Charming trip back in time over the cobbles

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

Step back in time with a visit to the Portuguese hilltop town on Monsaraz.

As we walk up the hill from the carpark to the village gates of Monsaraz, in Portugal’s Alentejo region, the bell in the clock tower emits a loud clang. “We are on time!” cries Maria Jose, our local guide. 

We might just as easily be going back in time, though. Cobbled streets — much too narrow for a car — are lined with neat white buildings, the curved edges of their terracotta roof tiles set against the grey clouds. Iron balustrades, tiny windows with lace curtains, and splashes of greenery spilling over stone walls dusted with lichen. But for the occasional satellite dish, glimpsed on a rooftop, it might as well be the 1700s. 

Occupied since the prehistoric period, Monsaraz was once an important part of the defences stretching along the Portuguese border with Spain, the fortified village perched high overlooking the countryside. The capacity of the terraced carparks outside the town walls — where we left our coach — suggest this is a popular spot with tourists, but on this overcast day in late November, we seem to have the place pretty much to ourselves.

Meandering through the village, I peek into the dark interior of the main church, set behind a pair of velvet curtains so faded that I can only assume they were once red. But, like the rest of our group, I’m drawn inexorably to the structure at the far end of the village, a castle which Maria Jose says dates in its current form from the 13th century.

Today, the castle is a well- preserved ruin, but it’s evocative nonetheless as we walk along its thick, castellated ramparts. The space enclosed by these walls has been converted into a small bullring — apparently fights are held here a few times a year — but the real interest lies in looking outwards. The views over the neat fields of green and brown, interspersed by olive groves and the white and orange clusters of towns, are spectacular. 

Looking in another direction, I spot the neat little village cemetery, perched on the side of the hill. Beyond this is the silvery sweep of Alqueva Lake, our next destination for the morning. 

A short coach drive into the valley takes us to the shores of the lake, where we’re met by Tiago Kalisvaart, waiting to help us aboard his boat for a sailing trip. He’s evidently a master of multitasking — not only is he our captain for today, he also owns the boat, and is the proprietor and chef of the restaurant where we’ll eat lunch later on. 

Tiago’s boat, the Westlander, is a wooden sailing barge, built in the Netherlands in 1913. A Dutch barge on a  Portuguese lake might sound incongruous, but Tiago is of Dutch descent and says this craft, with a draft of only 50cm, is ideal for navigating the shallows. He offers expeditions around the whole of the 250sqkm lake, including its approximately 240 islands — the number varies depending on the water level.

The lake is in fact artificial, and was created only relatively recently by damming the River Guadiana, although Tiago tells us that the origins of the project date to the 1950s. It was a massive undertaking: an entire village had to be relocated and rebuilt outside the dam’s flood zone, and the remains of some homes and other buildings remain below the surface of the water.

It’s a thought that might feel a little spooky were we not having such a thoroughly pleasant time. The morning’s clouds have cleared a little, and Tiago is busy preparing a modest feast of locally baked bread, jamon (cured ham), cheese, pork rinds and olives, with Portuguese Super Bock beer and local wine. 

Pork, bread and olive oil are sometimes referred to as the holy trinity of Alentejo cuisine, and they’re all on show a couple of hours later as we sit down to lunch at Tiago’s restaurant, Sem Fim (Portuguese for “without end”), in a nearby village. Despite having comprehensively stuffed ourselves on the boat, lunch turns out to be a meal of epic proportions: generous plates of jamon, cheese, olives, bread and olive oil, followed by cod with potatoes and pomegranate salad, then a spread of black pork and salads, all accompanied by lots of local wine. 

After the dessert platters come around, piled with orange poppy seed cake, chocolate mousse and more, it’s all we can do to stumble after Tiago as he leads us on a brief tour of the building. A former olive oil factory, it now incorporates an art gallery with works by his father Gil, a sculptor and painter, alongside eclectic installations by Tiago’s wife, Gloria, who has adorned the old olive presses with flowers and other decorations. 

Needless to say, more than a few of us nod off on the return coach trip to our hotel, in the nearby town of Evora. And as I doze, the landscape flicking past the window, I fancy I can hear the sounds of the Alentejo countryside: the creak of an old wooden boat, and the far-off clang of an ancient clock tower. 

Fact File


Gemma Nisbet was as a guest of Insight Vacations.


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