Santa Clara-a-Velha is a sleepy tranquil village nestled comfortably into the surrounding flowing hills, like an island surrounded by mile upon mile of forests and wildlife. Though isolated geographically from the main road networks that run across Southern Portugal, it has an excellent nearby rail line, the single track north-south main line running from The Algarve in the south all the way to Porto and beyond, in the North.
A car, either your own or a hire car, is by far the best option for exploring this stunning area but for those without a car Santa Clara offers solutions for maximising your stay in the region. Those with the benefit of personal or hired wheels will have the freedom to explore the many glorious sandy, almost deserted beaches of the West Coast (natural park of southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina), navigating the earthen tracks that meander through the Cork-Oak forests to take advantage of the many stunning vistas.
Those who arrive by train at the sleepy Santa Clara-Saboia station can take advantage of the local taxi service to deposit them at some nearby destination of concentrated beauty (The Santa Clara Lake being a favorite).Taxis to the Lake are available and cost only a few euros, you can even ask your driver to return for you at a specified time allowing you to spend some hours with the peace of the lake if you are unwilling or unable to walk down hill back to the village.The walk back again to Santa Clara Village is a delight for all of the senses as not only will your eyes (and camera) be assailed by an assortment of beautiful birds and other creatures but your hearing, sense of smell, taste and touch will all be aroused, as a typical walk is accompanied by the smell of eucalyptus; mimosa and honeysuckle, the sounds of running streams and bird song, the tastes of various fruits found along the way ; grapes and the fruits of the Medronha or Strawberry tree being favourites and last but not least the warmth of the sun on your skin as a gentle breeze drifts down from the lake.
During the summer months swimming is by far the best activity as the clear, pure waters of the Santa Clara Lake and the river Mira that feeds her, beckon tantalisingly and offer instant relief from overheating in the brilliant sunshine.The clear blue expanse of the water against the backdrop of Umbrella Pines and endless blue skies, small islands and inlets allow for some incredible photography and painting opportunities. Here Azure winged Magpies and families of Golden Oriel colour the air with striking blues and golds as they fly to drink or take flight between stands of Pine. Swallows fill the air during the summer months with ariel expertise as they busily collect small insects, to take back to their young, swooping low to drink the crystal clear waters on the wing. The river Mira then winds along her way home to meet the sea at the incredibly beautiful photogenic Mira Estuary of Vila Nova de Milfontes on the west coast. Amongst other riverine inhabitants are many sleek families of Otters which are always a delight to encounter.
On a typical walk along the river or up into the hillsides around this sleepy village one could expect to encounter: Otters; turtles; storks; herons; egrets; foxes; wild boar (Plenty of them but normaly well hidden in the forest) ;eagles; kites; buzzards; kingfisher; golden oriel; azure winged magpie; hoopoe; mongoose; various lizards;a variety of snakes (bites are very rare indeed); crayfish; wagtails and many species of small song birds including the nightingale. On trips further afield in this region one could find Harriers and Bustards on the plains around Beja -the capital of this region of Portugal.
In the spring the hills and valleys burst into colour with a startling array of flowers-it is often said, by the Portuguese, that spring in the Alentejo is a sight never to be missed and only with the greatest of rarity surpassed! The scents and sounds that accompany this great flowering are also exquisite it is only a shame that one can not photograph a scent! I suppose that it is the art of the perfumer to bottle these delights.
Walking; cycling; kayaking; photography; painting; bird spotting; wildlife spotting; plant discovery and fishing are some of the activities that are popular with visitors to this area . I should also add to that extensive list the 'activity' of simply 'Being', slowing down to a pace that most people have not only forgotten was possible but have completely underestimated the importance off, in our hectic lives. This region of Portugal is one that the speed of modern life has completely bypassed, endowing it with a timlessness that feeds the soul.
Most of these varied activities are enjoyed equally in the winter months, although unfortunately only the bravest will take to the waters for a swim. There are still a large variety of birds and animals making their permanent homes here, making way a little in the spring for an influx of summer visitors as the swallows and other birds that over-winter in Africa return to the riches of the Alentejo Baixo.
Winter sun in Alentejo is also available for humans to enjoy of course and makes a change from the normal 'run-to-the-sun' type of holiday, as though there are stunning beaches and lakes, forests and mountains (the Monchique range) the appeal is of sunny warm days for activities, photography and painting etc. followed by cosy fireside evenings around a huge log fire with either old friends or new found fellowships, after a hearty portuguese meal with local produce and wine featuring heavily. All to be followed by a glass of rich ruby Port that reflects and glows with the light from the fire. This is the sort of winter break where stories are told, songs are sung, to the sound of guitars and the slow pace of life reminds you that you are actually a 'Human Being' not a 'Human Doing'!
Accomodation for all price ranges is to be found in and around Santa Clara there is the colourful, very clean, artistic venue of the 'Backpackersportugal-Santa Clara-a-Velha' which is great value for the adventurous low budget travellor. If you do not want to compromise on the quality of room or bathing facilities but travel on a restricted budget the Backpackers is for you, it offers free use of Kayaks and Bicycles at your own risk and is situated right on the riverbank of the river Mira a few kilometres downstream of the Santa Clara dam ( apx. 25 euros per double room -www.backpackersportugal.com). For the better heeled travellor who has money to spend on the luxurious but still enjoys spectacular natural surroundings, there is the Santa Clara Pousada which overooks the lake with stunning views and Hotel facilities (Unfortunately the Pousada is closed for renovations until March 2012----double rooms from 100 euros www.pousadasofportugal.com). Situated on the far side of the lake from Santa Clara in beautiful gardens is the 'Quinta Do Estrada' or 'Paradise in Portugal' as it is known, offering lovely accomodation with the use of a variety of boats included in the price-( from 100 euros per double room--www.paradiseinportugal.com). Both Quinta do Estrada and Backpackersportugal/Santa Clara offer bird watching/wildlife/nature walks. Painting/Poetry weeks are offered at the Backpackers along with musical evenings and huge log fires in the winter evenings.
Local restaurants serve fresh Bass from the waters of the Santa Clara lake along with a large variety of local dishes, the ingredients of which will be largely locally sourced- from the pork to the tomatoes, cheeses and wines. On travelling to the west coast one could expect to encounter a gamut of fresh fish dishes on the menues of most restaurants-from the ubiquitous sardine to 'conger'stew and fresh grilled sea bream. All accompanied by the freshest of salads and either chips or potatoes in some form or another.
I hope that I have pricked your interest in this little known but interesting region of southern Europe and should you venture there, I wish you many sunshine walks and firelit evenings full of song.