I have only been to Portugal once before and that was to Vilamoura on the Algarve. It’s a golfing resort and neither my boyfriend at the time nor I played or had any interest in golf. The memories I have of that holiday are flies, incinerated sardines and a huge portrait of Sir Ian ”Beefy’ Botham, OBE that loomed creepily over our bed. Said ex was a cricket fan, I wasn’t, I’m not sure the bedroom was the appropriate place for Beefy or Vilamoura the place for me.
A close friend had however, gained a much better first impression of Portugal on a juicing retreat in Vale do Serrão. She wanted to see more and so decided to take a weeks holiday and drive along the Portuguese Silver Coast (Costa de Prata) from Lisbon to Porto. I jumped at the opportunity of being her travel companion. I had heard so many wonderful things about Portugal and the Portuguese, I wanted to put my previous experience down to a bad choice (of destination not boyfriend). Also, what’s not to love about a girls road trip?! What fun, we could be Thelma and Louise?! FYI we had a Fiat 500 not a Ford Thunderbird.
We landed into Lisbon three hours later than expected, our plan to drive straight from the airport to our first night’s accommodation. We accidentally took the wrong exit off the airport roundabout and had an unexpected 18 mile roundtrip across the Ponte Vasco da Gama suspension bridge. I love a bridge and this impressive example stretches across the mighty Tagus river. The view even in the dark looked amazing, but it was late, we were late and going the wrong way. Needless to say my friend, the driver, didn’t share my enthusiasm for the bridge.
We arrived at our first destination Baleal Beach in the dark, and when we woke up it was damp and foggy. After a coffee at the über cool Surfers Lodge and the first of many Portuguese custard tarts the cloud burnt off and the sun started to shine. It was a perfect beach day for the surfers but not for us sun worshippers. Baleal Beach and its neighbour Peniche are two of the most popular surfing resorts in Europe. The beaches are wild and beautiful. Miles and miles of clean sand, cliff edges and rocky outcrops. But it is windy, the Atlantic provides the popular waves and the conditions are more conducive to a wet suit and a long board than a bikini and a book.
Peniche is just 4kms down the road, home to the much sought after Supertubos waves, but it’s not all about surfing. The old town is a beautiful port, lots of lovely seafood restaurants and two impressive forts. One on the mainland and the other a short boat ride away on Berlangas Island. Once a political prison during the fascist regime and now a beautiful nature reserve.
When we tired of looking at big waves and big surfboards, we went inland to the spectacular Medieval village of Obidos. This magical little place is a maze of picturesque cobbled streets and an incredibly well preserved castle inside the citadel wall. It’s hard to escape the local brew Ginja. A potent liqueur made from sour cherries and traditionally served as a shot in a dark chocolate cup. Cherries and dark chocolate are a match made in heaven, and the edible cup means no washing up #genius. We walked away with two bottles.
But it wasn’t just an alcoholic taste sensation that Obidos granted us, oh no, how about a bakers that still used a wood fired oven to cook their spiced sweet potato buns – not far off a hot crossed bun – and the incredibly moreish baked mounds of coconut, almonds and orange. All the sweet goodies came served in a paper cone, which for some reason I found quite a novelty. If I ever return to Obidos, I will spend the night. I imagine it is magical of an evening. Considering its size there were plenty of restaurants and bars, we happened to stop for refreshment in a converted Medieval torture chamber, not really my thing. But there were many other more appealing establishments, where you could easily sit and while away an evening soaking up the gothic atmosphere.
On the way home we stopped at Obidos Lagoon, Portugals largest fresh water lagoon and home to a variety of edible species including eels, the only creature on earth along with snakes that make my skin crawl. A beautiful spot and a great place to paddle board and picnic, if you don’t mind eels.
I have always dreamt of staying on a vineyard and when we rocked up at Casa Periquita in Vale de Coto, a twenty minute drive inland from the coast, it didn’t disappoint. We were greeted by 3 Siamese kittens, a flock of chickens, a breathtaking view across the valley and miles and miles of grape vines. We based ourselves here for two nights to get a feel for ‘country life’ and it didn’t disappoint. Our charismatic Swedish hosts plied us with their organic wine and invited us to help ourselves to the plentiful supply of fruit off the pear, apple and fig trees. The kittens moved in for the duration of our stay, and the chicken’s kindly laid eggs for our breakfast. It was idyllic.
Foz do Arhello was a twenty minute drive from Vale de Coto. A lovely town with a beautiful beach and surprisingly undeveloped. There are many ‘Foz’s’ along the coast, it is the Portuguese word for mouth and describes the calm inlets from the sea which create beautiful, safe, shallow beaches. A stark and welcome contrast to the wild surf which is never far away.
