Embracing the Wonders of Alentejo, Portugal: Kayaking, Stargazing, and Adventure

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Greetings, fellow seekers of excitement and exploration! Today, we’re embarking on a journey to the mesmerizing landscapes of Alentejo, Portugal, where kayaking, night swims, stargazing, and a dash of history create a concoction of adventure that’s truly out of this world.

Starry Nights and Celestial Wonders

As the sun dips below the horizon, the Alqueva region of Alentejo comes to life with a different kind of rush hour. Not the usual traffic jams, but a celestial queue of Starlink satellites lighting up the night sky. Imagine roads as empty at night as they are during the day, but above, a dazzling dance of satellites begins. Gazing upward, astronomer Nuno Santos points out the International Space Station, playfully suggesting we give the astronauts aboard a friendly wave. How’s that for a cosmic traffic jam?

In the heart of the Dark Sky Alqueva Observatory, a symphony of stars unfolds. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, the sky transforms into a canvas of celestial bodies. From the radiant Venus to the fiery Mars, these planets steal the show against the backdrop of countless stars. It’s like someone sprinkled a handful of glitter across the vast night canvas. Navigating among these twinkling stars, I try to spot Ursa Major, the great bear constellation. But hold on, even Nuno admits he can’t always see it clearly, reminding us that the constellation-namers might have indulged in really good wine! Cheers to those tipsy astronomers of the past.

Stellar Navigation and Time Travel

Let’s talk history for a moment. Portugal’s mastery of the stars marked an era of exploration that rocked the 15th and 16th centuries. These intrepid navigators set sail, their guiding light being the North Star, whose light we still see today as cast by Galileo’s era. Nuno reminds us that when we gaze at the night sky, we’re peering into the past—a cosmic time capsule, if you will.

The Alqueva Reservoir, a man-made marvel impounding the River Guadiana, reshaped the landscape. Just a few decades back, Alqueva looked nothing like it does today. This reservoir, Europe’s largest artificial body of water, sprung to life in 2002. A brainchild dating back to the 1950s, it brought life to the region, turning it into a lakeside haven. Just imagine, a lakeshore longer than Portugal’s entire coastline! It’s like Mother Nature decided to extend the invitation list to her watery parties.

From Medieval Castles to Aerial Balloon Adventures

Monsaraz, a hilltop settlement with a fortified castle, offers us a view of the Alqueva Reservoir that’s nothing short of enchanting. Standing on those castle ramparts, you can almost visualize the valleys filling up and hilltops becoming islands when the Guadiana River was dammed. The result: Alentejo’s landscape transformed into a rolling sea of wheat, vines, cork, and olive trees.

But for an even more breathtaking perspective, let’s ascend into the sky in a hot air balloon. Picture this: dawn breaks, the fiery breath of liquid propane fills the air, and the world falls silent as we ascend. Our balloon hovers over the Alqueva Reservoir, its reflective surface creating a giant, shimmering light bulb on the water. And just when you think the scene couldn’t get any dreamier, a fish leaps, shattering the mirror-like reflection. Atlantis may be lost beneath, but our spirits are soaring.

Kayaking Under the Stars

It’s time for a thrilling night kayak adventure. Break out your adventurous spirit, because this is mainland Portugal’s only after-dark kayaking experience. The reservoir’s waters, warm as a cozy bath by day, invite us to dip our paddles and glide along with the ripples. And here’s a fun twist: as visibility decreases, our other senses awaken. The wind carries the sweet aroma of the esteva plant, which lines the lakeshore. As we reach a small island, it’s like stepping onto a beach of stars—the night sky’s vastness and Carl Sagan’s words echo: more stars than grains of sand.

Sharing the kayak with us is Francisco Guerreiro, a guide who knows the stars like old friends. His familiarity with the sky is like a comforting blanket, pointing out constellations like the Milky Way and Gemini. And when Pisces appears, it’s your cue to take a swim. The water, like velvety darkness, wraps around you in a comforting embrace. The experience is capped with a candlelit picnic of local treats, including black pork chouriço and queijo de Évora, all washed down with a sip of Alentejan red. Cheers to savoring both the sky and local flavors!

Wine, Wildlife, and a Safari Adventure

Now, let’s savor Alentejo’s earthly delights. The region’s wine industry is a key player in the local economy, with vineyards dotting the landscape. A visit to the Herdade do Sobroso estate treats us to more than just fine vintages. Here, Sofia Machado and Filipe Teixeira Pinto, as passionate about safari as they are about wine, take us on an adventure. Imagine a 4WD safari at sunset, with roller coaster tracks cutting through the estate.

The estate’s red dust adds to the atmosphere, and suddenly, a wild boar appears like a fleeting apparition. The tour is a parade of red and spotted deer, some with majestic antlers, and curly horned mouflon. Birds of all kinds find refuge among the pine trees, rosemary plants, and mastic trees. The estate even boasts over 6,000 cork trees, a symbol of sustainability and a slow-growing promise for the planet’s future.

But cork isn’t just for wine bottles; it’s played a role in our ‘age of discovery.’ It insulated Space Shuttles, bridging our quest for the stars. Who knew that cork—a local tradition—would become an unsung space hero?

Final Thoughts

And there you have it, a whirlwind journey through the captivating wonders of Alentejo, Portugal. From stargazing to kayaking, from wine tasting to wildlife safaris, this region beckons the adventurous spirit in all of us. So, fellow explorers, if you ever find yourself in Portugal, don’t miss the chance to embrace the stars, the waters, and the stories that Alentejo has to offer.

Published in the September 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK). To subscribe, venture into the pages of discovery and wanderlust. Until next time, keep exploring the world around you, for adventure knows no bounds! _xD83C__xDF0C__xD83D__xDEA3_‍♂️_xD83C__xDF77_

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Adventure

Q: What can I expect from the stargazing experience in Alentejo, Portugal?

A: Prepare for a celestial spectacle! Alentejo’s Dark Sky Alqueva Observatory offers stunning views of planets, stars, and constellations. Astronomers guide you through this cosmic journey.

Q: Are the kayaking tours suitable for beginners?

A: Absolutely! The after-dark kayaking tours are designed for all levels of experience. Expert guides accompany you, ensuring a safe and unforgettable adventure on the reservoir’s gentle waters.

Q: Can I combine wildlife encounters with wine tasting in Alentejo?

A: Yes, you can! Herdade do Sobroso estate offers a unique experience, blending wine tastings with wildlife safaris. Explore the estate’s diverse flora and fauna before savoring local vintages.

Q: How can I explore Alentejo’s landscapes from above?

A: Rise with the sun in a hot air balloon! Embark on a dawn flight, capturing panoramic views of the Alqueva Reservoir and the picturesque Alentejo region below.

Q: What’s the best way to reach Alentejo, Portugal?

A: Fly to Lisbon and drive two hours south to Alqueva. This road trip offers a chance to explore the picturesque Portuguese countryside before diving into the adventure-filled wonders of Alentejo.

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