About three hours drive from Monchique, in the north-east Alentejo, lies a cluster of villages and small towns. Passing through them is like perusing the wine shelves of Intermarché: Reguengos, Monsaraz, Redondo, Esporão, Borba… I like the idea of staying in a village that is a good wine and Monsaraz is scenically pitched high up on a hill surrounded by castle walls and a walled bull-ring at the top end. Out of curiosity I read what Saramago has to say about Monsaraz (the village, not the wine) when he wrote Journey to Portugal.
From the main square the traveller can contemplate discreet and pretty houses, some of them uninhabited, acquired by people with money who live a long way away; he can survey their façades rather than their interiors, then lapse into regret that, after all, Monsaraz amounts to little more than a façade. But perhaps the traveller does it an injustice: some must have grown up, body and soul, within these castle walls, these steep alleys, in the fresh or freezing shade of these uncomfortable houses.
Jose Saramago, Journey to Portugal, The Harvill Press, 2002 (first published in 1990), p399
It is twee, Saramago is right, but it certainly doesn’t feel uninhabited. Quite the opposite. It has a buzz. There are the usual shops selling tourist trinkets but there are some individual touches: a French couple own a café and confectionary shop selling local olive oils and organically grown teas, a Dutch woman runs a weaving factory that manufactures blankets, rugs and carpets and there is a heaving terraced bar looking down onto the Alentejo plains. And, despite the façade, there is a strong sense of history in the fortified village. The first time I was here I rode a horse up through the ancient road into the village. The clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves on the cobbles took me back centuries to what it must have been like for a traveller arriving into Monsaraz from the heat of the Alentejo.
This time, revving into another era – albeit only four years later – Paul, Sérgio and I sput loudly into the ancient village in buggies (or kart cross as they are known as here). Sacrilegious perhaps in all the tweeness, but great fun and much kinder on my knees. Our guide, Sérgio, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Portuguese who travelled the world only to return to Monsaraz as being the place he wanted to live, is welcomed by everyone, both locals and ‘incomers’ and no one seems to mind the sput-sput-sputting of the little cars – with the exception of a few frowns from the visiting coachloads of tourists. I resist the urge to wave and walk to a viewing spot to take in the vast watery panorama below me. The great lake stretches out like a thousand octopuses, its tentacles forming peninsulas as far as the eye can see.
This is the one very big difference between when Saramago visited and now: Alqueva. Not, as it is tempting to think, a terrorist group (although maybe to the inhabitants of those sunken villages it was) but the name of the biggest dam in Europe.
Its shores, Sérgio tells us, are longer than the entire coast of Portugal. And they are empty. Environmental laws in Portugal ensure that they remain pristine.
‘Even the cows aren’t allowed to craze there,’ he explains. He pauses. ‘But they are in Spain – the other side of the dam.’
‘Are there no boats or trip on the lake?’ I ask. ‘Or around it?’ I remember visiting Bewl Water in Kent and practically having to queue to cycle around it and then having to wait while 3000 joggers came the other way. The lake itself could have benefitted from traffic lights due to the number of canoes and boats. And, of course, nothing was free.
‘There’s not much but Tiago has a Dutch sailing boat and offers sunset boat trips down there on the lake,’ Sérgio says.
That’s a start, I think, but I can’t help worrying that Portugal is missing out. Then again I don’t know who controls what. Apparently, Beja airport doesn’t allow many tourists in which helps keep visitor numbers down.
After a coffee and a pastel de nata we fly down and out of the village and circumnavigate the hill of Monsaraz on ancient tracks. The carts scurry across the land like beetles, hardly noticing the ruts and stones, kicking up dust storms behind them. They will cross anything, climb anything. They will do almost everything that a horse will – and much quicker. But it is not a race. We pass through an olive grove. Here we see olive trees of several hundred years old and one old tree of more than a thousand years old. We stop at a menhir, a large phallic stone, one of the biggest in the Iberian peninsula and a stone circle (or square in this case) that constitute the ‘Cromeleque do Xerez’, saved from the terrorists before the flooding of the land and relocated closer to the Monsaraz skies.
‘At night many people come here to watch the dark skies,’ our guide explains.
Where earth and sky meet, I think.
An old convent, Convento da Orada, restored and abandoned when funds ran out in 2007 is now turning to ruin. The same with an old templar church.
‘It is our patrimony,’ Sérgio says, a sense of frustration entering his voice.
But then we visit Herdade do Barrocal, a huge abandoned farm/manor house. We talk to the caretaker and, as it turns out, local ‘endireita’ or healer. He tells us that a partnership between the present day owner of the Herdade and a group called Aguapura, and a total investment of 90 million euro plans to turn the Herdade into a 5-star hotel with 70 rooms and another 85 habitation units or suites/small apartments. In two years. I can’t quite see it finished in two years but, when finished, it will be a spectacular place to stay or visit. He also offers to fix my knees. I wasn’t sure if we’d have time but maybe when I come back, I say, thanking him and climbing guiltily back into the kart cross.
That night we eat in a restaurant Sem Fim, a converted ‘lagar’, or olive oil factory, its presses still visible. It is one of the best restaurants I have eaten in ever and certainly in Portugal (although I have only dined out three times this year so I’m probably not the best judge). I have a vegetarian dish of spinach and fresh cheese and we drink a bottle of Monsaraz Millennium on the terrace near to the dark sky.
The traveller, Saramago, did do Monsaraz an injustice but it was a different place then. Interestingly, the title of the chapter in which Saramago writes about Monsaraz is called the ‘The Night the World Began’ and there is a sense of a new world having begun around Monsaraz with the creation of the dam and a whole new micro eco system. I wonder what Saramago wrote about Monchique. I must go and look it up.
Restaurant Sem Fim http://www.sem-fim.com/
Monte Alerta (Turismo Rural and Kart Cross) http://www.montealerta.pt/