The beach at Foz do Arhello is possibly one of the calmest beaches I have ever visited. Although out of season there were still families and tourists, mainly Portuguese, and everyone just chilled. The beach bars and restaurants were lively, but no loud music or raucous behaviour, just filled with lovely people having a lovely time. We lucked out when we chose, unbeknown to us, local hot spot Tavola for lunch. After overindulging on plates of spicy prawns and bowls of garlicky clams washed down with vinho verde all we could do was plant ourselves horizontally on a couple of sun beds. As we gazed out at the wondrous view of the ‘foz’ ahead of us, like two old Nanas we had a most welcome snooze. We are at this most point, most definitely not, channelling the behaviour of Thelma and Louise.
Ten minutes inland from Coto de Vale is Caldas de Rainha a market town with an obsession for the penis. Yes, I did write the word penis and I’m going to write it a few more times. I could kind of understand the ‘hilarity’ behind the comedy penis shaped pottery items but slightly more disturbing were the edible goods. Penis’ crafted out of marzipan or meringue, and as is the case in real life, they came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Obviously, we had to make a very touristy purchase if only for the photo opportunities. The taste and texture were disappointing to say the least, I’d have a custard tart over a marzipan penis any day.
The morning we were due to check out of our idyllic vineyard, I took the opportunity to take my morning cuppa and the kittens and go for a stroll. Soaking up the tranquillity was a perfect way to start the day. When I returned home, my poor friend who suffers from chronic arachnophobia was locked in her room. She had gotten up, opened the door to her bedroom and instead of being greeted by a kitten, was greeted by a spider, and apparently, it was enormous (?). Terrified, she was waiting for me to return, dispose of the spider and set her free. When I eventually came to her rescue, the pesky thing was nowhere to be seen. If the shoe happened to be on the other foot, I would have been as traumatised had I encountered an eel outside my bedroom door instead of a kitten.
After a calming cup of tea and a freshly laid egg, normal service was resumed. We bade a fond farewell to the Swedes, the kittens and the chickens and headed north along the Silver coast to Nazaré and Costa Nova.
I’m not sure I have ever visited an area of a country that is filled with so many beautiful, historic settlements in such close proximity. As we drove into Nazaré, we were once again stunned by its beauty. The town has two obvious parts, the old village down at the beach and two villages atop a cliff which are connected by a funicular railway. It was market day, the day we rode into town, and as it was coffee and custard tart time (again), we decided to pick a spot in the sun and people watch.
Nazaré is a fishing village and has become a hugely popular tourist destination, but miraculously (see below) it still maintains its charm. It claims to have the best beaches along the Silver Coast and is home to the biggest wave ever surfed (100ft in 2013). Back in the day, legend has it that Nazaré, meaning Nazareth, was the resting place of a small statue of the Virgin Mary, brought by a monk from the Holy Land in the 4th century. It is also rumoured that in the 11th century the Virgin Mary miraculously intervened and saved the life of a Portuguese Knight Templar whilst he was out hunting. And if that wasn’t enough referencing of the Virgin Mary, 45 minutes inland from Nazaré you come to the even more venerated town of Fatima. In 1917 The Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three shepherd children on three separate occasions and gifted them the wisdom to spread peace and love throughout the world. Well that didn’t go to plan, did it?
As well as the religious history of Nazaré, its roots as a fishing village are still obvious. As we munched our way through crisp and creamy custard tarts, the sweetness mellowed by a thick black coffee, we were stunned to see some very, very old ladies doing their market shop in the traditional dress of the fishing community. A predominately black head dress, wooden clogs and a voluminous skirt made up of seven layers of material to represent the seven days of the week. On a practical level, the layers kept the women warm as they sat on the beach in all weathers, and waited for their men to return, or not, with the days catch.
We also noticed the amount of gold and silver filigree, images of elephants on jewellery and furnishings and the presence of coriander and cumin in the food. Eventually the penny dropped. Many years ago my friend and I had travelled together to Goa which had been occupied by the Portuguese for 450 years. We had marvelled then at the European look of the Goan’s with their green eyes, the Catholic community and Mediterranean twist on the food. And now some years later here we were, together again, in awe of the subtle reverse influence that India has had on this part of Portugal.
Custard tarts consumed and people watching over, we took the funicular railway up to the villages on the cliff tops. When we finished our ascent we were shocked at the drop in temperature. We were literally up in the clouds, it was magical. The view down was astonishing and standing on the cliff edges scarily compulsive. The village in the sky was beautiful but too chilly for us. So we headed back down to the beach for a lunch of traditional bread soup with prawns – a very tasty, and very filling fishy porridge which was a lot more appetising than it sounds – some more clams and yes, some more vinho verde.
