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Paradise in Portugal

Paradise in Portugal

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  • Such is the laid-back way here that if we decide to go for a meal there’s no need to go home and change for dinner – everyone just goes as they are.
  • It’s not hard to find a peaceful spot for some R&R – swimming, reading and listening to the birds and distant church bells.
  • We loved the area so much that in 2015 we sold our house on the coast and bought one overlooking the lake.

Back in 2009, my wife Lisa and I decided to base our new Bayliner 652 cuddy in Portugal. Having owned a house on the ‘Silver Coast’ for a few years, it seemed perfectly logical in order to take advantage of the good weather and low storage costs, so we set about securing a marina berth at the seaside resort of Nazare. However, early in the first year it became clear that this was no place for a speedboat – the immense swell and violent nature of Portugal’s west coast was brought into sharp focus after a few outings. Our son Daniel, only six at the time, found it terrifying – this was not going to be a viable long-term option.

Not to be outdone, I deemed it reasonable that there must be a freshwater lake somewhere inland and set about scouring Google Earth. It wasn’t long before I discovered a stretch of water running NE to SW about an hour and a half east of the Silver Coast. Further research told me that powerboating was permitted, and there were appropriate facilities for launch and storage. So, while on our Easter holiday in 2010, we decided to head off in search of Lake Castelo do Bode and a potential future home for our boat.

What we found took our breath away. Lake Castelo do Bode is a 60km stretch of water laid out like a jagged ribbon among the mountains and forests of central Portugal. Technically a river (Rio Zêzere), it was created in 1951 following the construction of a hydroelectric dam at its southern end. Dotted along the lake are small towns and villages, and the vast majority of the shoreline is not privately owned, so beaching is possible almost anywhere. The water level rises and falls during the year depending on rainfall, so it can look quite different through the seasons. The summer months see temperatures of up to 42 degrees and at that time of year the water is wonderfully pleasant for swimming. There is often a refreshing breeze, but when the air is still, the lake surface becomes mirror-flat, and travelling at speed gives the surreal sensation of flying. The surrounding hills are covered in pine and eucalyptus trees interspersed with white flowers and heather – both pink and yellow. Many residential gardens have an abundance of orange, lemon and olive trees, which flourish in these parts. Herons dot the water’s edge, yellow canaries inhabit the cork trees, and in the sky above, eagles circle and hover looking for fish. There are also wild boar roaming the hills.

From the main body of the lake there are hundreds of fingers, some a few miles long, some quite short, leading to secluded lagoons. It’s not hard to find a peaceful spot for some R&R – swimming, reading and listening to the birds and distant church bells. Easter time is fairly quiet and it’s not unusual to spend the entire day on the water and not see another soul. All that changes in summer, of course, but it’s never overcrowded. During the summer months, forest fires are a common occurrence in Portugal (more of this later), and the fire service uses the lake to scoop up water using their fleet of planes and helicopters from a nearby runway.

Our marina is Club Centro Nautico in Trizio on the east side of the lake. Run by Vitor Cavelho, the club has a boat storage park, assisted slipway, pontoon berths, pedalos and kayaks for hire, waterskiing lessons, banana boat rides, and an outdoor bar and restaurant with great views over the lake. This is where we have kept our boat since 2011 and it costs 800 euros per calendar year for dry storage, and 10 euros to launch and recover. Pontoon space can also be rented for permanent moorings or short-term visits. For those arriving from the west, Vitor runs a shuttle boat from Quinta da Martinela across to the club on the eastern side for the princely sum of 1.50 euros per person return. Vitor speaks good English and is a lovely guy who will do anything to help you – everyone in the local area knows Vitor!

In the last three years, the professional wakeboarding community has discovered the lake and it has become an increasingly popular sport in the area. The world wakeboarding championships now feature there annually, and Wakeboard Portugal have invested in five cable parks by the lake. During the world championships, rows of public moorings are put in the water so anyone with a boat can get up close to the action – and being Portugal, it’s all free! There is also a residential wakeboard school called Sidewake that runs two very impressive-looking boats. All the boats on the lake are runabouts or dedicated wakeboard boats – there are no gin palaces here!

Towards the northern end of the lake sits Juicy Oasis – a residential health retreat owned and run by renowned health guru Jason Vale. It’s very expensive and much beloved by celebrities. The website is awash with magazine and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Gary Barlow, Alesha Dixon, Jason Donovan and Carol Vorderman, to name but a few.

