‘On a clear day you can see forever’, reads the 200ft-long metal sculpture on the fringe of the Alqueva Dam. It’s certainly a transparent day, and the views stretch… not eternally, however definitely far, teasing the sides of one among Western Europe’s largest synthetic lakes.
Alqueva’s hilly panorama is roofed in summer-browned grass and dotted with cork and olive timber. In contrast to Lake Geneva or Garda, there’s no roundness to the Nice Lake’s shoreline — it jabs forwards and backwards like a boxer, reaching spherical to the left, slithering off to the best, and wriggling out of view, with out seeming to complete. Perhaps that’s what the sculpture means by ‘forever’.
From the correct comes the mild sound of bells: butterscotch cows and lean sheep, collars clunking discordant tunes as they graze beneath the olive timber. And to the left are an uncountable variety of white birds: gulls, terns, I’m unsure; they mix right into a morass. They perch on the sting of this monumental — and monumentally controversial — dam.
Alqueva is the guts of Alentejo, which is itself the guts of Portugal: a 3rd of the nation however the entire of its rural bloodstream. Solely a few hours from Lisbon, this looks like wilderness — an unbroken panorama of cork fields, typically savannah-flat, typically with hills as completely rounded as these in Tellytubbyland.
It’s a land of extremes: scorching in summer time and chilly in winter, and it’s dry — very dry. Which is why, in 2002, the authorities dammed up the Guadiana River and created this 97sq-mile reservoir. Villages have been flooded and farms repossessed; locals staged mournful protests. Even those that weren’t displaced have been livid. “I remember the landscape as it was,” Iago, my waiter had advised me the night time earlier than, eyes flashing. “It was much, much more beautiful.”
Many individuals who’ve been to Alentejo say it’s like going again in time. It’s, in a approach; this can be a land of sleepy hilltowns, whitewashed villages, a rhythm of life that was settled pre-air conditioning, and a soundtrack that flits between cowbells and wine corks being popped. However that’s oversimplifying it. To go to Alentejo is to peel away the layers of time like an onion. Each civilisation that’s handed by means of right here left its mark, whereas preserving the previous cultures as an alternative of erasing them. In a day, you possibly can go from a prehistoric stone circle to a Roman winery, from a Moorish citadel to a renaissance city or hi-tech, trendy dam. Wherever you’re, the remainder of it comes too.
Twenty of us have piled into a ship to discover this synthetic lake, passing islands that when have been hills, wild thickets of olives that have been as soon as cultivated groves. Skipper Humberto pauses by a buoy within the shadow of the gargantuan dam. It’s one in every of 80, he says, positioned at one-kilometre intervals, marking the Guadiana River’s pre-dam contours.
Upstream, beneath buoy 21, lie the stays of Luz, one in every of a number of villages to have met a watery finish. In contrast to the others, nevertheless, Luz was resurrected — similar cobbled road plan, similar church, similar neighbours — on the
On this Alentejan Atlantis there are additionally prehistoric stays: stone circles and menhirs, thrusting up from the depths. We see fish, we see turtles, we see storks, we see crayfish that Humberto hoiks up from the muddy depths. I’m unnerved by this water. After which he says: “Would anyone like to go for a swim?”
Solely three of us dare. Humberto solemnly straps us into lifejackets. It’s comparatively shallow right here — a mere 558ft — he reassures me. I bounce, really feel for floor that isn’t there, then float. I watch an eagle soar overhead as the present tugs at my ft. I’m wondering what’s under. And I feel I get it: Alentejo, the degrees of its historical past, the layers of its land.
“The first time we came here, we had the feeling of being on an island,” says Alexandre Ruhlmann, in Monsaraz. “It’s a strange atmosphere. There’s no middle ground here; it’s a place of extremes.” On cue, the solar units by way of his store window, a fireball dropping like a stone behind the horizon.
Alexandre and associate Thierry personal Casa Tial, a ‘slow food’ store in Monsaraz, a medieval walled citadel perched on a mountainous outcrop. Its streets are pedestrianised; its whitewashed buildings strung with hanging baskets; its alleys a collection of selfie spots. The countless views from the town ramparts span farmland, villages and Alqueva’s northern reaches.
It’s been prettified, positive, however it’s nonetheless fiercely native. Alexandre and Thierry’s is the closest to a memento store, however their ‘souvenirs’ — all drawn from the encompassing land — embrace every part from rosemary-flavoured biscuits to biodynamic olive oil from 800-year-old timber.
“They live by the seasons here,” Alexandre says. “They know everything about the sky, the plants, the way things grow. When I’m weeding the garden, people say, ‘What are you doing? You can eat that!’” Trendy Alentejo holds on to its previous.
