Portugal offers a real taste of history

Her deep brown eyes surveyed the dusty, sun-kissed plains and suddenly caught my gaze.

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Herdade da Malhadinha Nova in Alentejo, Portugal, offers comfort and a taste of Portugese life
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova in Alentejo, Portugal, offers comfort and a taste of Portugese life

Slightly startled, she stood transfixed for what seemed like an age, curled one of her long eyelashes into a wink and appeared to nod in my direction.

Now I understood the attraction of the rare Garvonesa cow.

The beast is, indeed, a beauty.

Fortunately, Barbara Thomann and her husband, Georg felt the same thing when they clapped eyes on the Garvonesa breed 19 years ago. Barely 100 Garvonesa were left when the Swiss couple decided to sell up their brewery and buy 70 hectares of farmland in Portugal's Alentejo region.

Now they have close to 100 Garvonesa, with 500-plus cows at other Portuguese farms.

A welcome byproduct of the Thomanns' actions has been to help beef up Alentejo's little-known food and wine scene.

The Garvonesa meat, once traded at the famous Garvao Fair, is now sold throughout the country.

The choicest meats invariably appear on menus at restaurants taking part in the Alentejo Festival of Food & Wine.

To taste the fruits of the farm's labours, it's best to head into the beautifully preserved medieval town of Evora - a Unesco world heritage site - where restaurants abound inside the 14th century walls.

But before tucking into the renowned black pork, salt cod, wild mushroom and asparagus dishes, it's a good idea to get an understanding of the wide variety of wines on offer.

Knowledgeable staff at the wine route office in central Evora, where the region's 260 producers have their products certified, will happily impart their knowledge.

Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful sites in Evora to visit and walk off such treats, such as the second century Templo Romano, more commonly referred to as the Temple of Diana, a fabulous aqueduct that sweeps around the town, and the gruesome Capela dos Ossos - Chapel of Bones - a large room adorned with the bones of 5,000 monks from the 16th century.

To get a feel of the real Alentejo, head south from Evora, through the cork oak trees and along the dusty lanes to the delightful Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Country House & Spa, near Beja.

Signposts are few, but it's worth the effort as the large, beguiling estate oozes class.

Here they breed horses, cattle and black pigs, which feed on acorns from the cork trees, and if you can tear yourself away from the pool, it's worth a walk around the vast vineyards.

An excellent equestrian centre, led by English-speaking staff and catering for all ages and abilities, is attracting visitors in increasing numbers in the spring and autumn months, when temperatures are more palatable.

Further north, the landscape becomes hilly, with picturesque, whitewashed towns and imposing fortresses.

On the way, we stop off to sample the fruits of the family-run Almojanda olive oil business at Herdade da Almojanda, near Portalegre.

Further north, in the foothills of the garrison town Marvao, you can find products of Alentejo organic food company Terrius, which was launched by young farmers keen to promote and protect the biodiverse region.

It's another good reason to tear yourself away from the beaches of Portugal's Algarve. After all, one of the local beauties might just catch your eye...

Travel Facts

n Chris Wiltshire was a guest of Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk). Cost from £684pp (two sharing) including return flights with TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com), two nights at the Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, one at the Pousada de Arraiolos and one night at the Pousada de Marvao, and car hire.

Food and drink

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