Wednesday, 20 June 2012 12:53 PM
Alex Stevenson explores Lake Alqueva in Portugal, the largest manmade lake in Europe, on an Amieira Marina boat holiday
The views from the concrete ramparts of the Alqueva dam couldn't be more different. In one direction is the narrow Guadiana River, perhaps 20 metres across, in the centre of a narrow valley lined with the greens and earthy browns of Mediterranean scrubland. Houses are scattered here and there. It's a typical Portuguese scene from the Alentejo region's heartland.
Turn around and the scene changes completely. Sunlight glitters on a large expanse of water stretching away into the distance. Those gentle valleys and houses are there alright, but they're underwater, submerged, slowly drowned in the 12 months after the final floodgates of the dam were closed in 2006.
This is Lake Alqueva, the largest manmade lake in Europe. Now, thanks to the enterprising souls of Amieira Marina, it is the continent's largest manmade aquatic playground.
We've made it to the dam on one of the motor cruisers available for hire in this very unusual holiday location.
The good ship Estrela I had everything you'd want for a week on board: an oven, lots of living space both in and out of the shade, and surprisingly impressive walk-in bathrooms that double as showers. It only takes a short induction course to be taught how to navigate. These boats are more or less foolproof.
The lake which Amieira Marina has opened up to visitors is more like the Norfolk Broads than the Italian Lakes.
A vast expanse of water would be boring compared with the fascination of navigating along its winding coastline. This is so long and windy; I’m told that it exceeds the total length of Portugal's Atlantic coastline. The contours of the land have created endless creeks, inlets and branches for exploration.
In some places the shore is dominated by rocky cliffs but the sonar shows a full 40 metres below the boat – are we floating above what once must have been a big valley?
As we journey between the many jetties located close to the villages near the lake's shores we discover communities in transition. Some of the bigger towns like the beautiful hilltop Monsarraz, whose cobbled streets and castle dominate the central part of the lake, were familiar with tourism beforehand. Others, like Morau, seem more conservative in nature.
It's understandable that some locals might be a bit bewildered by the arrival of outsiders. But the locals' conservative instincts are more than compensated for by their natural hospitality. "You are our guests," declares Joachim, the owner of the Adega Velha restaurant, as we tuck into a sensational fish soup.
There is talk along the lake of tourism facilities like golf courses and hotels in the works, but Portugal's economic malaise has effectively put a halt to further development now. This means that until the situation improves the boats on offer at Amieira Marina remains the best way to take advantage of Lake Alqueva's attractions.
Small firms are springing up here and there as the region begins to realise its potential. Francisco, for example, ditched being a PE teacher to set up a small firm specialising in jeep tours - Break Tours.
The rugged landscape, dotted with megalithic dolmens and menhirs over 5,000 years old, is well-suited for exploration with Francisco as a guide. At nearby Olaria Patalim the pottery factory features the produce of the astonishingly skilled Nuno Santinha, who can turn a lump of clay into any item of crockery with a few pinches and twists of his deft fingers.
The main reason to leave the lake, and its excellent fishing, kayaking and sailing opportunities, is to make sure you don't miss out on the local food.
Amieira Marina itself has a fine restaurant with an excellent view high above on the lake's innumerable promontories. Your appetite for good food will be sated even as your appetite for the journey to come is whetted. Try their delicious Supremos de Bacalha, a really impressive fish dish.
My pick of the restaurants we visited was Sem Fim in Telheiro, Monsaraz. Diners eat amid the machinery of an old olive oil factory, now decorated with modern art. Lamb chops and octopus were both memorable, but the real treat is olive oil tasting. The owner, Tiago, also offers trips out on the lake for a sail in his Dutch boat.
"I remember the landscape before the lake," Tiago tells me. He grew up in the valley of the Guadiana River. "But that's all gone now." Instead he gets to sail on the lake instead – and business is improving. He is exactly the sort of person which Amieira Marina, effectively trying to build this holiday destination on its own, wants on its side.
Lake Alqueva is an odd holiday destination. Rarely are such large geographical features so new, after all; the sudden creation of this lake really has created an opportunity for a holiday unlike any you'll have before or afterwards.
There are very few boats on the lake at the moment. The chances are the jetty where you spend the night will be deserted. Any major development is yet to come, so for now there's nothing to stop enjoyment of the lake without the drag of other tourists.
Best of all, the sparse population in the lake region makes this place sensational for stargazing. You don't need to be an astronomer to marvel at the amazing display put on by the heavens each night. This is so good it has been awarded the first ever 'starlight tourism destination' certification by the Starlight Foundation, backed by UNESCO among others. Shooting stars seen from the cabin roof of a floating object always seem to me the best kind.
It took one year for the waters of Lake Alqueva to fill the many valleys in this part of the world. The lake has solved the region's water problems, but in time its main legacy will be the creation of a new tourism destination. That legacy is not yet fulfilled, but that's no reason to hang about. The valleys and villages of this part of Portugal's Alentejo region – whether above or underwater – await.
By Alex Stevenson
Boats sleep two to 12 people and features include bathroom, fully equipped kitchen, living area, bedrooms, sun deck and barbecue, as well as safety equipment and navigation technology including GPS and sonar. Boating licences are not required and a short training session is provided upon arrival.
For more information on Amieira Marina visit the website.
TOURISM DO ALENTEJO
For more information on the region please visit www.visitalentejo.pt
TAP Portugal flies up to 7 times daily from Heathrow or Gatwick to Lisbon, prices start at £72 one way including all taxes. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0845 601 0932.
Break offers jeep tours for groups of 4 - 6 people starting in Monsaraz for 35€ per person. For further information visit www.momentosfantasticos.com
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