Laid out flat between the Atlantic and the Alentejo like a vast patched picnic blanket, the Estremadura region is one of the most varied in the whole of Portugal. A windswept land of lush, rolling vineyards and sprawling pine forest, not to mention long stretches of golden sandy shoreline, this idyllic garden province encompasses the Portuguese capital and stretches north well beyond Marinha Grande on Portugal’s rugged Oeste coast.
Well fortified, the Estremadura seascape is blessed with some of the quaintest fishing villages you’ll ever hope to see. And sitting comfortably amidst the many fertile orchards and vineyards found in abundance across the province, it’s a joy to witness the old windmills still in fine working order, although nowadays they are greatly outnumbered by towering 21st-century wind turbines.
Waxing lyrical about the area, the French writer Jacques Chardonne summed the sentiment up nicely through the following lines: ‘Estremadura is a picture of light…with clumps of small foliage everywhere, a carpet of red earth, white towns and extensive strips of sand facing the ocean where the glittering waves rush into foam and rock boats curved like shells.’
But Estremadura’s charms run much deeper than that. They derive from a certain quality of the air, a golden warmth, an amazing clearness of shape and outline, a lightness of shadow and shade; all in all a photographer’s dream.
And the region’s monuments, full of imposing grandeur, still reflect an age when Estremadura exuded great influence over the rest of the country.
The Abbey of Alcobaça was once the most powerful religious centre in the kingdom as its abbot ruled over thirteen towns, three ports and two castles. Built in a light-coloured stone as delicate as biscuit, the monastery and church have maintained their Cistercian austerity, particularly the nave with its bare, very high and overpowering simplicity. At Alcobaça, you’ll also marvel at the enormous kitchens with a stream passing through them, the silence of the cloisters, the treasure conquered at Aljubarrota, the polychromic terra cotta representing the death of St. Bernard and, above all, the marvellous tombs of the ‘dead queen’ Ines and her royal lover, Pedro.
On the subject of queens, and as its name implies, Caldas da Rainha preserves the memory of Leonor whose statue stands at the entry to the town. She gave her lace and jewels to build a hospice where the poor could receive the benefit of the sulphurous waters at the neighbouring spa.
Close by, Óbidos, with its mediaeval castle dominating the high circle of walls, was part of the prerogatives of the queens of Portugal from the 15th to 19th centuries.
And it was fatherly pride that led King Joao V to create Mafra (indicated on the map below) as great thanks to the Heavens for bearing him a son. This enormous building, at the same time a palace, basilica and monastery, took thirteen years to build and provided work for some fifty thousand men.