I don’t know whether it’s an age-related thing or a by-product of blogging about Portugal but my appreciation of skilled craftsmanship has certainly increased in recent years. Among the many Portuguese arts and crafts that I have come to admire are the Arraiolos tapestry rugs.
These beautiful, hard-wearing woolen carpets don’t come cheap but that’s because they’re all embroidered by hand.
Popular among the aristocracy in the 18th century, they served not only to protect and decorate floors but also to display wealth. Properly cared for, they last for ages, making them a sound purchase.
Having noticed the tapestry rugs on the floors of various manor houses and historical hotels in Portugal, I decided it was time to visit Arraiolos, the village they originate from.
Arraiolos rugs fell out of fashion in the 19th century but fortunately, a group of local women revived the tradition in the 20th century. The original designs were heavily influenced by Persian and Turkish carpets although you’ll find a wide range of patterns and colours these days.
While I didn’t see the anticipated women sitting in the street working away at their patterns (it was March so that’s hardly surprising), it doesn’t take long to find a rug shop with a local craftswoman busy with the needle.
Arraiolos rug museum
To find out more about the history of these rugs, I paid a visit to the Centro Interpretativo do Tapete de Arraiolos, a.k.a. the rug museum. It was one of the best Euros I’ve spent. Housed within a former medieval hospital in the main village square, the exhibits cover wool production and dyeing through to the weaving of the base mats and the designs and stitch work involved in creating the tapestry rugs.
The glass flooring near the entrance allows you to see the former dyeing pits that have been dated back to the 13th to 15th centuries. If you’re lucky, you may be able to watch and even take part in a live embroidery demonstration. If not, the photos, models and equipment will enable you to understand more about the skill involved.
At the time I visited, photography wasn’t allowed inside so you’ll have to take my word for it that this little museum is worth a visit.
Centro Interpretativo do Tapete de Arraiolos (Closed Mondays. Open 10-1 and 2-6)
Arraiolos beyond the rugs
The most noticeable structure in the village is the unusual circular castle on the small hill overlooking the residential area. It doesn’t take long to climb up there and although it’s mostly in ruins, significant parts of the old walls remain intact. Not bad considering it was built in the early 14th century.
You’ll also get to see the 14th century church of St. Salvador. The views of the village and surrounding countryside alone are worth the gentle climb.
Azulejos in Convento de Loios
Another of Portugal’s artistic treasures is the tradition of hand-painted ceramic murals, or azulejos. If you want to see some stunning examples, visit the 16th century Loios Convent or, more specifically, the church attached to it. The Manueline entrance is impressive but wait until you see the blue and white interior.
The painted tile panels were installed in 1710 and depict the trials and tribulations of various saints.
The convent itself has been sympathetically renovated to become a luxury pousada. The cloisters are now living and exhibition spaces, decorated with a few fine examples of local tapestry and sculpted marble.
Given the beauty of the surrounding countryside, I had intended to do the “Entre Pontos e Colinas” walking trail but we ran out of time and, to be honest, the leaflet and map are so small that even with reading glasses I couldn’t work out the route.
The staff at our guest house told us how to reach a nearby lake on foot so that’s what we did, returning to the village at dusk.
There is a cycle route along the former railway line but we simply didn’t have time to try it out.
Practicalities for visiting Arraiolos
How long you choose to spend in Arraiolos depends on what you’re looking for. While it isn’t the most beautiful or captivating village in the Alentejo, it has a quiet charm, several restaurants and could work as a base for exploring the area.
If it’s just the rugs you’re interested in, you can see and learn about them on a day trip from Lisbon that also takes you to Évora and the megalithic chromlech at Almendres.
Alternatively, there are a few buses a day from Évora, operated by Rodalentejo and Redexpressos.
By far the easiest way to get there is to drive, which of course allows you to choose how long you stay.
Accommodation in and around Arraiolos
We stayed at Casa do Platano and loved it. We were welcomed with a local liqueur and home made biscuits and were able to help ourselves to freshly baked cake at any time of the day (can you tell where my priorities lie?). The rooms are spacious and comfortable, pleasantly decorated, albeit not luxurious, but it’s the staff and facilities that make it special.
If you’d rather stay somewhere more upmarket, I’d go for for the Pousada Convento de Arraiolos. It combines the historical features of the original convent structure with modern architecture and all the amenities you’d expect, including indoor and outdoor pools. Situated just outside the village, it has great views.
If you’d like an even more rural setting on a Lusitano horse farm, try Monte Velho Equo Resort. You can arrange horse rides and other outdoor activities or simply relax in this small boutique hotel.
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