The Ribatejo region is well worth a visit - but you have to find it first. Paul Rouse goes exploring.
It’s probably fair to say that some of Portugal’s lesser-known tourism regions are lesser-known for several reasons, not least perhaps being their approach to international promotion.
Whilst the Algarve, Lisbon and Porto are familiar to most people, the Silver Coast and the Blue Coast are possibly the only two other regions of the country that readily register with large numbers of people, and they are more creations of the property industry marketing machine than anything inspired by Portugal’s often inward-looking regional tourism organisations.
A case in point is the Ribatejo – a beautiful area of rolling landscapes and wide river plains to the north-east of Lisbon - rich in history, culture and leisure opportunities, famous for raising the horses and bulls used in the Portuguese style of bullfighting, and yet hardly known outside of Portugal.
It doesn’t help of course that there is little promotional material available in English or other foreign languages, and even defining what constitutes the area in question is a little confusing.
What can be said for certain is that the Ribatejo is the most central of Portugal's traditional provinces, and derives its name from the river Tagus (“on or beyond the banks of the Tejo”). Look it up on the map and it roughly, but not quite, corresponds to the modern-day political administrative district of Santarem: one of only two in the whole country that has either a coastline or a border with Spain, and thus not easy to visualise in the mind’s eye.
But the area covered by Regiao de Turismo do Ribatejo, the regional tourist board, doesn’t extend to including at least two of what many would consider to be the Ribatejo’s most popular attractions - Tomar, home to the magnificent 12th century Convent of Christ and listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and Fatima, Portugal’s equivalent of Lourdes, famous for its history of religious visions and a pilgrimage centre of international reputation. Both should be on your must-see list if you are touring the region, whatever the tourist board might say!
So, in the absence of much help from local sources, where do you start? The answer is probably to try to gather as much information from whatever sources you can (for instance the relevant sections of English-language guide books which cover the whole of Portugal or savvy traveller websites, buy a decent map, and just follow your nose. You won’t be disappointed. There is a lot to see in the Ribatejo, from quiet country towns and picturesque villages to castles, palaces and a host of churches and cathedrals - the legacy of a region that has been inhabited since pre-historic times, followed by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and Moors, and culminating in the Reconquest, after which the Ribatejo profited from one of the richest and most dynamic periods in Portuguese history.
The Ribatejo won’t appeal to those looking for bright lights and big cities. It is clean and green, pretty rather than spectacular, understated in a very Portuguese way and typical of the heartland of the country, away from the coasts, the crowds, and the commercialisation: in other words a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. Some of the key places to visit include:
SANTAREM: A Roman and Moorish stronghold, the city has been of strategic and political importance for centuries, and is layered with history – medieval towers, Romanesque and Baroque churches, Gothic tombs and Manueline portals abound. A good base from which to tour the region, and especially popular in the autumn, when it hosts Portugal’s largest gastronomic festival. Visitors can sample the best regional recipes using herbs and spices, local cheeses and fresh fish, as well as speciality wines. Entertainment is in the form of traditional dances and folklore music.
GOLEGA: Celebrated for the annual horse fair held for two weeks each November, which attracts breeders, horse enthusiasts and curious spectators who come to witness the magnificent pure-bred Lusitano horses. A great place to see authentic country life, with markets selling everything from locally-produced wines and roasted chestnuts to traditional clothing worn by the horsemen of the Ribatejo.
TOMAR: A maze of narrow streets, some of the finest vernacular architecture in Portugal, together with a castle, churches, museums, chapels, bridges and one of the oldest synagogues in the country. The crowning glory is the Convento de Cristo (Convent of Christ), founded in 1162 by the Grand Master of the Templars and extended in the 15th and 16th centuries. It contains the magnificent Charola oratory, based on the Rotunda of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre, an ornate Manueline church and the Great Cloister famous for its concealed spiral stairways.
FATIMA: Built to commemorate the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in 1917, the basilica includes an esplanade double the size of St Peter’s Square in Rome, and welcomes thousands of pilgrims and other visitors. Busy all year round, it is inundated on 12-13 of May and 12-13 October each year, when penitents approach the shrine on their knees in a moving testament to faith.
Also worth a look:
Above all, the Ribatejo is a region in which to rediscover the joys of driving on largely empty open roads, stopping on a whim, and enjoying the simple hospitality of the real Portugal. Combine it with a tour of some of its close neighbours, and you will come across further delights such as the fabulous UNESCO-listed monasteries of Alcobaca and Batalha, Portugal’s largest daily open-air market at Caldas da Rainha, or one of the true hidden gems of the northern Alentejo, the Renaissance town of Portalegre.
Who knows? Perhaps Portugal’s regional tourist boards do have a plan, and are just trying to keep all the best places to themselves?
RIBATEJO FACT FILE
EAT: Taberna do Quinzena – traditional regional cooking in Santarem (+ 351 243 322 804); Marisqueira O Pelicano – fish and seafood in Abrantes (+ 351 241362317); A Bela Vista – Ribatejo specialities with a castle view in Tomar (+ 351 249 312 870).
SLEEP: Albergue do Bonjardim – delightfully restored 18th century manor house near Nesperal with four bedrooms, indoor pool and sauna. Pousada Conde at Ourem, near Fatima – a former cluster of older houses remodelled into a 30-room hotel with outdoor pool.
VISIT: Gastronomic festival in Santarem (October); Feira Nacional do Cavalo (horse fair) in Golega (November); Festivities of the Holy Ghost in Tomar (March).