The Hot Sister With a Chapel of Bones

Last week I sent one of my team to Portugal’s Algarve…

He’s still not there.

It’s my fault. I told him to do some exploring on the way.

After disappearing into the mountains near Spain where he found a renovated home inside a castle for $90,000, and a whole lot more, he’s now driving through the Alentejo, a region that takes up over a third of Portugal…

Mountains meet rolling plains. Sheep take shade under the cork oaks, castles loom over rivers, and the land rolls on and on…

As does my scout…

Here’s his latest report…

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The Hot Sister With a Chapel of Bones

By Eoin Bassett

Evora and Beja are like two sisters…

One is beautiful. She’s smart and plays the piano, the flute, and the violin. History, philosophy…agronomics…art…

This sister can talk for hours on any subject.

She’s an accomplished cook with secret recipes her grandmother passed on to her. She’s a discerning gardener with bountiful fruit trees…

And boy can she dress…she looks especially amazing in her older, tatty clothes.

The other sister?

She’s Beja. An hour south.

It’s not that Beja is ugly. Quite the opposite. She has some medieval walls…her handful of baroque mansions are nice…and there is a really good cake shop.

Your mother thinks you should date Beja.

But no one else does…

Portugal’s Alentejo region is anchored by two towns, Evora and Beja. Last message he sent me, Eoin’s driving south to the Algarve.

Sure, you would go on a date with Beja. On your way to or from the beaches of the Algarve…it would be easy. The highway passes right by and it’s the perfect close-to-halfway spot to Evora.

Beja has the old-school Tea Rooms Maltesinhas, where for under $2 you’ll get sustained with the best of Portuguese patisserie.

But you fall in love with Evora…the head turner.

Evora is the elegant sister…a walkable little city of Roman ruins and baroque magnificence.

I first visited Evora in 2012. That’s part of the problem. I went there first. Beja never stood a chance.

I always go back. Portugal’s so small, tidy, and easy to get around that whenever life finds me in the country, I make my excuse to check out Evora.

Beja has a nice historic center. Julius Caesar passed through on his conquests, and the museum of Queen Eleanor is worth a look.

My first time with Evora felt like a real secret. An hour-and-a-half drive from Lisbon or a bit longer by train if you prefer slow travel with a rolling view.

It felt like I had this university town all to myself, anchored by its Roman temple, studded with 17th-century mansions, and surrounded by a medieval wall.

I remember stepping from the train and walking up into town through a monumental gate on that first visit…

I arrived just before dusk to the rose-hued glow of an Alentejo sky. It really does have the “special quality” touted by the guidebooks. Something about this region’s place on the globe …latitudes, longitudes…

I rambled around the low-key town for a few days soaking up its Baroque magnificence. It was lovely but a bit quiet.

Here’s a photo I sent Ronan: The Roman Temple of Diana anchors the old town of Evora.

Things have changed.

Evora has a lot more suitors these days, and they are trendier than I.

I arrived late for dinner by some standards.

At 9.04 p.m. there I was on the trendiest street in Evora and it was packed.

I couldn’t believe the change. Tourists from all over mingled up with students and I suspect some digital nomads—they can be hard to spot unless they have their laptops.

At 9.04 p.m. on a Monday, Evora’s streets are busy…

I finally found a table amongst young couples.

I was eventually given a menu but not a beer…

So I upped and moved on.

I’m not young enough to be hungry and sustain myself on talk of Instagram and Netflix—which made up most of the conversation next to me. I think the couple were on a first date. Possibly a last as he wasn’t impressing her.

I walked into a takeout sushi place and within 20 minutes I was fed. I wandered the streets…it was buzzing. So much more alive than on previous visits.

The biggest tourist draw in Evora is probably the Chapel of Bones. The Franciscans decorated the wall of their chapel with the bones of around 5,000 people. Don’t ask me why…

The next morning after breakfast I adopted “the strolling strategy.” With a real estate app open on the phone I walked the streets. Construction was rolling…a commercial building here…a renovation of an old town house there…

Looks like real estate prices are on the rise, too.

Checking my notes from when visited in 2015 and here is what I wrote then to International Living readers:

“I found a fixer-upper in the Santo Antao district going for $180,000. It’s 3,767 square feet and inside you’ll find walls decorated with the hand-painted tiles the region is famous for.

“If a labor of love doesn’t suit you and you fancy something more turnkey, there’s an 847-square-foot, two-bedroom town home in the historic center going for $99,000. It’s just a three-minute walk from one of Evora’s most pleasant squares, the Praca do Geraldo. (Once used by the Inquisition for executions, this square is now the ideal place for a custard tart and a coffee.)”

These prices now look quaint on this fly-by visit.

