Horses, gin, cathedral roof tops, medieval castles, human bones, and ancient stones...
Last week’s post summarized Day 2 of our Alentejo Adventure, which means this week’s post will wrap up our visit. Of the above list, we’ve now checked off cathedral roof tops, medieval castles, human bones and ancient stones – although two of those categories make another appearance in this post (don’t worry, we’re done with human bones…whew!!).
Before we left to go on this trip we were checking the weather app so frequently I’m surprised it didn’t send a message saying, It’s the same as it was five minutes ago already! Get a life! Rain was forecasted every single day, but when we looked at the hourly details we could see there would be pockets of cloudy skies (no rain), and that the sun would break through occasionally. It’s not like we could do anything about it, but we held out hope that it might somehow magically dissipate and the weather would be perfect.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a total washout; and when it did rain, it managed to miss us…until Sunday. Our original plan was to drive to Monsaraz to visit the medieval castle and the fortified town surrounding it, take a boat ride on Alqueva Lake (the largest artificial lake in Europe), stop by a gin distillery our friends had told us about, and do some star gazing at the Alqueva Dark Sky Observatory that night. Unfortunately, when we got up that morning it was raining. We decided to scratch the boat ride and the stargazing from the to-do list. Such a bummer, but we’re going to return and do those things next time for sure.
On the way there we passed a sign for another menhir (megalithic stone). I told Won to circle back so we could take a look. It was called Menir da Bolhoa. This menhir is thought to date back to between 4000 and 2500 BCE. Overlooked for a long time, it was finally identified in 1970. At that time, it was lying on the ground with the upper part separated from its base. That piece was found nearby; it had been used as a grape press for who knows how long. The monument was restored to its original shape soon after discovery with the fracture visible. The stone stands four meters high and is one meter in diameter (13 ft by 3.3 ft). The menhir is part of a megalithic nucleus that includes the menhirs of Monte da Ribeira and Outeiro and the Xerez Cromlech (not the one we were at the day before, but another all together).
We hopped back in the car and headed for the castle, which is positioned on one of the highest hills in the area. That hill offers a superb view (some say the best) over the immense Alentejo plains and lake Alqueva. Here is an aerial shot I grabbed from the Internet. It shows where the castle and fortified town are in relation to the lake.
The hilltop of Monsaraz holds an important place in the history of the area. It’s strategic location meant that it has been occupied since prehistoric times. Pre-Roman occupation and funerary temples, carved from the local rock, were built upon prehistoric fortifications. It is one of the oldest settlements in southern Portugal.
While searching for a map to demonstrate how close Monsaraz is to Spain, I stumbled upon the following graphic which happens to identify not only Monsaraz, but also Montemor-o-Novo, Estremoz, Arraiolos, and Évora (all the places we visited on this trip), and where they are in relation to Lisbon. I thought you might find it interesting.
The name Monsaraz originates from the word Xarez or Xerez, the Iberian transliteration of the Arabic Saris or Sharish, for the Gum Rockrose, a plant that still prospers today in the poor, dry, acidic slate-based soil that surrounds Monsaraz. The Iberian words Xarez/Xerez evolved to the Portuguese Xaraz. The settlement therefore came to be known as Monsaraz, originating from Monte Xaraz, i.e., a fortified hill surrounded by Gum Rockroses. (Normally, I don’t go into this much detail on how a location received its name, but it connects to something that happens a bit later in the story, so shake your head, rub your eyes, and hang in there.)
The weather wasn’t particularly nice as we were approaching the castle, but we gamely got out of the car to take in the views from a prominent point. It was windy and beginning to rain. I can only imagine how stunning the vistas are when there are no storm clouds threatening. You can see in the image below how big and far the lake stretches.
We thought that if we killed some time, the clouds and rain might pass so we decided to find a place to have lunch. We drove down the hill to the town below and searched for a restaurant, but it wasn’t quite noon so many places weren’t open (plus, noon is very early for lunch in Portugal which was compounding the problem). Then I got the brilliant idea of using the Google app called “Near Me” to find one. I chose the highest rated restaurant at the top of the list, that also showed they were open, and hit the navigation button. We laughed when we realized it was directing us back up the hill where we had just been.
