Sweet Nothings: A Road Trip Through Portugal’s Wild West

Sweet Nothings: A Road Trip Through Portugal’s Wild West

This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 19: The
Wild Issue

are propped up on the shore of Praia do Salto on the coast of
Portugal’s Alentejo region. I’ve got that hazy feeling that you get
after a long day in the sun and one too many glasses of wine. I
look to my left, where the sand stretches into the distance and
every cove is broken up by jagged, biscuit-coloured cliffs. Ahead,
the ocean and sky melt into one shimmering body of cornflower blue.
The waves bounce and froth against two glossy rocks, to which
clusters of mussels cling. To my right, a sandy hill arches over
us, topped by a blanket of sea daisies, foxgloves, poppies and wild
thyme. And we are naked. Utterly, brazenly naked in the blazing
light of day. I instinctively shift position to preserve some
modesty, then realise that nobody is around. Because this is
Portugal’s wild west, and nobody is ever around.

For the past week we have been travelling through the Costa
Vicentina and inland Alentejo, sharing long, winding roads with
only the odd farmer or lycra-clad cyclist. Reigned over by flaming
mimosa trees, almond blossoms and pine trees, the roads have varied
from the smooth and scenic to the dilapidated, testing the wheels
of our car with cavernous potholes, sand dunes and knife-edged

The days have been filled with long swims in freshwater lakes
and lunches of buttery prawns, octopus salad and tinned fish served
with local sourdough. Every meal has ended with a ritualistic shot
of eye-watering medronho, always accompanied by the insistence that
“the second tastes better than the first”.

With our limbs browned, our hair a shade lighter and our lungs
filled with sea air, we ended the journey in the ancient city of
Évora. After tracing the uneven cobbles and watching the place
turn gold in the evening sun, we went for dinner at a tiny
restaurant run by a husband and wife. They served us clams swimming
in garlic along with jamón and roasted cheese with quince. The
murmur of the city was like coming up for air. We felt as though
we’d been alone for a week.

Portugal’s rural areas are a hushed secret. Driving from empty
beach to unmarked valley, we kept expecting to find a tidal wave of
tourists at every turn. Surely people know about this place? Surely
we couldn’t be the only ones basking on the silky sand with miles
of yellow flowers shivering on the hills around us?

And yet the roads remained a blank page for the entire week. In
crossing the threshold into this untapped pocket of the world, time
seemed to melt away. The land felt like a secret that can only be
kept quiet for so long. Like the leafy oranges and the perfumed
lemons that grow from the trees in the springtime, Portugal’s wild
west is ripe for exploration. Now is the time to take a bite.

Day One

The plan was to spend the week in an old VW camper van. What
could be dreamier than unrolling a map and setting off in an
antique motorhome, with the windows down and the open road ahead?
Based in the Algarve, Siesta Campers lovingly restores antique
camper vans to rent out to visitors exploring the area.

Ours was named Martha, a picture-perfect 1970s VW the colour of
pistachio ice cream. We anticipated sleeping on her fold-down bed
on roadsides, beaches and rural campsites. Our aim was to reach
Alentejo by sunset, an easy 120km journey northwest. But with a
wheel the size of a kitchen sink and a top speed of 80km an hour,
things did not pan out quite as we’d hoped. After bumbling along
the coastal tip of the Algarve, stopping at small beaches, dusty
villages and seafood restaurants (the kilo of fresh squid submerged
in lemony butter at Gigi’s was a particular high point), we
consulted our map. In seven hours we had made it just under 20km
from Faro airport.

With heavy hearts and aching arms, we made the embarrassingly
short journey back to Siesta’s body shop, which was scented with a
curious mix of oil and orange blossom. A vehicle like that, the
owner, Claire, pointed out is for “slowing down”, for patiently
scaling the Algarve and sleeping underneath the stars. As much as
we’d felt ourselves unravel like spools of thread in the single
afternoon that we’d spent in Portugal, we had a lot of ground to
cover – dusty, off-road ground that Martha and her antique
suspension did not quite suit. We bid her fibreglass face, formica
tables and caramel-coloured leather farewell and headed off to a
local car hire to pick up a more suitable – although far less
whimsical – set of wheels.

