Travel Secrets of the Portuguese Plains

Certain towns in the region -- such as Évora -- are on the main tourist circuit, but both Alentejo and Ribatejo have an abundance of small towns and villages intriguing to the traveler with the time and desire to seek them out. Our favorites:

Serpa -- Still languishing in the Middle Ages, Serpa is a walled town with defensive towers. It was incorporated into the kingdom of Portugal in 1295, after having belonged to the Infante of Serpa, Dom Fernando, brother of Dom Sancho II. Overlooking the vast Alentejo plain, Serpa is a town of narrow streets and latticed windows, famous for the cheese that bears its name, for pork sausage, and for sweets. Silvery olive trees surround the approaches to the town, and the whiteness of the buildings contrasts with the red-brown of the plains. The wild beauties of the river Guadiana, endless fields of grain, and cork-oak groves mark the landscape. In the town, you can see unique painted furniture, an archaeological museum, and several ancient churches. Serpa has become a lunch stop or rest stop for travelers on the way to and from Spain; many motorists spend the night at the hilltop pousada.

Monsaraz -- The old fortified town of Monsaraz lies 51km (32 miles) east of Évora en route to Spain. It's a village of antique whitewashed houses, with cobblestone lanes and many reminders of the Moors who held out here until they were conquered in 1166. Some of the women still wear traditional garb: men's hats on shawl-covered heads and men's pants under their skirts. The custom derives from a need for protection from the sun. Monsaraz overlooks the Guadiana Valley, which forms the border between Spain and Portugal.

The walled town can easily be visited from Évora in an afternoon. As you scale the ramparts, you're rewarded with a view over what looks like a cross between a bullring and a Greek theater. The highlight of a visit is the main street, Rua Direita. It contains the town's most distinguished architecture, wrought-iron grilles, balconies, and outside staircases.

Borba -- On the way to Borba, you'll pass quarries filled with black, white, and multicolored deposits. In the village, marble reigns: Many cottages have marble door trimmings and facings, and the women kneel to scrub their doorways, a source of special pride. On Rua São Bartolomeu sits a church dedicated to São Bartolomeu. It displays a groined ceiling; walls lined with blue, white, and gold azulejos (decorative tiles); and an altar in black-and-white marble. The richly decorated ceiling is painted with four major medallions. As Portuguese churches go, this one isn't remarkable. But there are eight nearby antiques shops (amazing for such a small town) filled with interesting items. Borba is also a big wine center, and you might want to sample the local brew at a cafe, or perhaps at the pousada at Elvas.

Marvão -- This ancient walled hill town, close to Castelo de Vide, is well preserved and is visited chiefly for its spectacular views. Just less than 6.5km (4 miles) from the Spanish frontier, the once-fortified medieval stronghold retains a rich flavor of the Middle Ages. Those with limited time who can explore only one border town in Portugal should make it this one -- it's that panoramic. You get to Marvão by following a road around the promontory on which the little town stands, past the Church of Our Lady of the Star, the curtain walls, watchtowers, and parapets. Arcaded passageways, balconied houses with wrought-iron grillwork and Manueline windows, and a number of churches can be seen along the hilly streets. The castle, built in the 13th century, stands at the western part of the rocky outcropping. From the parapet, you'll have a panoramic view of the surrounding country -- all the way to the Spanish mountains in the east, and a vast sweep of Portuguese mountain ranges.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.