For centuries, the seven villages huddled between the marshes and the coast have been an unlikely centre of rice growing.Now the real-estate people are putting it on the map.If there was a souring of relations between British holidaymakers and package holiday Portugal after Madeleine Mc Cann disappeared in May 2007, that's long since changed.
They're a bit like us, really, which is why the British are more likely to flock to southern Spain (or the Algarve, which almost everyone, the Portuguese included, regard as much the same thing). I had my theory all mapped out when I met the man from the Alentejo tourist board. So, has Portugal come up with the right offer at the right time? In 2011, 14.1 million overseas travellers visited Portugal; 3.8 per cent more than in 2010.
Most British visitors perform a heart bypass as they zoom into Lisbon or Faro, but I took the road less travelled, driving a couple of hours south from Lisbon airport to the coastal resort of Zambujeira do Mar. An hour later, I'd had sardines, a tomato salad, prawns and dip, two ice-cold glasses of vinho verde, a big bottle of water, coffees and ice cream. Maybe that's the angle for the Alentejo tourist board: pre-euro charges.
Perched above a sweet little bay, Zambujeira was, well, rather subdued: there were some farmworkers having coffee, a smattering of lost- looking German teenagers and a couple of surfers. There was more pricing from the innocent days of the escudo at the Monte da Galrixa, a farm 7km from Zambujeira, set among the ancient cork and pine trees.
Sure, you have the Bairro Alto, the renovated bohemian quarter of Lisbon, which is as hedonistic as anywhere in Europe after dark.
But the tenor of Portugal is Atlantic, not Mediterranean. The Portuguese are southern, he said, emotional, expressive. I appealed to an Anglo-Portuguese friend for adjudication. "The Portuguese are never quite sure where they fit in the world." That may be why Portugal is going through another "repositioning". Instead, holidaymakers are being offered a country where hillsides are as important as beaches, Roman ruins celebrated as much as golf resorts, rural vineyards promoted as well as luxury marinas.
He puts its success down to "real value, superb off-the-beaten-track walking, friendly hoteliers and unforgettable views of a truly unspoilt coastline".