Alentejo - Background information


Portugal’s story is a fascinating Game of Thrones brew of intrigue, plotting and conquest rendered bittersweet with tragic love stories, ribald kings and romantic heroes. A little knowledge of it will ensure that you enjoy the Alentejo all the more.

Portugal was the keystone of Europe’s development. This was the country that conquered Islam before Spain and then stole the trade routes from the Arabs. Portugal invented the fleet of conquest – the European hybrid of military might and mercantile savviness that would define the pre-industrial West. It opened up Asia and Africa, probably discovered Australia, and (if you believe the Portuguese) the Americas too. And Portugal was the first country to trade on a truly global scale – bringing Europe to the world and the world to Europe.

Phoenicians, Celts and Carthage

By the late Bronze Age (c1500BC) villages were trading not just across Iberia but across Europe, and with that trade came new religious ideas relating to the Earth, and in some cases mother goddesses and eye idols probably associated with sun or moon cults. Communities were divided between agricultural settlements on the lowland plains (which had large grain storage tanks built below ground) and militarised hilltop forts called castros that almost certainly controlled the agricultural villages through force of arms. Small seaports dotted the coast, including at Alcácer do Sal. It was around this time that the Portuguese first began the seafaring that would make them powerful, with villagers building saveiros – keelless wooden boats powered by a single sail attached not to a mast but to an L-shaped frame. These are still built in Maranhão state in Brazil today, making them one of the oldest continually manufactured nautical vessels on the planet.

By the first millennium a warrior cult had emerged in the Alentejo, based around the castros. Stele and elaborately decorated funeral urns have been unearthed throughout the region. Both depict stylised warriors, often brandishing bronze ‘carp tongue’ swords. By contrast, digs on the lowlands have shown that the warriors’ agricultural subordinates were still using stone, wood and bone tools, indicating that Portuguese Bronze Age society was markedly divided.

Great change came to the Alentejo in around 700BC with the Iron Age and the Phoenicians – the Mediterranean’s first nautical empire – who arrived along the Guadiana River and founded a port there, called Myrtilis (now Mértola). The Phoenicians introduced iron, nautical technology and the alphabet to Mediterranean Europe, including Portugal, which was producing its first written inscriptions (on funerary stele and ceramic vases) by the 5th century. The Celts followed them shortly afterwards from the north, and the intermingling of peoples and cultures brought new localised tribal civilisations to Portugal. These included the celticised Lusitani, who would give their name to the Roman province, and the Turduli, who were based in the Algarve and Alentejo. Many of these tribes were warlike and the original inhabitants of the Alentejo fortified themselves against them behind increasing numbers of castros. These developed into oppida – fortified towns that produced, stored and traded their own goods and were run by a military elite.

Concurrent with the rise of the oppida was the growth of the kingdom of Tartessos – around Huelva in Spain – just across the modern Portuguese border in the eastern Algarve. This trading empire was probably stimulated economically and culturally by both the Phoenicians (whose influence became ever stronger until the collapse of the Assyrian empire in 612BC) and later the Greeks. Tartessian influence was strong over the mining communities of the southern Alentejo, and their objects have been found all over southern Portugal.

From about the 6th century BC the Phoenician colony of Carthage began to establish itself as a new Mediterranean power, initially as traders and then as military imperialists. In the late 3rd century a Carthaginian army under Hamilcar Barca invaded and conquered southern Iberia. The conqueror brought his ten-year old son, Hannibal, who grew up in Spain, married a Spanish woman and in 221BC expanded Iberian Carthage further, founding a new capital of Carthago Nova (New Carthage – now Cartagena) and annexing much of modern Portugal, including large chunks of the Alentejo. Hannibal attracted the attention of far-off Rome when he besieged and conquered the Roman outpost of Saguntum. When Rome demanded that his forces surrender, the general instead chose to invade Italy on elephants, kicking off the Second Punic Wars which would lead to the full invasion of Iberia by Roman forces, and the annexation of Portugal into imperial Rome.