The subsequent day, I spool additional again, to renaissance Alentejo — the ‘marble towns’ of Vila Viçosa, Borba and Estremoz, so referred to as as a result of they sit on a wealthy seam of flushed pink stone. Estremoz is capped by a 14th-century pink-marble tower. It’s now a part of a complicated lodge; the employees wave me by means of to climb the 120 worn steps — flamingo-pink right here, creamy there, a light-weight gray over there — previous antechambers, balustrades, arrow slits and a pigeon squatting on two eggs, to the highest. Between pink battlements, I spy what appear to be snowy hillocks: the marble quarries.
Subsequent up, dinky Borba feels understated, till I discover each pavement, door and window body is marble. I’ve a espresso on the primary road; tables occupied by raucous, aged males in checked shirts and sleeveless jumpers; a decades-old Toyota parked beside me; a widow in black feeding stray cats beneath a tree.
I style wine on the Adega de Borba cooperative vineyard, which turns native smallholdings’ harvests into 300 varieties of wine, starting from £1.50 bottles to prizewinning blends for round £20. There’s no fancy speak of bouquet or mouth really feel (it’s clear wine isn’t a scene in Alentejo, simply a part of life). “The best wine is the one in your hand,” Filipe Teixeira Pinto, the chief winemaker at Herdade do Sobroso — a, laid-back agrotourism close to Alqueva — tells me.
Borba is three miles from Vila Viçosa — the street between them skirting quarries: a gaping chasm to the proper, diggers gnawing at brilliant white hillside to the left. Subsequent to the street lie heaps of marble: boulders hewn from the land; neater, pink blocks and precut symmetrical slabs, polished to a shine.
In Vila Viçosa I scoot down a hill and slam on the brakes, awestruck by the primary sq.. The Home of Braganza (Portugal’s ruling dynasty from 1640-1910) hailed from right here, residing within the huge Ducal Palace. It sits in a sq. made completely of marble — proper right down to the lampposts. The palace tour showcases the type of mirrored, gilded and chandelier-slung grandeur you see in capital cities, not villages in the midst of nowhere.
I’m quickly stripping off one other layer of historical past — delving into Alentejo’s Moorish heritage at Castelo de Vide — a hillside village of medina-like alleys. However even right here there’s one other degree — I head into an historic former synagogue that’s now a museum, telling the historical past of the Jews who sought refuge right here in 1492, having been expelled from Spain.
At Montemor-o-Novo (‘Montemor-the-New’), a village en path to Lisbon, I wander among the many wildflower-scattered ruins of the previous city, felled by an earthquake within the 17th century. Its shattered partitions and sagging towers loom over the brand new city like one thing out of a gothic novel.
At Marvão, on the Spanish border, there’s one other fort — though I miss it at first look. Right here within the hinterlands, the peaks are larger and extra jagged — and this, the final fortress earlier than Spain, is sculpted into the rock itself. It appears just like the citadel is teething: boulders erupt by way of cobbles within the slender streets and the citadel slots between peaks, its partitions smoothing over pre-existing outcrops, wild jasmine scenting the air. It’s so excessive up right here that the wind whistles by means of my earrings, and birds of prey swoop under the ramparts. You possibly can see for miles — nevertheless it’s so completely welded to the mountain, that on the market, the birds can’t see you.
“We have Roman ruins on our land,” shrugs Carrie Jorgensen at her winery in Vidigueira. “Everyone does. We use a millstone as our table in the backyard.” Her nonchalance is comprehensible; individuals right here have lengthy embraced their 2,000-year heritage. These vine-braided hills under Alqueva, alongside the Guadiana River, produced a lot of the wine for historic Rome. When the empire fell, locals stored the custom alive by making wine in terracotta amphorae. Carrie and Hamilton Reis, her winemaker, have been intrigued by this.
Hamilton had moved right here from Porto to work at Cortes de Cima, Carrie’s winery, and he quickly observed his neighbours have been making wine in clay jars. It was how they’d all the time finished it in Alentejo, they stated. He was fascinated — however shocked by how briskly it corked. “It was good at the beginning, but then it would go splat,” he says. “So I started thinking how to use technology to preserve the tradition.”
Now they age one wine in shoulder-height amphorae thrown by hand within the village. We style it, together with their signature bottle: the identical mix of Petit Verdot, Aragonêz, Syrah and Touriga Nacional grapes, however aged in chrome steel tanks. The distinction is palpable — the clay one smells like a facemask however tastes sweeter and a bit extra minerally. It’s virtually a meal in itself. “I’d have the standard with lunch and the clay over a book,” says Carrie. Clay isn’t value efficient, however this isn’t for revenue, says Hamilton; it’s to maintain the two,000-year-old custom arcing ahead.
