Equipped with her compass, Helen Abramson goes treasure hunting on manmade Lake Alqueva and discovers the joys of GPS during a geocaching adventure.
On the map, Lake Alqueva appears as a fierce artery, stretching out into countless capillaries offering countless opportunities to get lost. I feel prepared though; I’ve brought my compass. I’ll be staying on a houseboat for three nights with two other shipmates, navigating our way from village to village to find small plastic boxes hidden in the most unsuspecting places, and exploring the cosmos with some stargazing along the course – a veritable navigation bonanza.
We pull up at Amieira Marina after a two-hour drive from Lisbon, and the lake looks vast in the dusk light. It’s wonderfully peaceful. About a decade ago, Alqueva, in the eastern part of Portugal’s south-central Alentejo Province, went through a dramatic change. The creation of the largest man-made lake in Europe, covering 250 square kilometres, provided irrigation to one of the country’s most arid areas – committing the village of Lux to a watery grave in the process. New homes were provided in a replica Lux, but the promise of a much-needed industrial boom following the building of the dam has yet to materialise, and tourists usually overlook this quiet, picturesque region in favour of Lisbon and the Algarve.
Our houseboat awaits us. I’ve always wanted to stay the night on one. I had a romantic notion of waking up to the gentle rocking of the boat in serene waters, and, free to go wherever took my fancy, I would cruise off in the bright morning sunshine with the wind in my hair and just my compass and wits to guide me.
We are woken on our first morning by highly unusual conditions for late spring. Heavy rain batters the windows, and the howling wind is creating a far from tranquil atmosphere.
During our boat-driving lesson from José, the marina’s friendly, helpful instructor, I discover that GPS is much easier than using a compass; all you have to do to plot a course is make sure the green triangle (that’s you) stays on the black line (the route). If you really want to test your girl-guide skills (which I did), you can still check the GPS is working by getting your compass out to verify your direction. Should you stray from the route, you risk crashing into rather surprising obstacles, such as underwater windmills, which were left intact when the dam was built.
You’re also probably better off sacrificing the wind in your hair for the security that you’re going the right way; the outside deck steering wheel has none of the gadgets you get indoors, such as GPS, sonar device, fuel gauge, emergency phone and – crucially – the gauge that tells you when the toilet waste is about to overflow.
Lesson over, our teacher disembarks and we're off, bikes securely fastened to the deck, and canoes – less securely, we later discover – tied to the back of the boat. With a well-stocked fridge, a fully kitted-out kitchen and a few bottles of local wine aboard, we aren’t even that concerned about our somewhat questionable parking skills.
The wind has its advantages; the weather changes fast, and we are treated to several sunny periods. We take the bikes out for a scenic ride in Estrela, where I also have my first geocaching experience. This global outdoor game involves using a smartphone app or GPS-receiving device to locate the caches nearest to you and plot an as-the-crow-flies route to find them. A cache is usually a small plastic box, but it can be anything, so long as the log of who’s found it can be securely contained. It’s essentially a techie treasure hunt, except the treasure isn’t in what you find, but in the thrill of discovering a place you may not have otherwise, and knowing that others before you have shared your experience. There are several caches in the Alentejo region, all set down by locals (as each needs to be maintained by its “owner”). This comes as a surprise to me, but geocaching is a worldwide phenomenon, and where there are adventurous people keen on orienteering, it’s more than likely there are caches.
That evening we dine at Sabores da Estrela, where the magnificent food is washed down with fantastic local wines from vineyards dotted around the rolling hills. If you’re a fan of olive oil and garlic, you’ll enjoy Alentejo cuisine, as almost everything is cooked in generous amounts of both. Highlights of the local specialities include a dangerously moreish sheep’s cheese, cod and chickpea salad, grilled octopus and pork cheek with walnut purée and apple sauce.
Well fed, the next morning we walk up into the ancient walled village of Monsaraz, which has been occupied since pre-historic times, and where a medieval castle affords excellent 360-degree views of the surrounding area, including a superb perspective on the jagged-edged lake. As evening falls, the weather clears, and we get a perfect view of the sky. The Alqueva region has been given the first Starlight Tourism Destination award; it has cloudless nights for over half the year, excellent clarity due to low light pollution, good atmospheric conditions, and the Dark Sky association loans telescopes to several hotels in the area.
A local amateur astronomer, Vitor, shows us the dramatic craters of the Moon, Saturn with its glorious rings, a blue star, a globular cluster, the donut-shaped Ring Nebular and my absolute highlight, although visually the least exciting – M81 and M82 neighbouring galaxies. They are twelve million light-years away. My mind is blown. On a much less exciting scale, but a very useful one, Vitor also shows us how to find north by tracing a line from the Plough to the North Star. So simple, and yet I was never quite sure how to do it before. My compass is becoming yet more obsolete.
Our final stop takes us to the city of Évora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 55km west of the lake. On the drive there, after a sad farewell to our boat, I notice that many of the trees have been stripped of their bark – for cork, our guide, Olga, explains. We see the product of these exposed trunks in Évora’s old-town shops, in the form of notepads, wallets, bags, shoes – you can even get a cork wedding dress. Who knew the stuff of bottle stoppers could be so versatile?
Évora is home to one of the most extraordinary chapels in the world: the Bone Chapel, filled floor to ceiling with the bones and skulls of 5,000 people whose corpses had been taking up space in valuable land in and around the city. The monks who founded the chapel in the early 16th century wanted to emphasise the transitory nature of life's journey. The place is as eerie as you might expect, but well worth the visit, and a reflective way to end our journey.
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