As I settled down for the night on a double bed beneath the hull of my motorboat, the silence was absolute. I was moored on the Grande Lago Alqueva, Europe’s largest reservoir, and the great thing about sleeping on fake lakes is that they are totally still. There are no currents, no tides, just you, alone with perfect tranquillity.
Then, as my eyelids drooped into a restful slumber, a comedy horn rent the air asunder. “BRRRRRRRRRR-B-B-B-BRRRRRRRRR.” I bolted upright, momentarily annoyed at whoever was causing the din, only to realise that it was coming from my boat. I was the comedy horn in the night.
“B-B-B-BRRRRRRRR.” I ran to the dash and frantically pummelled buttons. Then I remembered my burner phone, a tiny old handset like prison honchos have, only instead of drug dealers, mine was loaded with the numbers of Portuguese people who know about boats. Boy, would they regret giving me that lifeline.
Luckily I was still moored at home base, Amieira Marina, so I didn’t have to wait for someone to sail out to me to fix it, and I was surrounded by a cluster of forgiving neighbours with vastly more sailing experience than I had.
Before I decided to rent this three bedroom houseboat and explore the vast, watery border between Portugal and Spain, I had been sailing only twice; once in the Caribbean, where I fell into the sea, and a second time around a lake in Essex, where I also fell in, this time injuring my sailing partner, who then refused to get back into the boat with me.
“Don’t worry, it’s just like driving a car,” I was told on my first test sail around Amieira, which was of little use to me because I can’t drive a car, either. I didn’t mention it though, in case they changed their mind and took the boat back. Yet, by the end of the four day trip, I’d spent so many hours perusing the ancient towns and villages surrounding this under-appreciated part of the world, that I steered home at top speed from the wheel on the upper deck and ate chickpea salad at the same time.
The whole of the Portuguese side of the lake – I can’t speak for the Spanish side as I wasn’t allowed over there – is set up for amateurs. Most would-be sailors stay for a week, ample time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the Grande Lago, or they tack a trip on to the end of a city break in Lisbon, which is an hour and half away by car. Numbered orange buoys guide sailors around the lake, and as long as you stick to either side of those, the boat won’t get stuck in shallow waters.
Dropping anchor in the middle of the lake isn’t really an option; it’s a long lake, not a wide one, so if you plan on soaking up some rays or getting any sleep at all, you better learn how to find a marina and parallel park a boat in it.
A GPS also tracks your progress along the route, although I found peering at the dull monitor tedious; the enormous map you’re given on arrival is a more leisurely way to keep track and admire the scenery at the same time. Real ballers, however, sit on the upper deck with nothing more than a wheel, a gear stick and the warm winds to navigate.
Food is also taken care of; for an extra charge, Amieira Marina will pack you off with your choice of dishes from the restaurant’s menu to warm up at your convenience on the boat’s gas hob, along with a hamper of essentials, like beer, wine, bread, milk and eggs.
The boat itself is a re-purposed French motorboat decorated not unlike the inside of a 70s campervan, with an orange PVC booth around a plastic table, floral curtains and a mottled plastic dashboard. Still it’s simple, comfortable and lends the whole adventure a groovy “The Boat that Rocked” vibe.
The lake itself resides in the Alentejo region of Portugal, which covers a third of the country’s landmass, yet it’s mostly untouched by tourism; travellers tend to head for the city lights of Lisbon or migrate south to the Algarve for sand and sea. The region is also notable for being hot and dry, which is why the Portuguese government started to plan a dam here in the 1950s, to create a water reserve that could withstand at least three years of drought.
As the years went by, a hydroelectric plant was added to provide a non-polluting power source, too. The project was finally finished in 2002, but the creation of this magnificent lake came at a price. Many ancient treasures were washed away in the great tide of modernity, including prehistoric engravings and a Roman fort. A number of endangered species, including wild boars and the Iberian lynx, lost their natural habitat overnight and an entire village had to be moved to higher ground.
