In the north of Alentejo, a short march from the Spanish border, Portalegre is an upland town on the cusp of the Serra de São Mamede mountains.This place has a long-standing textile tradition, and in the 1940s began weaving tapestries to the highest European standards.
Earlier, in the 1920s the eminent Portuguese writer José Régio moved to Portalegre, and would stay here for the next 34 years. Also, as the seat of the diocese, convents and churches are ten a penny, and you should try to visit as many as possible. São Mamede’s natural park is your go-to for hikes in upland terrain, and boasts the jaw-dropping fortified town of Marvão.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Portalegre:
1. Museu da Tapeçaria de Portalegre
Weaving has been a local craft in Portalegre since the middle ages, but in the 1940s the entrepreneur Guy Fino and weaver Manuel do Celestino Peixeiro invented a new tapestry-making technique.
This is called Ponto de Portalegre and while it was partially inspired by Roubaix tapestries it has its own style.
A reputation for artistry and craftsmanship soon turned Portalegre into a tapestry town to rival those in Flanders and France.
All this background is covered on the ground floor of this museum, revealing the early days of the Portalegre Manufactory and its techniques.
Upstairs there are examples of this art-form, introducing some of the skilled weavers to have plied their trade in the town over the last 70 years.
2. Portalegre Cathedral
The town’s cathedral is a National Monument, and was ordered by King John III in the 16th century where an older medieval church used to stand.
It reigns over Portalegre from the highest point in the town and along with its episcopal palace makes up an imposing Mannerist ensemble.
The current appearance of the interior is from the end of the 18th century when it was given a Neoclassical refit, but there are still things to see from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Most notably these are the white marble pulpits, and 96 painted panels dating to the 1500s and 1600s.
3. Museu Municipal de Portalegre
The town’s municipal museum has a beautiful home, in a 16th-century building that used to be the diocesan seminary.
In the 18th century it was taken over by a local nobleman and refitted as a luxurious residence, and this is the layout that persists today.
A lot of the museum’s collection is liturgical art assembled from two dissolved convents in the town: Santa Clara and São Bernardo, and some of these objects are exceptional.
There’s an Indo-Portuguese ivory sculpture of the Mary, a Japanese missal stand from the 1500s and an altarpiece from the same period with bible passages in polychrome terracotta.
As for the rest of the collection, you can pore over silver snuffboxes, fine faience and furniture.
4. Casa Museu José Régio
The celebrated 20th-century writer José Régio spent most of his adult life, from 1929 to 1961, at this large house in the town, becoming “Portoalegrense” by adoption.
His house is on annex of the convent of São Brás, and there are still some remnants to be found, like the old chapel.
At first Régio rented only one room here, but he was an avid collector of anything from painting to sculpture, textiles, pottery and furniture, and over time his hoarding took over the whole property.
He donated that collection to the town, which bought his house and turned it into a museum.
The house is as it was when he lived here, and there’s a study centre for people researching his work.
5. Convento de São Francisco-Fábrica de Cortiça Robinson
In one package you’ll encounter a 13th-century convent and a more recent cork factory.
The convent church has decoration from every movement since the middle ages, and has a Renaissance altar and sarcophagus, Mannerist murals coat the nave’s chapels and Baroque tiles and gilt-wood adorn the chancel.
In 1848 the English industrialist George Robinson set up his cork factory in one of the convent’s wings, and the two chimney stacks still dominate the site.
You can take a guided tour and peruse the cork items produced at this factory that gave Portalegre an economic boost in the 19th century.
6. Convento de São Bernardo
Maybe Portalegre’s most photogenic image is the ochre and white walls of this convent and the cobblestone square and fountain in front.
The convent is from the 1500s and was founded to house “maidens without dowry”. There’s a medley of architecture from different times, but the standouts are mostly from the 1500s and completed by the French sculptor Nicolas de Chantereine.
He crafted the marble pulpit boasting grotesques, as well as the sublime tomb of the bishop who founded the convent, Jorge de Melo.
There’s also a hushed cloister and arcades clad with blue and white panels.
The building has been run by the Republic National Guard since the 1980s, but visits are permitted.
7. Convento de Santa Clara
Another of Portalegre’s lineup of National Monuments is this 14th-century convent , now used by the city’s library.
That doesn’t make it less worthwhile, because you have to go in to marvel at the Gothic cloister.
This was completed during 16-year reign of King Fernando I (1367-1383) and is believed to be the only surviving cloister in Portugal from that that time.
It is enclosed by two tiers of galleries, while the peaceful garden In the middle has a marble fountain from the 1500s.
