Alentejo is the largest province in Portugal. It is famous for cork, wine, olive oil and marble. The cork tree, a variety of oak, is native to Portugal and takes 25 years to mature to the stage of being harvested. The first cork, which is the bark of the tree, is not good quality, and the next harvest takes a further 9 years. Owning a cork plantation is a long, long term investment. When a tree is harvested it has a number painted on the trunk to indicate the year in which the harvest took place. For instance the number 3 shows that the cork was harvested in 2013. Since the bottom fell out of wine corks in Australia, New Zealand and the US the Portugese have found novel ways to use cork as handbags, wallets, hats, shoes and even a wedding dress.
We set off at 9:20 which was 10 minutes earlier than arranged. The road starte off uphill and it wasn't long before Maree was literally leading the pack. I followed as best I could ang Jose was next to the top of the hill. Maree is not as good a descender so we quickly caught up. About 15 minutes into the journey Jose stopped us to give the above mentioned talk about cork. Moving on we settled into a good pace with a few photo stops until we reached the Aldega Santa Maria which makes wine and olive oil. Although it was only eleven o'clock, by the time we finished watching a video about the wines and taking a tour of the wine making facilities, the sun was over a yardarm somewhere so we proceeded to taste their wines. The white wine was nice and refreshing, while the better of the two reds could do with a couple of years in a cellar. There was also a sample of their olive oil which was tasty but grassy.
We rolled into a lovely walled town of Estremoz where we stopped for lunch in a square which unfortunately has been turned into a carpark. I was amazed at how much some of the US riders ate for lunch given that we will be getting a big dinner again tonight. After lunch Jose led off up a slight incline but he was riding slowly and, as a consequence, we were all bunched up in single file. Maree has trouble riding slowly and especially in close quarters with other riders so we again took off together. Jose had downloaded the routes to my Garmin so I was able just to follow the course. Some of the US riders are all over the place and, I must admit, are a bit uncomfortable to ride behind. Before the trip we were both concerned that the other riders might be all 'gung ho' but as it turns out, except for the young fellow Rob and Todd, we Aussies are stronger and, perhaps, better riders.
After another 10 kilometres or so Jose took us into a marble quarry which is owned by the guy who owns the hotel where we will stay tonight. Although marble quarrying used to be done underground in the past, these days it is open cut like our brown coal. There was a huge hole, well over 100 metres deep with trucks slowly crawling up and down a vey steep road carrying huge loads of marble. There are five different colours of marble quarried here with the most valuable being the bright white. Apparently the quarries in Carrera, Italy, are running out of the white marble so Vila Vicosa marble is routinely marked as being from Carrera. The huge blocks of marble are either brought up by truck or, if they are too large, by a huge overhead crane. Of course we then needed to go to a marble museum to get some inside information on the extraction, processing and uses of marble. The only problem was that the video and all explanatory signs were in Portugese only. The guide did speak English and did a good job with her explanations. Oh, I forgot to mention that Jose got lost on the way to the museum and had us all ride about half a kilometre uphill before he realised his mistake.
Our hotel is a 5* one which is made of marble almost entirely. Here and there there is a wooden floor or plaster wall but most guest rooms are marble in the bathrooms, bedrooms and passage. The owner of the hotel is one of the biggest exporters of marble and wanted a showpiece for his foreign buyers. The common, public rooms are particularly resplendent with marble on almost every surface, as are the pools, spas and gyms. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant where our table was a huge sheet of glass resting on an enormous block of marble. Apparently the marble block was lowered into place before the roof was constructed. I suspect that the glass table top probably was too. The meal was delightful, as expected; a squash soup with coriander followed by roast chicken with wild rice and mushrooms and for dessert a choice of seasonal fruit or a traditional desert made from shreded spaghetti mash with pumpkins do sugar (very sweet and tasty). Each course was served with wine; white, red, liqueur. We gave the maitre-d and the kitchen staff a rousing applause.