Slow Down in Alentejo — Portugal’s Most Relaxing Region | Travel
SSpring wildflowers are out in the Alentejo: bouquets of daisies, scattered poppies, exotic opportunists like Hottentot figs or Paterson’s Curse. They are all the more beautiful because they are so ephemeral – the first heat of summer exhausts them.
In the village of Monsaraz, clumps of flowers grow on the walls and terraces, though I miss them at first because I’m so distracted by the sight – “magnificent” doesn’t begin to do it justice. The whitewashed medieval village sits on a ridge 500 feet above the Guadiana River, offering 360 degree views of the vast plain it overlooks. The fields are still green and lush – summer will turn them to gold too – and the sounds of bleating and cowbells drift in the breeze.
On the river side of the village is the largest artificial lake in Western Europe, created by the Alqueva dam, with Spain on the opposite bank. The rolling terrain means the lake is all twists and turns, dotted with tiny islands of hills – it looks like a child’s ‘Here be dragons’ map, with added reflections and mist. It’s fascinating.
A cobbled street in Monsaraz
Monsaraz is just over a two-hour drive east of Lisbon — day-trip territory, but I came for a post-city-break stay, a bit of tranquility after the hustle and bustle of the city. capital (the cruise ships are back, and so are the crowds). But first a pit stop: Evora, the capital of the Alentejo region and a Unesco World Heritage Center, is halfway through my journey.
I park near Praça do Giraldo—the city’s main square, where pigeons bathe in the baroque fountain and sidewalk cafes trade—and walk down to the Roman ruins. The 1st-century temple stands in a pretty square of whitewashed houses, next to the town’s 14th-century cathedral. I enjoy the latter’s cloister and puff up to the roof for the view, then enter the Chapel of Bones in St. Francis Church. The two mummified specimens here – with tough skin peeling off like pieces of old papyrus – almost put me off my excellent lunch of Alentajano pork with red wine at Origens on Rua de Burgos.
It’s late afternoon when I arrive at Dom Nuno, a guest house located on the main street of Monsaraz. It’s a pleasant hour to arrive – the day trippers are gone and, as I walk up the cobblestones with my bag slung over my shoulder, I’m the only foreigner for the old Portuguese sitting outside the church to measure. Above your head, a thousand chirping swallows prepare for the evening insect bonanza.
Breakfast at Dom Nuno, Monsaraz
Occupying what was once the village pharmacy, Dom Nuno is a simple place, with lots of wrought iron and white walls. But what really gives it the X factor is what I can see from my bedroom window: at the highest point in the village, my bedroom faces west, giving me a front row seat to sunset. I can see for miles – it’s a £55 room with a £550 view.
Although Monsaraz is just seven acres in size, it is home to a 13th-century castle, the 16th-century House of the Inquisition (used to persecute those who secretly practiced Judaism), a museum of frescoes and a gallery of local art among the sprinkling of shops and restaurants: Créations Francis et Toula is a rainbow-colored clothing, homeware and trinkets store named after its owners (Toula is a Canadian who came to the village 30 years ago with her French director husband); at the excellent and very photogenic Casa Tial delicatessen, I pick up cans of tuna with retro packaging and a bottle of local Black Pig gin; for dinner I choose Taverna Os Templarios, which has stunning lake views, the most tender roast lamb and attentive service (mains from £12).
A few years ago a competition to crown the ‘seven wonders of Portugal’ honored Monsaraz’s iconic buildings, then similar polls evolved covering food, nature, popular culture and villages, in which it was voted one of the top seven in the country. it’s true.
Looking from my balcony at Dom Nuno, I can make out a rural estate a few kilometers away. Sao Lourenço do Barrocal – a farmhouse that has undergone a painstaking 14-year renovation, with a Farrow & Ball palette, enormous beds, inviting leather armchairs, two swimming pools, a spa and acres of space – is the most luxurious hotel around, a place of cocooning and relaxation. I arrive for a fabulous lunch at the main restaurant: scrambled egg with asparagus, spiced up with a smoked kick with Farinheira (a local flour-based sausage), followed by a empada (pie) made with carrot, zucchini, eggplant and tomato from the vegetable garden.
Later, I check in to Montimerso Skyscape Country House, a new build that opened last summer right by the lake, with four suites and 11 other huge rooms – they’re minimalist, with white linens, marble floors poured concrete and floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s laid-back and blissfully quiet, thanks in part to the pool and 136 acres of land being regenerated.
The hotel’s name derives from its position within the 1,160 square mile Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve, which bills itself as “the world’s premier star-studded tourist destination.” Local communities limit ambient light after dark, and an average of 286 cloudless nights a year means the firmament does indeed sparkle above Monsaraz – which is why I booked a session. star gazing at the nearby observatory.
In an old school in the village of Cumeada, a team of astronomers has installed a complex with weak red lighting, which does not interfere with night vision, and two telescopes. Joining my English session are a mother and son who traveled from southern Portugal. Our guide, Nuno, sparkles with enthusiasm as he starts with the basics – Polaris, Ursa Major, Gemini – before training our telescopes on the Eskimo Nebula, Sombrero Galaxy and Virgo.
One Bedroom at Montimerso Skyscape Country House
No planets tonight, but we do get M13, a cluster of hundreds of thousands of stars in Hercules. At first it looks like an indeterminate smudge through the eyepiece, but pits of light emerge below my gaze. It is, Nuno tells us, squeaking with excitement, about 23,000 light-years away. What a final.
Amanda Linfoot traveled independently. Double B&B in Dom Nuno from £50 (dnunoth.com), at Montimerso Skyscape Country House from £170 (montimerso.pt) and in Sao Lourenço do Barrocal from £340 (mains from £15; barrocal.pt). Stargazing sessions at Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve from £21 (darkskyalqueva.com)