Portugal – A Road Trip Through Paradise
When one member of team MALESTROM decided it was time for a break from the world of men’s lifestyle, mobile phones, social media and dreary British weather it sounded like the perfect opportunity for a travel article. A road trip was touted, but where? A tour of the South of France? A flight to the US and a trip down Route 66? The Aztec Trail? ‘No!’ – he exclaimed, ‘I’m heading to Portugal’. Portugal?
Ok granted Lisbon is one of the best city breaks you’ll find, but hardly relaxing, in fact quite the opposite – a Saturday night out in Lisbon city centre is about as wild as you want it, but aside from that we were stumped. Well according to our learned colleague, the South West coastline of Portugal remains one of last unspoilt strips of seaside in Europe, with over 150 miles of beautiful beaches and tiny white washed villages nestling on cliff tops that stare out over the Atlantic Ocean. We were sold. Good luck and enjoy!
Arriving in sun drenched Portugal at the city of Faro I was keen to get the hell out of the Algarve asap and as far away from the hundreds of polo shirt wearing British golfers who love to tee off with their collars turned up and talk loudly at the bar afterwards about how big their pensions are. Each to their own, but we walk a different path to Gary in his Audi, we’re a bit more ‘Everybody’s Talking’ by Harry Nilsson than ‘Paradise’ by Coldplay.
I’m starting out in the small fishing village of Salema on the far South West tip of Portugal. It’s only known to a few and although a commercial side is now evident, it’s still only has about five restaurants that are all pretty good and a handful of bars. Best, it sits right on the beach which is a good half mile of sand running along the edge of where the Mediterranean ends and the Atlantic starts.
I’d recommend anyone conduct a trip down the boardwalk of Salema after 6pm, when the wind drops off and a calm white haze sits on the horizon as the sun goes down. It’s the best time to crack a cold beer, breathe in the fresh air and forget about everything back home, pure bliss. After you’ve finished realising the world isn’t such a bad place after all, you can settle for a cocktail at The Adventura Bar in the small alleyway running parallel to the beach and if you like seafood, then Lorenco’s at the back of the village still serves the best fresh fish served by Lorenco himself.
From there it’s a drive down to Sagres, the last town on the southern coast and the old Algarve, and home to the famous Portuguese beer, and not far from some of the sheerest cliff faces you’ll ever see. As you stand on the edge and stare out, the next stop as the crow flies is Argentina, and that’s a lot of water between you and the next mainland!
Filling up with petrol and heading north through the small village of Vila do Bospos, you’ll find local food and drink at half the price of anywhere else on the overpopulated Algarve. It’s a good place for a pitstop and on the outskirts of town you’ll also find some of the best prices for hiring wetsuits and surf boards, with surfing now a major part of the culture on the coastline heading north towards Lisbon.
The road from Vila do Bispos up to Praia do Bordeira is one of the most memorable of the trip, miles of flat straight open road without a house in view, lined in parts by avenues of eucalyptus trees, farm fields peel out on either side of you and the sea is less than a mile off to the west. This is a drive where it is recommended winding both windows down, turning up the tunes and pushing down on the peddle as you drive freely down the empty open road like you’re the only person in the world.
The first place you come to after about 50 minutes is Carrapateira. It’s a small transient village with three or four bars and restaurants all clustered together in a plaza right next to the road, and the parking is free. None of them are brilliant but if you need a snack or water, this is the best option. In fact one of the good things about this whole journey up the coast is that you park for free just about anywhere you want, and that includes camping. If you want bohemian, it’s right there, this is the place and no one is going to bother you. In fact, with this entire drive it’s worth taking any dirt track or small road heading West towards the sea, whether unmarked or not, because inevitably you will find an isolated beach that only you and a couple of other adventurers have found, it’s the beauty of this unknown coastline. And as for accommodation, you’ll easily find any number of single or double rooms to stay at for 30/50 Euros a night anywhere en route.
As soon as you’ve finished your drink and head out of the Carrapateira, take the first left towards the beach and after about ¾ mile you are going to be in for a big surprise, over 3 square miles of sand dunes blown in by the wind, with a fresh water river running down the one side of the beach and into the sea, it’s an oasis! There’s all manor of wildlife thriving amongst the bulrushes of the fresh water and there’s also an old Portuguese bar down on the edge of the river. On the road approaching it you can also rent rooms if you want to stay the night, there’s a small hostel come guesthouse that is normally home to a handful of surfers. Rooms are free and easy here and you don’t need to book in advance.
These days the word is spreading about Praia de Bordeira though and the odd kite surfer can be seen creeping onto the horizon, but it is still one of the most beautiful places you will ever see in Europe. For those who have truly caught the Bordeira vibe, you can also go native and hire a horse at the Holistic Horse Riding Centre and ride down through the river and onto the beach. If the view of the dunes or horse riding isn’t for you, then less than half a mile away along the cliff top there’s the surfing beach of Praia do Amado. In the summer this attracts the pros and amateurs as much as Fistral in Cornwall and in July and August you will find it jam packed.
