Andrew Purvis, The Daily Telegraph, March 5, 2013
'Look out for sunken windmills," said Anna, our classroom tutor at Amieira Marina, handing me a chart of the Grande Lago do Alqueva – Europe's biggest man-made lake, created by the deliberate flooding of 100 square miles of farmland on the Portuguese-Spanish border.
On the map, I counted no fewer than 17 symbols marked moinho (windmill) or azenha (watermill), clustered mainly around Luz, rebuilt on a hillside overlooking the lake after the original village was submerged by the opening of the Alqueva Dam floodgates in 2002. Though controversial, its immersion brought much-needed water, hydroelectric power and tourism to this hitherto blighted region.
With windmills and underwater villages to avoid, I listened intently to Anna's 15-minute briefing. Most of it was about which restaurants to try in the lakeside villages, places that had once stood high and dry among parched fields but now found themselves with a jetty, a slipway and a farm track or two disappearing surreally into the water. There was only one passing reference to the sonar and GPS system that has to be switched on permanently, and observed constantly, to avoid the mills. "Follow the green line," Anna advised, "which marks the deepest and safest part of the channel."
As we sat in the air-conditioned classroom, our luggage was transferred in a hydraulic lift to the pontoon 40ft below the marina complex. If the theory session seemed casual, our practical demonstration by José, the Lewis Hamilton of motor cruising, was skilled but almost perfunctory. Briefly we practised nudging the boat's prow into the soft lakeside, then using the wheel and gentle forward thrust to bring the stern closer to the bank, a controlled grounding that seemed counter-intuitive to me, a keen sailor. After a quick go at reversing, we were handed the keys and took possession of our Nicols Quattro cabin cruiser, the Alqueva – 36ft long, 12ft wide, equipped with three Specialized mountain bikes, and costing €200,000 (£160,000) to replace should we experience what the indemnity form referred to as a "loss of vessel".
The Grande Lago do Alqueva
This was to be our home for a week, as we cruised the length of the lake to Juromenha and back (a distance of 120 miles), stopping at any village we fancied and displaying our ineptitude to the locals as we docked. On the first night we simply ran ourselves aground on an islet just beyond the Alqueva Dam itself, taking care to avoid the Moinhos do Porto de Evora and the Moinhos do Pião. After tethering the boat to mooring pins hammered into the bank, we opened a bottle of Monsaraz Alentejo red, bought from a supermarket on the drive from Lisbon, and tucked into a supper of cold meats, olives and Queijo Serpa, a strong, tart cheese from the Baixo Alentejo, coloured brick-orange by paprika.
Paradoxically, this arid, inhospitable region, where summer temperatures top 104F (40C) and frost wreaks havoc in winter, is Portugal's agricultural heartland and the closest thing it has to a gourmet centre. Alentejo pork is reliably delicious, especially porco preto, from black pigs fed on acorns, its flesh marbled with creamy fat that makes it uniquely succulent. In a restaurant, you can order nothing better than carne de porco à Alentejana, cubed pork with clams.
The region is also famous for its cereal crops and bread (hence the many sunken windmills), leading to such pragmatic creations as migas, stale bread mixed with water, beaten to a porridge and fried, often with the juices of pork marinated in red pepper and garlic, then browned. The meat is served on top of the mash, which is flavoured with fresh coriander and has the consistency of sage-and-onion stuffing. It's an acquired taste, and one I am still acquiring.
More accessible are the Alentejo's sausages and cold meats, among them paio do lombo (smoked loin seasoned with salt, garlic and red pepper paste), linguiças (a thinner version), chouriço (like Spanish chorizo) and farinheira, made from pork and wheat-flour paste thinned with orange juice. Much is made of dishes based around bacalhau (salt-preserved cod) – a legacy of the Alentejo's isolation from the coast before decent roads were built – but it's not to everyone's taste.
