If you’re looking for bright skies and warm sunshine and a relaxed cruising destination (maybe even a romantic break?) then we highly recommend heading to Portugal and hiring a Nicols self drive barge on the Grande Lago. This largest man-made lake in Europe is in the Alentejo region and just two hours from Lisbon by car. Grande Lago is surrounded by a mix of rural olive groves and vineyards and numerous villages – all small but very pretty.
The Nicols base at Amieira Marina is the only boat hire base on the lake so the waterways never seem busy. Their hire barges are all in tip-top condition and well-equipped with everything you’ll need. Boats also have a GPS and sonar which makes navigation simple – guiding you safely and avoiding shallow waters or obstacles in the water.
The artificial dam has seen the waters flood the landscape with trees, mills and even a village all now underwater. Some taller hills remain – now picturesque islands in the lake.
The water is extremely clean so can be taken directly from the lake into the boat to be used in the bathroom and the kitchen for things like washing the dishes. A separate tank is onboard for storing drinking water. The environment is important to Nicols so the boats feature dispensers with biodegradable soap so as not to affect the lake and solar panels which help charge the boats batteries.
Another useful onboard item is the mobile phone. At no cost this can be used to call the base team if necessary, but also the restaurants and shops in the villages who will happily pick you up (sometimes even for free!) to go for dinner or shopping. With some villages being a few kilometres away from the lake this is extremely convenient.
When it comes to mooring places you have two options. You can use the floating docks near the many villages or you can go all ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and simply moor up at the edge of one of the islands.
The Nicols team provided us with detailed instructions both in the training room at the base and then onboard our two cabin Estivale Quattro. We felt fully prepared to begin our boating adventure – a short break (Tuesday to Saturday) which will see us take the following route: Amieira Marina – Estrela – Mourao – Monsaraz – Luz – Dam of Alqueva – Amieira Marina.
After 2.5 hours of cruising we arrive at the very small village of Estrela. The mooring pier is only 50m from the village and we are the only boat so we decide to spend our first night on the boat enjoying a simple alfresco dinner on the terrace while enjoying the silence and stunning sunset.
As we head off to bed the cabins feel warm (after all it’s been 33 degrees outside all day!) but after a few hours we start to feel the temperature fall. Fortunately below the bed in a drawer we find duvets for a comfortably night’s sleep.
In the morning, after a good breakfast, we take a leg stretch into Estrela. It is very small so soon head back to the boat ready for the next part of our journey – the next destination being Mourao which is the largest village in the area with approximately 2,000 inhabitants. From the mooring pier it is a 2km walk and at the entrance there are a few shops and businesses and smaller houses but it is at the heart of the village that makes the walk worthwhile. Set on a pretty hill lies the 13th century castle which offers beautiful views across the surrounding area. Also in the middle of the village is a small park where we relax with a tasty ice cream bought from a bistro just opposite. This sets us up nicely for the walk back to the boat.
We leave Mourao and then, after passing under the large unique bridge that crosses the lake we have a clear view of the approaching Monsaraz – a beautiful village also perched high on a hill. As we begin our mooring manoeuvre at the mooring pier we notice that there are four other Nicols boats as our neighbours! As it is a public holiday there are quite a few visitors.
This pier has many more facilities including a restaurant and activity centre where you can hire equipment for a number of watersports. We opt for some sunbathing and a swim in the lake before watching some fisherman bring in a good catch. Once again our evening is spent enjoying dinner onboard gazing at another wonderful sunset!
It is 6km from the pier into Monsaraz so early the next morning we set off on the walk and spend the morning exploring, visiting the fortifications and small shops as well as taking the weight off our feet with a coffee break. By the time we’re ready to return to the boat the weather is too hot for the walk so we take a taxi.
Our next stop is Luz, a village that was flooded by the dam and rebuilt adjacent to the resulting lake. On arrival we are the only boat at the floating pier and as it is so hot we decide to take a shower utilising the outside shower that’s on the deck of our Quattro. At that point there is suddenly a ring of bells…what is it…have we been transported to the Swiss Alps?! At that point we watch as a herd of cows wanders down to the water for a drink!
We spend a pleasant afternoon on the boat terrace reading and playing board games while in the evening we star gaze at the thousands of stars in the sky – made easy by the lack of light pollution.
Early the next morning we go into the village via the 1km footbridge to buy fresh bread for breakfast. At the entrance of the village is a new bakery which produces excellent pastries.
On the outskirts of the village there is a small museum with a viewing terrace showing where the old village is located. Unfortunately when we visited the museum was closed but we were still able to see the view from the terrace.
This is the last full day of our trip and we want to make sure we are back at the Aimieira base this evening as we have to return the boat the following morning. We want to savour this last day so after an hour of sailing and while in the middle of the vast lake we enjoy a quick swim and some sandwiches for lunch.
Our next destination on route is the Alqueva dam. The mooring pier here is not for public use and it takes a card to open the entrance. Luckily there are two mooring spaces reserved for Nicols boats so we moor and visit the impressive 100m tall dam.
The last step of our journey once again highlights the peace and quiet and beautiful landscapes of the Grande Lago Alqueva.
As we reach the base at Amieira Marina there are already many boats moored up but thanks to a few days experience we easily manoeuvre the Quattro into a free space.
Our plan is to enjoy an evening meal at the marina’s restaurant, dining on the terrace to enjoy the panoramic views.
La marina de Nicols à Amieira est bien équipée. Outre le restaurant, il y a aussi une cafétéria et une petite boutique, et naturellement le centre nautique où l’on peut louer des kayaks par exemple.
The Nicols base has lots for visitors – in addition to the restaurant there is a cafeteria, a shop and a watersports centre where you can hire an array of gear including kayaks. As there is no supermarket it is important to shop before you get to Amieira Marina. If travelling from Lisbon I would recommend stopping in Portel (20km from Amieira).
This holiday on a boat would be great to combine with a stay in either Lisbon or Evora. Both cities are remarkable and offer plenty of visitor attractions.
An illustration of Lisbon:
An illustration of Evora :
Our holiday was the first week of October broken down to 3 days in Lisbon, 4 days on the boat and 1 day in Evora. Although it was only a week the variety and everything we packed into it made it feel more like two weeks. We saw so much and lived completely differently to usual life and what’s more it was a very relaxing break!
We’re sure we’ll return again one day…
Catherine R., Basel, Switzerland