Boats, basking and the sound of bells

A boat on the Alqueva in the Alentejo, Portugal
A boat on the Alqueva in the Alentejo, Portugal
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As the sun went down over the empty and still expanse of water, plunging us into rural darkness, only the sound of cow bells from a nearby field broke the silence.

Let’s just say this wasn’t a holiday for the bright lights and loud music brigade, more an idyll for fans of rustic symphonies and starry nights.

As the tinkling of the bells retreated towards the calls of a Portuguese farmer, we took up the clamour, getting ready to have dinner at a surprisingly modern restaurant for this remote setting.

Our houseboat was moored on the banks of Estrela, a village in The Alentejo – a region of Portugal’s interior.

To get to the restaurant we stumbled up grassy banks using torches and the only people we passed were four generations of the same family sitting outside their home listening to granddad play the accordion.

This was about as remote and rustic as it gets. And the reason for the restaurant?

Estrela sits on the Alqueva – Europe’s largest artificial lake, created to provide irrigation in this dry region but also serving the leisure industry with fishing and holiday opportunities.

And that means houseboats full of hungry passengers docking up in the area’s quiet villages.

I was on a boat trip that began at Amieira Marina, which offers floating holiday homes for up to 12 people.

The marina has a superb restaurant and thankfully offers training before your trip.

You then guide yourself along this huge expanse of water with the help of navigation equipment and buoys.

After an uncertain start – with plenty of circling and to-ing and fro-ing – we were away from the dock and off, heading for Estrela on the first night and the gorgeous hill-top village of Monsaraz the second.

Monsaraz offers fantastic views across the plains and as such is a popular tourist attraction, so a little less quiet than other lakeside destinations.

This medieval walled village also has charming cobbled streets with restaurants and craft shops and a 13th century castle, once a Knights Templar fortress.

The village offers a bit of bustle after the solitude of the lake where you can go for hours without seeing a soul.

We were there in October when the temperatures were still high and the peace and quiet allowed us to loll in a haze of baking heat.

In peak season the lake is likely to be busier but there’s plenty of it so visitors don’t have to go far to find solitude.

This holiday is a real retreat for groups of friends and couples but it’s an excellent option for families too. It may be quiet but there’s plenty to do – swimming, kayaking, on-board barbecues, walking and wildlife-watching.

And of course there’s the adventure of controlling your own journey and operating the boat.

If all this sounds too relaxing, there’s always the option of coupling the lake holiday with a short city break. The transfer from Lisbon to Amieira Marina is under two-and-a-half hours.

Just 50 minutes away is the chief city of the Alentejo region Evora, an UNESCO World Heritage listed site. It’s a lovely city of Moorish alleys, shady squares and plenty of impressive historic structures.

Just make sure you visit before the lake. Evora doesn’t feel particularly hectic but it has some very narrrow streets.

Pinning yourself against a wall to let a car pass could come as a bit of a shock after the expanse of the great lake.