with plenty of contemporary cachet. Our friend David, who’s the fourth generation to work in his family’s cork factory, leaves no doubt in your mind. By the time David waves you into the workshop, you have seen the region’s picturesque groves of trees with their startling burgundy-red trunks and branches. Those are cork oaks, and their strong blush comes after their bark has been gently peeled away.
As David tells you, the bark grows back, making his family’s livelihood sustainable before it was in style. You see how they harvest the bark, treat it, and transform it into everything from furniture to wine corks. In fact, his great-grandfather was designing cork furniture as far back as the ‘50s. He’ll introduce you to his father Joaquim who is the creative force today. You get the story of a family and a personal look at a traditional trade that most of us have never even stopped to think about.
The historic-but-hip parallel is alive and well at a nearby organic vineyard as well. There you meet Victor, a winemaker who’s so intense you can practically imagine him willing the grapes to have the perfect sugar content. He’s the kind of guy who tends the cows, and looks after the estate’s own olive grove, and who lives, breathes and dreams wine.
For him, biodynamic wine isn’t a marketing ploy; it’s a return to the way grapes have been grown here in his native Alentejo for 2,000 years. A true believer that he is, Victor also makes sure you get it that he’s not trying to recreate heritage wines. Instead, he’s returning to the past to create something modern. Later, at a culinary picnic in the shade of a cork tree, you sip wines that taste of the soft clear air and the golden soil and drink to Victor for blurring the lines between past and present.
The delight of Portugal is that every day is a fresh start. One moment, you stand on Cabo da Roca where the Atlantic surf pounds the westernmost point in all of Europe. There’s that morning in Lisbon when you bite into your first creamy-flaky custard tart, a national obsession if ever there was one. Then, almost without warning, you slip completely out of this millennium as you step into the Neolithic stone circles that pre-date Stonehenge.
On the banks of the Douro, you can imagine yourself on a small dock awaiting the arrival of a boat to carry your port to Oporto – only you’re on a chaise, by the pool with a ringside view of the river and the endless vineyard-covered hills.
Susanna isn’t bragging when she tells you, “Portugal is timeless. Our past and present live so happily together. Everything is here and nowhere else is better!” There’s no time like the present to find out for yourself.