Think of a long weekend in Lisbon and you’d be excused for assuming you’d be taking a city break.

But hire a car and head out into the nearby Portuguese countryside and you really can get away from it all in next to no time.

The region of Alentejo may be relatively overlooked compared to its southern neighbour, the Algarve, but its lack of tourists turns out to be one of its most appealing features.

Just a short drive from Lisbon, the region stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Spanish border in the east.

It offers picturesque hilltop villages, breathtaking scenery, deserted roads and a laid-back way of life bordering on comatose.

Alentejo is perhaps prettiest in spring, when colourful wild flowers spring up between the olive groves, vineyards and cork trees before the summer heat scorches the landscape.

The region’s capital, the walled city of Évora, is a mish-mash of historic delights, from Roman ruins to medieval cloisters. The city itself is pretty-but-not-too-pretty; evidently a living, breathing town rather than a museum piece.

It’s worth heading downhill to the Igreja de São Francisco (Church of St Francis), whose Gothic spires - and controversial fresh paint job - give it a fairytale look.

However, lurking within is something far darker. The eerie Chapel of the Bones welcomes you with the haunting slogan: “Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,” which translates as: “We bones are here, waiting for yours.”

Step inside and you’re greeted with the spectacularly creepy sight of intricately arranged human skulls and bones stretching from floor to ceiling.

The chapel was created by monks in the 16th century to inter 5,000 corpses while at the same time providing a place for people to contemplate their own mortality. I can’t imagine they do many weddings.

Évora’s Vila Galé hotel, which only opened last year, offers an airy and modern place to stay with indoor and outdoor pools, spacious rooms and a good restaurant.

But for those who really want to get away from it all, nothing quite beats a stay on a working vineyard miles from anywhere.

The Herdade do Sobroso homestead is about as rustic as it gets. Guests can explore the sprawling vineyard, spot the resident stork, dip in the pool or indulge in some of the excellent wines and foods made on-site.

At the end of the day, the resident chef prepares meals that redefine the word hearty, offering up bowls of slow-cooked stews, rustic salads and, of course, plenty of their own wine.

The vineyard’s friendly owners are all too happy to take braver guests on four-wheel-drive tour of the wider estate to check out the views of the nearby Guadiana river, as long as they don’t mind ascents and descents more akin to a log flume ride than a Sunday drive.

Most of the driving in the region is far less likely to cause you to break a sweat. As we wound our way through the countryside, I was struck by both the quality of the roads and the lack of traffic.

Perched atop a hill, the medieval village of Monsaraz is a real gem in the area.

Its cobbled, sun-soaked streets were a delight to walk around and the view over the Alqueva - Europe’s biggest man-made lake - was incredible.

The lake itself can be explored by hiring a houseboat from the Amieira Marina, which also has an excellent waterside restaurant.

We took to the water and whiled away an hour or so lazily cruising around on the lake.

I can’t help but imagine such a tourist attraction in Britain would be unbearably crowded, but here there was hardly a soul to be seen as we sipped beers on the boat’s roof and one or two of the more adventurous souls decided to take a running jump into the water.

If watersports is what you’re after, it’s not just the lakes where you can indulge. Head to the nearby area of Mafra and you can try out Portugal’s famed surf.

We tried a lesson at one of the surf schools in the world surfing reserve of Ericeira and I’ll admit I wasn’t a natural, despite the instructors’ sterling efforts.

I spent about five per cent of my time trying and failing to ride a wave, and the other 95 per cent of the time swallowing sea water, being dragged through the waves or stumbling over rocks.

Of course, those who share my lack of surfing skills can always stick to dry land and lie back on the sand for a while instead.

It’s Portugal, after all. Relaxing is always an option.