Why Portugal's underrated lake country is worth exploring

Alqueva Lake.
Alqueva Lake is ideal for safe, leisurely swimming, and all sorts of other water-based activities, from paddleboarding to canoeing or kayaking to fishing and boat tours. Photo credit: Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jeanine Barone of CNN

In the sun-baked Alentejo region due southeast of Lisbon, the star is a body of water that has radically transformed a land long plagued by droughts: Alqueva Lake. This shimmering reservoir stretches across almost 100 square miles, making it among the largest manmade lakes in western Europe.

It was 21 years ago when the massive gates of the Alqueva Dam shut, flooding the area with waters from the Guadiana River, thus creating this lake with its undulating shoreline, hidden bays, and a multitude of islets peppering its surface.

Thanks to irrigation from these waters, the surrounding terrain is carpeted with orange groves and apple orchards, fields of olive trees, tidy vineyards, and fertile plots growing other fruits and vegetables. Also a source for hydropower as well as drinking water, the lake has become a nexus for recreation, and the surrounding landscapes speckled with hilltop castles beckon visitors to explore and soak up the tranquil vibe.

The pace is languid, with time for the senses to become delightfully saturated. Sweltering air is alive with the chirps and trills of warblers, nuthatches, magpies, goldfinches and other birds, sometimes perching on an ancient bridge that may date to Roman times, or an even more ancient stone megalith.

Rosemary and other aromatic plants emit sweet, lingering scents. Carrot-hued poppies, purple dwarf-pincushions, and other wildflowers sway as a gentle breeze caresses a grove of old olive trees along one scenic walking trail. Just off another trail, tall grasses almost but don't quite conceal a Gothic-arched stone cistern, once used by prestigious 20th-century Portuguese writer Urbano Tavares Rodrigues, some of whose works reflect upon this bucolic scenery (including nearby olive groves) in a land where time seems to be on a perpetual pause.

Water, water everywhere

Free from any strong currents, Alqueva Lake is ideal for safe, leisurely swimming, and all sorts of other water-based activities, from paddleboarding to canoeing or kayaking to fishing and boat tours.

Set on a petite peninsula, Amieira Marina is Alqueva's primary nautical centre, offering boat and other equipment rental, including houseboats. (No boating permit required.) Houseboat rental includes a one-hour training session; a map designating picnic spots, docks, and lakeside villages, such as Estrela; and onboard sonar and GPS units.

Three miles away, Amieira River Beach is an almost 2,000-foot-long stretch of golden sands, perfect for sunning or grabbing some shade under one of the awning canopies positioned along the adjacent expanse of lawns.

Walking through time

A network of almost a dozen walking trails (TransAlentejo Alqueva) allows visitors to ramble slowly through the plains and along the waterways, enjoying an intimate connection with nature, and discovering reminders of the distant past.

The eight-mile Reguengos de Monsaraz loop starts (and ends) in the medieval village of Monsaraz, perched some 500 feet above the Guadiana Valley. The narrow, cobblestone streets wind past whitewashed facades in what is essentially an open-air museum; one highlight is an impressive former Knights Templar castle.

Portugal standing stones.
The standing stones at Xerez Cromlech are reminders of rituals practiced millennia ago. Photo credit: Alex Robinson/robertharding/Getty Images

After this wall-encircled village, the route meanders near Xerez Cromlech, one of many stone megaliths dotting the area that are thought to be part of fertility or funerary rituals practiced millennia ago. Here, several dozen granite blocks form a square around a 13-foot-high monolith. Another memorable sight are the ancient olive trees that stand gnarled, moss-covered, and stately along a dirt path - several wrapped around each other, resembling a single tree. Amazingly, they can still bear fruit.

A different short trek begins in the town of Moura, where a lush, Victorian-style garden (Jardim Doutor Santiago) shelters in the shadows of a centuries-old castle. Picnic worthy, this garden is planted with an abundance of flora, including snapdragons, umbrella palms, Western redbuds, and Peruvian pepper trees.

