Between the stillness dam and the mythical Estrada Nacional 2, we found the ideal refuge for those in a hurry to see time stop.
Despite owing Alentejo genes to my paternal family, my relationship with the region has never been close or rich in memories. One or two summer weeks and a handful of Easter holidays in Monforte is all I remember from the time I spent there as a child. In fact, I remember the trip better than the stay. The crossing of the 25 de abril bridge when the sun was still barely visible, the mandatory stop at a roadside cafe in Pegões, where we met up with the rest of the family who had arrived from other places and regained strength eating bread with butter and drinking a blend glass of coffee with milk, shopping at the Estremoz market 30 km from the finish line. Decades later, my conclusion is that these memories are mainly due to the national roads that led us to our destination. Landscapes that did not undergo major changes beyond Marateca, but that held our attention and never left us indifferent. Today, any holiday trip is made in cruise-control on a three-lane road, nothing is travelled, the goal is just arriving. Are there no stopping points on the way to Alentejo? There are, but they are green. Others are orange. All of them absurdly expensive, devoid of personality and equipped with hoses that blow our holiday budget even before they start. We forget about them as soon as we start the engine back on.
Whilst researching destinations that would guarantee me two nights of comfort and tranquillity, I came across with the Montargil Monte Novo. A brief browsing of the website was more than enough to convince me.
In the middle of the page, a brief reference to the location, one of the many strengths of this project inaugurated in 2013. The short distance from Lisbon - about 110 km, easily travelled in less than an hour and a half - makes this the perfect destination for those who want to enter a different world just around the corner. Perhaps “corners” or “curves” are not the nouns that best suit the description of the route, almost entirely composed of the long straights of the N119 that pass-through places like Coruche or Couço. Extensive agricultural fields, roadside signs advertising last year's coal or melon sales - unless the Cucurbitaceae season has come early - are indicative of the area we are in.
One kilometre from the finish line and after noticing that the fuel gauge has hardly moved since we started our trip, we entered the most mythical of all Portuguese roads, which makes the location of Montargil Monte Novo even more special: the Estrada Nacional 2.
For many years, the EN2 was an unexplored treasure, and only recently have the 35 municipalities that its 739 km of asphalt cross, from Chaves to Faro, started to focus on it. The route's tourist potential is huge due to the diversity of its landscapes, which vary from the green hills of the Douro wine region to the golden plains of the south that precede the arrival to the Atlantic. In between, rivers with abundant flow, crystal clear streams and... dams.
Some travel the distance by car or motorhome. Others, on touring motorbikes or even Famel, giving a more nostalgic touch to the trip. There are also those who, due to having more time or less money, choose to hitchhike. One way or another, everyone makes their way through the curves and counter-curves of a Portugal that was thought lost.
To maximise the richness of this heritage, in 2016, the Associação de Municípios da Rota da Estrada Nacional 2 (AMREN2) was created. This association aims to promote innovative and sustainable experiential tourism. With this purpose, it challenged the commercial establishments along the 35 municipalities to become agents of the route. In these establishments, travellers can stamp their passport at each stop for future memory. The benefits for businesses are obvious, as they are listed on the advertising platforms and are present in the initiatives promoted by AMREN2. There are, however, a number of requirements to fulfil that vary according to the area of activity. Tourist accommodation, for example, must adopt environmental measures, have the Clean & Safe seal of Turismo de Portugal, allow one-night reservations for clients in transit, among others. The Montargil Monte Novo is in the process of certification (currently, it is already an Official Agent) and it is expected that the ROTAN2 may soon have another element that will greatly promote this stretch.
The feeling of privacy would become a constant throughout our stay and it showed as soon as we entered the Montargil Monte Novo. We knew it had reached maximum occupancy (36 guests), but the only people we encountered between the entrance and the reception were the two staff members who ensured us a quick and efficient check-in, while our jaws dropped for the first time when we saw the stunning view over the dam that the huge glass surfaces provide.
Located on the first floor of the main building, which has the particularity of being a circular building, the reception shares the space with the restaurant. The building dates from the early 1990s and was designed by the German architect Peter Neufert, who has designed several projects in Portugal, including others in the Montargil area. Revamped last year, the decor, sober and elegant, is based on brown and gold tones that contrast with the imposing white column in the middle of the room around which everything happens with total efficiency and promptness, as we would later see during meals. Although the concept is completely different, the shelves lined with books and wine bottles immediately take us back to other PBH Group hotels, such as the Wine & Books Lisboa.
I take this opportunity to salute all hotels that, like this one, do not bother guests with useless information and understand that, on arrival, we only want magnetic cards, the wi-fi password and the breakfast time. After the brief check-in formalities, we were directed to the villa, about 50 metres from the main building. As we left, we noticed the incredible infinity pool outside the main building and the vast leisure and relaxation space available to guests. Arriving at what would be our home for the next few days, time for the second moment of wonder of the day.
