Quarantining in Lisbon has made me appreciate my country even more. It made me more eager to dig deep, discover what else there is and stride off the beaten path more often. During a ‘normal year’, my family and I usually travel for the whole month of August, have little weekends away and put our Easter break to good use. We were starting to go a little nuts. Confining is not in our genes, apparently. Since I’m home my mother has already planned a whole month of weekends away, for me to “get in touch with my roots” – and to be honest, I appreciate the gesture and the excuse.
One weekend we went South from Lisbon, to what is called Costa Vicentina, the Vicentine Coast, a great getaway from the city, especially if you love the beach, surfing, seafood and peace. Did you relate to this description? I thought so.
The area is known to be the paradise of national holidaymakers, foreigners don’t usually come here. Although some have already found the treasure map and are striding the cobbled irregular streets and climbing up the beach arribas as you read this.
We took off Saturday morning, out of Lisbon heading south. To embark on this journey you need a car since public transportation is very scarce, motorbikes will have you eating dust on some more unconventional roads and bikes will either exhaust your legs (because the area is sparsely inhabited and villages are far away from each other) or have you hit a tree in the middle of the night as barely any roads are lit. So, get a car – maybe this is why there aren’t so many foreigners around…
Anyway, we drove straight to Sines, about one and a half hour away from Lisbon. This is where it starts, if you look at a map from here south along the coast you see a green patch. This whole area is the natural park of the coast of Alentejo, it’s a protected area dominated only by cliffs and the wind.
Sines isn’t the most interesting or beautiful village but it’s your starting point, an introduction to the Vicentine Coast. It is interesting to pass through here to look at how the locals live, the roman ruins, the fortress and the beach in a less hectic place. If you have a sweet tooth make sure to grab a traditional queijada, let’s call it a ‘Portuguese cheesecake’ (but it’s really not), in the most famous bakery in town Vela de Ouro, or as the locals call it ‘Os Galegos’, meaning the ‘spanish from Galizia’ because the owners were from there.
Keep going alongside the coastline and pass by São Torpes, if you translate it to French, St. Tropez, but don’t get your hopes up, it’s not comparable, as much as I love Portugal, St. Tropez is magical. Get down to the beach, and make sure to dip your feet in the water as close to the right as possible. The cold ocean waters are used to cool down the machinery at a nearby power plant and so the water is warm when it comes back out.
With sand in your toes, go to Porto Covo to have lunch. There are some restaurants in the coastline but I can assure you, the Cervejaria do Marquês is worth the drive. Lavish in a world of seafood and fresh fish and pop over to their café to try one of their artisanal ice creams to clean your palate afterwards, while you walk around the village.
After lunch it might be a good time to check in to your hotel. I suggest staying halfway down the coast, so you can easily reach all of the beaches, around S. Teotónio where some of the best rural hotels lie. The best in the area are Craveiral Farmhouse and Teima, both beautifully designed repurposed farms, the latter inhabited by donkeys. We couldn’t manage to get a reservation at the time so we booked Enigma which lacks in quality compared to the others but makes up for in price. Nevertheless, if you’d prefer to stay in a village instead of in the middle of nowhere, I suggest you stay in Vila Nova de Milfontes where nights are livelier, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
If you are still in for a beach afternoon, Zambujeira do Mar is a paradise where despite the wind up top, the beach will shield you from it or any other harm between its cliffs – because how could anything bother you when you are looking at this ocean. If you are not up for the beach, still go to Zambujeira do Mar to have dinner at Costa Alentejana. Here, I kid you not, I had the best King Crab I had ever eaten in my life.
The Vicentine Coast is easily a place where you can spend a peaceful week, hoping from beach to beach, and trying the traditional sea caught delights the locals take for granted. It is a popular place for young travellers as everything is very cheap and camping parks are plenty – some even dare to do it in the wild. Although in Portugal it is illegal to do wild camping, especially in natural reserves, mainly because of litter, it is not illegal to spend the night if you pack up your things and leave in the morning. I heard this from someone who does it regularly, but to be honest with you, I’ve never tried. My religion is a double mattress, freshly steamed linens and a nice shower pressure if you please.
The next day, wake up early and even if you have breakfast at the hotel, go to Pão do Rogil, a local bread and biscuit maker where you will find these delicacies made out of local ingredients such as sweet potato, carob, almonds or beetroot. The sweet potato bread with walnuts is heavenly, especially when slightly toasted.
After breakfast, I see a beach in your future.. All the beaches along the coast are beautiful, despite the freezing cold water that makes your bones crackle. Some of my favourites are Zambujeira do Mar, Praia de Odeceixe, Praia de Monte Clérigo, Praia do Amado and Praia do Cravalhal. If you surf, you have to go to Praia da Arrifana where you will be among your surfing peers.
For Sunday lunch, even if you are not staying at Craveiral Farmhouse, their farm to table restaurant, Craveiral Farmtable is a must. The chef has a Michelin star restaurant in Lisbon called Loco and another one named Fogo where everything is made with fire, here the concept is similar but the setting is even better. I know you might not feel like leaving the beach but I guarantee it’s worth it. You can catch some sun again in the afternoon.
When returning to Lisbon, there is one essential stop: Vila Nova de Milfontes. This is one of my favourite villages by the coastline. Whether you want to come here for dinner and drinks or just a walk around – don’t miss out on this enchanted place.
And this is how life is spent in peaceful Alentejo, where inhabitants are mocked to be slow because the calm is contagious.