They’re not alone. Above Estremoz, Torre de Palma Wine Lodge produces wine and oil and retains Lusitano horses precisely because the house owners of the now-ruined Roman villa it sits beside used to do. Right here within the north, time rolls again additional nonetheless. The panorama is strewn with menhirs, dolmens and stone circles. They’re the type of factor you see in Cornwall or Brittany, solely on an enormous scale — each 5 minutes there’s an indication to an anta (dolmen burial chamber), and it takes days of diverting down dust tracks and scraping the rent automotive throughout lunar landscapes earlier than I settle for I gained’t see all of them.
They vary from 5,000-Eight,000 years previous, and though there’s one thing soulful about people who present their age — a dolmen crumpling in on itself, a menhir mottled by lichen, from many years within the floor — it’s the best-preserved ones that take my breath away.
The Cromeleque dos Almendres is a stone circle close to Montemor-o-Novo: 90 bulbous stones spiralling outwards on a hillside above the regional capital, Évora. The Menhir da Belhoa, close to Monsaraz, has a concrete base however a prime half incised with mysterious squiggles, someplace between sunrays and octopi. Better of all is the Anta do Tapadão, on the best way to Marvão. Like a lot of the ruins, it’s on (accessible) personal land. To succeed in it, I’ve to unbolt a gate, drive on an unmarked monitor by means of a herd of cattle, previous a cork-fringed watering gap and as much as a rocky outcrop.
There, on a hillock, is a colossal dolmen: seven stone slabs folding in on one another, with a curved lid on prime and stone pathway main into the burial chamber. It’s been protecting watch up right here, the place views sweep in the direction of the Spanish border, since earlier than Spain existed. I feel I really feel it hum, nevertheless it’s only a cow lowing.
One other remnant of Alentejo’s previous is older nonetheless. Within the hills between the Almendres stone circle and Montemor-o-Novo is the Escoural Cave, crammed with work and engravings considered between 12,000 and 32,000 years previous. Within the single, shallow chamber open for excursions, we see animal heads spliced collectively, a pregnant mare, a chubby hen, and a herd of horses’ heads which will truly, archaeologists assume, symbolize a single animal in movement.
Every little thing’s faintly traced, hidden underneath thick calcite, forcing us to squint within the torchlight. “This was their way of expressing what they were thinking and feeling, without a written language,” says information Sonia Contador.
There’s a pressure within the air as I make my method up the low cliffside at Lapa dos Gaivões, close to Castelo de Vide, though its trigger isn’t clear. Is it the remoteness of this spot, wedged into the mountains bordering Spain? The solitary canine howling within the distance? Or the determine of a horned shaman I’m observing?
The work right here — daubed in pink ochre and black charcoal on a rocky overhang, accessed by way of a boardwalk — are considered between 12,000 and 22,000 years previous. That they’re nonetheless as shiny as blood and ink after being uncovered to the Iberian solar for hundreds of years, is miraculous. These aren’t the grand portraits of Lascaux; they’re tough, stick-man sketches: two horses; a hunter; three shamans sporting animal horns, lined up collectively. However they throb with power.
To the best of the figures is a grid of vertical dashes — slashes of ochre, every with slightly bulge spherical the center. I lean ahead and realise they’ve been made not with a brush however with a thumb — it’s the splayed flesh giving that rounded edge. Even from 1.5 metres away, I can virtually make out the whorls of the pores and skin. I stretch out my hand, stroking the area between us with my thumb like I’m recreating the dashes. The air is thick with summer time warmth, a canine shrieks within the distance, cicadas within the cork tree begin to roar. I stare on the prehistoric thumbprint. It looks like we’re touching throughout the void.
Getting there & round
It’s best to fly to Lisbon, an hour west of Montemor-o-Novo. TAP Portugal flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, London Metropolis and Manchester. British Airways flies from Heathrow, EasyJet from Gatwick and Luton, and Ryanair from Stansted.
You’ll want a automotive to get round as there’s little public transport. Roads are wonderful, although, and for many routes you need to use a paid motorway, if pressed for time.
When to go
Summers typically attain 30C, whereas winters are chilly (under 10C). One of the best time to go is late September-November and March-Might, when the wildflowers are at their peak. All the time take layers of garments to cope with changeable temperatures.
The place to remain
Herdade do Sobroso
Torre de Palma
Convento de Espinheiro
Learn how to do it
Sunvil gives a week-long, bespoke, self-drive itinerary in Alentejo, together with flights from Gatwick to Lisbon, automotive rent and B&B lodging at Herdade do Sobroso and Torre de Palma, from £1,142 per individual.
Comply with @juliathelast
Revealed within the November 2018 situation of National Geographic Traveller (UK)