The eastern nook of Alentejo, minutes from the Spanish border, was changed forever at the start of the 2000s. At that time the Alqueva Dam impounded the Guadiana River, flooding the valley and forming an immense body of water. Never mind that this lake is man-made; the reservoir and its banks are absolutely stunning and have since between equipped with a beach and a watersports centre.
For history the old village of Monsaraz is like a living museum, raised on a slender hilltop and defended by medieval walls. And at night the towns turn their lights down so you can marvel at the blazing night sky.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Reguengos de Monsaraz:
1. Monsaraz Village
The stunning village of Monsaraz is huddled on a ridge at the top of a tall hill beside the Guadiana Valley.
The old core is hemmed by its walls, which are a blend of medieval and early-modern.
There’s a small lattice of car-free lanes lined with schist and whitewashed cottages hosting artisan shops and traditional restaurants.
The hushed ambience and lack of cars up here will make you feel like you’re in a time warp.
Come early in the day and see the chapels, pillory and Mannerist parish church.
On the east side of there’s a lookout (miradouro) where the Alqueva Reservoir is breathtaking in its cradle of golden and dark green fields.
Although, truth be told, the views from all sides of the village are staggering.
2. Monsaraz Castle and Walls
You may be inspired to spend a bit more time examining the town’s defences.
This ridge was the perfect refuge from invaders, and the Moors, Visigoths, Romans and Bronze Age tribes all built forts up here.
If you poke around for a while you’ll uncover up to 500 years of military architecture, all fashioned from small slabs of schist.
The 17th-century defences are easy to tell from their low profile and diagonal slant: There’s a metallic footbridge on the east wall where you can look down into the remnants of the bastion.
The 13th-century castle keep is to the south of the town, at the highest point.
Curiously, there’s a small bullring up here, encircled by walls with yet more spectacular vistas.
3. Wine Tours
RECEVIN, the European Network of Wine Cities, named Reguengos de Monsaraz, “European Wine City” in 2015. There are seven cooperatives and wine estate in the countryside.
One, the Herdade do Esporão, is among Portugal’s most famous wine brands.
Twenty years ago they opened a tasting centre and restaurant overlooking its rows of vines and the reservoir behind.
Reds are dominant in this warm climate, and there’s something peculiar about how they’re stored: At Adega José de Sousa and a few other local wineries the wine matures in clay amphorae, a method harking back to the Roman period.
4. Olaria de São Pedro do Corval
No sooner than you pull into Corval you’ll know that pottery is the lifeblood of this village: Indeed, Corval is billed as Portugal’s largest pottery centre.
The main road is flanked with potteries and shop-fronts touting their wares.
The pottery tradition here is prehistoric, taking advantage of the abundant clay deposits in the ground.
There are 26 potteries in business in Corval, and as well as browsing their beautiful products you can go behind the scenes to watcha master potter at the wheel.
Also see the interpretation centre at the Casa do Barro and discover how these pieces are baked, painted, baked again and glazed.
Corval’s speciality is plates, bowls and jugs, adorned with pastoral motifs.
5. Alqueva Reservoir
When you’re confronted by this massive body of water it’s hard to believe there was ever anything else here.
But the Alqueva Reservoir isn’t even 20 years old.
The valleys branching off the Guadiana were slowly flooded from 2002 during the construction of the Alqueva Dam, a multibillion-dollar megastructure.
And even if this lake is man-made this doesn’t detract from its allure.
Along the valleys there are narrow creeks, while on the higher ground are islands stranded in the lake and still decked with olive trees, cork oaks and holm oaks.
Walkers and cyclists can hit the trails on land, while there’s lots to do in the water as we’ll find out later.
6. Reserva Dark Sky Alqueva
Avid stargazers need to pack their telescopes, as the towns on the shores of the Alqueva all cooperate to keep artificial light to a minimum.
In the process the region has been certified a “Starlight Tourism Destination”, which is an initiative started by UNESCO and the World Tourism Organization.
The Alentejo climate has a hand in this, as there’s rarely cloud cover because of the low rainfall.
And with a lot of flat countryside around, the night skies at the reserve are vast and luminous.
The constellations, nearby planets and millions of other stars and other heavenly bodies stand out with a sharpness that can’t be imagined until you see it for yourself.
7. Observatório do Lago Alqueva
The lack of light pollution and clear skies for 8 out of 10 nights of the year should put the lake’s observatory on your agenda.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and you’ll get a dazzling show at this new attraction.
Sessions are nightly of course, and in summer they run from around 21:30 to as late as 01:00. You’ll observe the skies with a bilingual guide, who will point out the different planets, stars, craters on the moon and the satellites that cross the night sky.