Luz, a small but historical province of just under 300 people, is now entirely submerged beneath Alqueva’s watery depths. When it became clear it would have to be demolished to make way for the reservoir, the villagers were given three options; be compensated financially for the loss of their town, be moved to a neighbouring village, or to rebuild a replica Luz further up the riverbank, brick by brick, stone by stone. They overwhelmingly chose the latter option and so began one of the most meticulous restoration projects in European history.
Stepping off the marina onto sunbaked grass, I wound a dusty pathway uphill until a series of low-rise buildings, blindingly white in the sunlight, came into view to reveal the new Luz. On one side, cobbled streets and hanging baskets implied a quaint existence, but it’s a spookily sterile place.
I’d read there was a school, and the sound of children playing would have been welcome. Instead, there was an oppressive silence, punctuated on the hour by the bells of the lovingly rebuilt Church of Light, an exact replica of the one that stood before.
Around the corner, a strikingly Brutalist brick monstrosity, with ruler-sharp edges and automatic glass doors, welcomes visitors to the Museu da Luz. Open every day apart from Monday, it’s unmissable if you want to understand not only the logistics of the operation, but, perhaps more importantly, the emotional upheaval this restoration caused.
On one side, cobbled streets and hanging baskets implied a quaint existence, but it’s a spookily sterile place.
Ancient farming tools show how the villagers worked the land for centuries, while sepia-tinged pictures of the original Luz invite comparisons with its modern reincarnation. Best of all is the short film, playing on a loop on a projector screen with a single bench parked in front. The children, it seemed, were the least perturbed, with one precocious schoolgirl noting, “Everything happened at once, so that it seemed nothing had changed.”
But as the focus shifted to the older generation, many howling with grief as their relatives were disinterred from the graveyard and buried again further uphill, it became strangely moving. As all this commotion was going on, the local priest consoled his parishioners with the story of Christ’s sacrifice for his fellow man, assuring them that their suffering had to be endured to secure prosperity for the wider region.
One woman shed a tear as she said goodbye to her grandmother’s rose garden before she joined the others outside the village gates to watch as they were locked for the last time. As I headed back afterwards, the new houses, lined up in identikit squares with sycophantic pastel-painted edges, seemed suddenly sadder for their neat uniformity.
Another three hours sailing – about five hours in total away from Amieira – and Monsaraz towers into view. This tall fortress town was never in danger of being swept away, appearing to be mere metres below Mount Olympus when viewed from the water.
I disembarked and explored a series of cobbled avenues lined with more white houses, interspersed with several of those amazing cathedrals where the doors are taller than buildings. Unlike Luz, the streets are teeming here. The local population is only 800 people, but it’s firmly on the tourist trail. Souvenir shopkeepers selling straw fedoras and cockerel-shaped wine stoppers mingle alongside artisans selling painted pots and hand-crafted wooden toys.
There are plenty of historical curiosities to explore, too, not least the castle and its wall, which dates back to the Romans. It’s Monsaraz’s own slice of Rome, while the Cromeleque do Xerez is its Stonehenge, although this megalithic stone circle has lost some of its cultural significance since it was moved uphill during the Alqueva Dam project.
Having sailed for five hours to get there, it’s worth sticking around in Monsaraz for a while to follow the smell of zesty lemon trees down ancient alleyways or stop for a drink in one of the beer gardens to admire the seemingly endless emerald sprawl below. For a good home-cooked meal, Cafe-Restaurante Lumumba is a short walk away in the centre of town.
Then it was time for a leisurely sail back, stopping off here and there for a quick swim – the freezing water is nothing if not invigorating – and to sunbathe on deck. Dropping anchor in the middle of the lake isn’t really an option; it’s a long lake, not a wide one, so if you plan on soaking up some rays or getting any sleep at all, you better learn how to find a marina and parallel park a boat in it.
It’s surprisingly easy to master when you have to, and there’s no better way to learn than by throwing yourself in at the deep end of Europe’s largest, newest and least travelled lake.
A seven night boat rental from Amieira Marina starts at £1,300 for 4 people. Boats are available for 2 to 10 people. Visit amieiramarina.com to find out more