Under foreboding skies, the “band of merry media” and I, 29 handpicked travel journalists and photographers invited by Insight Vacations (Insight) to sample a portion of its premium-escorted Iberian Adventure through Portugal and Spain, are buckled into our business-class legroom seats aboard a sleek Mercedes motor coach cruising its way further into the spacious Alentejo region.
We’ve got a full plate today, literally and figuratively, as we’re scheduled to charge up a hill to visit a whitewashed village, hop on a barge and set sail across a lake, and put on the old feedbag — not once, but twice — to consume a bounty of mouthwatering regional Portuguese cuisine.
Are you ready? Vamos!
Overrun by the Moors in the 8th century and reclaimed by Christian crusaders in the 12th, Monsaraz, once upon a time, was occupied by the mysterious Knights Templar, who dismounted and stayed for a spell in this quiet-as-a-mouse village.
Cobbled streets lined with uneven-walled, whitewashed cottages topped with terra-cotta roofs are the main attraction, along with a 14th century castle and its sturdy ramparts that take you halfway to the sky.
Way down below, spread out as far as the eye can see, is Portugal’s Grande Lago, or Alqueva Lake, an immense artificial lake, the largest of its kind in all of western Europe at 250 sq. km (150 sq. mi).
Via a narrow gangplank, we board the Westlander, an early 20th century, 50-foot, Dutch sailing barge, and shove off from the marshy shore — like the seven castaways on “Gilligan’s Island” — for a three-hour tour.
Tiago, the boat’s captain, and his anonymous first mate, steer the craft out into open waters, and away we go, quietly and effortlessly, like cat burglars leaving the scene of a crime.
“This artificial lake,” he explains, “is the result of the opening of the Alqueva Dam in 2002 that was built on the Rio Guadiana to bring much needed irrigation to the arid and impoverished Alentejo region.”
The skipper adds, “When the length of all of the lake’s fingers on both sides of the Portuguese-Spanish border are added together, the total distance is greater than Portugal’s 943 kilometers-long coastline (586 mi).”
Now, that’s one heckuva body of H2O.
The lake primer now over, the good captain and first (and only) mate unfurl the lone, burgundy colored sail and we begin to pick up speed, along with a knife, fork and plastic cup.
Like all good Portuguese hosts, Skipper Tiago breaks out the on-board rations and starts passing around plates of succulent Iberian ham, sausages and cheese, and then hands out cans of cold beer, soft drinks, and my fave, plastic cups filled to the brim with local vinho tinto (red wine) poured from a large plastic bag.
I just hope, for his sake, that he brought along enough liquid provisions. There could be a mutiny on board. After all, we are the working press.
Back on terra firma, we re-board the Insight galleon for the short ride over to Sem-Fim (meaning, Never Ending), an unusual restaurant-olive mill-art gallery, located in nearby Telheiro.
Like the Dutch sailing barge, this three-in-one eatery is also owned by Skipper Tiago.
Swapping his sextant for an apron, he settles us around a long table and gives us a quick overview of authentic Alentejo cuisine as the parade of dishes begins.
Rustic and wholesome, dishes of the Alentejo are rich with ingredients born out of its soil and cultivated by hard working people: succulent black Iberian pork, fruity olive oil, nutty sheep cheeses, juicy tomatoes, wild mushrooms and asparagus, to name a few. Add to all that bounty, half of the country’s wine production is harvested in the Alentejo.
From the moment the first forkful hits the piehole, I immediately know that I’m in for a memorable treat enjoying a leisurely and lengthy lunch, on Insight’s euro, of authentic, mouth-watering Alentejo fair prepared by Skipper Tiago and Gloria, his true first mate and wife, at Sem-Fim.
Uh, feel free to grab some cutlery and join in the feast.
Back on the motor coach things are surprisingly quiet as the “band of merry media” catches 40 winks during the return ride back to our hotel in Évora. We’ll all need to be well rested as we’ll be putting the feedbag back on for another feast within the next couple of hours.
Sometime during each and every Insight journey a Club Bon Voyage dinner party breaks out and returning Insight guests are given a special nod and toast. Yours truly happens to be one of a handful of seasoned road warriors so honored tonight, having traveled previously with Insight on its Bohemian Rhapsody and Country Roads of Italy itineraries.
After a celebratory aperitif — okay, two — in the bar of the M’AR De AR Aqueduto hotel-spa, our digs while in the Alentejo, we head into Degust’ AR, the hotel’s superlative restaurant inside Sepulveda Palace with tantalizing signature dishes created by Chef António Nobre, an expert of the Alentejan kitchen.
Surprisingly, I’m starved…again.
The night’s still young, but I’m pretty much toast, so I bid my tablemates a good night and take the stairs up to suite 223 where I hope to fall fast asleep dreaming about all those never-ending views and never-ending dishes of the Alentejo.
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Oh, see you right after dawn’s early light when we’ll say Adeus! to Portugal and ¡Hola! to Spain and head for Seville. Along the way we’ll stop to see how some black Iberian piggies go to the market while others stay home.
Boa noite. Zzzzzz.