The adjoining provinces of Alentejo and Ribatejo constitute the heartland of Portugal. Ribatejo is a land of bull-breeding pastures; Alentejo is a plain of fire and ice.

Ribatejo is river country; the Tagus, coming from Spain, overflows its banks in winter. The region is famed for bluegrass, Arabian horses, and black bulls. Its most striking feature, however, is human: campinos, the region's sturdy horsemen. They harness the Arabian pride of their horses and discover the intangible quality of bravery in the bulls. Whether visiting the château of the Templars, which rises smack in the middle of the Tagus at Almourol, or attending an exciting festa brava, when horses and bulls rumble through the streets of Vila Franca de Xira, you'll marvel at the passion of the people. Ribatejo's fadistas (fado singers) have long been noted for their remarkable intensity.

The cork-producing plains of Alentejo (which means "beyond the Tagus") make up the largest province in Portugal. It's so large that the government has divided it into the northern Alto Alentejo (the capital of which is Évora) and southern Baixo Alentejo (whose capital is Beja).

Locals in Alentejo insulate themselves in tiny-windowed, whitewashed houses -- warm in the cold winters and cool during the scorching summers. This is the least populated of Portuguese provinces, with seemingly endless fields of wheat. It's the world's largest producer of cork, whose trees can be stripped only once every 9 years.

In winter, the men make a dramatic sight, outfitted in characteristic long brown coats with two short-tiered capes, often with red-fox collars. The women are more colorful, especially when they're working in the rice paddies or wheat fields. Their short skirts and patterned undergarments allow them to wade barefooted into the paddies. On top of knitted cowls, with mere slits for the eyes, women wear brimmed felt hats usually studded with flowers.

Although dusty Alentejo is mostly a region of inland plains, it also has an Atlantic coast. It stretches from the mouth of the Sado River all the way to the border of the Algarve, just south of Zambujeira do Mar Carvalhal. This stretch of beach is the least crowded and least developed in Portugal. Towering rock cliffs punctuate much of the coastline south of Lisbon, interrupted by the occasional sandy cove and tranquil bay. Regrettably, there isn't much protection from the often-fierce waves and winds that rush in from the Atlantic; the waters are generally too chilly for most tastes.

Driving is the best way to see the region because there are numerous towns to see and excursions to take from the major cities. Public transportation exists, but often you'll have a long, tiresome wait between connections. Both provinces lie virtually on Lisbon's doorstep -- in fact, suburbs of the capital lie on their edges.

If you've just explored the Algarve, you'll find Alentejo within striking distance. The best route to take into Alentejo from the south is IP-1 from Albufeira.