Exploring Portugal's Pastoral 'Pousadas'

In restored castles and monasteries are charming state-run hotels that make visitors feel like royalty

The tiny electric-blue Renault's front tires landed with a thud in a ditch, partially blocking traffic.

It was a typical Boston driver's move - making a U-turn in the middle of a busy street. Only in vora, a bustling university city in central Portugal, it wasn't very successful.

Sheepishly, my husband (who I should make clear was responsible for that maneuver) and I emerged to survey our situation. Cars continued to zoom by, while several curious onlookers watched silently. My husband tried to push the car as I stood looking helpless and embarrassed. Was anyone going to come to our rescue?

Suddenly about a dozen men appeared from different doorways in the building across the street. They marched over, hoisted the car onto the road, and pushed it onto a dirt driveway. Opening the hood, they inspected the engine quickly, determined no damage was done, and reattached the license plate. We showered them with abrigados (Portuguese for ''thank you'') as they chattered and chuckled in Portuguese, no doubt amused at our plight.

A warm welcome

We had been in Portugal only four hours, but that experience was a quick peek into the personality of the Portuguese: They are quiet, polite, and generally leave you alone unless you get yourself in a bind. Though reserved, they respond warmly when you initiate a genuine smile.

We spent several days of our 10-day visit to Portugal in the Alentejo region. A two-hour drive from Lisbon, it's Portugal's largest province, stretching from the west coast to Spain. Two-lane roads wind through a landscape of brown wheat, vineyards, and orchards of cork and olive trees. We chose the Alentejo to get a feel for traditional life in the countryside and because its gently rolling terrain and small towns make it a fairly easy place to drive. We also wanted to sample some of the country's network of manor houses and pousadas.

Pousadas are state-run hotels located in restored castles, monasteries, and other historic buildings. Portugal started its pousada system in 1940; 37 now are scattered across the country in both cities and rural towns. Breakfast is included in the pousada room rate, which is generally more expensive than other accommodations because many are considered four- and five-star hotels.

We mapped out our itinerary around the pousadas we wanted to visit. The first night we spent at the Pousada dos Loios in vora, the capital of the Alentejo region. The 31 monk cells of this former monastery, built in the 15th century, have been converted into guest rooms. And though the rooms are tiny, there is no trace of monastic austerity in the furnishings or marble baths. The pousada's dining room, in the former cloister, looks out on a courtyard, and we felt like royalty while sitting on throne-like chairs and sampling well-prepared regional specialties such as a savory green cabbage soup and marinated pork with sausage and bread stuffing.

After sightseeing in vora, we headed northeast to explore whatever tiny town struck our fancy. Every few miles or so one would emerge on the horizon, its dazzling white dwellings clustered along narrow cobblestone streets that often led up a hill to the walled remains of a medieval castle. Over the centuries this pastoral region has been the scene of numerous battles between Romans and Visigoths, Moors and Christians, Portuguese and Spanish. Enchanted with the thought of kings, queens, and knights riding up to their castles, we usually followed each sign that said castelo, driving cautiously up a maze of streets only one car wide.

Some towns in the region are well known for the handicrafts townspeople produce. Take Redondo, a sleepy village we visited at midday. Wandering around the streets on foot we came across several pottery studios where women sat painting designs on plates, casserole dishes, and pitchers. Visitors can purchase the colorful glazed items here for many escudos (Portuguese currency) less than what tourist shops charge.

In Arraiolos, west of Redondo, carpet showrooms line the streets. Village locals have hand-embroidered the rugs, which are modeled after Persian and Indian patterns, since the 16th century. Each rug takes months to produce and so prices are not inexpensive.

An hour east of Arraiolos we stopped for the night in Vila Vicosa, a pretty town in the heart of marble country. After using our Portuguese phrase book to ask for directions, we finally located the Casa de Peixinhos on a country road outside town. Fragrant lemon trees border the driveway winding up to this stately 16th-century manor house that is decorated inside with antiques and art from the family collection.

An enchanting town

One of the most enchanting towns we visited was Marvao, located in the northern corner of the Alentejo where the landscape becomes more lush and mountainous. Perched on a craggy mountaintop near the Spanish border, Marvao is accessible via a hairpin-twisting road that turns into what seems like a cobblestone sidewalk when you drive through the stone entrance to the town.

Only a few hundred souls live in this town with a view that is framed by the walls of a once-formidable medieval castle. The Pousada de Santa Maria, a 28-room inn that resembles the town's other whitewashed, red-tiled dwellings, was our stop for the night. Its restaurant provides diners with good regional specialties and spectacular views of the pastoral valley below.

The next morning we packed up the car and wound down the mountain slowly. At the bottom, I looked up for a last glance. Thick, pewter-colored clouds hovered over Marvao, cloaking parts of the castle in a surreal mist.

We spent the rest of our vacation near Lisbon, but I wished we could have continued our trip through Portugal's countryside, sampling other pousadas and exploring more castle towns like Marvao.

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