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Iberian Adventure:
Never-Ending Views on a Never-Ending Day in The Alentejo
(Dispatch #10)

Story and photos by Tom Weber

on the road with Insight Vacations' motor coach in Portugal's Alentejo region

nder 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!

white-washed houses at the medieval village of Monsaraz

Perched atop a rocky hill, with spectacular views of where Portugal embraces Spain, is the charming, pedestrian-only medieval village of Monsaraz.

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.

the cobbled streets, whitewashed cottages and a 14th century castle at Monsaraz

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.

the Grande Lago, or Alqueva Lake viewed from Monsaraz

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).

on board the Westlander at Alqueva Lake

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.

the Westlander sials into the Alqueva Lake

Tiago, the boat's captain, and his anonymous first mate, steer the craft out into open waters, and away we go, quietly and effortlessly, as if we were cat burglars leaving the scene of a crime.

Tiago, the Westlander's captain gives a primer about the Alqueva Lake

During the voyage, Tiago conducts an Alqueva Lake 101 class and we're all ears.

"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.

Skipper Tiago hands out beer, soft drinks and local red wine

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 3- in-1 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.

In a nutshell, this big fertile region, comprising a third of Portugal's landmass, is unabashedly the country's breadbasket, her gastronomic soul.

Alentejo salad

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 I savor the first forkful, I know immediately 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. Saúde!

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 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. Bom apetite!

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.

Iberian Adventure brochures from Insight Vacations

For complete information on Insight's 112 premium and luxury-escorted journeys around Europe, just click HERE, or call toll free 1-888-680-1241, or contact your travel agent.

Iberian hogs

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 long enough to see how some black Iberian piggies go to the market while others stay home.

Boa noite. Zzzzzz.

Related Articles:
Enchanting Évora, Portugal's Laid-Back Museum City; Sampling World-Class Wines at the Alentejo; Cascais and Sintra: To the Edge of the Earth; Framing Lisbon's Mosteiro dos Jerónimos; Pastéis de Belém; The Age of Discovery Began in Belém

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Let Tom know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Destination Bosnia: Inside Sarajevo's Tunnel of Hope

Spent time in Sarajevo in the fall of 1973…beer was excellent!

--- David

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Hi Tom,

I must say, you're photographs are always amazing. They are top notch. You bring so much class to Traveling Boy. It's photographs like yours that make me want to go out and do my own traveling. Please don't get tired of sending us your amazing adventures. It's such a delight for the soul.

--- Raoul, Whittier, CA

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Hi Tom:

I'm also an American living in Italy. I've read with interest your blog and articles. I'd like to speak with you regarding residency and citizenship for Americans in Italy as you do seem to have a great deal of knowledge on all of these subjects. Would it be possible to give you a call on the phone? If so, please let me know how to reach you. If not, I can ask my questions via email.

Thank you!

--- David

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Hey Tom – Wow! Love those photos – they are so super that they make me A) Want to start eating NOW. B) Go there myself. C) See all that pristine beauty that looks so restful and peaceful. Great story, superb pix!!! Bravo!!

--- John, Los Angeles, CA

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Feedback for Destination Southwestern France: Saint-Émilion

Good job, Tom, and timely info. St. Émilion is in the list of places Jim Hayes and I will visit in September 2014. If we get the chance, we will exploit your experience to enhance the trip!

--- Bobby Harper, Dameron, MD

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Feedback for Vicenza Walks – Monte Berico

I lived in Vicenza for 4 years in the U.S. ARMY from 1963 to 1967. A wonderful place to explore. Palladio’s works are amazing. Have been back twice since and find new places to visit. My favorite is MONTE BERICO where I have some wonderful photos of my family.

--- Dr. Albert Pizzi, Hanover, MA

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I liked the new TB particularly the Vicenza article that took me back as a youth when we lived in Naples and travelled up there for a baseball tourney (U.S. Military Bases dependent schools played each other.)

Took me back to the plaza.

--- Bill

Feedback for A Canterbury Trail (Sutri)

Very interesting note. I have wedroned which route the early pre-Christian and Christian pilgrims travelled to Rome from England. Is it still possible to travel the Francigena trail?

--- Pawel

You can find out more info on walking tours of Via Francigena at this site: Thanks for stopping by and commenting..


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Good article, enjoyed reading it. Saved your recommended sights for future use.

--- Dardenne Prairie, MO

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You're going to be great at this Tom. Congrats.

--- Donna Vissa -Montreal

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