Fabulous food and scenery on the road in Portugal
THERE are many good reasons why more Australians are discovering Portugal.
Far from the madding crowds of France and Italy, Portugal has a relaxed vibe and friendly people whose historical alliances with England mean English is widely spoken. Beautiful beaches and inland scenery, excellent food and wine combined with history and culture make the country one of Europe's most appealing.
Accessibility has improved thanks to Emirates one-stop flights from Australian cities to the capital, Lisbon.
There are many ways you can enjoy Europe's best-kept secret - guided tours, private tours and packages - but as we experienced recently, self-driving is the way to go. Even with left-hand drive, it's easier than other European countries because the roads are good, and not as busy as Spain or France.
Self-driving has many advantages. Your time is flexible and you can dally longer at places you enjoy. One of the biggest benefits is to plan your own accommodation at super-luxury, yet relatively inexpensive hotels and resorts called Pousadas which are dotted around Portugal.
These restored palaces, castles, monasteries and convents combine history and architecture with modern facilities.
In the central region of Alentejo, we stayed at several Pousadas which also boast some of the region's finest cuisine. Here are a few examples:
* Pousada Mosteiro de Crato... a castle/monastery/palace at different times in its history. Today, it shows what can be done to transform a crumbling ruin into a luxury resort with creative modern architecture and engineering, whilst retaining much of the original exterior including the church tower and ceilings in the cloister. There's a large pool for those hot summer days (sometimes over 40°), a fine restaurant and rooms with every modern convenience.
* Pousada Convento de Vila Vicosa... a restored convent with large guest rooms and bathrooms. The poetic transcriptions around the hotel add a literary flavour, but a more visual experience awaits just next door at the palatial Paco Ducal (Ducal Palace) of the Braganza family who ruled Portugal from 1640 until the proclamation of the Republic in 1910. The palace and museum is a treasure trove of history.
* Pousada Castelo de Estremoz... a towering castle-like palace overlooking the busy market town of Estremoz. Here, we're lucky to arrive on market day (Saturday) in time to watch the passing parade of farmers, housewives and typical groups of men who gather for their weekly social. Secret men's business, indeed.
* Pousada Castelo de Alcacer... an ancient castle which reigns supremely over the town and river flats where rice is still grown.
Here we spend two nights enjoying the luxury of the hotel as well as the waterfront cafes and bars... and trying another version of Portugal's national dish bacalhau (codfish) which we find irresistible together with the fresh local wines.
In Alentejo, these are just a few of the many delights that await Australians who like to drive, enjoy some history, love their food and wine and, most of all, are not averse to a modicum of affordable luxury.