Portugal is an extraordinary diverse country balanced right on the very tip of the European Western peninsula and has fascinated writers since the beginning of time. It has a spirit which survives despite tremendous hardship and pain. Fado lyrics speak of yearning and desperation washed by both blood and tears and it is this intensity that makes Portugal the best place for a writing retreat.
The author, Monica Ali came to Portugal and stayed in the Alentejo, an arid virtually land locked area just north of The Algarve in the south-central region of the country, here she wrote her novel, Alentejo Blue. Any aspiring writer choosing this area of Portugal as the best place for inspiration is greeted by vast planes dotted with Olive Trees and Vineyards. If you buy a wizened potted Olive Tree specimen in the UK it is likely to have been grubbed up from this area.
In the summer temperatures can soar and it’s an extraordinarily slow quality of life but interestingly the site of the first stirrings of the Carnation Revolution in 1974. The region is physically separated from the rest of the country by the River Tagus and is where its name derives: “Além-Tejo”. This is translated as “Beyond the Tagus” or “Across the Tagus“. Already you can imagine the peace and tranquility, warm days and long nights writing.
If you are looking for beauty and inspiration then you need to visit the main cities of the area: Évora, Portalegre, Beja, Serpa and Sines. These locations remain stubbornly resistant to change. It’s an atmospheric location in Portugal to write about and is rich in story and fable.
Monica Ali opens her novel from the viewpoint of an ancient Portuguese Alentejano peasant and the book proceeds as a collection of small pen portraits of the inhabitants of the region. There is a strong sense of geographical unity throughout and if you want to know about this less well-known area of the country and one writer’s view of it, then Alentejo Blue will educate and entertain you. It appears to be a place where certain types flock to find peace and a good life whereas young residents will do anything to get away.
Alentejo Blue didn’t receive rave reviews, however, and in fact the writer Natasha Walter said it was filled with ‘stock characters (who) trot through the pretty village with its gorgeous colours. Looking at the blue sky, the English writer sees it as “a fine shade of nostalgia”, while a Portuguese girl is oblivious to the cute picture she makes: “She wore her black sling backs and a white cotton dress with blue flowers that matched the paint that framed the door. Alentejo Blue. There she was, in a picture, in a moment.” Certainly it did not achieve the acclaim of Brick Lane her first novel and for me is a pity because there is a story worth telling from this region of Portugal.
Natasha Walter goes on to say: ‘It’s not just the presence of more than one tourist in the book that makes you feel like a tourist when you’re reading it. All the characters bow off too hurriedly, little sketches that never get fleshed out, people glimpsed from a train that is moving too quickly through a strange landscape. Even if you enjoy the ride, you can’t help wishing that Monica Ali had chosen to write about somewhere she knew better, or wanted to know better.’ The Guardian May 2006
Wherever you look in this country there are places with a story to tell. Just looking from my study window as I write I can see the mountains of the central region of Portugal, the Serra d’Estrela in the distance, the ancient stone walls of my village and can see the impenetrable forest where wild boar still roam.
It is an inspirational place for writers and artists alike and really is the best place in Portugal to write. For me the greatest story of them all is that of Pedro and Inez, two names steeped in the very psyche of the Portuguese. Writers, artists, musicians and film makers have all paid homage to this tragic and passionate love story and throughout Coimbra you will see references in street names, bridges, monuments and hotels. As a writer this country is alive with possibilities, inspiration and what better place to come and imbibe the atmosphere and simply write from a writer’s retreat..