You know cork as the thing that stops up your wine bottle. But did you ever wonder where that cork came from? Portugal is the perfect place to learn more about cork.
Portugal produces more cork than any other country in the world. A cork tree is a type of oak tree and the cork comes from the bark. In order to learn more about cork, I recommend a visit to both a cork forest and a cork factory.
Where and when to go
Visiting the Herdade da Maroteira in southern Portugal can take the form of a guided walk through the forest or a guided four-wheel-drive tour. This cork and livestock farm, which sits among picturesque rolling hills, has been expanded in recent years to include vineyards and agro-tourism.
During the spring and fall, choose the walking tour if you are able to walk for a couple of hours on easy terrain. The spring wildflowers are lovely and in the autumn you can enjoy the changing colors of the trees. In the summer you’ll want to avoid the heat by taking a driving tour of the forest. In June you may get to see the cork cutters harvesting the cork and in autumn you’ll have the opportunity to see the pigs that come to feast on the acorns from the cork oak trees (and that later become your jamon that you’ll eat too much of in Spain!)
What you’ll learn
The “forest” isn’t the kind of forest you might expect. The trees are set apart and there is very little underbrush. The cork forest might also be called an orchard, farm or ranch, depending on where you are from and what kind of agriculture you are used to. Cork trees are gnarly, with twists and turns in the branches, and the wood is very hard.
While on a guided tour, you’ll learn that cork production is a long-term endeavor. Cork bark is only harvested every 9 or 10 years. Cork-cutting is a very specialized skill and the cork harvesters aren’t getting any younger.
How to get there
Herdade da Maroteira is south of the village of Aldeia da Serra. Take N381 south from Aldeia da Serra, look for signpost on the right saying Herdade da Maroteira. If you are coming from Evora, the signpost will be on your left. Then drive awhile on a dirt road to the Herdade (ranch/farm). GPS Coordinates: N 38º 42’ 00’’ – W 7º 34’ 28’’
Make a reservation
Where to stay
When I was in the area I stayed at the Convento Sao Paulo – Hotel Rural, which is just north of Aldeia Da Serra. This unique rural hotel was a monastery. The tilework and historical nature of this hotel make the experience like staying in a museum.
The Herdade da Maroteira also offers accommodations. While I didn’t stay there, it looks very nice and peaceful.
You could also stay in Evora, which is on the way from Lisbon to the Herdade da Maroteira. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Evora to the Herdade da Maroteira. Evora is a large town with Roman ruins, a cathedral and plenty of options for accommodation and restaurants. If you’d rather have an experience in a tourist city (lots of guided bus tours visit Evora and it’s in Rick Steves’ book about Portugal) then Evora would be a good option. I’d recommend a stop in Evora whether you stay there or not – it’s a great city to wander and follow your nose. Seriously, follow your nose to the Fabrica dos Pasteis!
Visit a cork factory
After touring a cork forest, make sure to visit the Novocortica cork factory in Sao Bras de Alportel near Faro. In 2017 the 90 minute tour cost €12.50 per person. The tour is excellent with a well-informed tour guide. It’s always fun to visit a factory in operation, but this tour is especially impressive, with workers and machinery taking cork from raw bark to pellets that are later used to make a wide variety of cork products. Finished products like purses, belts and placemats are available for purchase at the end of the tour.
Faro is about a 3 hour drive south from the Herdade da Maroteira. Combine your trip to Faro with a visit to the beach, a nature park, or one of the many resorts near Faro. Faro is a major holiday destination and has an international airport. We used it as a place to drop off our rental car, stay in a hostel in town, and catch a bus to Seville.