Sunday 7 February 2016

Retreading Old Steps along the South-West Coast

Portugal, 1st – 5th February 2016

Praia do Amado
It may have taken us six weeks behind our original schedule, but we’ve finally done it: we’ve hit the Algarve.  In van land, our electronics are still charged, there’s still water in the tank, and my Eat Less Meat resolution is still in place, still without complaints from Matt.  As we’ve been freecamping our important scientific research into Alentejo wine has had to be scaled back a little (in the interest of responsible drinking whilst in charge of a vehicle), but I can confirm that all bottles consumed so far have been perfectly palatable.  We’ve even branched out into a Portuguese wine from outside of the Alentejo region, because any decent researcher needs to make sure they have a control group.  That being said, €2.50 is our upper limit for a bottle and we’re still big endorsers of the supermarket wine briks, so take from that what you will.

The Last of the Alentejo

So where have we been this week?  Well, after leaving the Porto Covo aire, we started with a quick detour north back to Sines.  We didn’t have much of an interest in visiting Sines itself and didn’t really want to backtrack, but we knew from experience last year that the coast south of Sines is a lot less developed with only a few towns and villages.  It is significantly protected from development as it is classed as a nature reserve, with one consequence of which being that there are few supermarkets in the area.  Sines has a large selection of supermarkets—of which I’m sure no-one will be surprised to know we chose Lidl—so it makes a good place to get stocked up on food and supplies before making expeditions further south.

Vila Nova de Milfontes, as viewed from Praia das Furnas
With cupboards filled to bursting and our device charging rig in place, it was onwards to the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes.  Vila Nova is the largest coastal resort on the Alentejo coast, with a small town overlooking the point where the Rio Mira meets the sea.  Last year we visited Praia das Furnas, a huge sandy stretch over the bridge with just a few beach restaurants, but we’d given the main town of Vila Nova a miss other than a quick lunch stop in a waterside car park.  This time we decided we’d visit the town to see what we’d missed, which after going for a wander around, I quickly came to the conclusion that the answer was ‘Not a great deal’.  As a family seaside resort it has everything you’d need, with a few restaurants, plenty of beaches, a few tat shops and the like.  But I personally thought it seemed a little bland, with nothing of real interest to give the place character.  There was a castle, but this had been converted into a hotel that was closed up, and no other buildings that seemed particularly interesting.

Onwards the van wheels turned, this time in pursuit of somewhere to spend the night.  We explored a couple of spots and finally settled in a parking area near Cabo Sardão (GPS: 37.59751 -8.81615), an area with a lighthouse not far from the town of Cavaleiro.  The area here looks to have been recently developed, with a series of mock-wood walkways along the clifftops and new information boards that have yet to have details attached.  A football pitch has been built next to the lighthouse in a position that caused us to wonder just how many balls have been lost to the sea, with the long sides of the pitch being exposed to the clifftop winds without any netting.  Thankfully the winds were non-existent during our stay, and we had a peaceful, undisturbed night.    Since the car park has been developed it isn’t really a suitable place for a lot of vans to park up at any more, but given that it was getting on in the day and we’d already tried a couple of other spots we decided it would be okay just as an overnight place to rest our heads.

Praia de Odeceixe

The next day saw us finally reaching the place where we’d previously planned to be for Christmas: the Algarve.  It might not have been the Christmas date we’d originally aimed for, but with the crossing of the Odeceixe river we left the Alentejo behind us and entered the southernmost region of Portugal.  Last year we stayed at a spot over the river from Praia de Odeceixe, accessible down a few km of rough single track.  This year we stayed south of the river (GPS: 37.43793 -8.79825) in one of the few car parks that didn’t have signs banning motorhomes (or autocaravanas as they’re called here) parking overnight.  Perhaps most evident of the fact that we’d entered the Algarve was that the number of fellow vans parking overnight had increased from the odd few to around a dozen.  This means that our chances to socialise are much more promising, but we’re aware that our chances of getting moved on have massively increased with it.  From our conversations with other vans it seems that the main cause for people getting fined is for having things outside of the van such as steps, tables and chairs or similar, at which point the police stop seeing it as parking a motorhome and start defining it as camping.  We chatted with a British van we’d previously spotted at Porto Covo who said that the police had done a patrol of the area at Odeceixe the day before without saying anything; presumably they were more interested in making sure no vans entered the areas that had signs clearly prohibiting it, or were just doing non-camper related patrols.  We figured we were fine to park where we were, and stayed the night with no problems.

