Glass of red wine in hand, I flicked off the light and we lay on our backs on the open deck. The boat bobbled in the gentle breeze, the night air just cool enough to need the warmth of a long-sleeved sweater. The moonless sky was dark – properly dark, unlike anything you see in the south-east of England. The milky way cut a swathe across the entire sky, as clear as I’d seen it, in a European sky at least. We counted five shooting stars (my wife saw four to my piddly one) and several satellites, passing steadily across the vast dome of speckled blackness that absorbed us. Does it get any better than this?
The Alqueva lake is Europe’s largest man-made body of water and was only created within the last 10 years. While the villages along its shore are slowly adapting to their newly acquired waterside status, the most popular activity for tourists to the region is the exploration of the lake by boat. Amieira Marina rent out houseboats to complete novices and after a couple of hours of instruction we were let loose to steer our way along the lake’s 100km of navigable channels. Quite a scary thought for someone whose previous experience has involved steering nothing more complex than a pedalo.
Getting the hang of the boat doesn’t take long. You move at a gentle 5-6 knots, (around 10km/hr) so life soon slows to a similarly gentle pace. Villages and moorings are typically an hour apart, allowing you to spend just the right amount of time on the water before mooring up and exploring the nearby attractions. The process of mooring can be a challenge to the novice – my advice is to find a space to moor well away from other boats.
There’s a fridge on board and even a BBQ to use on the deck if you get organised enough to get your shopping done. Not that this is really needed as the marina provide you with basic provisions (we were given milk, eggs, bread, ham and even a bottle of wine) and several of the lakeside villages have cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy lunch or an evening meal (though most things are closed on Mondays). Some restaurants even offer a free pick-up service from the marina; a good idea particularly when you need to get back to your boat late at night as there are very few street lights nearby.
If you fancy a cooling dip the lake is perfect for a private swim. Simply tie the boat to one of the navigational buoys in the lake, switch of the engines (very important) and take the plunge – even in September the water was pleasantly warm and we didn’t see another soul as we paddled around in the clear water around our boat.
In two days we got as far as Monsaraz (rightly considered to be the most beautiful town in the area) and back. Perched high on a hilltop the walk from the marina to the cobbled centre of Monsaraz takes around 30 minutes but don’t be fooled by the relatively short distance. In the summer heat it’s a real test of endurance; make sure you carry plenty of water to last you until you reach the relief of the ice cream sellers in the town.
Some visitors rent a house boat for a week or even longer, reaching Juromenha at the northern tip of the lake and stopping at every one of the dozen or so villages along the way. While we returned our boat on the third day and moved on, having tried the experience for the first time it is certainly something I’d be more than happy to enjoy again.