Art and artisan wines and cuisine

Whether dining on a deck with views of Alqueva Lake, or in the vine-draped garden, guests at Michelin-starred Herdade do Esporão Restaurant will appreciate the menu, noted for its commitment to sustainable practices. The vegetable gardens at the expansive estate about 14 miles southwest of Monsaraz include one dedicated to edible flowers. Fish, such as pike-perch, are sourced from Alqueva Lake, grilled and served with migas, a traditional bread-centred accompaniment.

At São Lourenço do Barrocal, another estate that's about five miles west of Alqueva Lake, lunch can be enjoyed on a rear patio facing olive groves and a spacious lawn flecked with boulders. Every dish offers some surprise in its presentation, flavours and ingredients. For example, partridge escabeche is shredded, and served in a small copper pan alongside homemade potato chips.

Just 23 miles west of Alqueva Lake, in the wee village of Vila de Frades, Gerações da Talha is a new, atmospheric winery owned by Teresa Caeiro, whose family has been producing wines for generations using amphora (clay vessels), a method long relied upon by the Romans (and perhaps the Phoenicians before that). In a more than 200-year-old building, wine tastings are accompanied by olives sourced from a neighbour's grove, blood pork sausage from a friend's farm, and bread from a local baker.

Five minutes from this winery, Quinta do Quetzal successfully multitasks as a stellar winery and vineyard, restaurant and art centre.

The De Bruins, the Dutch family that owns the estate, collect only contemporary art, featuring both established and emerging artists, particularly those hailing from Portugal. The sometimes avant-garde works - drawings, paintings, films and sculptures that change every six months - are displayed in a one-floor, whitewashed space, appealing both to art aficionados and the general public. The modernist building that houses the art exhibition space manages to meld into the surrounding nature-scape.

Starry nights

The night sky shimmers with astral bodies in the Alqueva region - the Big Dipper, the constellation Cancer (the crab), the arc of the Milky Way, to name a few - making it a stargazing destination for visitors from around the world. No surprise, considering most of the year, there's little, if any, cloud cover after dark.

Portugal Dark Sky Reserve.
More than 1000 square miles of this region is designated a Dark Sky Reserve. Photo credit: miguelclaro/iStockphoto/Getty Images

More than 1000 square miles of this region is designated a Dark Sky Reserve, owing to its lack of light pollution. The towns making up this protected area limit ambient light, providing extraordinary visibility for celestial objects. In the village of Cumeada, visitors can book a reservation at the Dark Sky Observatory, where astronomers use high-tech telescopes to lead stargazing sessions, observing nebulae, binary stars and star clusters.

Astro-tourists often gravitate to one of the accommodations that partners with Dark Sky Alqueva. At Montimerso SkyScape CountryHouse, for example, guests can stargaze all over the property, even from the patios of the suites.

Nearby and on the tourist radar

Though numerous hidden treasures huddle in the Alqueva region and close environs, driving just 35 to 45 miles from the lake's Amieira River Beach brings travellers to a pair of cities that are on many must-visit lists.

The view from the Tower of the Three Crowns in Estremoz, a tourist draw not far from Alqueva Lake.
The view from the Tower of the Three Crowns in Estremoz, a tourist draw not far from Alqueva Lake. Photo credit: Christophe Cappelli/Alamy Stock Photo

In Évora - a UNESCO World Heritage Site that will be the European Capital of Culture in 2027 - a stroll through the network of cobbled streets reveals architectural and archaeological gems galore. This Roman-built city is saturated with the unexpected, such as the macabre Capela dos Ossos ("chapel of bones") where Franciscan monks contemplated life's impermanence among the thousands of human bones covering just about every surface.

Once home to many members of Portugal's royal families, Estremoz is an imposing sight. The original 13th-century wall encircles a hilltop quarter that's crisscrossed by a network of labyrinthine streets. This, the city's oldest section, is dominated by the castle's 92-foot-tall Tower of the Three Crowns. More reminders of days gone by are found outside the walls in the new Museu Berardo Estremoz, a repository for hundreds of years of elaborate Portuguese tilework (azulejos).