A walk around the village at Praia de Odeceixe revealed it as a very quiet place, with everything closed up for the winter and just a few maintenance workers doing some work on the fences and road signs.  The main beach is something of an interesting one due to the river meeting the sea; on one side you have the river water, with calm surfaces that would be fantastic for kayaking, and on the other side you have the typical Atlantic Ocean waves crashing down that make this coast so appealing to the surfer crowd.  At this time of year though, the waters and beach were empty; it seems the surfers are sticking further south.


We’re meeting Matt’s parents on the south coast in the week to come, and so rather than spend more time at Odeceixe we moved further along, calling at the town of Aljezur on our way through.  Aljezur is divided into two sections on either side of a river, with one side being a conventional town made up of modern buildings such as a school and a supermarket.  The other side is a sprawl of old buildings and narrow steep streets on a hillside that leads up to the remains of an 11th century castle built when the area was under Muslim occupation, with the majority of its defensive importance being in the 12th and 13th century against the Christian Reconquest (Reconquista).  The castle was conquered in 1249, during the period in which the Alentejo and Algarve regions fell into Christian hands after centuries of Moorish rule.

The castle is now ruins—mostly just the walls and a cistern still standing—but was manned until sometime in the 15th century, when the region was peaceful once more and Aljezur focused to be more of a trading port town.  It’s hard to imagine the place full of trading boats given that the town is several km inland and the Aljezur river is little more than a trickle of a stream now, but at the time it was an important stopping point as there were few safe places to stop along the rocky, cliff-lined coast.

Around Carrapateira

South of Aljezur brought us back to Carrapateira and its two beaches that we’d enjoyed last year, Praia de Bordeira (GPS: 37.19294 -8.90290) and Praia do Amado (GPS: 37.16948 -8.90153).  Amado, our first stopover point, is a clifftop spot with paths leading down to a rather beautiful bay that is a surfer’s paradise.  It was full of vans and people from the hippy scene, with a few conventional motorhomes like ours dotted between surf vans and conversions varying from the weird to wonderful, including a bus, trucks, box vans and one strange vehicle with an outer body of UPVC cladding and corrugated roof sheets, reinforced with expanding foam. Lots of vans were getting gear out of their vans such as barbeques and chairs, which makes me a little nervous knowing that it’s much more likely to cause us to get moved along.  That being said, the scenery at Amado is rather spectacular, with the undeveloped (barring a few surf school huts) sandy beach surrounded by cliffs and colourful stones.

The backspray from the wind at Amado; not quite the
conditions I'd want to be surfing in...
I'm sure somewhere under all those surf stickers, we might
actually find a road sign.
The next day called for a move to Bordeira, brought on partially by a desire to move somewhere less crowded but also out of the need for somewhere more sheltered from the wind, coming in gusts that lifted a constant spray from the waves.  Bordeira has a beach similar to Odeceixe in that it sits at the join of a river and the ocean, but is much larger in scale, with around 3km of sand.  Last year the main beach could be reached by wading in knee deep water across the river/lagoon, but this winter it seemed unfeasible without getting clothing wet.  We’ve been told that people have kitesurfed on the lagoon in the past, so it seems the water level can vary significantly.

Praia de Cordoama

Although most of our time so far in the Algarve has been revisiting places we’ve seen before and seeing how they’ve changed, we did at least stay at one new spot.  Praia de Cordoama (GPS: 37.10870 -8.93580), tucked out of the way behind Vila do Bispo, is one of the last beaches along the western coast before hitting Sagres.  Accessed down a twisty valleyside road, Cordoama had attracted a similar crowd to Amado, with dreadlocks and tie-dye shirts in abundance as well as converted horseboxes, big old Mercedes conversions and one van that for some unfathomable reason had a sofa on the roof.  The police did do a lap of the car park around dinnertime and left without saying a word, and then later at night I saw another 4x4 vehicle that may have also been the same police patrol coming in and out of the car park.  We’re assuming that given that no-one had left anything outside of the confines of their vehicle and no-one was having any wild Friday night beach parties, they were alright with vans parking there.

After weeks of sparsely populated spots in more central Portugal, we’ve finally caught up with the crowds who are waiting out the winter, so things are going to be a lot busier from here on out.  The aires here are generally all commercial paying places, but given how far below budget we were in January I think we can allow a little expense.  You never know… maybe we’ll even go crazy and dine out for once!

- Jo

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