15-20 October 2019
We were undecided on our route – Kate wanted to see the Atlantic coast and Danny wanted to go inland to the hills. In the end we did both on the same day. On the west coast of the Algarve the winds drive the cold Atlantic waters crashing ashore with big waves and treacherous currents. The beautiful wide sandy beaches are popular with surfers and at Carrapateira we walked across the beautiful soft sands and watched surfers and some hardy bathers braving the wild water, so rough that one surfer struggled back in with his board smashed in half.
Then up into the mountains separating the Algarve from Alentejo province, the Serra de Monchique. The familiar rounded tops of stone pines gave way to cork oaks & chestnuts and at a small hill-town we saw our first crop of cork, like giant cinnamon sticks, stacked in a yard. The bare stripped trunks of the oaks we passed were marked with a number to show the year of harvest (the bark is harvested every 9 years)
We aimed for a small place in the mountains that was open, and as we climbed the rough track through an area recovering from a wildfire we had our doubts. But they disappeared as we went over a small rise onto a lovely little ledge along the hillside with parking for a small number of vans, each with its own view over the valley beyond. There was even a small pool. We liked it a lot.
Kate particularly took to our neighbour, a friendly Jack Russell puppy and we also met an interesting character in an aged motorhome. a fiddler in a successful German folk band in the 1970’s – not your average motor-homer (if there is such a thing).
A couple of days later we carried on our travels along the scenic back roads into Alentejo, passing huge areas of fire damage, some replanted others sprouting eucalyptus saplings like weeds.
Even out of the hills down onto the Alentejan plains which roll along for miles, there was evidence of fire damage and fields, even those used for grazing, were bordered with wide ploughed areas creating firebreaks in the parched land.
We got lost looking for an environmental centre and ended up at a bare plot of land on the edge of a tiny village whose inhabitants were a bit bemused by our large van and the 2 of us wandering around with a smart phone.
And we had the excitement of a road closure in Moura facing a road far too narrow for us where a nice man who spoke no English helped us to turn round against the flow of traffic and go the wrong way down a one-way street until we could escape.
We skirted a town so proud of its castle that its roundabout has a large replica on it.
We visited the Alqueva Dam which created the largest reservoir in Europe, destroying over a million cork oaks and the habitat of golden eagles and Iberian Lynx as well as drowning villages so not entirely popular. But it produces lots of electricity from its hydro-electric plant and its shores support vines for the famous Alentejan wines.
In amongst our danderings we found some interesting and peaceful overnight spots. A reservoir dam where we stopped for lunch and enjoyed the peace and quiet so much we stayed, and got a nice ridge walk in as well taking in part of the long distance Rota Vicentina. Owls called to us in the night and tiny flies somehow managed to invade our living space.
An ex-mining village, once the largest copper and pyrite mine in the world famed for its brutal British owners and now attractively landscaped with woods, a lake with its own beach and bar replacing some of the old workings.
Beneath the castle walls at lovely little Monaraz. A pretty white-washed village on a hill with a Moorish castle and high walls encircling it. The views through our windscreen were spectacular, with the expanse of the Alqueva reservoir below and Spain almost within touching distance on the other side.
We explored the narrow, cobbled streets watched by the old men standing around the square.
We clambered to the top of the Castelo for 360° views and poked our heads into the little boutique shops that allow the villagers to survive here.
And we admired the artwork that was hanging on the walls.
We heard a burst of noise which lured us to a small doorway – as we hesitated the locals watching TV beckoned us in to their bar and we sheltered from the rain sipping local wine in small terracotta mugs, chatting to the barman. We took his recommendation and had dinner a few doors down. It was real local food – Danny was very happy with the Alentejan equivalent of Irish stew.
On the plain below Monsaraz we visited the Cromleque de Xerez billed as the most impressive megalithic monument around, a square “circle” of 49 granite stones with a 4m high central menhir. We followed the track from the Convento o Dorada, topped by a huge stork nest, and found a sad little group of 49 small stones that had been relocated from their now flooded site (that dam again) placed in a very un-megalithic looking rectangle around the more impressive 4m tall standing stone which has always been there and looked as if it would rather have been left alone.
For no apparent reason there were also a scattering of ancient grindstones. Judging by the tyre tracks around it, locals value it so much they do donuts around it!
We really liked Monsaraz – next stop Evora.