Megan Abbott

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

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

Issy and I are propped up on the shore of Praia do Salto on the coast of Portugal’s Alentejo region. I’ve got that hazy afternoon feeling after one too many glasses of frosty wine and a day in the high, beating sun. I look to my left, where the sugary sand stretches into the distance, each cove 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, which are clung to by clusters of mussels. To my right, a sandy hill arches over us, topped by a blanket of wild flowers – sea daisies, foxglove, poppies and wild thyme. It’s only when I look down that I remember we are naked. Utterly, brazenly naked in the blazing light of day. I go to shift my leg to conceal some modesty, and then realise that there is no one around. Because this is Portugal’s wild west, and no one is ever around.

For last week, we have been travelling the Costa Vincentina and inland Alentejo, sharing long, winding roads with little more than the odd lone farmer or lycra-clad cyclist, rained over by flaming mimosa trees, almond blossom and pine. These roads vary from smooth and scenic to dilapidated, testing the wheels of our car with cavernous potholes, sand dunes and knife-edge cliffsides. We have driven with vague plans of food or lodgings past lakes and mountains drowning in wild flowers, with winding paths leading down to deserted, toffee-sanded beaches. 

After swimming in the ocean or freshwater lakes (sometimes clothed, oftentimes not), we’d stop at the nearest waterside restaurant for buttery prawns, tinned fish with local sourdough and octopus salad. Fortified, we’d pay the dirt-cheap bill and bid farewell to the place by sharing a shot of eye-watering Medronho with the owner, who usually insists that “the second always tastes better than the first.” We have spent silent, inky nights in winemaking villages where old women sweep their doorsteps for hours on end, or down dirt tracks that cough you out onto a cliff overlooking the dark, sparkling bay. We have answered nature’s call in roadside bushes, never worrying that someone might pass by. Except for that one time with the farmer on the horse-drawn carriage… 

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

Portugal’s rural areas feel like 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 can’t be the only people basking, fully nude, on the silky sand with miles of yellow flowers shivering on the hills around us? And yet, the roads remained as blank as a page for the entire week. Here, the sweet smell of orange blossom is carried in the wind along with salt, eucalyptus and the rock roses that cloak the hills. In spring, the region is a horticulturist’s dream, overflowing with rare flowers, blossoms, plants and fruit trees sagging with quince and figs. Crossing the threshold into this untapped pocket of the world, time seems to melt away, and losing your way on the roads only seems to add to the magic. This place feels like a secret that can only be kept for so long. Like the swollen, leafy orange trees and perfumed lemons that grow in the springtime, it is ripe for exploration.  

Day One:

The plan was to spend the week in an old VW Campervan. What could be more road-trippy than unravelling a map and taking to the roads in an antique motorhome, the windows down and the open road ahead? Based in the Algarve, Siesta Campers lovingly restores antique campervans to rent out to visitors exploring the area. 

Ours was named Martha, a picture-perfect 1970s VW the colour of pistachio ice cream. We’d planned to spend the week with her, sleeping on her fold-down bed on roadsides, beaches and rural campsites. Our aim was to reach the base of 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, which has a veranda overlooking the sands of Praia da Quinta do Lago, 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 oil-and-orange blossom-scented body shop in the village of São Brás de Alportel. A vehicle like that, as owner Claire pointed out, is for “slowing down”, scaling the Algarve and sleeping beneath the stars. As much as we’d felt ourselves unravel like spools of thread in the single afternoon 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 fiberglass face, formica tables and caramel-coloured leather farewell and headed off to a local car hire to pick up a more suitable – though 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 heavy throngs of tourists – stag weekenders; golfers; holiday makers in search of sun, sea and English menus. As we pushed on towards the Costa Vincentina, the wild, unscathed coastline on the tip of south-west Portugal, the motorway ended. We suddenly found ourselves tracing wide, pocked roads lined with kaleidoscopic wild flowers and red clay cliffs topped with dense canopies of pine trees. We passed small farms, where chocolate-brown cattle chewed away at the tall grass and farmers toiled beneath lemon trees, their faces shaded by straw hats. 

We had entered the National Park of Southwest Alentejo, a stretch of 120 protected kilometres across wind-whipped coastlines, sheer cliffs and secluded farmland. A few hours in, we plonked the car at the edge of a deserted track and walked for a couple of kilometres down a sandy path lined with mimosa trees, which looked as if they’d swallowed the sunlight. At the end of the road, we reached Torre da Aspa, the coastline’s highest point. This soaring cliff top provides a sweeping eyeful of the golden beaches, coves and raging ocean below. We could just make out a couple of bold surfers down on Praia do Castelejo, swamped by the empty sands and curling, soapy waves of the Atlantic. 

There is something about eating seafood whilst overlooking the ocean that makes each bite a little sweeter. After passing through the pink-flushed village of Odeceixe, which spills down the Ribeira da Seixe below the winding coastal road, we found ourselves on a table overlooking the ocean at the bustling, zero-frills Restaurante Azenha do Mar. Though fresh seafood is as easy to come by in this region as a man in a flat cap, locals tell us that this is some of the best you’ll find. We ordered coral-coloured prawns and a stack of spicy tinned sardines from the bar, and sat de-shelling and sipping cheap, ice cold rose. 

That night was spent in Zambujeira do Mar, a whisper-quiet fishing village of toothy cliffs, sun-cracked forests and shacks threaded with nets and faded buoys. Local fishermen and their families pile in to Restaurante O Sacas as the day ends. Perched on the brink of a cliff, it is run by a stern-faced family, who serve up the day’s catches along with clattering bowls of shellfish and bitter coffee. We ordered a ‘gin tonic’ and the mother blew the dust off an old bottle of Gordon’s, topping up two giant glasses with a drop of tonic. We drank them on the cliff edge, before wandering down to a deserted fisherman’s cove where crimson seaweed lay in bunches on the shore and small boats knocked against one another, anchored to the cliffs by rope. 

