Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/31 posted by hidden europe on

Alentejo is an area of Portugal which attracts few tourists. Travellers bound for the Algarve coast zip through the region on the motorway, and scarcely give Alentejo a second look. But Alentejo is home to some of Europe's largest forests of cork oak, incredibly gnarled trees that once provided corks for the wine trade across many countries.

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Dear fellow travellers

Alentejo is an area of Portugal which attracts few tourists. Travellers bound for the Algarve coast zip through the region on the motorway, and scarcely give Alentejo a second look. But Alentejo is home to some of Europe's largest forests of cork oak, incredibly gnarled trees that once provided corks for the wine trade across many countries. The growing affection for screw top wine bottles, and all manner of synthetic substitutes for cork, is ruffling a few feathers in the Alentejo region, as many who have made their living from cork harvesting and processing experience the chill winds of recession.

There are no quick pickings to be made in the cork industry and the cork harvesters of Alentejo have demonstrated good stewardship over the forest plantations, some of which have been in production for centuries. The forests are the backbone of the region's economy, and get top marks from the World Wildlife Fund, which judges Alentejo to be one of Europe's biodiversity hotspots. The cork oak forests provide habitats for a range of endangered fauna from the Iberian lynx to the Bonelli's eagle. And effective management of the forests is the key to reducing the risk of devastating forest fires.

Alentejo is not just cork forests, but olive groves and great plains of wheat - torrid places in the summer heat, but curiously appealing at this time of year, as kestrels hover looking for minute movements in the stubble that might betray an instant meal. And the small towns that dot this poorest region of Portugal are full of interest: Évora, Beja and Serpa - castles, ramparts, narrow streets, elegant squares and histories that tell of a dozen occupations: Romans, Moors and more!

It comes as something of a surprise to run across a group of Ukrainians in a back street bar in Évora. But migrants from Ukraine are now found everywhere in Portugal. For ten years Ukrainians made a living in the building industry in and around Lisbon; now they have moved into other sectors and constitute, after Brazilians and Cape Verdeans, the country's third largest minority. Perhaps 200,000 in all. Even in Alentejo, Ukrainians have found their place in a Portuguese society that has been benignly indifferent to these migrants. But some worry that attitudes may change as jobs become scarcer with the downturn in the cork industry.

hidden europe in full colour

With the European Union set to welcome two new members on 1 January, we shall certainly add some Bulgarian and Romanian flavours to hidden europe 12. We shall also make our first serious foray into the Low Countries, visiting béguinages in Belgium and hofjes in Holland. Plus a report from the little port of Frombork on Poland's Baltic coast. Frombork, the place where Copernicus once lived and worked, now finds itself decidedly on the edge of things. With work on hidden europe 12 - to be published on 4 January - coming to fruition, we have decided it is time to introduce full colour to the magazine.

Naturally, we think that hidden europe would make the ideal Christmas gift. If you are inclined to agree, we would invite you to check out our Christmas gift options. Subscriptions, mini-subs and back issue sets are all available. And of course we can always send a gift card with the wording of your choice.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.