Day Two

As Faro finally began to disappear into the distance, we left
behind a slice of the Algarve that is occupied by throngs of
tourists – stag weekenders, golfers and holidaymakers in search of
sun and menus in English. As we pushed on toward the Costa
Vicentina, the wild, unscathed coastline on the tip of southwest
Portugal, the motorway ended. We suddenly found ourselves tracing
wide roads lined with wild flowers and red-clay cliffs topped with
dense thickets of pine trees.

We had entered the Natural Park of Southwest Alentejo, a 120km
stretch of protected land that spans wind-whipped coastlines and
secluded farmland. A few hours in, we plonked the car at the edge
of a deserted track and walked down a sandy path. At the end of the
road we reached Torre de Aspa, the coastline’s highest point. This
soaring cliff provides a sweeping view of the golden beaches and
the raging ocean below.

After passing through the pink-flushed village of Odeceixe,
which spills down the Ribeira de Seixe below the winding coastal
road, we found ourselves on a table overlooking the ocean at the
bustling, zero-frills Restaurante Azenha do Mar. Although fresh
seafood is just as ubiquitous in this region as men in at caps, the
locals told us that this is some of the best around. We ordered a
stack of spicy tinned sardines and a bucket of coral-coloured
prawns, and sat de-shelling them at the bar.

That night was spent in Zambujeira do Mar, a whisper-quiet
fishing village with toothy cliffs, sun-baked forests and shacks
threaded with nets and faded buoys. Local fishermen and their
families pile into Restaurante O Sacas as the day ends. Perched on
the brink of a cliffs, it is run by a stern-faced family, who serve
up the day’s catches along with clattering bowls of shellfish and
cups of bitter coffee.

This area feeds into the Rota Vicentina, a 450km network of
nature trails, including the Historical Way and the Fisherman’s
Trail. The latter is a single track, only accessible by foot, which
traces the cliff edges of some of southwest Portugal’s most remote
beaches, coves and fishing spots. We thought about joining the
walk, but agreed that it was getting far too late, and opted to go
to dinner instead.

Day Three

There is only one downside to Alentejo’s empty roads – when it
comes to navigating, there are few places to turn for help. Which
explains why we spent three hours snaking up and down farm tracks
and mountain trails in search of Pego das Pias, a secluded swimming
spot, one of many in Portugal said to be guarded by mythical female
spirits known as mouras encantadas. Here an emerald river is
bookmarked by toothy limestone gullies, which sink into the water
and flutter with wild oregano. We tripped our way across the rocks,
past a handful of bathers standing waist- deep in the water with
their dogs chasing sticks, and bedded down a few boulders away. We
spent an afternoon dipping into the water and clambering over the
hot rocks for views of the river disappearing into the

Porto das Barcas restaurant can be found a few kilometres away
from Milfontes, a sun-bleached beach town with white stone houses
and shops selling local wine and handwoven baskets. Local families
gather at its tables, which are spread across terracotta tiles and
out onto a sea-facing terrace. Along with cold glasses of citrusy
Alentejo white, we squabbled over fat prawns and clams bathing in
garlic and lemon. Restored, and with enough garlic on our breath to
take down an ox, we got back on the road. We headed downhill
towards the Praia do Salto past shadowy, time-beaten farmhouses
with roofs that were collapsing inwards.

Our home for the evening was the guesthouse Herdade da Matinha,
a restored farmhouse set within 110 hectares of paddocks, orange
groves, aloe vera tangles and cork oak forests.