I was very interested this time in a nice looking two-bed, renovated home of 904 square feet close to the historic center for €160,000 ($187,427). It has an outdoor courtyard and it’s just a short walk to the center.

The neighborhood felt like it was gentrifying, but I’d need more time to really know. I’d want to stay here for a week, or come back at different times of day to really take the pulse.

I also took a walk about 10 minutes out of the old town into an old residential neighborhood to look at a four-bedroom home for €167,000 ($195,627). Seems to me like it’s the kind of value-play that could make a good Airbnb and a nice base in Evora. Homes that size in the center list for much, much more, yet with this house you are in a safe, quiet, and private part of town, a stone’s throw from the action. It’s what Ronan calls “unloved and overlooked.”

Beyond tourists, the university here means renting to students is an option. And there’s the large hospital, whose staff and professionals need places to live.

Or you could just live here…I could.

The Alentejo is one of Portugal’s famous wine regions and you can join the locals in a three-course lunch washed down with a glass of red for less than $20.

It gets hot in summer. The rental car told me it was 98 F. I’d come in spring to enjoy the wildflowers. Leave Evora to her trendy suitors in the summer, and return in the fall.

Spring in the Alentejo: The bark of the cork oak is where cork comes from. You won’t find a screw-top bottle of wine in Portugal—60% of the world’ supply of cork comes from here. Most of it from the rolling plains of the Alentejo.

Folk music in the Alentejo is performed by choirs of villagers singing songs of the land with no musical accompaniment. I heard it said it was the Moors who left the tradition. Who knows for sure… To quote American writer and diplomat, Datus Proper, Portugal is a place where “time is all jumbled together.” Paleolithic man painted caves here, the first farmers raised stone monuments and the Romans left haunted ruins.

The Alentejo is a magical part of Portugal. In the shade of holm and cork oak trees, pigs snuffle for acorns. In spring, wild flowers carpet the ground. It feels uncrowded, undiscovered, and a little bit lost in time.

At least, it did…

***

Ronan Says: Since Eoin hit the ground, our scouting team’s WhatsApp group has exploded with content.

Photos…videos…anecdotes… Usually, when I open a chat to find 37 messages my blood drains. Not this week. I’ve been gripped by, and glued to, Eoin’s reports from the road. And I can’t wait to share the curated highlights with you next week.

This part of Portugal has some of the most attractive bargain properties on earth. I’m sold.

Can we make money here? That’s what we’re digging on. But there are lots of encouraging signs. The type of folks Eoin describes here are trendsetters, or at least early adapters.

The great and the good of Portugal whisper that Alentejo is their favorite place in the country. It’s easily accessible. The real estate is silly cheap—a fraction of replacement cost. And, the cherry: the locals don’t know what they have. They are passive. Short-term rental owners don’t even dare compete with the kind of vacation offerings you’ll find in the likes of Tuscany. But I believe there’s a possibility they could.

Here you can buy a sprawling country estate in an olive grove for $300,000. Put another way, $600 a month would cover your mortgage, plus property taxes, plus insurances and any HOA fees (these will be zero). With the right product you could tap into the high earning/spending rental market for villas. Or, you could pay $160,000 for a charming town home with a terrace.

No one has connected the dots… Eoin called yesterday to say foreigners don’t get mortgages here. I got straight on to my contact to ask why. The answer: there’s no reason foreigners can’t…

If the situation is as it appears, it won’t take long for savvy investors to make a move. And this could happen soon…

We need to be out ahead of it…

This region has so much going for it. A remarkably low cost of living. Unbelievable low real estate prices. Close proximity to a world class international capital city. Productive agriculture. Clean fresh air and security…

Thanks to Eoin’s reports I’ve rearranged my own travel schedule to put boots on the ground in Alentejo myself. I’ll be there from September 5th.

Stay tuned…

Your Comments and Questions

In response to yesterday’s mailing, Aaron says: Are there expats in the area you are showing? Any language problems?

Eoin says: Hi Aaron. A trickle of expats have been coming to the area for decades. Mainly from Belgium, Holland, and England. They tend to be folks that have stumbled upon the area and discovered how enchanting and low cost it is. Getting by in English is easy in Portugal but in this area there are fewer English speakers among the locals. That said they are friendly and accommodating and well-used to foreigners. A smile goes a long way. The older generation of expats don’t have any Portuguese and have been here for years, so I’m told. The newcomers, the younger expats and families are keener and more open to learning some Portuguese. It’s always the case that making an effort to learn a few words makes for a richer experience all round. But if you didn’t speak a word, I think you’d do just fine here. Personally, I speak some Spanish and French but only “thank you” in Portuguese and I felt totally comfortable. Albeit, I like to chat to the locals and found not being able to mine them for information frustrating. I’ve determined to tackle Portuguese before I go back and get some good basics.

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