Sure enough, Taverna Os Templários was inside the walled town of Monsaraz. After we parked, it took us a few minutes to find it, mainly because the entrance was so non-descript, but once inside and settled at our table near a window, we marveled at the views of the countryside. From our vantage point we could see more rain clouds heading aggressively across the plains toward the castle. Oh well, nothing to do now, but order and wait it out. Once again, we demolished the bread and heavenly olive oil and then ate our fabulous entrees very slowly.
By the time we had finished our meal most of the rain had let up, but clouds now enveloped the entire hilltop making it foggy, misty, and cool. We couldn’t hide out all day, so we stepped out into the eerie, dreary ancient town. Monsaraz looks like it was frozen in time with white lime walls, schist narrow streets, and adorable little nooks. The town has a sweet combination of shops, restaurants and 782 permanent residents (based on the last census count). Here are a few pictures.
We headed toward the castle to take a closer look. What makes these castle ruins interesting is the fact that sometime around 1830, the residents of the town decided to make use of the castle parade ground which had fallen into a state of disrepair when it was no longer being used for military purposes. They gathered up stones from the walls that had fallen and built a bullring.
Let me just say, my hair and misty, breezy weather are not a good combination. When we got back to the car, Won dug a hat out of the trunk to help me out. On our way down the hill, the sun finally broke through, which made our next stop that much more enjoyable.
Here we were, in the heart of the Alentejo – a region known for producing great wine – surrounded by vineyards and wineries everywhere you looked, and we didn’t stop at a single one. Instead, we were headed to a gin distillery. Why, you might ask, did we do that? Well, as it turns out, the Portuguese have developed a passion for the juniper-based drink (my kind of people!) and that has fueled growth in artisanal gin distilleries and tonic producers. About a dozen craft gin distilleries have opened in the country in recent years and they are producing award-winning blends that combine traditional techniques with new ingredients. Here are just a few:
Big Boss Gin – Portugal’s first premium gin. Big Boss gin uses 11 botanicals that include cardamom and angelica root. The blend is subjected to four distillations performed according to artisan techniques resulting in a fresh and unique gin. They also make a pink gin, created with red fruits.
Templus – The Iberian Peninsula’s first organic gin, is produced in Évora and named after the 1st century Roman temple located there. Everything is done by hand with the exception of filling of the bottles. It is produced only in small batches and incorporates locally sourced peppermint and pennyroyal.
Gin 13 – So named because it is made with 13 botanicals including tangerine, jasmine flower and black tea. Once the ingredients are distilled extracts of lemon and lemongrass are added along with hops, an ingredient that’s most commonly associated with beer production. The design of the bottle incorporates symbols surrounding superstitions associated with the number 13 like four-leaf clovers, black cats and skulls.
The one we chose to visit, however, was Sharish (and, now that you know the etymology of the name of Monsaraz, you will understand how Sharish got its name). Launched in 2013, Sharish gin incorporates indigenous Portuguese ingredients such as the Alentejo’s abundant supply of citrus fruits and Bravo Esmolfe Apple PDO, an Alentejo delicacy, as well as juniper and vanilla. Each ingredient is distilled separately in traditional Portuguese copper stills before being combined with a spirit base that’s made from a mixture of rice and wheat.
Their primary gin is very smooth. It has a pleasing fruity taste with notes of apple and citrus. Sharish also produces a very popular, color-changing gin called Blue Magic. Due to a natural flower extract used to make the gin, the blue tincture transforms to pink when mixed with tonic water. This was demonstrated to us by the owner’s son, João. He whipped up two gin and tonics for us. Mine was made with Blue Magic Gin and this is what it looks like when the magic happens.
João told us that Blue Magic was created after his mother told his father that she didn’t like the taste of gin. His father then developed this wonderful gin using the color-changing flower just for her. How romantic is that?
After we were served our drinks, we headed outside to enjoy them. (I should stop and say that we were hoping to take a tour of the distillery, but we didn’t schedule an appointment in advance and there was no one who spoke English available to take us around.) While relaxing and sipping our tasty drinks, a couple of playful puppies (who live on the property) came tumbling over. One ended up at Won’s feet and the other in his lap while they played a cute game of “king of the hill.” Adorable!!
After we had finished our cocktails, and just as we were finalizing the purchase of four (!!) bottles of these yummies beverages – actually we only bought three bottles of differently flavored gin; the other bottle was a traditional Portuguese after dinner liqueur called O Poejo made from the pennyroyal plant – we learned that Sharish offers guided off road tours of the area on UTVs. Blast…that would have been super fun. I’m adding it to the list of things we’ll be doing when we return.