It probably wasn’t the lightest of lunches to choose knowing we had a ninety minute drive along the motorway to our next destination. In an attempt to keep ourselves awake we decided to play ISpy, but on the motorway, there really isn’t that much to see. So we decided to play a game that Thelma and Louise would never have played, ‘Name That Tune.’ We narrowed the scope down to ABBA songs, and we couldn’t have arrived at our next port of call, Costa Nova, soon enough.
Costa Nova is famous for its ‘haystacks’ which are traditional fisherman’s warehouses, and not in fact haystacks. Painted in colourful vertical stripes to welcome home the fisherman, they are now used as holiday homes in this picturesque town.
The wild sea and beautiful beaches of Costa Nova are flanked by miles and miles of sand dunes. The sand was pristine, we could have been in the Caribbean. We were the only customers starved enough of sun to brave the wind and make the most of the late summer sun. We nestled into the comfy beach chairs at the Ibiza-esque Costa Nova Beach Club, where we enjoyed a glass of wine and a portion of crisps which were served not in a bowl, but in a very large bucket. Needless to say we scoffed them all and then headed 100 yards down the beach to Bronze, a highly acclaimed beach bar and restaurant. They made the most splendid Piña Colada, the perfect accompaniment to the sunset, followed by a much needed, perfectly cooked steak for dinner.
Next day we headed an hour’s drive away to another Foz, Figueira da Foz. The Vegas of Portugal, it is home to the country’s largest casino, and that I think has influenced the modern skyline and the vibe of the town. It was the largest place we had visited to date and so far removed from the gorgeous medieval villages and fishing towns that we had previously loved so much. But Figueira’s saving grace was another incredible, deserted beach.
We splashed out €5 on a windbreaker and to be honest, I wish we hadn’t bothered. Our attempt to erect a such a simple structure was beyond embarrassing. So pathetic and public was our endeavour, a total stranger took pity and came to our aid. So thankful were we for his help, it made the situation even more excruciating. We settled down to relax and very soon realised that even with the protection of the windbreak we were both being pebble dashed to within an inch of our lives. We decided to abandon the beach and the windbreak and go for lunch. There are many highlights of eating along this coast and one of them is that as soon as you sit down to eat the waiter brings you a basket of delicious bread, a bowl of black olives and a plate of fresh goats cheese – no wonder I put on 2kgs in eight days.
Next stop Aveiro, the Venice of Portugal, ANOTHER beautiful Portuguese town. Next to an estuary, the little channels meander their way through the town centre. The local speciality is a sweet treat ‘Ovos Moles.’ a mix of egg yolks and sugar in a wafer thin case. This looked far too dainty for me, so as we happened to be in Aveiro at coffee time (again), I ditched my usual custard tart and went for a croissant filled with ovos moles. I had no regrets. In fact, I have no regrets about anything I ate, the food on this trip was fabulous.
So we said a fond farewell to the windy beaches of the Silver Coast and jumped in our little Fiat 500 for the last time. We drove one hour north to our final destination the stunning City of Porto. A UNESCO world heritage site, home of the famous tipple Port and the inspiration for JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter stories.
The Douro river with its impressive bridges runs through the city which it divides. On one side you have the Ribeira district, the historic centre with its narrow vertiginous streets winding up from the lively eating and drinking scene on the river bank. We stayed on the southern side, Vila Nova de Gaia where the banks of the Douro are lined with the famous Port houses and their respective bars and restaurants. If you like sitting in the sun eating delicious food and sipping on fabulous wine, Porto is the place for you. Sadly we only had half a day in this vibrant city, but we still managed to squeeze in a suckling pig sandwich and glass of pink fizz, a couple of glasses of white port, and a dinner of octopus and potatoes. It was a fitting farewell to our wonderful eight days of eating, drinking and exploring.
My comfy travelling trousers were definitely not as comfy as they were when we started our trip. But as we sat and reminisced about our fabulous trip at the airport the next morning, there was still room for one more custard tart to go with my coffee. We were touched by the warmth of the Portuguese people, blown away by the natural beauty and continually impressed with the amazing food and the much under rated vinho verde. We mused on the ease of driving. The roads are empty and you eventually get used to going right on the many roundabouts. We laughed at our desperate attempts to sunbathe on pretty much every beach we came across despite the wind. I was congratulated on my heroic consumption of eleven custard tarts in eight days and reminded of the (at times quite violent) cleansing qualities of eating too many fresh figs.
I can’t compare this stunning part of Portugal to my previous lack lustre experience on the Algarve. Not an incinerated sardine, plague of flies or English cricketer to be seen. I never tired of the beautiful architecture and houses covered with stunning, colourful tiles. I never tired of learning about the fascinating history of the Knights Templar and the intrepid Portuguese explorers. And I never tired of the company of my chauffeur and top chum for the week Ms Claire Marshall. As Thelma said to Louise “Louise, no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.” Back at ya, Marsh and thanks for not driving us over the edge of a cliff…. Douro Valley next?