Thursday 28 January 2016

Sitting on top of the world at Monsaraz

Portugal, 19th – 23rd January 2016

When we left Évora last Tuesday, instead of heading west back to the Alentejo coast, the van wheels set into motion and made a move east towards the Spanish border.  We hadn’t made an impromptu decision that we’d had enough of Portugal and wanted to leave, nor had Matt suddenly lost his passion for the sea and decided we’re staying inland.  So what gives?  Well, we’d heard of a little village called Monsaraz with a motorhome parking area and panoramic views.  I’m a sucker for a panorama, and so our next destination was decided.

Monsaraz promised us a view, and it certainly delivered.  The walled village sits atop a hill that sticks out above the rest of the surrounding countryside.  We approached it as the day was coming to a close and followed the signs for caravan parking up something of a tight, winding uphill corner, and came out on a terrace (GPS: 38.44245 -7.37982) occupied by a half-dozen or so vans with views out over the fields and the Barragem de Alqueva (Europe’s largest manmade lake).

As well as the nice views, the village of Monsaraz is quite a pretty place.  There’s only really two main cobbled streets running through it so it’s not a huge place, but the buildings are a mixture of brickwork and whitewashed walls that feel clean and well maintained.  There were a couple of restaurants and craft shops open, but other than that it was fairly quiet.  A church stands at one end of the town, and a castle at the other with a small arena where bullfights are still held a few times a year.  You can walk around the walls of the castle which has views in all directions.

We spent two days at this spot, with the second day being used as a recuperation day to chill out for a bit.  We activated our recently purchased NOS data SIM, which we then proceeded to utilize the unlimited data aspect of by running our MiFi router down to empty battery, a feat we’ve only accomplished once before (due to our usual efforts to be conscious about our data consumption) when stationary for a while in Greece.  After using NOS for a week now it’s proved to be a pretty reliable service, with us being able to pick up an internet connection everywhere we’ve tried it.

After Monsaraz it was onwards to Luz, a place with an odd little history behind it.  In the 50s when Portugal was in the midst of its decades-long rule under Salazar, talks started about the potential of building the Barragem de Alqueva, or Alqueva Dam.   Counting out some interrupted preliminary works in the 70s, the talks only really came into fruition in the 90s, when construction on the dam commenced and in 2000 a 250km2 reservoir was created, larger than any other in Europe.  It was a controversial project due to the destruction caused to prehistoric sites and to wildlife habitats.  Also lost to the dam was the town Aldeia da Luz which was submerged in the lake, and in its place the new town Luz was built.

The new Luz is a strange place.  The original village was lost in 2002, and the replacement is mainly a collection of one storey houses that all look like clones of each other spare for a bit of different coloured paint around the doors and windows. The inhabitants seem deeply dissatisfied with the new village, which has a dwindling population and feeling of isolation, with many younger residents moving away to places with better employment prospects.

The main source of any kind of action in the town seemed to be coming from the Aire (GPS: 38.34294 -7.37406, Free inc. serv. pt).  Somewhere around 9am when we were getting ready for the day, we were disturbed by a genre of music that I could only describe as the European folk music equivalent of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire being blasted over loudspeaker.  It seems that a French van which had previously been spending a lot of time running a generator had now taken it upon themselves to play what seemed like a repeating loop of the same 2-3 songs for a good hour or so at a volume that was impossible to ignore.  Our blinds were still closed when the noise started and we didn’t have a good vantage point from our parking bay to see what was happening, but we did notice some shouting around the time the music started that seemed to be part of a conversation between a British van and the music perpetrators.  Given that they only stopped the music once the other Brits left, we are assuming the music was in response to some kind of dispute over the generator.  A few hours later after we’d been for a walk and returned to the Aire, we noticed an electric cable trailing away from the (still running) generator and van; it turns out the cable was powering an electric washing machine.  Now we’ve noticed that a lot of French vans seem to like carrying a lot of stuff with them, usually in trailers, but never before have we seen anyone lugging a washing machine around with them before.  I don’t know whether to be horrified or impressed.

