A Night in Monsaraz, Alentejo, June 2014

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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Restaurant Sem Fim http://www.sem-fim.com/

Herdade do Barrocal http://www.cm-reguengos-monsaraz.pt/pt/conteudos/noticias/notas%20de%20imprensa/2007-10-12%20-%20Herdade%20do%20Barrocal%20apresenta%20projecto%20turistico.htm

Monte Alerta (Turismo Rural and Kart Cross) http://www.montealerta.pt/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writers in the Algarve, Monchique, May 2013

writers1 I thought I knew most of the writers in the Algarve. I once scoured both the mountains and the beaches for writers who would be prepared to write a short story for the anthology, Summer Times in the Algarve, and finally excavated eighteen – writers tend to be well hidden. Very well hidden in fact.  At the Algarve writers’ lunch and general get-together at Parque das Minas organised by Nuno Campos Inácio from Arandis Editora, out of the thirty odd writers present, I knew no one – other than my German friend, fellow writer and cultural entrepreneur to the Algarve, Catrin George, and Uwe Heitkampf, editor of the new Eco 123.

Language is partly to blame. This was a Portuguese affair and I was the only English person there. I speak the language almost fluently and yet still that barrier is there. Language is another country.

The idea of the meeting was to get all the writers together, show off our wares, moan about the state of publishing and have (in true Portuguese style) a big lunch. I’m not big on lunches and certainly not big lunches as I’m a vegetarian and the Algarve – particularly Monchique – doesn’t do vegetarian. Other than omelettes and salads, the only other vaguely vegetarian food is migas. Migas is a type of bread crumbs, which sounds vegetarian except it is usually cooked in ‘banha’ – pork fat. I ate it once in the Alentejo, thinking it was vegetarian and I was sick for the next twenty-four hours. But an omelette a week is fine and Catrin and I wanted to be social and meet all the other writers. So after a couple of minutes of showing off books, moaning about the fact that Amazon has no amazon.pt and ebooks are almost unheard of (a Portuguese moan) and the difficulties of distribution and general dishonesty amongst certain English book sellers who have packed up, pleaded bankruptcy and not paid for books sold (my moan) and an hour’s tour around Parque da Mina (an old private and house that used to belong to a wealthy Monchique family), we were bused up to the restaurant Luar de Fóia, one of the many restaurants on the road up the mountain to Fóia (the highest point in the Algarve) and seated at the three long tables reserved for us. The three male writers to the left were not interested in talking so I began a conversation with a delightful woman called Fatima Peres, a presenter for Radio Fóia, who is described as ‘the highest voice in the south of Portugal’ Rádio Fóia (97.1 FM). Opposite her was the founder of Radio Fóia, Antonia Ventura, who also had an electrical shop in Monchique. It turns out that Fatima is almost a vegetarian and began telling me how to make the most delicious smoothies – using celery, ginger… A waiter interrupted to tell me that there would be a vegetarian lunch for me. Excited, I asked what it would be.  ‘Vegetable migas,’ the waiter said, but assured me it would be cooked in olive oil and not ‘banha’.

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Meanwhile, Fatima was still rolling out the vegetarian recipes with a passion for vegetarian food that I could only dream of. She began talking about soya milk smoothies and, at that, Antonio protested that soya could not be milk and drew a little design on a napkin that read – animal – milk, plant – vegetable. The male writers on the left were becoming more animated after guzzling the carafes of red wine. Antonio was making a joke about how if God had found the perfect woman he would only have created one (not sure where that came from). And so, the lunch went on and on. Needless to say by the time we got back on the bus I began to feel queasy and so I missed the President of Monchique’s speech and failed miserably to meet any of the writers. But I had met some enchanting people from Radio Fóia, and learned a lot about vegetarian food and I now know that there are many more writers in the Algarve – see Arandis Editora