My Alentejo Road Trip
WORDS Bob Tidy
As we drive along the very scenic N2 road northbound from Sáo Brás de Alportel, my travel partner reminds me that when she was a girl, this was the main road to Lisbon. With the continuous tight bends combined with never having enough space to overtake another car, this section of the journey takes a long time compared to zapping up today’s highway. However, taking the modern option would mean missing the real pleasures of such a road trip.
Eventually, having crossed the hilly region that backdrops the Algarve, we cross into the Alentejo. Crossing the river Tagus (Tejo) coming from the north, and going beyond (além) gives us the meaning of the region. Although this is the actual translation, for me “slow down” would be a much better one. This is a place to escape and forget about all those things that really can wait for another day. Soon the rolling plains of golden wheat fields, sunflowers, cork oak trees and fields of olive groves are about all there are to see. The slow-down spell starts to take effect.
Further north, we enter wine country. On one of the smaller country roads, we find ourselves in the middle of the seemingly endless olive plantations and vineyards. My travel partner comments that this could be the Tuscany of Portugal. I can’t disagree. If you are intent on getting somewhere by a certain time, you will miss the attraction of visiting both the small and also the famous name wineries or sampling the warm hospitality of the locals. However, we are heading somewhere, and it is starting to get hot.
Our destination is Reguengos de Monsaraz and whilst there are options on the route to take, the more interesting one is to head for the town of Moura, which is worth a visit in its own right, and then take the road up to Mourão, close to the Spanish border. This is a land of great historical significance with reminders of the Spanish, Roman and Moorish influences of the past. Along the way, you will see historical castles, bull rings and the herds of bulls that are raised for the sport they cater to (if you wish to call it that).
Food lovers will enjoy the rich flavoured cheeses, tender meats, full-bodied wines and of course the olives and their exquisite oils. There is no escaping the olives.
About halfway up this road, we cross over a section of the Albufeira do Alqueva, one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe, built on the river Guadiana. It has a reservoir of 250km². Along with a refreshing visual change from olive trees and vineyards, this huge expanse of water brings a new aspect of the region into play with water sports, canoeing, hiking and biking trails. There are small marinas to keep your boat or to rent a holiday houseboat. We can even go to the beach, but more of that delight later.
We are also in a region where the sky is considered by UNESCO to be a special location for stargazing. At night, public lighting is minimised to afford the perfect conditions to see the night sky, even for inexperienced astronomers, and there is a star gazing centre for that purpose.
From Mourão, we cross over a larger stretch of the water and the hillside village of Monsaraz comes into view. This is one of the oldest medieval villages in the country and because of that, it is also one of its most popular tourist destinations. We are here in June and practically have the place to ourselves. I could not help thinking of how the coach loads of visitors would really spoil the experience later in the year.
Yes, it is exactly as the guide books say, Monsaraz is simply charming with tradition by the bucket full. Being here is like travelling through time and enjoying history in the present. Whilst walking the ancient streets, I reflected on how we can become so blinded by such a romantic, nostalgic view of such places because as enticing as this museum village is today, it was not always like this. This was a battleground for both religion and military control with times of poverty, political corruption and a constant struggle for existence in an unforgiving landscape. The spectacular views from all sides tell us more about its historical relevance. Today, this is a wonderful viewpoint to look out across the absorbing landscapes, but back in the day, it was also the perfect place to look out for invading armies crossing the Spanish border and to build a fortified defensive castle. And where you find the castle, you find the church.
This partnership of fighting for territory and for the religious obedience of men go hand in hand. Having changed hands between the Muslims, the Moors, the Spanish and Portuguese over many such battles, Monsaraz was finally recovered in 1232 by King Sancho II, with the help and support of the Templars Order, (later Order of Christ), to whom he finally donated the village. Their marks still live among the castle walls, and there seems to be something of those forgotten days lingering in the stone that captures the imagination. Ignoring all of that, the peaceful, tranquil feeling we get contemplating the views at dusk from its ancient walls are well worth the effort to get here. This is indeed a special place to come and experience. Now let’s get down to the beach.
This was for me the biggest surprise of the trip and a very rewarding one. Driving down a country lane to the water’s edge, we arrive at a large car park area, surrounded by picnic tables under the shade of huge cork oak trees.
There is a covered snack bar, lifeguards, changing rooms and specially imported sand. In fact, everything you expect to find in a seaside beach resort, except it’s by a lake and completely surrounded by beautiful countryside (and not an olive tree in sight). The only disturbance is the sound of bird song. With no waves and shallow entry to the water, it’s great for smaller kids and clearly, this is a well-used family destination. This is one of four organised public beaches in the area, and I am sure that the locals will know of quieter off-track areas along the shoreline to be completely on your own.
Naturally, you will need to stay over to make the best of the trip and if you are still not convinced to pack a weekend bag, take your time, the Alentejo will still be there waiting for you with open arms, whenever you are ready.