The Montargil Monte Novo has two accommodation options: four double rooms, located on the ground floor of the main building and six villas of type V2 or V3, with garden or lake view. All of them have a private pool and the methodical distribution throughout the resort makes them fit perfectly into the environment. Perhaps that is why they have been baptised with plant names. The vegetation around the accommodation and the construction orientation make it virtually impossible to see the nearest villa. From our "Rosemary" we could see nothing but the roof of the villa below, covered with gravel, which makes it another element of the landscape.
Through the entrance door we can directly access a huge living room with panoramic windows facing east, from where you can see a large part of the dam, anticipating a fantastic sunrise. A glass door allows access to the pool and deck, full of options for those who want to spend the entire day there, as the orientation of the house allows guests to choose between shade and sun practically from morning to night. The modern and functional kitchen is fully equipped for those who wish to cook meals.
From the living room you go up to the bedrooms, generously sized suites, well equipped and decorated in warm, elegant and cosy tones, promising the comfort and quality of sleep that the nights would confirm.
With a swimming pool nearby, I unleash my inner child and experience it for the next 48 hours, in which it will be mine and mine alone. The afternoon was hot, but April is not a month of miracles when it comes to water. A refreshing dip, perhaps too refreshing, was enough to satisfy my swimming cravings and ensure an afternoon of relaxation, in a soundproof garden, except from the native birds. Without a care in the world beyond the angle of the sunbed, I rotated throughout the afternoon to keep in line with the sun. When it disappeared behind the rooftops, we went up to the main building for dinner.
If earlier I mentioned the column that supports the building, allow me to highlight another great pillar of the estate. Chef Miguel Varela, born in Guimarães and with decades of experience in hospitality, returned, about a year and a half ago, as executive chef and unit director. He is responsible for the entire organisation, from recruitment and training to his area of expertise: the kitchen. He is responsible for the recently presented menu, a tribute to the best gastronomic traditions of Alentejo, innovative, but without ever failing to take as a starting point the diversity and authenticity of the region. The seasonality of the local products is a key element in the preparation of the surprise tasting menu and the lunch and dinner menus and reflects the time of the year in which we find ourselves.
Although meals can be served in the villas, the initial idea was to dine at the estate's restaurant on the first night and choose one of the region's restaurants the next day. The incredible experience completely changed our plans and we ended up dining both nights at the estate, enjoying the calm and intimate atmosphere that results from the perfect intensity of light, the small number of tables and the magnificent view over the dam that, at that moment, presents itself to us in a game of blue and silver contours. Chef Miguel Varela takes the reins of service and is tireless in suggesting and describing every detail of his creation. The choice becomes difficult as we read the menu, not because of the large number of options that many restaurants tire their customers with, but because all the options could perfectly be the ideal dish for that night.
Starters include typical regional suggestions such as cheeses and sausages or traditional Alentejo soups such as açorda (codfish and bread) and tomatada (tomato). The choice falls on vegetables from the garden, although it is usually a risky option. There is a fine line between the crunchiness of the tempura and the greasiness that often invades the diner's mouth and spoils the rest of the meal. But here it has been firmly drawn by the chef's hand and it is with comforted stomachs that we head towards the main course.
Among the fish dishes, the options we have are codfish with peppers, grouper fillet with couscous and octopus with rappini. The latter was my choice, a very unique interpretation of the octopus à lagareiro that took it to a whole new level for me. The cephalopod is ultra-soft, the potato has been cooked to perfection and the rappini vary between sweet and sour as they mingle with the other vegetables that make up this delight. Whatever the option is, when done à lagareiro style, it is expected to arrive at the table drowned in olive oil. Maybe that is why this dish does not have that name, as the characteristic flavour of olive oil and garlic is present in every bite, but it lets the protagonist shine through.
The meats reflect the best Alentejo has to offer, such as the ribeye beef, the lamb with mint or the black pork carré with apple. I chose the carré, which exceeded expectations in terms of the succulence expected in the meat of this acorn-fed breed, very well accompanied by the apple and a careful selection of vegetables.
In a world of arborio and carnaroli, here carolino rules. Following the principles that led to the creation of the menu, the chef was keen to justify the presence of this rice on the menu. It became obvious on our second night. There is no need to resort to other varieties when there is such an abundant production so close by, in the areas surrounding the Tagus estuary. We tried the grouper and prawns, as well as the mushroom and asparagus, similar in creaminess, both with a consistency that, for the lack of better words, I will call al dente, and which I personally prefer to that of most risottos.
Neither my girlfriend nor I are exactly crazy about sweets, and only on the first night did we top off our dinner with a dessert: chocolate with red fruit puree and merengue. The usual bomb of egg white and sugar made us think twice, but there was no reason to, as there was nothing cloying about it, and it brings a crunchy consistency to the magnificent hybrid chocolate piece that wandered between the cake and the mousse and perfectly pairs with the acidity of the fruit.