After calling at an Intermarché and going to look at the actual barragem, which is an impressive structure, we started making progress back west once more.  The jury was out on where we were heading next; Beja sounds like it would be a very interesting place to visit, but the parking area we had listed seemed a bit too noisy for my liking and more useful as a day parking spot than an overnight spot, and it was getting on a bit in the day.  For now, Beja remains on our list of things to come back to, which could well be in the next couple of weeks, depending on which path we take when we next come inland.
Barragem de Alqueva

For overnight parking, it was off to, yes, another barragem.  This one was Barragem do Roxo (GPS: 37.93662 -8.08099), where there is room for a few motorhomes in a layby area just before the roadway that crosses over the dam.  We crossed the dam in the van to see if there was anything on the other side, but wouldn’t advise anyone to do the same; the dam is deceptively wide and the road across it is a single track with no passing spots and speed bumps to slow you down, meaning it takes quite a while to cross and if anything was coming the other way it would have been rather awkward.

Not long after parking up and closing the blinds, we heard what sounded like someone outside brushing up against the van and possibly tampering with the storage locker.  Given how isolated our parking spot was from passers-by (as well as general nervousness about noises after dark after our incident back in the Camargue), alarm bells started ringing in my head.  We quietly switched off the lights inside the van before peeling back the blind to peer outside, but couldn’t see anyone, so out we went with our torches to investigate (it’s a good job we’re not characters in a horror film).  Matt did find our would-be attacker in the trees, with a pair of cat eyes reflecting our torchlight back at us from a distance.  Assured that no-one was attempting a break-in and avoiding the urge to befriend the local wild felines, it was back into the van for dinner.

The next day, the sun was beaming down a lovely 21 degrees, finally giving me an excuse to crack out my prescription sunglasses for the first time since purchase while back in the UK last month.  Matt disappeared onto the roof, where he assures me he wasn’t sunbathing and was in fact cleaning rooflights and adjusting the pipe tube.  I know what activity I’d prefer to be doing, but to each their own.  There was no sign of our feline friend, but we’d been joined in the night by a French camper and car who seemed to have taken over a big chunk of the lay-by with a spread of bikes, levelling ramps, chairs and table complete with tablecloth.  They looked like they were set up to stop a while but we meanwhile had ground to cover, and so it was back on the road west to Lousal.

Lousal is a village that looks like most of its employment would have come from the local pyrite (iron sulphide) mine that was in operation from 1900 until 1988.  With the closure of the mine it seems that they have tried to get more commerce coming back into the town by turning the mines into an attraction.  We went for a wander around, noticing an information sign encouraging you to stay on the designated footpaths, which interestingly were nowhere to be seen within the vicinity of the information sign.  It seems that the site might still be in the process of being built or may have ran out of funds in the middle of being commercialised, as there are paths that don’t appear to lead to anything as well as an information sign there didn’t look to be a way of accessing without wandering through one of the old, ready to fall down buildings.  There is however a museum for the mines and a section of tunnels within the mines which looked like you could arrange to visit with a guide, possibly arranged through the museum.

We spent the night at the Aire in Lousal (GPS: 38.03580 -8.42876, Free inc. serv. pt.), spending some time to plan our next moves.  We’ll soon be arriving at the stretches of coast that are frequented by winter motorhomers, and to be honest I’m feeling a little nervous.  We had a great three weeks down there on our trial run trip last year, but recent tales of police cracking down on freecamping has placed me on edge.  Watch this space.

- Jo


  1. Hi remember us?
    We met you in Pula and again near Lake Bled last September.
    We are enjoying reading your blogs.
    The Aire in Lousal was a place we stopped at for a couple of nights about 4 weeks ago!
    Peter and Shifley.

    1. Hi Peter and Shirley, Yes we remember you! Thanks for getting in touch. That's a coincidence, where are you now?

  2. We are back home in the Peak District.
    We got the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander on 20th December. Then drove to Lisbon to spend Chistmas with our daughter, her Portugeeses husband and two Grandchildren. From there we continued to The Algarve to see The New Year in on the beach in Albufeira.
    We continued south and got as far as Tariffa, the most southerly point in Europe. Only16km from Africa.
    Unfortunatly I got a message to say my sister-in-law had died!
    We decided to drive back for her funeral, it took me four days to get back home using the Bilbao/Portsmouth ferry.
    Peter and Shirley

    1. We're sorry to hear your sad news and it's a shame the timing meant you had to cut your trip short. We'll be heading down Tarifa way after a few more weeks in Portugal on the Algarve. All the best, Matt