Families with kids will be given an easy-to-follow and entertaining presentation, but your guide can also go into depth about the physical makeup of galaxies and nebula if you want more science.
8. Cromeleque do Xerez
The Reguengos de Monsaraz municipality is peppered with prehistoric monuments, and the standout is surely this cromlech near the shore of the reservoir.
This was hidden until the 20th century and only properly identified in the 1960s.
It was soon restored, although the whole set had to be moved a little after the Alqueva Dam was built.
The cromlech dates back 5,000 years or more, and has 50 granite stones with an intended phallic form.
These vary in height from 1.2 to 1.5 metres and are arranged in a square around a tall central menhir that stands alone.
9. Castelo de Esporão
This medieval castle tower appears on the Herdade do Esporão wine labels, and because of the brands’s popularity it’s an image known far and wide.
The whitewashed tower is on the wine estate and was raised in the second half of the 15th century by a nobleman from the House of Braganza.
There’s a fortified arched portal opening onto to an exhibition of Prehistoric archaeology after a megalithic settlement was discovered at the estate in 1996. A spiral stairway ushers you to the parapet on the roof for a satisfying look over the flat vineyards.
Also see the Nossa Senhora dos Remédios hermitage, which has frescos in its chancel.
10. Ermida de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Corval
Boasting whitewashed walls trimmed with blue on the corners, this hermitage dates to the 1500s and was given a makeover two centuries later.
It’s a building to appreciate from the outside, especially for its for conical turrets and crenellated wall at the back.
Visit this chapel as a partner to a Prehistoric menhir a short walk away.
In the past, particularly during droughts, there would be a pilgrimage from the chapel to this stone, known as Rocha dos Namorados.
This was an echo of the town’s pagan tradition as the stone was associated with fertility, maybe due to its faint resemblance to a uterus!
The Cromeleque do Xerez and Rocha dos Namorados are two of six megalithic sites near Reguengos de Monsaraz so there’s lots for students of prehistory to sink their teeth into.
Another of the standouts is the Museu Megalítico José Maria da Fonseca, which has a 6,000-year-old menhir at an indoor gallery.
You have to see this one because the stone is etched with prehistoric dimples and circles and images of a trapezoidal axe, a snake and a staff.
In the display cases there are handaxes and other tools from the same era.
If you want more, make for the menhirs at Outeiro and Belhoa, and the funerary dolmens in Olival da Pega.
12. Aldeia da Luz
One of the victims of the Alqueva Dam project was the village of Luz, which was in the path of the rising water.
At the start of the 2000s the decision was taken to relocate the entire village three kilometres up the hill.
It was an enormous undertaking, and where possible its residents ended up on the same streets and with the same neighbours as before.
It’s an uncanny sensation walking on lanes with typical whitewash houses have only been here for 15 years.
The Museu da Luz will fill you in on the move and has a window facing the point in the reservoir where Luz used to be.
13. Praia Fluvial de Monsaraz
In the last ten years the municipality has set up an activity centre on the lakeshore.
One element is the river beach (Praia Fluvial de Monsaraz), which opened in 2017 and gained the Blue Flag award in its first year.
The beach has a ribbon of golden sand, a bar, parasols, showers, a picnic area and glistening, limpid waters to bathe in.
You may be raring to get out onto the lake, and if so Monsaraz Adventure can hook you up with canoes, stand-up paddleboards, rowboats or even a yacht for a voyage on one of Europe’s largest reservoirs.
14. Alqueva Cruise
The Centro Náutico De Monsaraz by the beach is the local embarkation point for cruises on the reservoir.
Monsaraz Adventure and Cruzeiros Alqueva are two companies with a lineup of trips to pick from.
You can set sail as a group or in private, going fishing, making for interesting spots on the banks and docking at the reservoir’s islands.
Your guide will point out the wildlife that is beginning to inhabit the shore, while the astonishing sight of Monsaraz and its hilltop castle is as good a reason as any to climb aboard.
There are also night-time stargazing cruises to
Even a simple snack in Alentejo can be a treat because of all the goodies that come from the land.
To go with a glass of wine you could have local olives, sheep’s or goats’ cheese and cured sausages made from porco preto (free range Iberian pigs). These are all superb with a slice of crusty Alentejano bread.
For sit-down meals the food in Monsaraz is simple and satisfying.
We’re talking about game like boar, hare, rabbit or partridge, or plentiful stews cooked with lamb or a medley or sausage and pork.
There was a time when a little had to go a long way and that’s how recipes like açorda and migas came about, both turning leftover bread into meals with olive oil, meat, vegetables and a little creativity.