By Nigel Wright
It’s easy to fall in love with the Alentejo. Much of it can still be admired in its original virgin state and a journey through its glorious rolling landscape is an endless source of pleasure.
On a searingly hot June day, we drove north from Beja, the capital of the Baixo (Lower) Alentejo, on empty roads to the Municipality of Monsaraz, close to the Spanish border.
The immense plain, shimmering in the heat haze, stretched to the horizon with wheat awaiting harvest, regiments of olive trees, golden fields of sunflowers, vineyards and pastures with contentedly grazing cattle.
Sometimes, at the top of a hillock, a few isolated white houses appeared, homes of the hardy folk who farm this agricultural terrain. Our destination was Monsaraz, one of Portugal’s most picturesque and ancient fortified hilltop towns, which has the Great Alqueva Lake as a conspicuous blue backdrop. The waters of the Guadiana River, held back by the Alqueva Dam that was completed in 2002, have created Europe’s biggest artificial lake, covering an area of 250 square kms.
Our hotel, the Horta da Moura, made the perfect base for exploring this historic region, and was situated in charming countryside just outside Monsaraz. Built in the traditional style of a ‘Quinta’, the attractive white buildings are framed and trimmed in the classic Alentejano blue and the paving is cobbled or slate.
The friendly staff members were extremely helpful and facilities included a superb swimming pool, horse riding and an excellent restaurant that served tasty local dishes. Scenic Monsaraz is situated close by, in an impressive location on a huge saddled lump of rock. Its walls, ramparts, castle and church towers can be seen for miles around.
The town itself, which happily is closed to tourist vehicles, evokes a genuine aura of the medieval period, with its narrow grey slate-paved streets, low white-washed terracotta houses and the tan-coloured castle keep.
Settled long before the Moors arrived in the eighth century, Monsaraz was captured by the Christians in 1167 and subsequently given to the Knights Templar. The castle was added in 1310 but the diminutive bullring tucked cozily inside the keep was clearly a later addition.
The town is small so a complete exploration only takes a few hours. The Igreja Matriz, with its Museum of Sacred Art, dominates the central square. However, we preferred the serenity of the nearby Igreja da Misericórdia, with its unusual display of hanging wax limbs tied up with ribbons, offered in hope of divine miracle cures!
High quality crafts and culinary products were available from the main street’s shops, and we discovered that the Xarez Bar Restaurante near the town’s north gate is the ideal venue for a light meal – its terrace has wonderful views over the countryside.
The Alentejo boasts many dolmens, menhirs, mysterious stone circles and towering fertility objects from thousands of years ago. One of these imposing monuments, the ‘Cromeleque do Xerez’, can be visited easily from Monsaraz, by driving through the village of Telheiro.
This megalithic monument consists of a circle of over 50 large stones in the centre of which is an impressive 4m high phallic menhir that weighs seven tonnes! It was moved here when the Alqueva Lake was created. The important pottery village of São Pedro do Corval lies a little further west, and its many outlets sell a superb array of colourful ceramics. We were very impressed by the quality, reasonable prices and range of pottery available – excellent for souvenirs.
Mourão, almost a twin to Monsaraz, has its own prominent castle, and can be reached by a short journey across the Alqueva Lake causeway. There were few tourists exploring the peaceful town, but it has a number of attractions, including unusual rounded chimneys on its rooftops, the old castle and a pretty botanic garden at its centre.
The town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, with its striking neogothic parish church, was once an important wool centre. There used to be as many as 60,000 merino sheep in the area and the whole town was geared up to wool production and weaving. This important industry has now largely died away, but classic mantas Alentejanas (blankets) can still be purchased locally.
In recent years, Reguengos has become one of the Alentejo’s most important wine producing centers. CARMIM (Cooperativa Agrícola de Reguengos de Monsaraz), Esporão and Ervideira all have vineyards and wineries nearby.
Our hotel made arrangements for us to visit the Ervideira winery, where after enjoying a comprehensive tour of the modern facilities, we sampled and then purchased some of their excellent red, white and rosé wines.
The Great Lake
The formation of the Alqueva Lake, which reached its planned depth in 2010, has opened up an enormous tourist potential in this remote region of Portugal. Various cruising and sailing opportunities are available and we elected to take a morning excursion on ‘Westlander’, a beautiful Dutch sailing barge built in 1913, which commenced at the Centro Náutico de Monsaraz.
This lovely vintage craft sailed majestically across the Alqueva’s calm waters and the crew had thoughtfully provided information about the lake and its plentiful bird life. A lively group of Spanish schoolteachers had driven across the border to join this excursion and were clearly enjoying their day in Portugal.
We stopped for a refreshing swim in the crystal clear water at a beautiful sandy beach on an island in the lake. After a second opportunity to swim, this time in the centre of the lake, tasty ‘aperitivos’ of cheese, bread, olives and chouriço were served along with some of the local wine.
As we were returning to the Centro Náutico, we asked the Spanish teachers just why they had made this trip from Mérida in the Spanish Extremadura to Monsaraz and the Great Lake. “We often come over here at the weekends” was the reply. “It’s easy to fall in love with the Alentejo!”
Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal nine years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.