Covering some 600 square-kilometres, Portugal’s very own cowboy country – the Ribatejo, meaning ‘bank of the Tagus’ – is a highly fertile province and the country’s geographical and agricultural heartland.
Besides its name, the region owes its economy, topography and character to the River Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese), which rises in Spain and carves a south-westerly course across the harsh plateaux of Castile and rough ridges of Portugal’s Beiras before spreading out when it meets the River Zêzere.
Surrounded by immense horizons, the Tagus carries on through the Ribatejo by way of many widely-scattered farmlands and a succession of historic towns sprawled out along its verdant banks, including Vila Franca de Xira, Santarém (the region’s ancient capital), Constância and Abrantes. Another of the pearls of the province is Tomar, an old town of narrow cobbled streets that was once the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal.
Swollen by the mountain snows at winter’s end, the river often overflows into the flood plains north-west of Lisbon before receding in spring to help nourish the crops, finally spilling out into the Atlantic just beyond the capital.
Comprising the alluvial basin of the lower Tagus valley, and sandwiched between the Estremadura province to the west and the Alto Alentejo to the east, Ribatejo is one of the wealthier but lesser-known parts of the country, where the cheery cowboys (known as campinos) still dress in their traditional costume of green stocking-caps, black knee breeches and a dashing red waistcoat.
In this lush agricultural land, horses and cattle can be seen grazing all over the region, with the drier uplands to the north well farmed by small, family-owned smallholdings producing figs, wine and citrus fruits and the larger estates of the south more concentrated on wheat, olives, cork-oaks and cattle-raising.
Some of Portugal’s best table wines, particularly whites, are produced in the Ribatejo. Naturally irrigated most winters by the overflowing waters of the swollen Tagus, the many vines planted on the flood plain produce a prolific amount of grapes, most notably Fernão Pires and Alicante Branco.
And where there’s fine wine there’s plenty of good Portuguese food, with the Tagus yielding a rich bounty of fish, the principle ingredient of several key regional dishes such as açorda de sável (a bread-based broth of shad laced with oil, garlic and coriander) and ensopado de enguias (eel stew).
Meat is also popular, especially in the southern ranch areas, with charcoal-grilled entrecosto (rib steak) and wood-fired espetadas na vara de loureiro (kebabs on laurel sticks) chief among the local culinary favourites.
Visitors to the Ribatejo have the thrill of immersing themselves in one of Portugal’s most scenic landscapes, the Reserva Natural do Estuário do Tejo (Tagus Estuary Nature Reserve, indicated on the Google map below), an important wetland and resting spot for large flocks of birds such as storks and wild ducks migrating between North Africa and Northern Europe.
The Golegã horse fair in November is another must for tourists and one of the best places to see Portugal’s magnificent Lusitano and Alter horse breeds, the former being the preferred choice of the country’s presidential guard.
And if there’s only enough time to visit one castle in the Ribatejo province then make sure it’s Almourol, a magnificent fairy-tale fortress sat on top of a rocky island in the middle of the River Tagus. Constructed on the same site of a primitive Lusitanian castro, it was reconstructed by the Romans and conquered by a succession of invading forces, including the Alans, Visigoths and Andalusian Berbers.