Slowing down in the Alentejo – Portugal’s most relaxing region | Travel

S.pring’s wildflowers are out in the Alentejo: sprays of daisies, scattered poppies, exotic opportunists such as Hottentot figs or Paterson’s curse. They are all the more beautiful for being so short-lived – the first hot blasts of summer will frazzle them to a crisp.

In Monsaraz village, clumps of flowers sprout from the walls and terraces, though I miss them at first because I’m so distracted by the view – “magnificent” doesn’t begin to do it justice. The whitewashed medieval village sits on a ridge 500ft above the Guadiana River, giving a 360-degree view of the vast plain it commands. The fields are still lush and green – summer will turn them to gold too – and the sounds of bleating and cow bells drift in on the breeze.

On the river side of the village is the biggest artificial lake in western Europe, created by the Alqueva Dam, with Spain on the far shore. The undulating terrain means that the lake is all twists and curves, dotted with tiny hillock islands – it looks like a child’s “Here be dragons” map, with added shimmer and haze. It’s mesmerizing.

At cobblestone street in Monsaraz

At cobblestone street in Monsaraz

ALAMY

Monsaraz is a little more than a two-hour drive east of Lisbon – day-trip territory, but I’ve come for a post-city-break stay, a bit of tranquility after the capital’s bustle (the cruise ships are back, and so are the crowds). But first a pitstop: Evora, the capital of the Alentejo region and a Unesco world heritage center, is just past the halfway point of my journey.

I park up near Praça do Giraldo – the town’s main square, where the pigeons are taking a bath in the baroque fountain and the café terraces are doing brisk trade – and wander down to the Roman ruins. The 1st-century temple stands in a pretty square of limewashed houses, next to the city’s 14th-century cathedral. I enjoy the latter’s cloister and puff up to the roof for the view, then nip into the Chapel of Bones at the Church of St Francis. The two mummified specimens here – with leathery skin peeling off them like bits of old papyrus – almost put me off my excellent lunch of Alentajano pork in red wine at Origens, on Rua de Burgos.

It’s late afternoon by the time I roll up at Dom Nuno, a guesthouse on the main street of Monsaraz. It’s a pleasing hour to arrive – the day-trippers have left and, as I make my way up the cobbles with my bag slung over my shoulder, I’m the only stranger for the old Portugeezers sitting outside the church to size up. Overhead a thousand chirruping swallows are gearing up for the evening bug bonanza.

Breakfast at Dom Nuno, Monsaraz

Breakfast at Dom Nuno, Monsaraz

Occupying what used to be the village chemist’s shop, Dom Nuno is a simple place, with lots of wrought iron and white walls. But what really gives it the X factor is what I can see from my bedroom window: at the highest point of the village, my room faces west, giving me a front-row seat for sunset. I can see for miles – it’s a £ 55 room with a £ 550 view.

Though Monsaraz has an area of ​​barely seven acres, it packs in a 13th-century castle, the 16th-century House of the Inquisition (used to persecute those secretly practicing Judaism), a fresco museum and a gallery of local art among the sprinkling of shops and restaurants: Creations Francis et Toula is an emporium of rainbow-colored clothes, homewares and curios named after its owners (Toula is a Canadian woman who came to the village 30 years ago with her French film-director husband); at the excellent, very photogenic Casa Tial deli I pick up tins of tuna in retro packaging and a bottle of the local Black Pig gin; for dinner I choose the Taverna Os Templarios, which has a cracking view of the lake, the tenderest roast lamb and solicitous service (mains from £ 12).

Some years ago a contest to crown the “seven wonders of Portugal”Honored the country’s landmark buildings, then similar polls evolved covering food, nature, popular culture, and villages – yes, Monsaraz was voted among the seven best nationwide. Too right it is.

Looking from my balcony at Dom Nuno I can make out a rural estate a couple of miles away. Sao Lourenço do Barrocal – a farm that has been the subject of a painstaking 14-year renovation, with a Farrow & Ball palette, enormous beds, inviting leather armchairs, two pools, a spa and acres of space – is the most luxurious hotel around , a place for cosseting and relaxation. I drop in for a fabulous lunch in the main restaurant: scrambled egg with asparagus, given a smoky kick with farinheira (a local flour-based sausage), followed by an empada (pie) made using carrot, courgette, aubergine and tomato from the kitchen garden.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

GETTY IMAGES

Later I check in at Montimerso Skyscape Country House, a new build that opened last summer right beside the lake, with four suites and 11 other enormous rooms – they’re minimalist, with white linen, poured concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling windows . It’s laid-back and blissfully quiet, thanks in part to the pool and 136 acres of grounds that are being rewilded.

The name of the hotel is explained by its position within the 1,160-square-mile Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve, which bills itself as “the first starlight tourism destination in the world”. Local communities limit ambient light after dark, and an average of 286 cloudless nights a year means that the firmament does indeed sparkle away above Monsaraz – which is why I’ve booked a stargazing session at the nearby observatory.

At an old school in the village of Cumeada a team of astronomers has set up a compound with low red lighting, which doesn’t hamper night vision, and two telescopes. Joining my English-language session are a mother and son who have traveled up from southern Portugal. Our guide, Nuno, fizzes with enthusiasm as he starts with the basics – Polaris, Ursa Major, Gemini – before training our telescopes on the Eskimo Nebula, Sombrero Galaxy and Virgo.

A room at Montimerso Skyscape Country House

A room at Montimerso Skyscape Country House

No planets tonight, but we do get M13, a cluster of hundreds of thousands of stars in Hercules. At first it looks like an indeterminate blob through the eyepiece, but pinpricks of light emerge as I stare. It is, Nuno tells us, squeaking with excitement, about 23,000 light years away. What a final.

Amanda Linfoot traveled independently. B&B doubles at Dom Nuno from £ 50 (dnunoth.com), at Montimerso Skyscape Country House from £ 170 (montimerso.pt) and at Sao Lourenço do Barrocal from £ 340 (mains from £ 15; barrocal.pt). Stargazing sessions at the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve from £ 21 (darkskyalqueva.com)

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