Reguengos de Monsaraz
South of Lisbon
Initially, the pace is fast, flying low on 130 kilometres of highway. After that, the speed slows down significantly. From Évora, the regional capital, a provincial road winds through fields with olive trees and cork oaks.
With every kilometre further away from the capital, time seems to take a step back. The landscape becomes increasingly empty. At least if you don’t count the stork nests. Three, four, sometimes five pairs populate surrounding trees. The majestic birds keep watch over reddish soil, grey boulders, golden newly harvested fields, cows, donkeys and nose-diving eagles.
Reguengos de Monsaraz, wine capital of Europe
Finally arrived at the destination; the first thing I notice is twittering birds. The Portuguese are clearly a lot more talkative than their Dutch counterparts. They seem to be everywhere I go in the next few days. Maybe that’s not so strange in a town with less than 12,000 inhabitants.
Wine culture in Reguengos de Monsaraz
This is not a big city by any standard, but what it lacks in population is compensated in surface area. We are talking Rural with a capital R.
Reguengos de Monsaraz covers an area of 465 km². For comparison, this is more than double the area of Amsterdam. That is a big area to plant grapes, and it shows. This must be one of the reasons why this place was selected European Wine Capital 2015, taking over the crown from Spanish Jerez de la Frontera in 2014.
Environmental impact vineyards
Yes, the Reguengos transformed their share of mother earth to suit their needs. Still, at the same time, they paid attention to the natural equilibrium. This manifests itself in many ways: the environmentally sustainable way the vineyards are managed. The Dark Sky Project against air pollution. Local pottery, which is still handmade, and restaurants that grow their own produce. Even the artificial lake that was created in 2002, is at least in the eyes of local residents, a plus for the environment.
Also, on the Esporão estate, one of the region’s major wine producers, the management believes in the value of investing in conservation. Mainly because of selfish reasons, as the guide explains:
“Give to nature, and you will receive back.”
In the last couple of years, the company gave up valuable agricultural land to restore as much as possible the original vegetation. Now the trees and plants protect the vines against the force of the wind.
Moreover, due to the revived ecological balance, the estate hardly uses any (organic) pesticides. This improves the quality of the end product and, ultimately, benefits us, the consumer.
Traditional vinification methods
Part of the harvest is still crushed by human feet using traditional vinification methods. Only the best grapes are eligible for this labour-intensive process. Using human labour instead of machines benefits the taste of the resulting sap.
Because the pits are not crushed into the juice. But of course, it is more expensive to produce traditionally. Therefore, these types of wine are more exclusive, and as we all know, exclusivity comes at a price.
Luckily, the area offers options for every type of budget, like a night sky that anyone can afford to see.
Dark Sky Project
The ‘Dark Sky Project’ is another environmental success story. The region received the world’s first ‘Starlight Tourism Destination Certification’ because of the quality of its night sky. The clear nights, mild temperatures and low air pollution make this area ideal to admire the night sky. Around the reservoir (see below), the Alqueva Dark Sky Route includes accommodations, dining and night activities, including boat trips, safaris and, of course, guided stargazing trips. The Dark Sky Project is sponsored by UNESCO and The World Tourism Organization.
The Alqueva lake is a giant, man-made reservoir. The largest in Western Europe with 250 km². Many nature-related activities are on offer on and around the lake: water sports, horseback riding, bird watching, and stargazing.
Cromlech of Xerez
One of the most exciting places to keep a night watch is Cromlech of Xerez, a megalithic stone circle. For the archaeological uneducated, this is a mini Stonehenge. The monument is at least five thousand years old. The stone circle consists of fifty granite menhirs, ranging in height from 1.20 m to 1.50 meters. These are arranged around a centrally placed four-meter high pillar. In this place, nature meets thousands of years of history or, more accurately, taking into account the age of the stars, billions of years.
Convento do Orada (Telheiro)
Convento do Orada (Telheiro)
The Convento do Orada, a former convent is now owned by a foundation. The monks of the Order of the Displaced Augustinians in 1741 were the first inhabitants. They remained here until the early 19th century, after which the building fell into ruins. In the early ’90 of the last century, the foundation decided to restore the property using ancient techniques. Unfortunately, the monastery is yet once more run down because of a lack of financial resources.
The building is a stone’s throw uphill from Monsaraz.
Monsaraz, one of the parishes of Reguengos, is a wonderfully preserved medieval town surrounded by walls and protected by an imposing castle. From the mountain, one has a 360° view of the surrounding plains and reservoir. In its heyday, the town had five hundred people, now there are only about sixty inhabitants left.
The place boasts four churches, two museums, several B&Bs, a castle, shops and restaurants. In addition, the castle has a unique courtyard, now used as a bullring, every second Saturday of September and for a biannual music festival.
Museo do Fresco in Monsaraz
One of the museums is the world-famous ‘Museo do Fresco’, named after a mural from the XV century. The fresco shows a bad and a good judge. The painting was discovered in 1958 during restoration work and is remarkably well-preserved. Another village that belongs to the municipality of Reguengos is São Pedro do Carval.
São Pedro do Carval pottery
The majority of the Portuguese handicraft pottery is produced in this village, where one can find no less than 22 potters. Fun fact, the murals in the visitor’s centre were created by Gonçalo Jordão, a Portuguese who has worked on the set of the Oscar-winning Grand Budapest Hotel film.
So, once you are back into ‘civilization’ for those who have not seen the film, definitely check it out. In the meantime, enjoy your stay.
Horta de Moura ****
I stayed in the Horta da Moura hotel. It has all the that can be expected from this type of hotel, including an excellent restaurant.
São Lourenço do Barrocal *****
São Lourenço do Barrocal is another star hotel. Before becoming a five-star accommodation, this was a ‘hacienda ‘.
Alentejo, at Estrada Regional 255 doesn’t look very exciting, but the food is. The restaurant has Bolo Rançoso on the menu, my favourite local dessert.
Take care when driving here, roads might be nearly empty, but drivers use their mobile phones a lot.
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