The wine list covers several demarcated regions, but local wines naturally take centre stage. Fans of the maxim “red goes well with everything”, we chose a Talha de Argilla red, from the Anta de Cima estate in Montargil. Made from the Alicante Bouschet, Alfrocheiro, Touriga Nacional and Petit Verdot grape varieties, it proved to be structured, complex and the ideal partner for both the black pork and the octopus.
Breakfast can also be served at the villa, but we had it in the main building both mornings. To work up an appetite we set off at a brisk pace north along the EN2, contrary to the direction of most travellers, and drove up to the village of Montargil. I doubt that the quietness that hung over the small parish was due to the April holiday and that working days give it a faster pace. Half a dozen people sitting outside the cafes, the man who seemed only to have woken up to feed stray cats in front of the cemetery, an empty viewpoint from which you can see much of the dam. I tried to locate the Montargil Monte Novo, but from above and in silence, I realised that it was an element perfectly integrated in the landscape. After 10 km of ups and downs, we had a well-deserved breakfast and returned to base.
I believe most people are fans of the buffet option, with tables full of stainless-steel containers cluttered with eggs and sausages, platters of croissants and industrial thermoses of milk and coffee. But the opulence of the buffet has the effect of de-characterising the service and, worse, wastage.
Here, the meal is personalised. In addition to what is common to all tables, basket of (excellent) Alentejo bread, platter of cheeses and cold meats, selection of cakes, orange juice, everything else is customised to our taste. How and at what point we want the eggs, tea or coffee, milk with or without lactose, yoghurt with or without granola, natural fruit or salad, cereals. This is where I discovered that oatmeal can be as creamy as rice pudding.
The efficiency of the service is immaculate and the friendliness of the staff, including that of the omnipresent Miguel Varela who, between various tasks, manages a few minutes to chit-chat with the guests, is the best way to start the day.
Much of the frontage stretching over the dam, from the pier to the northern end of the estate, is occupied by fruit trees. For those who, between swims and kayak rides, take a look at the Monte Novo, orange, lemon and loquat trees add colour to the shore. Those who walk down the stone paths to the water can smell the perfume that the trees release around this time of the year. But this is not just a decorative element or natural air freshener. This is where the juice for breakfast comes from.
I am one of the lucky ones who has free and easy access to citrus fruits for most of the year, but I can hardly resist someone else's orange. It is inevitable to compare the ones from home with all the ones that are out there in the world. And, let's face it, if you have never stolen one, throw the first peel. The appearance of some of them suggested a sweet and juicy pulp as intended, and the tasting confirmed my suspicions. I do not know if it is because they are framed by the idyllic scenery or because of their own merit, but these are, I had to admit, better than mine.
Our eyes focussed on the immense body of water as soon as we arrived at the estate, but it was not until the following day that we made the pier our headquarters and threw ourselves headlong into the dam. The temperature was as expected, very similar to the pool, but a shiver or two was easily shaken off by the strokes. We did not venture beyond a few metres from the shore, but our curiosity to experience waters we had never sailed before spoke louder and, armed with paddles and lifejackets, we took over one of the kayaks moored at the pier. If the placid silence in the villa is only broken by the birds and one or two more nervous cicadas, in the middle of the dam nothing more could be heard than the splashing of the two inexperienced paddlers. An ideal setting for those who like to meditate or if, like me, they are unable to achieve the most basic of transcendences, perfect for forgetting everything.
I remembered an article I once read about an acoustic ecologist - yes, this is a thing - who travelled around the world three times to study natural soundscapes and ended up with an Emmy in his pocket for his documentary on the sounds of dawn on six continents. For the American Gordon Hempton, there is an urgent need to save the world's most endangered sound, silence, which is nothing more than the absence of the sound of engines, constructions, mobile phones, everything that comes from human action. This type of pollution is not as worrying as the others because, unlike waste or smoke, it is invisible, leaves no trace and does not need to be cleaned up. The danger comes precisely from thinking of noise as an annoying but passing thing, ignoring the havoc it wreaks on the natural world, since animals are highly dependent on sound to hunt, mate or avoid predators. If Hempton had ever set up microphones in Montargil he would surely have surrendered to the sounds of dawn at the Monte Novo.
We have all experienced missing a hotel as soon as we leave it. The problem, often, is that to return there, we have to wait for the perfect time of the year because it is an exclusive summer or winter destination, or because geographies and school calendars only make it accessible under very specific circumstances.
I cannot think of a single thing that would make someone not go to the Monte Novo all year round. The torrid heat of the summer is overcome by dips in the pool or dam, and what is lost in bathing in mid-winter is compensated for by the cosiness that only a fireplace provides on cold days during which, I imagine, the villa's huge windows become the screen that allows you to watch the incredible scenery of a dam covered in thick mist.
Montargil inexplicably remains a well-kept secret and the estate follows this trend, judging by those who visit it, almost all Portuguese. People who have been fortunate enough to enjoy the rare tranquillity that the Montargil Monte Novo provides and who leave with the comfort of knowing that here they will always find the charm of Alentejo lulled by the waves of silence from the dam.
Occasional writer and free time blogger