Columns Alentejo Portugal Europe by Adrian PhilipsRuined Corinthian columns showcase Alentejo's long history © Adrian Philips

Nautral history

The Alentejo has a rich and diverse natural history that is explored in the main chapters of this guide. The coast – especially around the protected Sado estuary nature reserve and RAMSAR site and the Santo André and Sancha lagoon nature reserves – is an important nesting ground for migratory water birds and for marine mammals. Iberian lynx have been seen as recently as 2013 in the maquis forests and woodlands of the southern coast. The meadows and forests of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina preserve rare and endangered southern European plants and butterflies. The Rota Vicentina offers access.

There are two large natural parks in the Alentejo’s interior. The Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede in the north and abutting the Spanish border is home to more than 150 bird species including rare eagles and vultures and has colonies of threatened small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. 

The Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana and adjacent Castro Verde Special Protection Area in the Baixo Alentejo are home to important populations of great bustard, Europe’s largest flying bird. The Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana Natural Park, which protects the watershed of the Guadiana River, is one of the best places in Iberia to watch birds, has more than 37 reptile and amphibian species and is the only place in Portugal where the Iberian lynx (the world’s second most endangered big cat) lives all year round.

People and culture


This complex, cultured people is one of Europe’s most genetically diverse. Iberians and Phoenicians, Celts, Carthaginians and Romans, Goths, Moors, Jews, Japanese and sub-Saharan Africans make up the historical Portuguese. A diaspora of West Africans, Chinese, Timorese and Brazilians have added to their variety. Studies of mitochondrial DNA carried out in the new millennium and published in Human Biology (77:2, April 2005) and the American Journal of Human Genetics (83:6 December 2008) concluded that Portuguese from southern Portugal have a 10.8% frequency of sub-Saharan African genes, that 36.3% of southern Portuguese descend from Sephardic Jews, and that Iberians as a whole have on average 10.6% North African DNA.

Art and literature


The Portuguese are a bookish people. And they have produced some fine writers – born of the country’s turbulent domestic history, its adventures overseas, the gain and loss of glory and the mix of cultures and nations which have shaped Portugal and the Portuguese. Before Portugal was Portugal, al-Andalus had produced two of the greatest writers in Arabic – Averrões and Ibn Arabi – and two of the greatest in Hebrew – Maimonides and Moses de León. The troubadours and court of Asturias inspired early Portuguese lyric and comic poetry in the cantigas d’amor (love songs) and cantigas d’escario e maldizer (songs of scorn and insult), written by King Dom Dinis, among others.

But it was the Reconquest and the subsequent Golden Age of the Portuguese Discoveries that saw the birth of a national literature. This began in the 15th century with the histories of Fernão Lopes, Crónicas de 5 reis de Portugal (Chronicles of Five Kings of Portugal), the Crónica dos sete primeiros reis de Portugal (Chronicle of the First Seven Kings of Portugal) and the Cancioneiro geral (General Songbook), a compilation of national poetry by the Évora-born Garcia de Resende. Prosperity under Dom Manuel saw Gil Vicente present myriad elegant comedies and powerful autos (religious plays) at court. His rival Francisco Sá de Miranda rooted his dramas in the classical forms of Sophocles and Euripides. His great tragedy A Castro (the tragedy of Ines de Castro) immortalised King Pedro I and his Spanish mistress with all the sweet agony of Tristan and Isolde. It seemed as though the two great dramatists were heralding the birth of a national Portuguese drama. But in 1536 the Inquisition declared theatre a gross and unholy form of entertainment, thus killing the art.

