Driving Buzz across country off the beaten track is always more pleasant than battling our way along the main roads so we took the shorter but in time terms longer route out across the beautiful rolling countryside of Alentejo to our next destination. We particularly love the cork and olive groves, the little villages with their old men sat outside in small groups who look at you with a curious smile as you drive past. We also love looking at the storks so common here, stood up tall and proud, high in their giant nests more often than not also home to several noisy squabbling sparrows. We’d read about Monsaraz, nicknamed Eagles’ Nest, the tiny hilltop town set way up high above Europe’s largest reservoir but nothing could prepare us for how much we would love it. The approach for the motorhome parking was a steep cobbled road with a sharp, tight turn opening out onto a large area with magical views across the wide expanse of water and the islands of land peeping out here and there within it. Parking up we sat and admired the view. Beneath us the alluring blue lake, above us the yet to be visited town and all around us fragrant pink blossoming almond trees. As far as we were concerned you couldn’t get a much better parking place. And free too! From where we were parked we could see right across to Spain as well the little town of Mourao across the lake with it’s own castle perched up on a hill.
It was about 5pm when we arrived and as we sat in the van preparing to get straight out and explore another motorhome arrived. Unfortunately he didn’t have as much luck with his entrance as us though and missing the ‘autocaravanas’ signpost, came up the road intended for cars instead, making his way slowly up the steeper, narrower and more uneven roadway, scraping his undercarraige as he went! He seemed to think it was all ok though and couldn’t see any damage, so hopefully he was right. We also had a chat with a couple Brits already settled in who pointed out that we probably should have topped up our depleted beer stock before arriving here, as there isn’t anywhere to buy provisions! As it was quite late in the day we saved a proper walk around for the next day and just went for a drink in a small bar (beer problem solved!), tempted in by the tables on the terrace overlooking the Alentejan plains. The sun went down while we sipped our drinks and we relaxed in the warmth looking forward to discovering what else the town had to offer the next day.
In the morning we climbed the steps up to the town and resumed our exploration, taking time as it was so small. Although there are only two main streets there seemed to be a veritable warren of narrow passageways, little archways and alleways, tiny twittenings and unexpected steps to views and vantage points. Impossibly miniature restaurants with just 3 tables, a handful of craft shops, a church and a museum were dotted here and there but at no point did it feel remotely ‘touristy’. We adored this little place, the jumble of streets making every twist and turn interesting and unexpected.
Right on the Southern tip of the town we came across the castle and enjoyed a walk around the walls which offers up even more spectacular views. We climbed the Torre das Feiticeiras (Witches’ Tower) which looms upwards and looking down into the interior of the castle you can see the area they used to use for bullfights.
Earlier in the day we’d popped into a small family run wine shop, Ervideira. In the shop they told us that one of their wines, the ‘water wine’ is matured under the lake where they currently have a stash of 20,000 bottles! They’d invited us along later for a wine tasting on their rooftop terrace with the added lure of a cheese and cured meat platter accompaniement. As we were getting low on food in the van we thought it sounded very appealing so decided to go along and were very glad we did. 8 wines (4 white, 4 red) plus a liqueur were generously poured for us all to try with top ups along the way too and some interesting but easy to take in information about the wines. Ervideira have produced some outstanding world award winning wines which were among the tasters which is incredible for a small family business. Our favourite (some of which we took ‘home’ with us) was their Invisivel wine, so called because although it is made with red grapes the skin is not used and the result is an almost colourless, invisible wine but with a delectable flavour and finish. Very easy drinking – maybe too easy! Wine, laughter and conversation flowed and a deliciously fun time was had by all.
We’d shared our table with a friendly Portugese/Russian couple from Lisbon, Rui and Olga, who invited us to join them for dinner afterwards. To be honest we didn’t really need any more food, having hoovered up almost a whole plate of cheese, meats, crackers and tomato jam but we were enjoying their company, and all got on very well so said yes. They took us to a cosy restaurant tucked away behind an unassuming doorway, somewhere they’d eaten before, and we feasted on tasty, traditional Portugese fayre. The portions are always huge so advised by Rui, we shared 3 mains which was plenty. Rui was really passionate about his country, enthusing about so many wonderful places we could visit in Portugal that eventually he had to write them all down scrawled on the back of a napkin so we wouldn’t forget. Pudding followed, then two generous glasses of grappa, and a few cups of coffee. We were just about fit to burst as we made our way back to Buzz to collapse into bed!
When we got up in the morning we were reluctant to leave. It’s such a cosy, charismatic little place and we could have gazed at the views for hours. We sat out on the wall having coffee chatting to a French lady, walking her Italian dog, while her English husband waited back in their vintage Laika motorhome. They love it here so much they’ve been coming for 20 years and even spent one Christmas here which she said was beautiful, with lights and decorations all over the town.
Eventually we set off across the bridge over the water towards the little town of Mourao and a short visit to its old castle. It didn’t take long but the castle had a bit of character with good access to some of its crumbling towers, interesting ruins, nooks and crannies with a pleasant walk along some of the perimeter walls, looking down into the centre covered with lush green grass, yellow flowers and an enormous almond tree. We have to admit at this point that we were intending to visit Moura (not Mourao), which is actually about 50km South! There’s also a Marvao further North – all very confusing! Realising our mistake we chose to carry on and visit anyway as it was so close by and it was definitely worth an hour of our time.
The Alqueva dam was next in our sights, just a short drive South. Controlling the waters of the Guadiana river and its many tributaries it holds in place the waters of the huge 250 square meter lake we were looking down on at Monsaraz. It’s a massive structure with the calm lake waters one side and a sheer drop and river on the other. It also has a very controversial history. On one hand the hydro-electric power produced provides anough electricity for both the Evora and Beja districts, jobs have been created, irrigation provided and leisure facilities built. On the other hand it caused distruction on a massive scale. A million oak and cork trees were destroyed, 200 prehistoric sites submerged and wildlife habitats destroyed. Not only that but a whole village was swallowed up and although it was rebuilt and the residents rehoused it was never liked and has resulted in a soulless town without any of its original character or history. It’s hard to know how to feel about it. Do the good points outweigh the bad or the bad outweigh the good?
There’s a small ‘marina’ just past the dam which is basically just a leisure area where you can picnic, sit, fish and take boats out on the lake. It was very quite with a couple of families just leaving when we got there and a couple of motorhomes seemingly parked up for the night. It was a lovely spot to spend the evening and we sat peacefully reflecting on our thoughts while we watched the sun go down and reflecting on the water.