The library hosts occasional art and history exhibitions, which might warrant a few minutes as well.
8. Plátano do Rossio
When the mid-summer sunshine is pounding down there’s only one place to be on the streets of Portalegre.
That’s the Rossio, because of the immense plantain tree casting shade on most of the square.
This was planted in 1838 by the botanist Dr.
José Maria Grande, and through good fortune and care has survived to the present day.
The canopy is just vast, growing to 30 metres in diameter, and the branches can no longer support their own weight, so are held up with pillars.
With high ground in three directions of Portalegre there are a few spots to get out of the car and admire the city from a distance.
The best of these is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia (not to be confused with the one in Lisbon), which is on the way to the village of Salão Frio.
At an elevation of 679 metres there’s a complete panorama of Portalegre and its monuments.
Another fabulous vantage point is on the slope of the Serra da Penha to the west, where you can stand at the steps of the 17th-century Chapel de Nossa Senhora da Penha and see Portalegre in profile on the other side of the valley.
10. Sights Around Town
Portalegre’s castle is in the oldest part of Portalegre and climbs above a web of narrow streets.
It came under siege a few times in the dynastic crises and civil wars of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Not a lot remains, save for a piece of the keep where a modern wood and glass frame has been built to help you get around.
The streets around are low-key but deserve a wander for their elegantly shabby whitewashed walls with colourful trimming.
There are also five of the original seven city gates surviving, the most photo-worthy being the 13th-century Porta de Alegrete.
And on Praça da República, see the Palacio Achaioli, an 18th-century palace, converted into a university building and where José Régio used to give lectures.
11. Roman Ruins of Ammaia
In the São Mamede Natural Park that borders Portalegre lie the ruins of a Roman city that had 2,000 inhabitants at its peak.
Outside there’s quite a lot to see, like the portal to the city, traces of the forum and temple, a large villa (known as the Quinta do Deão) and thermal baths.
A lot of these vestiges have only recently come to light as the site was first excavated in the 1990s.
Many artefacts were unearthed, especially around the baths, and a lot have ended up at the National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon.
But there’s also a neat little museum on the site with a video presentation and displays of jewellery, utensils, ceramics and blown glass.
12. Serra de São Mamede Natural Park
Intrepid souls will be keen to conquer the chain of quartzite mountains to the north and west of the city.
This range is one of the wildest places in western Europe, and a habitat for rare species like genets, Iberian lynxes and the Iberian wolf, as well as bats, wild boar and thousands of deer.
There are forests of cork oak, eucalyptus, pine and sweet chestnut to hike or cycle in, and signs of prehistoric cultures in the megaliths and rock paintings.
You may have your eye on the Serra de São Mamede (the name of the highest peak), which crests at just over 1,000 metres.
From the summit you can see into Spain and as far as Portugal’s Serra da Estrela, 150 kilometres to the north.
Up in the clouds is the frontier town of Marvão, an amazing place by any standard.
It is crammed onto a narrow, 800-metre-high crag at the top of massive quartzite cliffs and ringed by walls.
These defences attest to centuries of conflict between Portugal and Spain, and they were bolstered as recently as the 1800s.
It’s an adventure just getting into the town: After making it up the slope you pass under a ceremonious gate guarded by crenellated turrets and machicolations.
The walls contain a tight tangle of cobblestone alleys, ducking under vaulted passageways and guiding you to ledges where the mountainscapes leave you lost for words.
14. Piscina Fluvial da Portagem
Summers are often brutal in eastern Portugal, and with few bodies of water for respite, the nearby town of Marvão got creative.
Here a length of the River Sever has been dammed to trap an open-air pool attracting bathers from both sides of the border on searing hot days.
On the bank there’s a grove of tall trees offering ample shade for picnic tables, and a few steps along is a Roman bridge that would have been used by Ammaia’s citizens 2,000 years ago.
15. Food and Drink
In Portugal confectionery was first made at convents that made use of the eggs that were donated by married couples to these communities for good luck.
Portalegre has often been called “Cidade dos Sete Conventos” (City of the Seven Convents) and has a whole book’s worth of its own sweet and simple recipes.
Toucinho do céu is a moist sponge cake made with almonds, manjar branco is blancmange of eggs and almonds, and rebuçados de ovos are egg yolk candies in balls with a sticky syrup.
Lastly, though there are many more recipes, lampreia de Portalegre is a soft cake made with eggs, sugar and almonds, and baked into the shape of a lamprey, with candied fruits for its eyes!