Portugal: Land of Discovery

Posted on 16 January 2020

A road trip around northern Portugal in search of swimming spots has our writer falling in love … with a camper van named Eugene.

Terraced vineyards in golden hues cling to the hills overlooking the Douro River. Image Credit: Getty Images/Gallo Images

The roundabouts were killing us. Every few hundred metres, we chanted ‘right is right’ as Brandon swung Eugene’s thin steering wheel towards me and we sailed, remarkably unscathed, through our nine-millionth traffic circle, on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. We’d been told highway tolls are pricey in Portugal, so we’d opted for the back roads. And while some of the scenery was pretty, it wasn’t quite postcard stuff. More like Sunday mornings in the Klein Karoo, complete with the equivalent of Pep stores and mechanics’ workshops, and clutches of elderly men sitting on white plastic chairs staring at us as we drove past. ‘Look at their cute berets!’

Ah, Portugal. I’d resisted this land of sardines and cork handbags. It felt as though every Instagram feed I’d seen recently was awash with photos of Porto’s jumbled buildings, or someone holding a pastel de nata in Lisbon, or someone else pretending to hold the setting sun on the Algarve. Everyone was going to Portugal. Therefore, we should definitely go to Azerbaijan. ‘It has beaches!’ I’d said. But my husband is very persuasive. Admittedly, there was one place in Portugal I was desperate to visit: a river pool tucked into the Serra da Estrela mountains, which, according to reviews by ‘wild swimmers’ (read: British folk who feel it necessary to label the act of paddling in natural bodies of water), was so clear it would take your breath away.

Crossing the crystal waters surrounding Ilha da Berlenga to the 17th-century. Image credit: Brandon McGugan

There was also Ilha da Berlenga. I’d seen a friend’s Instagram post about this fortified island off the coast of Peniche, about a two-hour drive north of Lisbon. It was old and lapped by cream-soda-coloured water, and I wanted to snorkel there more than anything. So that became the loose framework of our itinerary: drive north, swim; head east, swim; and see what transpired in between. Oh, how spontaneous we were, despite being middle-aged and creaky of back! We picked up Eugene in Sintra after spending two days fighting off flu, eating ice creams and spluttering our way through the alleys of Lisbon. While planning our six-day trip back in South Africa, we’d figured the best way to make our skinny rands gain some weight would be to hire a camper van. So we scoured the internet and came across Wonder Van, which has a small fleet of non-ironic, non-hipster Toyota HiAces from the 80s. Essentially, we’d be driving through Portugal in a 1985 minibus taxi. A neon-orange minibus taxi emblazoned with palm-tree decals. As soon as we saw it, we named him Eugene.

Our first night was spent in a campground at Praia do Guincho. It was packed with Harley-Davidson disciples in leather tassels who were attending a HOG festival in the nearby town of Cascais. The wind pummelled the beach, bikes growled and I cooked pasta with a sauce of tinned sardines, capers, tomato and Parmesan as we huddled next to Eugene, drinking quarts of Super Bock beer, wondering if we should have planned better. out, we finally made it to Peniche the next morning with five minutes to spare. ‘Go, go, go!’ I yelled to Brandon as he sprinted towards the ferry office while I staggered after him, my daypack laden with masks and snorkels and probably too many bananas. On board, a large group of school kids and two bewildered-looking teachers had taken up position amid sacks of onions and lemons being delivered to the tiny cafe on Ilha da Berlenga. As the boat chugged its way across the ocean, I grinned and breathed in the sea spray. We were finally on holiday.

The gardens at Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra are filled with hidden symbolism – this ‘initiation well’ represents an ancient secret order. Image credit: Getty Images/Gallo Images

The island was everything we had anticipated: part Game of Thrones set, part The Little Mermaid. The sea was so clear the fish looked like wood carvings from the surface. Giant seagulls nested in tufts of grass and, away from the tiny harbour, we passed only a few tourists puffing their way along the steep paths. Down at the fort, the emerald bay lapped against ancient stone and cliffs. I pulled on my snorkelling gear and dived straight in, giggling with joy at having the frigid water and cove to myself. That night we lay like stiff boards in Eugene’s soft belly, faintly traumatised by the campground we’d found after dark. Over the years I’ve learnt that camping in Europe is not like camping in South Africa. Pitching a tent, or parking a Eugene, in SA is about more than just somewhere to sleep; it’s usually about a view, and nature, and perhaps the occasional visiting hyena. It’s about waking up and being greeted by a sweeping arc of ocean or a towering mountain.

In the morning, I slid open the curtain with trepidation, hoping to not see the drunk local man we’d watched at the on-site restaurant the night before trying to chat up a German transvestite. Or the wizened Belgian riding his three-wheel bicycle around in his underpants. All was quiet: just rows and rows of mobile homes with fake lawn and novelty statuettes. ‘Can we go now?’ I whispered to Brandon. Our plan for the day was to drive to Porto, see what all the fuss was about, and then follow the Douro River Valley east towards the Spanish border. Skirting Buçaco National Forest, the landscape still showed scars of the devastating 2017 fires. Swathes of toothpick trees stood in the place of lush forests. In a corner that had escaped unscathed, we stopped and made tea and sat at a wooden picnic bench, breathing in foliage.

