I can almost guarantee that when you think of cork, wine bottle stoppers come to your mind! For me too ... until I traveled to the Alentejo region of Portugal. There my eyes were opened! Having been actively following and engaging in various online travel-blogging sites for a year now, I have yet to stumble across a blog or Instagram photo of this lovely region in Portugal. Lisbon, Sintra, Porto, and coastal Algarve dominate the Portugal travel destinations. So I figured it would be fun to share another area in Portugal, which I think is both interesting and rich in history, that being Alentejo.
Alentejo is actually a sizable region, making up nearly the entire lower third of the country, minus the coastal Algarve. It is agriculturally significant in that it produces Portugal's wheat and more than 50% of the WORLD'S cork supply. Geographically its territory connects Spain with Lisbon and as a result, is loaded with strategically-located Medieval fortresses and castles that have been relied upon during the countries' tumultuous relationship. Historically, it was home to a Neolithic population as evidenced by numerous mysterious menhirs that remain standing, as well as an Ancient Roman population whose monuments are still evident, particularly in Évora. The region was later ruled by the Moors and ultimately became THE favored hotspot for the Portuguese royalty. Let's explore this region in just a bit more detail.
What does Portugal have to do with Cork??
I can answer that! Numerous lush cork tree groves exist across the Alentejo region. These groves are responsible for over 50% of the global production of cork making Portugal the #1 cork-producing country in the world. Prior to visiting this region, I have never seen a cork tree. I was so fascinated to see these DENUDED red-trunked trees in various stages of regeneration. Once harvested, the trees regenerate their bark over a course of 9 years, after which time they can be harvested again. The harvesting process DOES NOT damage the trees, hence cork production is a sustainable process without the negative effect on the environment nor the huge consumption of fossil fuels, as compared to leather production. Cork is also both biodegradable and recyclable.
Cork is a purely vegan product and a viable alternative to leather. Once harvested, the cork is cut into thin sheets, shaped, and sewn to produce many different accessories ... just like leather. The cork is very durable because it is cut into singular sheets, as opposed to being a compression of smaller scraps, as is the case with wine bottle stoppers. It can even be dyed to produce many colorful products.
Ever been to Évora?
Évora is the capital of the Alentejo region located on a hill at the heart of the Alentejo plain. Today it is a charming and inviting town and is significant for its architecture, as well as its Roman remains. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for it is the best example of Portugal's Golden Age as most of the original architecture that was present prior to the 1755 earthquake survived undamaged.
The town essentially spawned during the Roman era in about 180 BC and then underwent remarkable urban growth in the first century AD. It was known at that time as Liberalitas Julia, when elevated to a municipium by none other than Julius Caesar. Ruins of a Roman aqueduct, a thermal bath, arches, walls, and even a Roman temple can still be seen in this quaint town. The beautiful temple with Corinthian capitals is the BEST-PRESERVED Roman monument throughout all of Portugal. Alentejo was the major producer of wheat for the Roman people in the province of Lusitania on the Iberian peninsula.
During the 8th century AD, Évora was conquered by the Moors who also left their architectural footprints across the city during their 400-year rule. Whitewashed houses adorned with glazed tiles (azulejos) are noted throughout the city center. The tortuosity of the streets, the proliferation of courtyards, the fragrant fruit trees, and the numerous fountains all reflect the once magnificent Moorish presence.
In the 12th century, Évora came under Portuguese rule. It flourished throughout the Middle Ages under several kings who made it their home. Gothic churches, a cathedral, and beautiful palaces were built, as well as the convent of Sāo Francisco. This convent is home to the Chapel of the Bones (Capela dos Ossos) which invites those who enter to reflect on the transitory nature of the human condition. The words above the entrance translate to "we bones here, for yours await."
Lastly, let's take a HUGE step back in time as numerous pre-historic remains can also be seen in Alentejo, specifically in the region surrounding Évora. Most evident are the many menhirs, or tall upright stones, now existing in the midst of cork tree groves and erected during the Early/Middle Neolithic periods (6000-3000 BC) by the oldest communities of farmers and shepherds in the region. It is referred to as the Almendres Megalithic Cromlech. Some of these are 2000 years older than Stonehenge. Like Stonehenge, the arrangement of the megaliths remains a mystery, possibly reflecting astronomical alignments or religious worship. Several of them have pre-historic carvings engraved on their surfaces, such as shepherd's crooks, cup-marks, faces, and geometric patterns. Most are about three to six feet in height. This is one of the richest megalithic regions in Europe. Geographically this area in the south of Portugal is encircled by three major rivers which were likely followed by hunter-gatherers who traveled along the waterways in search of a new and uninhabited landscape on which to settle.
Évora abounds with both charm and history. When visiting Portugal, I encourage you to wander outside of the well-trodden destinations of Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve coast. A visit to the Alentejo plain is one you would no doubt find quite rewarding. You may even be moved to pick up some new cork accessories while you are there!