A mile or so further north is the pretty medieval town of Dornes, lying on a peninsula. The tower that dominates the town was built by the Knights Templar on ancient Roman ruins dating back to 72 BC. There is a lovely restaurant and bar here and a public jetty – although this gets very busy in the summer, so beaching is the best alternative.

Further south lies Lago Azul. This is a development of private lakeside homes and serviced apartments for rent. The complex has an indoor and outdoor pool, and on the same site is a marina with dry storage, an assisted slipway and visitor moorings for hire. There is a fuel dock located here, but of course you pay a hefty premium (I have a couple of 25-litre canisters that I fill up at the supermarket petrol station in the nearby town of Ferreira do Zêzere).

Nearby is Estalagem Lago Azul, a hotel on the banks of the lake with a large outdoor pool, and between the two a restaurant and bar called Monte Sinai, which can also be reached by boat. The owner is a keen gardener and has kiwi fruits, oranges, grapes and strawberries growing in abundance.

The nearby town of Tomar is well worth visiting. Founded by the Knights Templar, there is a stunning monastery open to the public, and a good choice of restaurants and bars. The Hotel dos Templários is highly recommended and owned by the same company responsible for the Lago Azul development.

We loved the area so much that in 2015 we sold our house on the coast and bought one overlooking the lake. This year we invested in a dock, which is located a short walk from our house. There is no fee or licence required to do this, and when we are not there the dock is towed onto a floating buoy. In the summer months, the Portuguese day starts late and ends late, so a typical boating day sees us head out around midday. We tend to go north or south for a while before stopping for a spot of sunbathing, then it’s out with the toys – ringo, banana boat, wakeboard and so on.

There are no restrictions on speed or activities, or in fact authorities to enforce any rules, so you are free to please yourself. That said, in the six years we have been going there we have never witnessed any irresponsible behaviour or accidents. After a few hours’ messing about, it’s time to head for a drink and seek some shade. Portugal tends to get hotter as the day wears on, so 3pm – 4pm is usually a good time for a cold fruit cider under a parasol. Refreshed, we head back out for some more fun until it’s time for an important decision – head home to get the BBQ on or stay out and treat ourselves to a meal. Such is the laid-back way here that if we decide to go for a meal there’s no need to go home and change for dinner – everyone just goes as they are. We usually order Portuguese tapas – shellfish, snails in a garlic sauce, pica-pau (small pieces of pork with pickles in a lightly spiced sauce) and moelas (gizzards, which are chicken necks in a wine stew with herbs and spices) – all mopped up with lots of crusty bread and washed down with a bottle or two of white wine. We have learnt from the locals to eat when the sun disappears behind the hills – it’s still daylight but this is the time when the insects head for home and it makes for a much more pleasurable dining experience, rather than doing battle with flies determined to share your meal. It’s also the time when the heat of the day dissipates – it’s never humid, just pleasant to sit out until late at night. There is virtually no light pollution here, so the night sky is a wonderful spectacle. The sheer abundance of stars is breathtaking with Mars and The Plough clearly visible, and it’s not unusual to see a comet arcing its way across the sky.

Time to head home. We make our way down to the pontoon and it’s a short journey across the lake by moonlight to our dock. I’ve got mooring lines and fenders tied to the dock in just the right places, so docking is simply a matter of slipping a loop under the cleat and over the horns. With full bellies, the warm glow of wine and that unique pleasant feeling of tiredness that comes from having spent a day on the water, it’s time for bed. Tomorrow will be another cloudless day – the water will be sparkling in the bright sunshine, the air will smell of pine trees and we can do it all over again.


Local information

Water sports

Club Centro Nautico, Trizio – marina facility and restaurant with assisted slipway, visitor moorings, permanent berth and dry storage. English is spoken. Open every day from May to October except Mondays.

vitorcnz@iol.pt

Tel: 00351963896869

GPS: N 39º 43’47.24″ W 8º 13’51.41″

Alternatively drive to Quinta da Martinela, park opposite the apartments and call Vitor for a boat ride to the marina.

