[ALENTEJO, PORTUGAL] — The ancient town of Monsaraz sits high on a hilltop in Portugal’s Alentejo regio, the tallest point for miles around. Just miles from the Spanish border and surrounded by thick castle walls, it overlooks one of the most beautiful parts of inland Portugal, including the giant Alqueva reservoir — the largest manmade lake in Europe. Some consider Monsaraz one of Portugal’s most picturesque villages and it is one of it’s oldest.

People have been living in this region since pre-historic times, with ancient monoliths strewn all over the land. Then the Romans came and took over, then Visigoths, the Jews, then Christians, then Muslims again… everyone wanting a piece of this strategic hilltop. Surrounded by thick protective walls, the castle goes back to the 11th Century and most if it remains very intact today, now its cobbled streets and archways lined with a handful of residents, restaurants and quaint shops.

Castelo do Monsaraz from the air
The castle town of Monsaraz sits protected on the highest point for miles. Considered one of Portugal’s prettiest, most well preserved mountain villages.

Ballooning Over Alentejo

When I heard through my hotel that you can book a balloon ride over this beautiful area, I said “Book it!”

Ballooning over Monsaraz with Emotion Portugal
You get up at o’dark hundred and meet the van to the liftoff site, others stomping around and yawning with not-enough-coffee-yet. The van pulls up the the most perfect launch site, the sun peeking over the horizon.
Inflating balloon Emotion Portugal Monsaraz
Almost as good as the flying…
And then like that, you’re off into the morning air. Pulling over Monsaraz to meet the sun.
It’s amazing how close you can get, you can almost reach out and touch it.

Flying Over Europe’s Biggest Reservoir

View of Alqueva reservoir from Balloon
The Alqueva reservoirs is the bigger man-made lake in Europe and the perfect backdrop for a morning balloon ride.
Balloon over Alqueva Reservoir
Alqueva Reservoir bride view from balloon
Balloon over Alqueva Reservoir at sunrise
The air was so still, hardly any breeze. It was perfect and absolutely silent except for the sound of the balloon blast.
Balloon over Monsaraz views
After some time of not finding any wind to move, we had to ditch beneath the town in some trees.

When we started getting closer to the ground, all I saw were trees, wondering where and HOW we were going land. The pilot found a small open spot, not 15 feet clearing from there trees, right in the bend of a dirt road. He smacked us down dead center, the balloon draping over the pokey trees. I couldn’t believe it.

When we started getting closer to the ground, all I saw were trees, wondering where and HOW we were going land.

It had been years since my first and last balloon ride, back when I was in college. My mom had bought a trip at an auction and my dad said “Hell no.”  She took me instead. Everything was going great and we had a blast. Until we landed. A stiff Kansas prairie breeze picked up right as we landed, tipped the balloon on its side and dragged across a field and into a barbed wire fence…digging a gouge in the earth like a plow.  I’d never heard my mother cuss before. Man was she pissed.

I’d thought that maybe balloon had advanced a little more in 30 years. I guess it has, altimeters and cellphone GPS, but landing is pretty much the same….a crapshoot. Strap on the saddle and ride!

Sao Lourenco Do Barroca from the air
You can see how cool my hotel, Sao Lourenco Do Barroca, was, a cluster of bright white buildings and red tile roofs surrounded by thousands of acres. More about the hotel in my other post.

Where is Monsaraz?

Monsaraz location on map
Monsaraz is in the eastern edge of Alentejo, just miles from the border with Spain and about 20 minutes from the famous inland capital of Evora. You can reach it in a quick one and a half hours from Lisbon, or about two hours from the coast near Comporta. You can see how big the reservoir is.

More Information on Ballooning Over Alentejo

Here’s an overview from Sao Lourenco Do Barrocal’s website.  https://barrocal.pt/all-activities/hot-air-balloon-rides/.  Here is Emotion Portugal’s website, they do all sorts of adventures all over the country.  Here’s a great comprehensive guide on Alentejo from Visit Portugal.

Here is Trip Advisor’s review of Emotion Portugal, the company that flies the balloons.  Their own website is a mess in English, but your hotel can book it for you.

Here is TripAdvisor’s overview of Monsaraz. And information from Secret Places on hotels in/around Monsaraz.  And a great overview article on Monsaraz from the excellent Australian Traveller website. And a guide from Visit Evora on Monsaraz.

A great guide to Alentejo from Conde Nast Traveller UK edition. And from Conde Nast’s US edition, which has the same headline, but completely different story. And another guide from The Guardian. And a great Alentejo wineries guide from NY Magazine.

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