The town of Cartaxo is in a sea of vineyards on the fertile right bank of the River Tagus.
Wine is integral to Cartaxo’s story: Every autumn the town even elects a King and Queen of the Vineyards for the coming year.
There are also lots of little things to see and do in the municipality, whether you’re shuffling through old churches or discovering traditional fishing communities where the wooden houses are raised on stilts.
In the Ribatejo region bullfighting is still a way of life, with corridas scheduled in summer, while a more family-friendly activity could be a horseback ride at a sprawling estate in the countryside.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cartaxo:
1. Igreja de São João Batista
Cartaxo’s parish church has all the traits of a Portuguese place of worship: The walls of the chancel have the quintessential blue and white azulejos (painted, glazed tiles), which evoke the life of St John the Baptist.
And at the end is the main altar, glowing with the Baroque gilt-wood that was all rage in Portugal in the 18th century.
On the facade there’s an inscription recording the church’s consecration in 1522, replacing a church that had been here since 1329.
2. Cruzeiro Manuelino
The magnificent cross to the side of the parish church was sculpted at the beginning of the 1500s.
In this period, during the reign of King Manuel I, the prevailing style in art and architecture was an ornamental blend of High Gothic and Renaissance, known as Manueline.
The cross, representing Senhor dos Aflitos Crucificado (Crucified Lord of the Afflicted), is in the same vein: The intricacy and level of craftsmanship is mesmerising, and the figures decorating the cross and its pillar are so small you’ll need to get up close and inspect it thoroughly.
It’s also amazing to think this was all hewn from a single chunk of stone.
3. Museu Rural e do Vinho do Cartaxo
You can get in touch with Cartaxo’s agricultural roots at this well-presented museum in an old farmhouse (quinta). The museum opens a window on everyday life in Cartaxo in the first decades of the 20th century.
The original wine cellar has been restored and there are extensive displays of typical clothing and implements like saddles, farm tools, bullfighting gear and copper stills.
This is all complemented by vivid archive photography from the time.
You can also step into a tavern from this period, in a reconstructed interior adorned with vintage posters and antique wooden furniture.
4. Capela do Senhor dos Passos
This chapel on Rua Mouzinho de Albuquerque in Cartaxo is also from the beginning of the 16th century and used to be part of a mansion, the Casa e Solar dos Sousa Lobatos.
This house was the headquarters for General Wellington in 1810, so it’s possible that he prayed right here.
The chapel has Manueline architecture, which is unmistakeable on the facade, where there’s a simple but elegant portal surmounted by a coat of arms.
The highpoints inside are the coffered ceiling in the chancel and the decorative arch between the chancel and nave.
5. Centro Cultural Município do Cartaxo
If you find yourself in Cartaxo on an evening and don’t have plans, there should be something in store at the municipal cultural centre.
This modern building was opened in 2005 where the town’s cinema used to be.
It’s a multidisciplinary venue with a two auditoriums hosting live music, plays, dance and also regular screenings for new movies.
If your Portuguese isn’t up to scratch this can be a good shout as films are shown with English audio in Portugal.
6. Aldeia de Palhota
Far from the tourist trail, Palhota is a fishing hamlet at the end of a long track running down to the riverbank from the main road.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s like going back in time, as people in Palhota still make a living from the river.
Villages like this were born at the turn of the 20th century when fishing families moved to the Tagus from coastal regions.
Fishing paraphernalia is everywhere, and there’s a rickety pier and several painted weatherboard houses standing on stilts to avoid flooding.
Palhota came to Portuguese attention in the 20th century when the acclaimed writer Alves Redol spent a few months living with and writing about its fishing community.
“Quintas” are Portuguese farmhouses with large tracts of land attached.
These properties could be many centuries old, but the image that usually comes to mind is a Baroque-style mansion from the 1700s.
There are many such examples in the Cartaxo municipality, and the good news for tourists is that five are attractions where you can take part in rural activities.
These are Quinta de Baia de Baixo, Quinta do Gaio de Cima, Quinta das Malhadas, Quinta da Marchanta and Quinta da Broiera.
Typically you can take a riding lesson on a Lusitano horse, go for a swim, tackle a tree-top assault course, while little ones can feed farm animals.