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 on foot, which traces the cliff edges of some of south-west 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 for dinner over sheer cliff faces. 

Day Three:

There is only one downside to Alentejo’s empty roads. When it comes to navigating the route in a place with little to no phone signal, there aren’t many places to turn for help. Which explains why we spent three hours snaking up and down farm tracks and mountain roads searching for Pego das Pias, a secluded swimming spot down a 2km dirt track (not suitable for cars, we found after landing on a bank with one wheel in the air). Here, a slow, pristine emerald river is bookmarked by toothy limestone gullies, which sink into the water and flutter with wild oregano. Medicinal plants and thorny blossom bushes bow over the water’s edge, with grassy banks and mossy rope swings hanging from the trees. Locals say that ‘pegos’ are guarded by mouras encantadas, mystical female spirits linked with small bodies of water. We tripped our way across the rocks, past a handful bathers standing waist-deep in the water with their dogs chasing sticks, and bedded down a few boulders away. With our swimsuits rolled down, we spent an afternoon dipping into the water and clambering over the hot rocks for views of the river disappearing into the distance. Once again, the air was silent save for the occasional bark of a dog, twitter of a kingfisher or crunch of an iPhone on the rocks.

Porto das Barcas restaurant can be found a few kilometres from Milfontes, a sun-bleached beach town of white stone houses and shops selling local wine and hand-woven baskets, with a sparkling estuary at its heart. Local families gather at its tables, which are spread across terracotta tiles and out onto a sea-facing terrace. As ever, the fish was fresher and meatier than we have ever tasted before. Along with cold glasses of citrusy Alentejo white, we squabbled over fat prawns fried with garlic 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 their roofs collapsed inwards. 

Our home for the evening was the guesthouse Herdade da Manthina, a restored farmhouse set within 110 hectares of paddocks, orange groves, tangles of giant Aloe vera and lurching cork oak forests. It is found down a cratered gravel lane through a shady copse. We spent the afternoon wandering the sweet-smelling gardens, dipping into the 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 set three-course meal made with local fish, vegetables and herbs. 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, a few metres away, had just mastered the art of trotting on sand. We are speeding up on the silky shore, with washed-up mussels and shells crunching underfoot. It is the emptiest, most untouched stretch of beach either of us has ever seen, rolling on for 60km and lapped by cold, crashing waves. 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), offering visitors short or week-long riding experiences in the landscape around the farm. Brushing off our warnings of ‘instability’ and ‘zero core strength’ with a laugh, he helped us up on to two speckled Lusitno mares before boarding his own. We reached Melides beach via a forest thick with eucalyptus and pine, trickling out onto a hill carpeted with yellow lupins and thistly wild flowers. The three of us were entirely alone on the beach, tracing the water’s edge in the hazy morning sun. My horsehair allergy went almost entirely unnoticed. 

Luís waved us off after a glass of regional wine (“we must”), sending us in the direction of Melides, another small, cobbled town 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 white clock tower in the main square. We tracked down Luís’ favourite restaurant, O Melidense. The canary-yellow local 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-recipe food, from Portuguese soup with eggs, tomato rice and bacalhau - a traditional salted cod dish found on every menu in the region. 

The next stop was Vila de Frades, an old winemaking village hidden in the folds of the undulating local vineyards. The streets are sloped and silent, with villagers sitting on their whitewashed doorsteps to watch the sun cast a golden glow on the streets. We headed uphill to Quetzal, a vineyard set across the slopes of Vidigueira. The Rota dos Vinhos (wine route) leads visitors through the best vineyards in the Alentejo, a region that has been producing wine since the Romans came to Portugal. This particular estate, high on the hills overlooking the village, is an airy work of oak, botanical tiles and floor-to-ceiling windows turned towards the rolling farmland beyond. Though closing time had already come and gone, sommelier Ana Coutinho let us sample a few creations – our favourite was a buttery, oaky white for just €4 a bottle. Looking out over the deserted village below, we ask if the area is always so still. “Always.” She answers. “The people in these villages have no idea how beautiful it is here. They need to leave in order to see how peaceful this place is.” 

Back at our small house in the centre of the village, we drank our outrageously cheap Quetzal white on the rooftop as the full moon and the sun faced off in the lilac sky. The old, weathered woman across the road heard our laughter and waved up at us, her smiling gaze lingering on us. We cooked pasta with clams and fresh tomatoes in our tiny, stone-walled kitchen. It was delicious, but the shop was out of lemons, so it lacked that citrus kick we had come to crave. It was only when we woke up in the morning that we noticed the lemon grove in our back garden. 

Day 5

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 atop a slanting vineyard, with a smattering of outdoor seating pointing towards the 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 greets us on the porch, where we are submerged in a mid-afternoon slump in the sun, and leads us through to the sleek, minimalistic dining room for a tour. He has sent critics into a spin with his forward-thinking, unpretentious food, which combines old family recipes (his shudderingly delicious butter is inspired by his grandmother), fine dining methods (we feasted on artful plates of mackerel with mandarin and miso; 4-year-old oysters with seaweed vinegar and tender pork neck with wild fennel) and an understanding of Alentejo’s bounty of produce. “The land is a constant inspiration for me.” Pedro tells us, bringing through a tray of coffee with sticks of cinnamon to stir. “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 accompany Pedro and his sous-chef into the hills to forage. Plucking kale, edible flowers and moss from the ground, we stand in streams of sunlight beneath 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 feels like the perfect end the week - to eat it all up at once. “Nature is constantly giving us gifts.” Pedro says as we bounce back to the restaurant down another dirt track. “All you have to do is look for them.”