The hiking paths on Ilha da Berlenga provide fantastic views of the island’s coves and rugged cliffs. Image Credit Brandon McGugon

‘This is so right,’ I said. Porto is also right, and its popularity is justified. Its jostle of buildings along the river is picturesque, and the narrow, winding alleys that creep up the hill are crammed with enough Portuguese azulejo tiles to satisfy even the most feverish Instagrammer. In summer there’s live music and a food market in an amphitheatre overlooking the Douro, the languid river that cuts across the country and is central to the port industry. It served as a transport route for wine in the 17th century, and now increasingly ferries tourists to the vineyards and villages. In a small coffee shop crammed with peri-peri spices and bottles of ginja (Portugal’s famed cherry liqueur, which Brandon shunned as ‘cough mixture’, so there was more for me), the owner told us how the city had lain in disrepair for many years until tourists began to flock there about five years ago. ‘Then the government and even outside people, like the Chinese, started putting money in. Fixing the buildings, doing incentive funding.’ And even though it wasn’t yet peak season, the city’s bridges were swarming with stag parties and sundresses and selfie sticks. I was looking forward to the quiet of the Douro River Valley. And I’d fallen in love with Eugene.

Café A Brasileira is one of Lisbon’s oldest cafes, where poets and intellectuals gathered. Image credit: Brandon-McGugan

There is something comforting about knowing your transport can double as accommodation and kitchen at the drop of a mattress. Sure, Eugene could have done with a few more utensils (the lack of a sharp knife meant we had to rip apart a watermelon with our hands, leaving it looking like a Damien Hirst artwork), but his sunny disposition, surprisingly powerful engine and nostalgic vinyl smell made him so endearing, I feared I might cry when we had to say goodbye.

The road along the Douro rose and dipped through terraced vineyards and mossy corners of woodland and foxgloves. Hilltop churches and graveyards turned golden in the afternoon light, and cherry trees drooping with their bounty were often accompanied by villagers in deck-chairs selling buckets of the fruit by the kilo. By now – because we are spontaneous (read: short of planning) – we’d added another land-mark to our route: the star-shaped and walled village of Almeida, a cannon-shot from the Spanish border and about a two-hour drive from my river pool near Loriga. Google images showed Almeida to be a Starship Enterprise-like structure, and I imagined us ambling around it like tiny aliens in awe of its 17th-century history. We cranked up Eugene’s old stereo, tuned into Radio Antena 3 and head-banged to alternative Portuguese rock.

Visiting Loriga’s river pool out of season means it will be devoid of other people – and warmth. (There is a list of swimming spots in Portugal on cm-seia.pt.)

At Pinhão, one of the Douro Valley’s prime port-growing centres, where terraced wine farms offer plush accommodation to those with euros, we crossed the bridge away from the posse of large camper vans in the main parking lot and set up a discreet camp next to the river. After dinner I wandered down the new blonde-wood jetty – probably awaiting summer’s cruise boats – and slid into the river to float in silver pixels of moonlight. It was like having our own private waterside retreat. The next day we turned south, away from the valley. Portugal is about the same size as the Free State, so distances on our battered map that appeared vast were over far too soon. After a detour to see the castle at Penedono – a proper ‘thou shalt not enter’ stone edifice built on a plinth of rock overlooking the pretty village – we arrived at Almeida.

On our walk around the village, I stood in a rudimentary sentry box feeling a worn piece of stone with my fingers, knowing this was where blades and arrows had been sharpened. Out across the plain of yellow grass, there was Spain; behind us, the hush of ancient cottages. We arrived at my dream pool in the soft light of late afternoon. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains and there was no one there besides a few workmen finishing refurbishments to the on-site snack bar. We were wonderfully out of season, the signboard at the entrance displaying the July to September opening times. I stripped down to my bathing suit and waded into the clearest, coldest water I have ever been in. My underwater camera registered a glacial seven degrees, and I gasped and floated and surfaced to the sound of bells as a herder chivvied his goats along a nearby path.

Planning the route in the campground near Cascais, with Eugene waiting patiently. Image credit: Brandon McGugon

‘This is IT!’ I yelled to Brandon, standing on the shore with his arms folded against the breeze. ‘Can we go now?’ he yelled back. That night – our last with Eugene – we parked on the side of the road overlooking the village of Loriga. A hush settled over the valley. A dog barked. A family taking an evening stroll greeted us as we sat in our camping chairs amid the scent of cooling foliage and the river-washed laundry we’d strung up from Eugene’s back door. We talked about getting a camper van once we got back home. After my third Super Bock, I may have hugged Eugene and murmured something about never leaving him. Pulling in to the Wonder Van depot in Sintra, having spent the day exploring the audacious Quinta da Regaleira palace, along with a swarm of tourists (how many pictures of one’s child in an underground swivel of stairs can one take?), I felt inordinately territorial. ‘Will Australians drive Eugene?’ I asked Melissa, the Wonder Van wonderwoman. ‘Will they take care of him?’ And as we did the debriefing, walking around Eugene, making sure we hadn’t added any dents or scratches, I cried. Just a little bit. For Eugene, but also for the gentle warmth we had received; for a beautiful country that is making strides against many odds. For the real Portuguese rolls that are coarse and ridiculously tasty no matter where they are bought, and for the villages and towns we saw on our roundabout journey, most of which are still oblivious to the gems they offer.

