The first impression you get of Alentejo is that there are many trees. Cork,pine and eucalyptus grow right up to the edge of the road, often giving blissful relief from the sun, their roots raising the road surface into interesting undulations. And beyond the trees are the rolling plains, planted with wheat and sunflowers, melons and green peppers, all shimmering in the intense heat. Small white-washed villages seem to crouch in the folds of land, by dry riverbeds, dominated by large delapidated churches. Old women in black sit in the shade of their doorsteps watching the passing traffic. Tractors and pickup trucks roar past, full of men in plaid shirts and working trousers, straw cowboy hats and leather boots.
The closer to the coast you go, the cooler the air becomes, and the landscape also changes. There are more hills, covered in cistus and cork. Small farms, of just a few hectares, with one house and a few stone outbuildings, where chickens scratch in the dusty yard. They keep a few cows, maybe some sheep, a pig, a mule. They grow enough potatoes and maize and onions and garlic to keep them through the year. They farm in the old tradition, growing things that they know will do well. Their children live abroad, or in the cities in the north, the farming life is not for them. It is the end of the line. There are many small farms for sale, and they are being bought and turned into holiday homes. Electricity has now become more widespread, making life a lot easier.
The land along the coast is mostly flat and sandy, and here, large salad companies have hectares under plastic, growing salad and strawberries for the north of Europé. These farms provide a lot of work for the women who live in the villages nearby.
By the sea are small villages and growing towns that are now becoming popular holiday destinations. Vila Nova de Milfontes, Porto Covo, Zambuzeira do Mar, are all expanding. Rows of apartments and villas, with very little charm, are mushrooming out of the dunes. Norfolk pines and water towers are redefining the horizons. During the holidays these towns fill up with people who want to shop, sunbathe and go out in the evenings. The takings in the two months in summer keep a lot of people going for the rest of the year. The beautiful, white sand beaches and the cliffs and dunes which stretch all along the coast, fill up with people. After August the beaches are empty, but for the local fishermen and the occasional dog-walker,and sometimes riders take their horses for a romantic stroll on the strand.
There are huge plantations of eucalyptus throughout Portugal, and Alentejo is no exception. These forests are a real blot on the landscape. Thousands of hectares of fantastic mountains and valleys have been scraped of all their topsoil, and contours of trees planted. Nothing else grows in their shade, and very little wildlife survive there. It is like a tree dessert. The trees are highly inflammable and recently there have been many fires, some of which are rumoured to have been started on purpose. Vast areas lie charred and blackened until the machines can get in there and replant. Luckily, there are subsidies for farmers to plant cork oaks and pine, and in the Natural Park area you cannot get a licence to plant new large areas of eucalyptus any more.
Now that the roads and the general amenities are improving, there are more people moving away from Lisboa, and other European cities, to live and work in this lovely province. There are big changes going on. The local schools have German, Dutch, English, Ukanian, all mingling with the indiginous Portuguese, all speaking the common tongue. It is hoped that the new generation of Alentejanos can speak up for this beautiful province and help to keep it a special place to vist and to live in.