Club Centro Nautico, Lago Azul – marina facility with assisted slipway, visitor moorings, permanent berth and dry storage. There is also a fuel dock. English is spoken.

www.mbp.pai.pt

Sidewake – a residential wakeboard academy located at Quinta da Martinela. They have a very detailed website with all the necessary information.

www.sidewake.com

Wakeboard Portugal. There are five zip wires at various points on the lake, each with jumps and rails. Full details can be found at www.wakeboardportugal.com.

Restaurants

Restaurante Rio, Dornes – public pontoon and terrace overlooking the lake; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Good food and drink and very cheap. Quite busy between 1pm and 3pm.

Club Centro Nautico, Trizio – pontoon for customers, plenty of outdoor seating with great views, great food and inexpensive. Open every day except Monday from May to October.

Vila Del Rei – drink and snack bar, located 50 metres from the water near the Wakeboard Portugal zip wire. No pontoons but beaching is very easy. Open every day during summer months.

Monte Sinai, Lago Azul – located just beyond the Lago Azul marina and Wakeboard Portugal zip wire. Pontoon for customers, plenty of outdoor seating with excellent shade from the sun and views over the lake. Usual selection of food and drink but a little more expensive than other places. Closed Wednesdays.

Club Centro Nautico, Lago Azul – small drink and snack bar located on the marina premises but no public moorings.

Hotels

Estalagem Lago Azul – large hotel overlooking the river. Traditional decor and very clean. Service tends to be a little slow but there is a nice outdoor pool. www.estalagemlagoazul.com.

Lago Azul apartments – serviced apartments, very nicely appointed and overlooking the lake. Indoor and outdoor pool. No website but they can be found at www.booking.com.

Juicy Oasis – very expensive residential health retreat. Favourite among celebrities. www.juicyoasis.com

Hotel dos Templários – very large hotel in the historic town of Tomar. Good food and well placed for exploring the town.

www.hoteldostemplarios.pt.

Food and drink

Traditional Portuguese cuisine is served in most places – steak, grilled fish, bacalhau (cod) and tapas (clams, snails, pica-pau, moeles). More basic food such as burgers, pizzas, omelettes and so forth is also on the menu. Expect to pay around 40 euros for a four-person meal with wine. Portuguese wine from the Alantejo region ranges from 4 to 8 euros a bottle. Alandra is great value at 4 euros (2 euros in the supermarket) and is comparable to a £15 bottle in British bars. There are also some nice locally produced wines starting to appear on the menu. Sagres and Super Bok are the most common beers in Portugal – a bottle costs around 1–1.50 euros. Somersby fruit cider with lots of ice is a very refreshing afternoon drink.


Getting there

Ryanair, EasyJet, Monarch and TAP Portugal all offer regular flights to Lisbon. Porto is also an option. The lake is between 1hr 30min and 1hr 45min from Lisbon airport depending on where you go. Take the A1 north, exit at J7 for the A23, take the A13 for Tomar, take the N238 for Ferreira do Zêzere, then local roads to Rio Fundeiro/Quinta da Martinela or Lago Azul. There are manual road tolls to the A23, then electronic tolls thereafter – total cost is around 12 euros.


Our boat

We have a Bayliner 652 cuddy. We bought her brand new from Bates Wharf at the 2008 Southampton Boat Show. It has a 3.0L MerCruiser inboard and I upgraded to a 21″-pitch stainless prop, giving a top speed of 40mph. The annual service cost is 250 euros, and the same for insurance. We use around 25 litres of fuel a day. This year we bought a Yamaha Waverunner XLT1200.


Purgatory in Portugal

Against the background of the breathtaking beauty to be found throughout central Portugal, tragedy struck recently as at least 61 people died in a wildfire that hit the region, most of them trapped in their cars by flames as treacherous wind drove the blaze beyond firefighters’ control.

Several hundred firefighters and 160 vehicles were dispatched to fight the fire as a huge wall of thick smoke and flames towered over the tops of trees in the forested Pedrogao Grande area, 95 miles north-east of Lisbon, where a lightning strike was believed to have sparked the blaze.

Roads were closed as the wildfire spread out of control, destroying several fire engines. More than 350 soldiers joined the 700 firefighters as they struggled to put out the blaze, and schools in the area were closed until further notice.

Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa, described the wildfire as ‘the biggest tragedy in recent years’ and vowed to find out what happened.

On a positive note, JustGiving, the global online social platform for giving, succeeded in raising over £10,000 for the surviving victims of the fire.

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