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Grande Lago, Portugal is Europe's largest artificial lake. Created in 2002 to provide electricity and irrigation to Portugal's Alentejo Region, Grande Lago is transforming the sleepy Portuguese countryside by becoming one of the nation's premier vacation destinations. Although exact dimensions are hard to unearth, the reservoir created by the huge Alqueva Dam across the Guadiana River covers about 61,770 acres with a shoreline of about 745 miles.* The reservoir reached its full capacity in 2010 and is now busily being explored by boating enthusiasts and fishermen. The tops of over 400 submerged hills now offer islands for mooring and exploration.
The Alentejo Region is semi-arid and sunny; farming, vineyards and small industry have been the mainstay of the area's residents. Water for irrigation will improve their ability to produce valuable crops and allow for development, but the biggest economic driver around the reservoir may well turn out to be tourism. Already, a well-developed commercial marina has grown up at Amieira which provides all types of boating services, rents a variety of boats and provides guided boating tours of the hundreds of new islands, coves and now-waterfront towns and villages. With an average 300 days of sunny weather a year, Grande Lago is quickly becoming the place to enjoy a holiday filled with swimming, fishing, sun-bathing and water sports.
The marina is accessible by road, making it possible for visitors to launch their own watercraft at the marina's ramps. Because of the vast expanse of water, houseboats, single-and double-berth cruisers are popular rentals by the week, but canoes and kayaks can also be rented by the day or for a few hours. Marina staff provide a short course in watercraft operations with each rental, but novice boaters may prefer one of the chartered cruises. Grande Lago is quickly becoming a well-know destination for the sailing and yachting crowd in Western Europe. Experienced boating vacationers often rent bicycles to take along for shore transportation at the many villages with landing facilities. Driving the area is also possible, with car rental facilities in Amieira. Cycling trails and old roadways around the lake offer excellent bicycling opportunities. New tourism conveniences are being developed yearly, so repeat visitors can expect to find additional amenities on each successive trip.
One development is eagerly anticipated: Grande Lago is expected to become a prolific fishing destination due to the large varieties of fish already present in the Guadiana River. Other existing reservoirs along the river have proved to provide some of Western Europe's best fishing. Already black bass, barbel, pike and carp are known to be making themselves at home, and a world-class sport fishery is expected to be a few short years away. The huge meandering reservoir is being carefully managed to provide good spawning habitat, with an area protected to provide much submersed vegetation. Another area is set aside for a 'no-motors' zone.
As tourism in the Alentejo Region has been scarce, holiday visitors can expect to experience a Portugal far removed from the bright lights and bustling cities. The small villages, friendly and welcoming, are still small neighborhoods, often with their own picturesque churches and fortifications. Most have local restaurants and cafes or bars, with some interesting local specialty dishes. Because the area around Grande Lago was often the scene of territory disputes, eventually being freed from the conquering Moors by the Knights Templar, many old castles, forts and local legends are still visible and venerated in the countryside. Some of the more interesting of these villages are: Juromenha (fortified city with church, chapel and houses with traditional fireplaces), Monsaraz (another fortified city and archeological site and museum. Monsaraz also has an arena still used for Corridas, or bull fighting) and Mourao (castle and fortifications dating to the 13th century). Mourao and Monsaraz both hold traditional church fetes during the year. Estrela is known for the lovely view it provides of the reservoir and its surrounding area, while Luz is a complete duplicate of the old village of Luz which was submerged when the reservoir was filled. Luz has a museum focused on the old village where homesick villagers often go to view their 'old' homes. And Barrage d'Alqueva - Alqueva Dam - has a visitor's information center.
Portugal's largest ostrich farm is located near Amieira, with a well-known restaurant on the property that features ostrich meat dishes. Esporao and Monsaraz areas are known for their excellent vineyards and quality red wines. Holiday accommodations and vacation rentals are available in the area and growing in number each year. Agri-tourism is a popular way to spend a quiet countryside vacation, with bed-and breakfast facilities, cottages, hotels and lodging in private residences also a common way to base a vacation at Grande Lago. Many towns provide space for caravans and camping.
First proposed in the 1950s, the Alqueva Dam project has been the focus of several disputes and false starts. Much of the dissension has been focused on the loss of a large number of cork oak trees and much of the world's largest collection of prehistoric rock art under the rising waters. Several archaeologically-important ancient fortifications were also lost to the growing lake as the need for a constant water supply and source of renewable power eventually won out. Today, the area around Grande Lago is receiving the benefits of electrical power from the generators capable of producing 126.9 MW of power and an abundance of reliable water for crops. Another, far smaller reservoir downstream - the Pedrogao - allows water storage that can be pumped back into Alqueva Lake to be regenerated into electricity over and over again.
Visitors to Grande Lake may wish to work with a reputable tourism agent, as the area is very new as a tourism destination, but facilities and amenities are growing rapidly. Now is the time to add Grande Lago to your list of favorite destinations - while it still maintains its status as a piece of unspoiled Portuguese countryside. Let's hope you visit soon!
* most statistics are close estimates as the reservoir is so new it hasn't yet been completely mapped.
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