“Although I look it, I am not Mediterranean. I am Breton. I grew up in Paris but would spend all my holidays in Brittany and here in the Alentejo it is the same sea, the Atlantic. I love the contrast of this very peaceful landscape going into the ocean, where there is always movement. It sometimes reminds me of The Hamptons.
The region’s coastline stretches unspoilt for 100km south of the city of Setúbal. The further south you go, the more wild and more Portuguese it becomes. I swim at the beach every day, arriving on foot via the dunes. You have to park the car and walk through very low pine trees, through the little evergreen shrubs, until you reach the sand. It’s so beautiful and so wild, it almost looks landscaped.
On the Praia do Carvalhal beach the fishing boats look like toys. There are a few little cabins but you don’t see any houses. My favourite restaurant on the beach is O Dinis Restaurante dos Pescadores. It’s made of wood and on the walls are photos of the owner, Dinis, when he was a young fisherman. He was so handsome, with such incredible blue eyes, it looks like staged fashion photography but it’s not. Dinis has silver hair now and he is still just as attractive. I always order the arroz caldoso, a huge stew of rice with jumbo shrimps.
I can’t eat fish because I am allergic, but I love crustaceans. I buy them at the market in Carrasqueira, a 200-year‑old fishing village with around 300 inhabitants who live in traditional houses made out of straw from the river. There is a floating fishing harbour, all piers and wooden stilts. All kinds of people go to the market, from the high society of Lisbon to locals from surrounding villages who like to buy fresh lobster, crab and big shrimp. I cook what I’ve picked up on my outdoor barbecue at my home in Lagoa de Santo André, which is surrounded by olive trees, acacias, mimosas and umbrella pines.
My land here is so full of sand – everything grows. I have planted every type of salad, 20 kinds of carrots, turnips, salsify and potatoes – sweet potatoes, red potatoes, black potatoes. We all share; I often go to my neighbour’s when she is not there to pick up tomatoes. I have people working in the house so the produce is for them too. For eggs and dairy products I can go to Santo André, a town of about 10,000 people, but really the whole of the Alentejo is the kind of place where merchants drive past and beep to see if you want to buy from the back of a car. Sometimes it’s bread, sometimes meat, sometimes fish.
In Alcácer do Sal there’s the Praça de Touros João Branco Núncio bullring, which has bullrights in June and October. In Portugal, the fight is more humane: the bull has his horns shorn; the toureiro rides a horse and does not kill the bull. It is straight out of a Velázquez painting: the traditional dress is tied at the side with large pockets; it is very beautiful, like a Marquis’s outfit. A lot of the bullfighters are female. Nearby is the town of Grândola where there is a store called Luadisantos, Loja dú Peixe, where you can buy dried and tinned fish. I collect the colourful sardine tins and put them in my kitchen. I don’t eat them – I would go so far as to say I am disgusted by sardines – but people who come to visit always end up eating them. Grândola also has a wine shop, Garrafeira D Nuno, where I buy varieties made in the Alentejo.
I discovered the region 15 years ago. I was spending holidays with Portuguese friends in Comporta, an hour from Lisbon, which was nice at the time. Now it’s completely ruined, with ugly developments – too many people, too much electricity, and it’s the land of mosquitoes because of the rice. Where my house is, further south, there are very few. I have also put a lot of big pots of citronella geraniums and peppermint around the place, which are really good at keeping mosquitoes at bay.
I love to drive around the Alentejo. You find beautiful small, straight roads that are a little bit bumpy from the roots of cork oaks. The trees are not very big and the houses are all single-storey with flat roofs to protect against the sun and the wind, so the hills look huge. On top of the hills you will often find a big house or a castle that looks out to the sea; there is something quite magical about that. Wherever you go there is this feeling of being in a late-medieval landscape. The road to Beja is very long and really pretty, full of cork trees, and the landscape is straight out of a Cervantes book. I almost expect to see Don Quixote waiting for me at the castle. Beja is a great place to pick up vannerie, or wickerwork.
Every time someone comes to visit for the first time I take them to Evora, home to one of the best restaurants in all of the Alentejo, Fialho. It is very traditional and bourgeois. You need a reservation because people stay forever, eating legs of lamb or pork medallions with rosemary for hours. It’s refined but rural, almost ancient, cuisine. The third generation of the family now runs it. Afterwards I will often go and take a walk around Evoramonte Castle, which was built in the 14th century, the Chapel of Bones [Capela dos Ossos] at Igreja de São Francisco, the Roman Temple or the cathedral, which is full of blue and white 16th-century azulejos – tin-glazed tiles. Then on to the Palácio Cadaval. I have a dear friend, Alexandra de Cadaval, a descendant of the family, who helps organise the Festival Evora Clássica there, which started as a classical festival but now includes world music and photography from the former Portuguese colonies of Africa. After that we might go to Cartuxa winery for a tasting – it is only 2km away in an old Jesuit monastery.
Heading from Evora to Santiago do Cacém you pass through many villages. The Alentejo is not like other tourist destinations. There are just a few villages and towns, with Portuguese populations who live there all year round – fishermen and stonemasons, or people who work on the rice paddies around the lagoons. On top of the hill in Santiago is a church and a castle with a huge panorama, and at the foot is a beautiful town, all paved, with lovely houses. There are two great antiques dealers, selling everything from vintage to real antiques. I have bought many Portuguese azulejos there over the years; some are clearly from the 1920s, with an early art deco motif; some are from the 1900s with this kind of Guimard drawing, obviously art nouveau; some are from the 1850s with blue and white classical designs with a little yellow flower. I collect things from around the world, and a lot of the handcrafted pieces I pick up are definitely not suitable for my houses in Paris, Egypt or in the French countryside – they are too grand for woven, rustic things. My house here is perfect for that.
On the road to Melides there is a fantastic, very local restaurant called O Melidense. I am not a dessert person at all, but it does the best meringue pudding, a type of îles flottantes with more island than ocean. A few kilometres north of Melides, near Pinheiro da Cruz, there is a small farm with a hotel called Monte do Brejinho de Agua. It has a huge barn with only five or six wooden tables that serves incredibly good breakfasts.
Further south, beyond Sines, is Praia de São Torpes beach, which I go to with my German friend Hans. I started surfing in the south of Sri Lanka eight years ago. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to, but it wasn’t that difficult – I really impressed myself. When I was young I did trapeze, where you really work on your balance and how to distribute your weight. The local surfing community goes very early in the morning, but I am a very laid-back surfer, and although I am a morning person, I don’t want to drive at 7am. I prefer to look at the birds. Right in front of my house there is a lagoon, and you can see big cranes, ibises, white doves, storks, vultures. It is quite incredible.”