On the way back to the hotel, I kept remarking about how much the area reminded me of Napa and Sonoma where I have family. I asked Won to stop so I could get a picture to share. So pretty.
When we made our reservations with L’AND, we included a horseback ride through that would take us through their vineyards and extensive property. It was originally scheduled for Saturday morning, but when we checked in on Friday, the weather wasn’t looking promising for the next day. We asked if we could reschedule it for Sunday when the forecast was better. Unfortunately, Sunday wasn’t an option, but they could do it on Monday morning (the day we were checking out). In retrospect, we should have rolled the dice and kept it on Saturday, because the weather turned out to be nicer that day.
Monday morning the clouds returned and threatened rain once again. Since it was a five kilometer ride, we asked if we could have a late check out so that we could shower and change if we got drenched before getting in the car and driving home. They were happy to oblige, but thankfully it only sprinkled on us for a few minutes.
While saddling up the horses, the guide asked who was the more experienced rider and Won immediately said it was him, which isn’t actually true (I’ve ridden more horses than he has), but he was so concerned that I would somehow fall and get hurt he didn’t want to take any chances. As a result, he was assigned a beautiful, 3-year old mare named Baunilha (Portuguese for vanilla). Turns out Baunilha was pretty feisty. She was kicking the inside of the horse trailer while my horse was being saddled. My horse was a mellow 13-year old gelding named Ringo. Because Baunilha had a mind of her own, our guide led her along the route and Ringo and I followed behind.
The horses were saddled with English riding saddles, something neither of us had experienced before. All we needed to do now was get on the horses. I had not given this much thought until the moment came when I needed to get up there. I’m only 5′ 3″ (160 cms). Our guide was about 6 feet tall and you can see where his head is in relation to the saddle in the pictures above. This meant I needed to get my butt way up there and there wasn’t anything useful I could stand on except a pile of gravel, which wasn’t particularly stable.
My first attempt left me laughing so hard I nearly peed in my pants! It was an abysmal effort. I quickly realized that I was going to have to summon some super human strength from somewhere deep inside. English riding saddles don’t have “horns” to hold on to like Western saddles, which made getting on that much more challenging. Regardless, on the second attempt (and I still don’t know how I pulled this off), I managed to get my foot into the stirrup (which, when standing next to the horse, came up to about my chest) and then hoisted myself up into the saddle (with a bit of help from our guide). Go ahead, try to lift your foot up to your chest and then think about stepping up into that spot and swinging your other leg over your head. Yikes!! I might be getting too old for this type of activity. It’s a fact; horses are tall.
Won didn’t have as much trouble and made it on the first attempt, but nearly catapulted himself over the other side. LOL!! Our guide adjusted our stirrups, made sure we were all ready, and off we went! The horses had done this many times before and knew the way. We enjoyed passing through vineyards, pastures, and forested areas. The views were lovely and the wildflowers beautiful.
Ringo was such a good horse, but the flies were relentless and kept attacking his eyes (vicious little $#%^&). I felt so sorry for him. Then I remembered I had a hand fan in my purse (don’t ask me why I brought my purse with me…I have no idea), but I pulled it out and then used it to fan his face to try and keep the flies away. This involved me leaning forward over his neck requiring me to grip his body with my thighs so I could maintain my balance. When I would stop fanning and the flies returned, he would whinny at me. He liked it!!
(Won looks like he’s channeling the old days when he was a police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, although he was never assigned to patrol on a horse, but if he had been, he would look good doing it!)
Our ride was peaceful and uneventful except for a few times when Baunilha wanted to stop and nibble grass which nearly caused Won to fall off as she bent her head to the ground.
Getting off the horse was easier with gravity on my side, but no less unnerving knowing how far down the ground was. We both completed our adventure without incident or injury, thanked our guide and our trusty steeds, packed up and headed home. Now that I look back on our trip, it was probably good that our horse ride took place on Monday and not Saturday. I was beyond sore for several days afterward. Ouch.
We had a great time exploring the Alentejo and will absolutely go back again. I hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventure and that it inspires you to consider visiting the Alentejo when you come to Portugal.
Until next time, I hope you stay safe, safe healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,