Luís de Camões had more success as a poet. Deeply rooted in classicism and formal technique, he produced hundreds of sonnets, odes, elegies and songs, and in 1572 a Neo-classical epic, in the tradition of the Aeneid of Virgil. Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), based on Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, proclaimed Portugal the inheritor of the glory of Greece and Rome. Other writers chronicled the actual Portuguese voyages. In the História da Vida do Padre Francisco Xavier (Life of Father Francis Xavier) João de Lucena told of the Jesuit’s journeys in Japan and India. And the anonymously written Descobrimento da Florida (Discovery of Florida) and Tratado Descritivo do Brasil em 1587 (Descriptive Treatise on Brazil in 1587) by Gabriel Soares de Sousa described the new Portuguese colonies in the Americas. Fernão Mendes Pinto’s Pereginação (The Travels of Mendes Pinto) is arguably Portugal’s first novel, mixing real travel accounts with picaresque romps on the high seas.

Bernardim Ribeiro developed the Portuguese novel with in Hystoria de Menina e Moça, a pseudo autobiography mixing love, melancholy and chivalry which adopted themes and emotions previously found only in poetry and was an influence on Cervantes. 

The greatest writer of the Portuguese Baroque period was the Afro-Portuguese Jesuit António Vieira. His sermons castigating the Portuguese of Belém and São Luís in Brazil for their cruel and immoral enslavement of the indigenous Brazilians are masterpieces of oratorical writing and mark some of the earliest European campaigning literature. As a prose stylist his impact on the Portuguese language is as great as that of Camões and Saramago. Vieira was hated by the Portuguese colonial establishment and the Dominicans of the Inquisition, but favour at court protected him until the death of his friend Dom João IV, after which he was tried and imprisoned. His subsequent report on the Inquisition was so scathing that it prompted the Pope to ban any autos-da-fé for seven years, inspiring even more hatred from the Dominicans, who framed him for complicity in a murder. He was banned from preaching and died alone in Brazil in 1674. Vieira was not the only writer crushed by the Inquisition. The Dominicans executed António José da Silva, a Jewish writer forced to become a New Christian, who had attempted to revive theatre. His satirical plays met with double disapproval, both for their form and their content. 

The first great post-Inquisition writer was the romantic visionary poet Almeida Garrett, who rediscovered Gil Vicente and drama for the Portuguese with a series of historical Romantic plays which included Um auto de Gil Vicente (An Auto by Gil Vicente), O Alfageme de Santarém (The Swordsmith of Santarém), and Frei Luís de Sousa (Brother Luís de Sousa). His counterpart in prose was Alexandre Herculano, who had fallen in love with the historical romances of Walter Scott while exiled in England and who wrote a series of Scottian Portuguese Romantic novels which included Lendas e Narrativas (Legends and Narratives). Herculano was succeeded by Camilo Castelo Branco, whose 600 or so books comprise everything from Gothic fantasies to social realism, and José Maria de Eça de Queirós, the Zola of Portugal – a master of the realist novel whose most enduring work is Os Maias (The Maias), a portrait of three generations of a Portuguese family. 

The 20th century produced Portugal’s two greatest writers since Camões. Fernando Pessoa, who was born in Lisbon and schooled in South Africa, was 50 years ahead of his time, anticipating post-modernism while writing contemporaneously with modernists like Eliot. He wrote principally in heteronyms – literary personas, each with their own pseudo-biography and style: Alberto Caeiro was an untutored country romantic who wrote in free verse, Álvaro de Campos a London-based engineer with a predilection for transcendentalism and the futurists, Bernardo Soares the writer of a fictional literary journal, and perhaps most famously Ricardo Reis, a doctor with a love of the classics and in particular Homer. In his examination of personal identity and insistence that identity was understandable only in its own self-referential narrative, Pessoa anticipated postmodernism. Ignored in his lifetime, the poet is gradually gaining an international reputation. In 1994 the critic Harold Bloom selected him as one of just 26 writers responsible for establishing ‘the Western Canon’ of great literature. 

