People often point out to me that my native Wales is only a tiny little place. I suppose on a global scale – it probably is. Small is often beautiful though.
My challenge to those who perceive Wales as only being small in stature is that they should, perhaps, one day drive from the north of Wales to its southernmost reaches. Then I would ask that they pause and reflect, look me in the eye and still insist that my Welsh homeland is only small!
I sometimes hear people declare that Portugal is also only small geographically. Compared with other countries, I suppose it is. But - the Algarve is an awful long way from Lisbon is it not? Especially if you happen to be traveling by car. Lisbon, of course, is roughly only a third of the way enroute to the very northernmost reaches of Portugal. I think there is an awful lot to be seen in-between the extremities of say, Sagres in the south and Chaves in the north. Or between the stunning blue coast resort of Nazaré in the west and Vila Real de Santo António in the extreme south east? A lot of very special things in life can be treasured and savored having been unwrapped from such ‘smaller’ packages.
I have always tended to go off the beaten track when I travel around. The entrapments of tourism don’t always float my boat. I enjoy seeing ‘real’ places as well as the more biscuit tin, picture-postcard scenes that are often found within earshot of airports and resorts. Having said that, I often appreciate all the convenience and the many great amenities offered at the tourist traps too. It all depends on the mood of the moment I guess.
This is my tenth year travelling around Portugal. I’ve racked my brains and I just cannot declare with any degree of confidence that I have found a ‘favorite’ part of the country. That’s because all I’ve seen of it has something good to offer. Wherever I go, I get to appreciate Portugal’s amazing vistas and architecture and perhaps even learn a little about the history of some of the many different areas too. Naturally, it’s always good to sample some of the many excellent local foods and wines that are always on offer. I confess that this aspect of my trips to Portugal are amidst my most favoured pastimes. I don’t think I’m alone in this one am I?
One recent notable trip was to the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz in the Evora District. The drive up from the Algarve via Mértola and Serpa revealed endless miles of stunning countryside as well as the spectacle of vast olive groves and lines of regimented vines – all growing almost as if to attention in the vast vineyards of Alentejo Central.
There were many, many highlights of our exploration of this region, not least of all experiencing the ancient village of Monsaraz standing, as it does, so majestically on its exquisite vantage point. This is a natural position for a fortress and a castle. After all, Monsaraz is an ancient walled fortification standing on the highest hill in the area within close proximity to the deep Guadiana valley. This made it a location of great strategic importance during Roman occupation. It was later successively occupied by the Visigoths, the Arabs, the Mozarabs and the Jews – not to mention the present day Christians. Monsaraz is place steeped in history, like a great many other areas of Portugal.
Monsaraz is perched 195 metres (640 feet) above the vast expanses of Alentejo with incredible views that reach far and beyond. It isn’t really all that high up at 640 feet but seeing as the rest of the area is so very flat, it feels a lot higher than these statistics suggest. But, I have seldom beheld such breathtaking scenery. Views that quite literally stretch as far as they eye can see from horizon to horizon. This is an absolutely perfect spot to witness a Portuguese sunrise or indeed, a Portuguese sunset for that matter. Surreal doesn’t really cut it. Words fail me – it is simply just one of those things that must be seen in order to be wholly appreciated. It is an experience to tease all of the senses and because of that – it is quite simply unforgettable.
Lunch at Taverna os Templários in Monsaraz also brought together several great delights. To savour, for example, the fresh taste of a delicious tomato and onion salad, served with some of that highly renowned freshly baked Portuguese bread. All washed down, naturally, by a glass or two of some locally produced vinho branco, chilled to crisp perfection to help quench and cool the balmy ambience of an exquisite, pure blue-skied Portuguese afternoon. All this whilst sitting at an open air table taking in views of the great lake of. Life is good. It gets no better than this for pure, chilled-out bliss. I can guarantee it. There isn’t a deckchair or a sun lounger anywhere to be seen, nor the blended wafts of chlorine and Ambre Solaire. Just birdsong punctuates the peaceful silence.
Our hotel was just off the square in Reguengos de Monsaraz which offered a selection of nearby café bars and eateries to cater for the evening’s festivities. We opted for a cosy but pleasantly busy tapas restaurant called Chafarica Tapas & Wine Bar which creates and array of freshly cooked tapas dishes reflecting a bit of the area’s ancient Spanish (Andalusia) heritage as well as serving some of the more traditional Portuguese favourites. Naturally, being in Reguengos, it was all washed down by some of the areas fine wines. I am yet to sample better red wine than what is produced in this region of Portugal. I think it is well worth asking for some friendly advice from the wine waiter or the bar tender before making your choice and perhaps paying just that little bit extra for your evening tipple. Even then, the value is going to be truly outstanding considering the quality of some of the local product – most of which will be unfamiliar to us tourists. I have not yet seen any of these spectacular wines anywhere outside of Portugal itself. Maybe some things ARE sacred?
No matter where I go in Portugal, the welcome is always as perfect as the weather, the vinho and the awesome scenery. There is something truly uplifting about the spirit of modern Portugal. There is so much going on. All the time there are so many fresh things to see as pristine new amenities are constantly being developed. Portugal is absolutely going places. I just love being a part of it whenever I can.