There’s plenty of surf schools if you want to dip in and out and what will amaze you is how all the hundreds of people except you know about this beach in the first place. It really has become a surf mecca, and if you’re not Kelly Slater standard, there’s calmer waters up the coast.
When you carry on North after Bordeira you drive through some of the best Portuguese countryside on offer: through woodland, shrub, marshes and farm land as you wind your way through this unspoilt part of the country most people never see. After about an hour you come to a turning off to another beach, Praia da Arrifana. But before you stop there I’d advise driving on a little and stopping in the old Moorish town of Aljezur, which nestles on another fresh water river with a beautiful old bridge crossing, that’s lined with purple bougainvilleas. It also has an ancient castle that’s reminiscent of a scene from Game of Thrones.
The town was founded by The Moors in the 10th Century who gave it it’s name. Take some time to get a coffee or a cool drink in the small café on the south side of the bridge and oh, this is also your best chance of a cashpoint for quite a while, petrol too.
The nearby beach that you passed and is worth turning back for is Arrifana. It’s one of the best on the coast to either sunbathe or learn how to surf, as the breaks are not so big and the water is calmer. It’s a steep walk down to the sand and back up, so best lose the flip flops. On the beach you’re surrounded by cliff faces that create a blinding sun trap, if it’s an envy inducing tan you’re after, Arrifana is the place to get it. I’d also recommend hanging around on the cliff tops for one of the best sunsets you’ll see set over the Atlantic. For food there’s the unusually named, ‘Hello Sailor’ up on the cliff top and just a short skip up the road from the beach. The seafood spaghetti was a pleasant surprise and a perfect accompaniment to this most relaxing of evenings.
From Arrifana I headed back up the coast through Aljezur, on to a place named Rogil and then up to the village of Odeceixe and the beach of Praia Das Adegas. This huge natural cove is one of the most picturesque on the South West of Portugal, it’s half a mile of soft yellow sand, steep cliffs either side and another fresh water river running into the sea. Depending on what time of year you visit, Odeceixe will be packed with tourists and locals alike, absorbing its quaint and charming beauty. Be warned however, parking is a nightmare and finding accommodation is nigh on impossible, but camping is an option.
From Odeceixe head North up through the tranquil farming regions far from the well trodden tourist path and immerse yourself in the rugged countryside. It feels like a land that time forgot and farming doesn’t get more intrinsically organic than this. Continue up the coastline and if you’re suspension is sturdy enough to handle dirt tracks and a few steep jaunts, then you can stop at a myriad of beaches such as Praia do Machado and Praia do Carvalhal, where you might well find yourself the only person on the beach, if it’s isolation you crave then this is the place to do it.
Next stop after cutting through the farmland was at the popular little village of Praia do Zambujeira which is buzzing with holidaying Portuguese and those fleeing the bustling streets of Lisbon, some 150 miles north. It’s worth a stop and a peek at the view and you’re spoilt for choice if you want something to eat with over a dozen restaurants and bars to choose from, and oh, the only parking is at the public carpark at the rear of the village as you come in on the one-way system. If a bit of hustle and bustle is required you’ll be well served here..
With the windows open wide and JJ Cale soothing his way through the speakers I continued north until the small junction of S. Teotonio crept into view, turning west towards the coast it’s possible to hug the coastline up to Port das Barcas, past the small fishing quay and onto the lighthouse at Cabo Sardao. It’s worth a quick stop but there isn’t that much to see and the local village is as sleepy as any you’ll find, in fact tourists remain a novelty. A quick drink in the square is perfect to give yourself a half hour break.
The final stop on this route is the river estuary town of Vila Nova de Milfontes, which as far as I could ascertain is completely undiscovered by tourists, it’s beautiful. A small town of about 5000 people that sits on the mouth of a natural flowing river called the Mira, it really is one of the most beautifully located coastal towns.
With at least five soft sandy beaches lined along each side of the estuary, you really are spoilt for choice. Located in the back streets you’ll find plenty of options for somewhere to stay. A top tip for the adventurous at heart is to hire a kayak which you can do on the first beach of the North shore, and spend the day kayaking down the river Mira and back before the sun goes down, it’s challenging but highly recommended.
It is here sat on a stool in a bar next to the old castle overlooking the river, drinking a cold Sagres accompanied by a plate of freshly grilled garlic prawns, that this most enlightening of journeys comes to an end. It is not so long ago that in the midst of Europe’s financial crisis, Portugal hovered on the edge of bankruptcy and economic ruin. In the years since this nation has been revived and is beginning to flourish once more, as the rest of Europe cottons on to the idylls of it’s sun kissed coastline. I can’t recommend Portugal enough, and what better place to start than its stunning South West shoreline.