Also included in the canon is José Saramago, who was a great admirer of Pessoa. Saramago was born into a family of landless peasants, whose lives he immortalised in one of his early novels, Levantado do Chão (Raised from the Ground). Set in the Alentejo, the story exposes the suffering under servitude which had been the lot of his parents and generations of Portuguese. This set the tone for his later work, which is characterised by a plea for empathy and a preoccupation with alienation from each other and from the realities of our social and political condition. ‘We are always more or less blind, particularly for what is essential,’ he said in an interview in 2008, two years before his death. Levantado do Chão introduced Saramago’s distinct way of narrating through a polyphony of voices and from multiple standpoints in time and place. In later novels like O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) he plays with literary form, with sentences free of punctuation in many of his later works and protagonists referred to by their behavioural characteristics rather than proper names (echoing Pessoa’s explorations of the nature of identity). Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998.


Mannerist painting anticipated expressionism, in that figures showedexaggerated expressions or postures, were caught in a moment of compositional tension, or were literally elongated by emotion (as in the work of Michelangelo or El Greco). The first artists to experiment with the style in Portugal were a triumvirate of friends and relatives from the Lisbon school of Jorge Afonso – Gregório Lopes, Cristóvão de Figueiredo and Garcia Fernandes.

Gregório Lopes never signed (and only once dated) his work. But he did include a ladybird insignia in his paintings, from which they were later identified. Most of his paintings decorated churches in Setúbal, Tomar and Lisbon. His masterpiece, the Juizo Final (Last Judgement), now in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, anticipates Tintoretto and El Greco. 

Cristóvão de Figueiredo was sworn in as the official Examiner of Paintings in 1515 and worked principally in Coimbra. He worked in partnership with both Lopes and Fernandes and is best known for his Deposição no Túmulo (Entombment of Christ) and Trânsito da Virgem (Assumption of the Virgin, in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon). Both have high emotional intensity, with ascetic, drawn faces and elements of chiaroscuro – the dramatic offsetting of dark and light which would be perfected by Zurbaran and Caravaggio.

Garcia Fernandes was the only one of the three painters to work in the Alentejo – in Montemor and Évora. Pieces by him survive in Évora’s Igreja de São Francisco.

Art in Portugal declined under the boy-king Sebastião and his uncle Cardinal Henrique and the Inquisition, and then disappeared altogether under the Spanish, when Portuguese painters chose to work abroad. It would pick up only when Portugal found wealth again under João V. Linking the later Mannerists and Baroque art in Portugal are two painters indebted to the great tenebrist chiaroscuro painters of Spain (and in particular to Zurbarán), Josefa de Óbidos and Bento Coelho. 

Josefa de Óbidos is one of the few (recognised) great women artists of the Renaissance. She was probably born in Seville to a Portuguese father, the painter Baltasar Gomes Figueira, and a Spanish mother, Catarina de Ayala y Cabrera, who was almost certainly the sister of a pupil of Zurbarán. Josefa learnt her art with her father, while painting in churches in Óbidos, and was stylistically influenced by him, by Zurbarán and by Rubens, whose work she copied as a child. Her work comprises mostly still lifes and religious scenes. Intricately planned and composed, they are characterised by intense local colour, fine detail, strong tenebrist use of light and shade, and sculptural values. One of her best works, Supper of the Holy Family, now in the Évora Museum, is a loving, intimate and deeply feminine portrait of Jesus, Joseph and Mary breaking bread together. The painting is one of a series that celebrates the life of Jesus and his parents in ordinary, everyday surrounds, for instance in a carpenter’s shop, or resting together on the Flight into Egypt. Other paintings of the infant Jesus and Mary celebrate motherhood, showing Our Lady caressing the Christ child or the two of them sharing intimate moments. And as a body of work they are unique in Baroque art in depicting the Holy Family as a family, and Christ and his mother with such frank and tender intimacy. 

Stylistically Bento Coelho was strongly influenced by Josefa, but he is her inferior. His bold use of colour, verve and intensity led to him becoming royal painter in 1687.

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