It is found down a cratered gravel lane through a shady copse.
We spent the afternoon wandering round sweet-smelling gardens,
dipping into a wood-decked pool and making use of the many outdoor
beds before settling into the art-littered living room for a bottle
of regional red wine. (“This one’s strong!” the manager told us.
She was not wrong.) Keen walkers and Portuguese families filled the
rustic, colourful dining room that evening for a three-course set
menu of local sh and veg. We finished the wine by the open fire,
with the doors to the orange grove flung open.

Day Four

“This is the best moment of my life!” cried a voice behind me.
It was Issy, who had just mastered the art of trotting on horseback
through sand. We were speeding up on the silky shore, with
washed-up mussels and shells crunching underfoot.

The vet Luís Lamas had greeted us from the sandy paddock of
Herdade da Aberta Nova, not far from the paradisiacal Lagoas de
Santo André e Sancha nature reserve. He is a long-distance horse
rider (his latest achievement is 160km) who escorts visitors on
short or week-long riding experiences in the landscape around the
farm. Brushing o our warnings of “instability” and “zero core
strength” with a laugh, he helped us up on to two speckled Lusitano
mares before boarding his own.

Luís waved us o after a glass of regional wine (“we must”),
sending us in the direction of Melides, where the beach splits the
town from a yawning lagoon. Locals smoke cigars on benches outside
the local tabacaria, while birds circle the chiming blue and the
white clock tower in the main square. We tracked down Luís’s
favourite restaurant, O Melidense. The canary-yellow eatery has a
loud, steam-filled kitchen at its heart, a bar lined with jugs of
red wine and an upstairs terrace overlooking the town’s rolling
terracotta roofs, littered with fishing nets and flapping paper
tablecloths. Locals pour in for classic family food, such as soup
with eggs or tomato rice and bacalhau (a traditional salted cod

The next stop was Vila de Frades, an old winemaking village
hidden in the folds of undulating vineyards. We headed uphill to
Quetzal estate, an airy work of oak, botanical tiles and
floor-to-ceiling windows. Although closing time had already come
and gone, the sommelier Ana Coutinho let us sample a few creations
– our favourite was an oaky white that costs €4 a bottle. Looking
out over the deserted village below, we asked if the area is always
so still. “Always,” she answered. “The people in these villages
have no idea how beautiful it is here.”

Day Five

The young, city-born chef Pedro Pena Bastos opened his first
restaurant in the celebrated 13th-century winemaking estate of
Esporão. The gleaming white building sits on top of a slanting
vineyard, with a smattering of outdoor seating pointing towards
miles of olive trees and lakes beyond. Guests at Pedro’s restaurant
are offered set menus of seasonal, meticulously assembled dishes
inspired by the land that surrounds them.

Pedro greeted us on the porch, where we were submerged in a
mid-afternoon slump in the sun, and led us through to the sleek,
minimalistic dining room for a tour. The chef has sent critics into
a spin with his unpretentious food, which combines old family
recipes (including delicious butter inspired by his grandmother)
with fine-dining methods (artful plates of mackerel with mandarin
and miso, four-year-old oysters with seaweed vinegar, or tender
pork neck with wild fennel) and an understanding of Alentejo’s
bounty of produce. Pedro told us: “The land is a constant
inspiration for me,” as he brought through a tray of coffee with
sticks of cinnamon to stir them. “We have a landscape full of food
here. I see Portuguese people returning to nature. When I first
came here, the pace of life drove me a little crazy. I have to go
back to the city all the time, but I find myself craving that hit
of nature.”

After lunch, woozy from wine, we accompanied Pedro and his
sous-chef into the hills to forage. Plucking kale, edible flowers
and moss from the ground, we stood in streams of sunlight
underneath the olive trees, discussing the week behind us. Pedro’s
food is a pure expression of the region in all its colourful,
sweet-smelling glory. It felt like the perfect end to the week.
“Nature is constantly giving us gifts,” Pedro said as we bounced
back to the restaurant down another dirt track. “All you have to do
is look for them.”

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