Plan Your Trip

Getting There
Taag Angola Airlines flies from Joburg to Lisbon via Luanda for about R7 ,000 per person return. travelstart.co.za

When To Go
Summer is hot, vibey and crowded. The shoulder seasons of May–June and September–October will give you a taste of a more tranquil Portugal.

Need To Know
SA passport holders need a Schengen visa. For affordable groceries on the road, shop at Pingo Doce supermarkets. While wild camping is frowned upon, discreet overnight parking is legal as long as you don’t light bonfires or set up an elaborate camp. Fires are a real hazard, so cook on a gas stove and keep an eye on it. Orbitur has the monopoly on camp-sites (for tents, caravans and camper vans)

Porto has a jumbled, humble, sometimes threadbare, charm. Image credit: Getty Images/Gallo Images

Getting Around
While Eugene carried us far and wide, taking public transport to tourist hotspots negates parking challenges (especially in Sintra). Lisbon’s metro (only R22 per trip) is simple to use, while tuk-tuks in Lisbon and Sintra are affordable. The train ride from Lisbon to Cascais is a one-hour trip along the coast (R30). Buy a Viva Viagem card at the stations; it can be loaded with up to R660.

What It Cost
The 10-day trip was roughly R20,000 for two, with the Lisbon hotel included.

Stay Here

Lisbon Poets Hostel has affordable, tasteful lodgings in Chiado, a stone’s throw from the Alfama district. There are only nine rooms, each decorated by a local artist to reflect the city’s rich literary heritage. Bathrooms are shared, and there are no kitchen or tea/coffee facilities. From R410 per person sharing. lisbonpoetshostel.com

The route through the Douro River Valley climbs past hilltop churches. Image credit: Brandon McGugon

Orbitur Guincho campsite near Cascais is compact, nestled behind the beach dunes, with sites beneath pine trees. It has electricity points, clean ablution blocks, a coin-operated laundry and a few cottages for rent. From R320 per stand. orbitur.pt

Orbitur Canidelo is 10km from Porto in the seaside town of Vila Nova de Gaia. It has shaded sites, a basic shop, a big swimming pool and good cafe. The beach is nearby and buses to Porto run from a block away. From R320 per stand. orbitur.pt

Do This

Admire Manini’s eccentric palace in Sintra. The Quinta da Regaleira showcases the grand, fantastical work of Italian architect Luigi Manini. Stroll through lush gardens, explore hidden stairwells and sculptures, and marvel at the mosaics. Entry R133 per person,. regaleira.pt
Ride the cable car in Porto. The Teleférico de Gaia sweeps from the Dom Luís Bridge, at the top of the town, down to Cais de Gaia on the riverfront. It includes a complimentary port tasting. A one-way trip is R100 per person,. gaiacablecar.com
Visit Ilha da Berlenga. Catch the Viamar ferry from Peniche for R330 pp return (viamar-berlenga.com). The Unesco-protected island has steep hiking paths, birdlife, a main beach for swimming and the São João Baptista fort (where you can stay the night). A glass-bottomed boat tour of the sea caves costs about R615 per person, feelingberlenga.pt.

Waiting for the cable-car ride down to join the throngs on Porto’s riverfront. Image credit: Brandon McGugon

Eat Here (Lisbon)

All three of these outlets are in the Chiado district:
Café A Brasileira is the go to for excellent pasteis de nata, Portugal’s famed custard tarts. 120 Rua Garrett. abrasileira.pt
Grom ice cream became an addiction – the mango-tart and coconut scoops are heaven. 42 Rua Garrett.
Pizzaria Lisboa does delicious thin-crusted pizzas – the Caravela was a winner and rich enough to share. 5H Rua Duques de Bragança. pizzarialisboa.pt

Self Driving
Wonder Van rents out a fleet of retro camper vans from its depot in Sintra, and also offers guided tours. Vans are comfortable, well maintained and equipped with a folding table, two chairs, a gas stove and basic crockery and utensils. Two-sleeper from R900 a night. wondervan.pt or find it on Facebook. Portugal’s highways are tolled and the process can be complicated. Luckily, most rentals are fitted with an e-toll tag that automatically logs your fees, which are then paid when you return the car. We stuck to the back roads but drove on a few stretches of highway when we were pushed for time; our bill came to R435 for about 200km. Traffic cops perform regular vehicle-compliance checks, so ensure you have the necessary paperwork for your rental car at hand.

Image credit: Brandon-McGugan



This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of Getaway magazine.
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All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.


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