8. Estátua de Marcelino Mesquita
Although it’s just a minor sight, this statue commemorates the prolific turn-of-the-century writer Marcelino Mesquita, probably Cartaxo’s most famous son.
He was a renowned playwright, journalist and poet, and after he passed away in 1919 the local newspaper raised money for a statue in his memory.
This was conceived by one of the foremost sculptors of the day, Leopoldo de Almeida, and has been on the plaza in front of the town hall since 1956. There’s a small garden to the side where elderly residents bask in the shade under deciduous trees.
9. Praça de Toiros do Cartaxo
This town, like many on the Ribatejo plains, has a bullfighting heritage hundreds of years old.
Cartaxo’s current bullring saw its first fight in 1874. It can now seat 5,500 spectators, filling up for a programme of “corridas” in summer.
If this sounds like your kind of thing, Cartaxo’s tourist office will give you details of the next fight.
In Portuguese bullfighting the bull isn’t killed in the ring, but that still doesn’t make it suitable for everyone.
If you’re more interested in seeing the arena there are occasional summer concerts in this impressive space.
10. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Purificação
The parish church in Pontével dates as far back as the 1100s, although it has seen many updates since then.
Most of the architecture today is from the 1600s, with some intriguing fittings from just before that date.
You can’t miss the bright carpet-style tiles on the walls, which could be as old as the 1500s, while there are tombs for some of Pontével more prominent personalities.
The exquisite baptismal font was made in the 1600s, around the same time as the fresco on the chancel ceiling.
The three altars are a little younger, sporting the sinuous gilded woodcarving that was style in the 1700s.
11. Eleição do Rei e da Rainha das Vindimas
This light-hearted custom is coming up for its 30th anniversary.
Every autumn, around the time of the grape harvest in September or October there’s a gala crowning the King and Queen of the Vineyards based on qualities like the candidates’ skills and knowledge (or so they say). Young people from all of Cartaxo’s six parishes compete for the honour, which was invented to put Cartaxo’s wine on the map and reinforce local customs and culture.
Until 2014 there was only a Queen of the Vineyards, but in the interests of gender equality a king also takes the throne each year.
12. Falcoaria Real
In Portugal the art of falconry is UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, so it’s always a privilege to be able to see trained falcons up close.
You can do just that in Salvaterra de Magos, a picturesque drive across the Tagus and through vineyards and farms.
There used to be a Royal Palace in this town, but this burned down in 1824 leaving only a chapel and the royal falconry school.
In the mansion there’s an exhibition about the Portuguese royalty’s ties with falconry, and you’ll be given a tour of the historic aviary, see the birds up close and watch a live flight demonstration.
The flat countryside of the Ribatejo plain is broken by the romantic medieval city of Santarém, reigning from a sudden escarpment.
And as there are many kilometres of low-lying terrain to the south, east and west it’s not hard to understand why this city has been a strategic prize since prehistory: You can see for many miles over the plain at the Portas do Sol, a garden in the walls of Santarém’s castle.
The city’s elevated status is underlined by resplendent Gothic churches like the Igreja da Graça and the opulent diocesan museum of sacred art.
As there are vines growing all over Cartaxo’s countryside, in 1988 the town named itself “Capital do Vinho”. This was a big tourism and agricultural initiative that also gave us the annual Festa do Vinho, a four-day fair with markets and bands.
The fertile soils of the river-plain, and the climate tempered by the Tagus and the Atlantic grant us highly-rated, balanced wines.
The two main growing areas in Cartaxo are the “Campo” for whites made with Fernão Pires, Arinto, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, and the “Bairro” for reds composed of Touriga Nacional, Merlot, Carignan or Syrah.
15. Local food
Maize has been harvested in large quantities on the Tagus plain since the New World was discovered, and this is cultivated for pão de milho (cornbread). Buy a loaf of this very aromatic bread at bakeries, or taste it in migas, when the bread is soaked in water and then fried in olive oil and garlic.
Ribatejo has many recipes that have been handed down the generations: Sopa da pedra “stone soup” has beans, bacon and chouriço, and the stone isn’t really an ingredient but part of the humorous origin story.
Open-minded diners can tuck into other rustic preparations like pig’s trotters, roast kid goat or mullet in a lemon and pepper sauce.