Most Brits head to the Algarve when they go on holiday to Portugal, but it's safe to say they're missing a trick. The relatively unkown area of Alentejo is wildly beautiful, relatively tourist-free, and provides a wonderful alternative to the well-travelled coastline Brits know so well.
First things first: this region is vast. This off the beaten track area covers one third of Portugal but has a population of just 700,000 (ie, just seven per cent of the population). The emptiness becomes increasingly noticeable as we drive further away from Lisbon and approach our destination, Amieira Marina on Lake Alqueva. By the time we arrive, there's hardly a soul around, and this solace continues throughout our stay (we didn't encounter a single diner in either of the restaurants where we enjoyed our evening meals).
It matters not, though. In fact, that's why we're here, a hardy bunch of journalists bought to discover the region and spread the word of all the area has to offer. Alqueva is Europe's largest manmade lake, covering 250 square kilometres (most of it in Portugal but some of it in Spain too) and as soon as we arrive we begin to discover all sorts of things about the region's fascinating history. This area was only dammed in 2002: until then this was one of Europe's most arid, drought-ridden areas. The dam, which reached its current water levels in 2010, was built to provide irrigation and boost local industry and tourism.
And it's this watery haven that will provide our accommodation during our stay: a houseboat on the lake. After the obligatory training and sailing lessons, we're keen to set out into the large expanse of water. The boats have a maximum speed of 10mph (probably to prevent the tourists from pretending to be James Bond in a speedboat – shame!) and the fastest never feels like more than a mooch. The lake suddenly feels even bigger as we travel from place to place at a sedate pace.
Fascinating stops abound. First there's the rebuilt village of Luz, which is an eye-opener. The building of the dam meant that the original village had to be submerged and its inhabitants relocated to a new village, complete with a reconstructed church and cemetery. The museum here is fascinating and includes a room showing footage of the villagers before and after their home was sent to its watery grave: the final goodbye to the old cemetery is moving beyond belief. Windmills and even a castle are now submerged in the lake's depths: it could be a scuba diver's dream if someone wanted to develop it.
In the afternoon we drift off to the medieval hilltop village of Monsaraz which has amazing 360 views over the whole region. Walking around the old castle remains, we're lucky enough to be treated to a spectacular rainbow in the distance, and take many stunning panoramic photos.
Nightfall brings fresh excitement for us all. Alqueva is a stargazer's dream: it was the first site in the world to receive the Starlight Tourism Destination awarded by the Starlight Foundation, supported by UNESCO. In other words, it is one of the rare places in Europe where light pollution is still minimal, and it has cloudless nights for more than half the year. The hotels in the area have been lent high-tech telescopes and I am astounded to be able to see the rings of Saturn as I gaze through one of them.
Our trip isn't complete without a visit to Evora, the state capital, a UNESCO Heritage-classed town that is a great mix of Roman ruins, medieval walls, crumbling megalithic structures and 17th century palaces. Here you'll find lots of shops - it's the most touristy part of the region. Many of the items on sale are made of cork, which is grown a great deal in the region. You'll find cork bags, mats, wallets, hats and clothing... we even spot a cork wedding dress!
This town is also home one of the strangest places I have ever been: a creepy chapel made out of human bones called Capela dos Ossos, created in the 17th century by Franciscan monks. As the town expanded beyond its medieval walls the graveyards outside them were dug up so they could be built upon. Rather than letting all the bones go to waste the monks used them to cover the walls and pillars of the church to remind anyone entering that life is but a fleeting thing.
As we head home to the airport I think about who I'd recommend Alentejo to. It's certainly for those who like a bit of peace and quiet and who are keen to visit a relatively little-known part of Europe, ripe for discovery. The sedate lifestyle, fascinating history, beautiful landscape, starlit skies and laidback people make it a place to remember, and brings a lovely change from the usual hustle and bustle of Europe's more touristy destinations.
Price from £887 per person, based on 2 sharing. Includes return flights with TAP Portugal from London Heathrow to Lisbon, car rental, 3 nights on a houseboat (self-catering) and 1 night at Hotel M Ar De Ar Muralhas, Évora (bed and breakfast). For more info contact Sunvil Discovery.
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