In Monsaraz, our next port of call, we were lucky enough to meet Tiago Kalisvaart, a Portuguese of Dutch descent who runs Sem-Fim ("Without End"), a restaurant converted from an old olive mill. Presses and other artefacts are dotted around as objets, and part of the mill is a studio displaying works by Tiago's father, Gil, an artist and sculptor. The same sense of history is evident aboard Westlander, Tiago's 56ft Dutch barge, also called Sem-Fim, built in 1913 and used for gastronomic cruises, island picnics and excursions.
From the tiny harbour, a transfer by taxi is necessary for the uphill journey to Telheiro, a village on the hillside beneath the historic town of Monsaraz, with its cobbled streets, cathedral and medieval castle. On a shady terrace at the back of the restaurant, where sprigs of pimento adorn the tables and swallows nest in the chimney breast, we looked out on unspoilt farmland and ordered gazpacho Alentejano, a cold soup related to the puréed Spanish version but with the onion, tomato, cucumber and green pepper remaining as distinct chunks, floating in a chilled water seasoned with garlic, vinegar and salt.
The gazpacho is ladled over croutons of dry bread, the basis of another Alentejo soup, açorda – flavoured with coriander or poejo, the minty/medicinal herb pennyroyal, also made into a sweet liqueur which is well worth trying.
The perfect palate-freshener, the soup set me up for a main course of pork, grilled to a delicate rose-pink and served with migas. It was far too much for one person to eat, as was my wife's borrego (lamb) casserole with leeks, squash, onions and raisins, and my son's chicken wrapped in bacon. In most restaurants, you can save money by ordering a main course ample for two.
That night, we sat on the flying bridge of our boat, glass in hand, looking up at the Plough. (This lake, largely free of light pollution, was recently declared the world's first starlight destination on account of the clarity of the night sky.) The ramparts of Monsaraz were illuminated lilac, blue and green by floodlights set up for a festival. We fell asleep to a chorus of frogs, and woke to the sound of pigs foraging on the lakeside before the heat of the day kicked in.
After an early-morning swim we set off for Juromenha, following a sequence of marked buoys indicating the midpoint of the lake. An hour out of Monsaraz, the waters began to narrow and we found ourselves prescribing tight circles around ragged peninsulas and conical islands (once the tops of hills), keeping a close eye on the GPS as we negotiated underwater ravines and wove our way past olive groves, vineyards and parched desert inhabited only by bulls.
Past Cheles, on the Spanish side, the lake shrank to the width of a river and submerged trees rose out of the water like a petrified forest. Strings of floats marking fishermen's nets completed the obstacle course, undertaken at low speed with a constant eye on the GPS. Finally, we docked at a deserted jetty and watched swifts loop low over the water, preying on insects as the sun set.
Climbing the steep path to Juromenha village, with its whitewashed church, low-slung shuttered houses and picnic area planted with lime and olive trees, we felt like pioneers, the only tourists to have been there. From the Moorish castle we could see our boat tethered, cute as a bath toy, to the jetty below, and look out across the unruffled water to Spain. It felt like a real adventure.
Leaving at dawn the next day, our sights were set on Mourao, another hilltop village with a Moorish past, a day's cruising away. Docking with precision (at last), we watched the sun set flame-red over the lake, went for a swim, then took pot luck at Bar Zeco, a timber cabin just a stone's throw from the harbour. The bill, for cheese, bread, chouriço, salad, a plateful of freshwater crayfish, lashings of white wine, a coffee and an aguardente (firewater) came to €44 (£35) for three.
On the Grande Lago, you can eat well without trying.
Sunvil (020 8568 4499; sunvil.co.uk ) offers seven nights' self-catering on the Grande Lago do Alqueva from £797 per person, based on four people sharing a Quattro houseboat. The price includes return flight from London Heathrow to Lisbon with TAP Portugal, and group C car hire.
Amieira Marina ( amieiramarina.com ) has a fleet of boats sleeping two to 12 people, each with a shower room, fully-equipped kitchen, living area, bedrooms, sun deck and barbecue, as well as safety equipment and GPS navigation technology. Boating licences are not required and a short training session is given upon arrival.
For more information on the Alentejo region,see visitalentejo.pt .