What’s in a (car) name? The fascinating Louwman Museum

The world of vintage motor cars is full of names that evoke a bygone time, when motoring was something more than hours spent on motorways or in traffic jams. A time before ticket machines and traffic wardens. It is an era redolent of leather caps and waxed mustaches. Even for someone who hasn’t owned a car for 15 years, there is a romance to the people and vehicles of the pre-modern motoring age.

Steam vehicle, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Steam vehicle, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1894 Peugeot Type 6 Phaeton, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1894 Peugeot Type 6 Phaeton, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

The Louwman Museum is jam-packed with cars that look as exotic as their names sound. Where else could you find the De Dion Bouton et Trepardoux Steam Quadricycle, the Holsman Runabout Highwheeler and the White Model C Steam Car Demi Limousine?

Not to mention the Georges Roy 12hp Touring Sport Torpedo, Detroit Electric Clear Vision Brougham, Hispano Suiza H6B Million Guiet Dual Cowl Phaeton, Talbot Lago T26 Grand Sport Coupe Saoutchik or the Cord 812 Supercharged Beverly Sedan.

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1935 Lagonda, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1935 Lagonda, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Seriously, what happened to car manufacturers? When did they stop giving their cars such fascinating names – names that had personality? It simply isn’t possible to compare the Messerschmitt KR200 Cabin Scooter Bubble Top or the Frisky Family Three with today’s focus group tested, marketing driven car names. Anyone for a Ford Focus? Thought not.

The Louwman Museum opens a door to another world, a bygone era where tail fins stood proud and you could never have too much chrome. There are so many highlights – and I never thought I’d hear myself say that of a car museum – that it is difficult to pick out a few of my favourites, but there were some cars too interesting not to mention.

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Petrol pumps, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Petrol pumps, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1953 Fiat Boat Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1953 Fiat Boat Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Who would have thought that Elvis’ 1976 Cadillac, with its 8.2 litre engine, would be the ugliest car in the whole building? Or that following World War II the shortage of steel in Germany forced car designers to build a car using plywood covered with imitation leather? Yet those are the materials from which the Lloyd LP 300 was cobbled together, earning it the nickname, the Band-Aid Bomber.

Lloyd 300 LP, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Lloyd 300 LP, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1921 Tamplin Cycle Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

1921 Tamplin Cycle Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

The car associated with Adolf Hitler, the much loved Volkswagen Beetle, sits next to a large photo of the world’s most notorious mass murderer. Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to build the car, but it was Josef Ganz, a Jewish engineer and car designer, who was the brains behind the Volkswagen Beetle. Ganz fled Germany and survived the war, but the designer of one of the world’s most famous cars died in obscurity in Australia in 1967.

Volkswagen Beetle Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Volkswagen Beetle Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Reading stories like the one behind the Volkswagen Beetle, it occurred to me that a car museum is essentially the history of humanity from the late 19th Century onwards. It also struck me that many of these cars seemed familiar…we decided this was because of cinema. The car and cinema arrived into the world at around the same time, so it seems natural that they would have an intimate relationship.

Genevieve, Spyke Double Phaeton, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Genevieve, Spyke Double Phaeton, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Genevieve, Spyke Double Phaeton, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Genevieve, Spyke Double Phaeton, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Aston Martin DB5, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Aston Martin DB5, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

DeSoto Taxi from The Godfather, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

DeSoto Taxi from The Godfather, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

That isn’t just because the museum has cars like the Aston Martin DB5 from James Bond films, the Spyker 12 16hp Double Phaetonor from the classic English film, Genevieve, or the DeSoto taxi from Coppola’s The Godfather. The automobile and cinema go hand-in-hand, and as we strolled around it felt like we were extras in a movie.

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Alfa Romeo Spider Corsa Sperimentale Balena, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Alfa Romeo Spider Corsa Sperimentale Balena, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Petrol pumps, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Petrol pumps, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

A treasure trove of Automobilia

I freely confess, the prospect of visiting a car museum didn’t exactly stir my soul. So it comes as something of a surprise to admit that I owe the Louwman Museum a debt of thanks. If it wasn’t for the museum I would never have heard of Robert Nicholl ‘Scotty’ Matthewson, an Englishman who lived in Calcutta, in then British India, in the early 20th Century. More importantly, I would never have known about ‘Scotty’ Matthewson’s car…a car like no other.

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

He designed the Brooke Swan Car himself, giving a telling insight into his mind, to look like a giant swan gliding through water. He did it for no other reason than to irritate the British elite of Calcutta. An ambition the car succeeded only too well in achieving.

Brooke Swan Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Brooke Swan Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Brooke Swan Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Brooke Swan Car, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

The swan’s beak is linked to the engine’s cooling system and opens to allow the driver to spray steam to clear a passage in Calcutta’s crowded streets. Ingeniously, whitewash could be sprayed onto the road through a valve at the back of the car to make the swan appear, ahem, to be defecating. The wheel arches have brushes to remove elephant dung from the tires. The swans eyes have light bulbs in them, making it look possessed when illuminated.

Basically, ‘Scotty’ Matthewson was a man of vision and genius…a man of destiny no less. If Matthewson had had the same business acumen as Henry Ford the world of motoring might have become a very different place.

Baby Swan, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Baby Swan, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Baby Swan, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Baby Swan, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

The car caused panic in the streets of Calcutta on its first outing; the police were called and had to intervene to restore order. This fact alone makes me want celebrate his life. Matthewson sold the car to the Maharaja of Nabha, whose family owned it for over seventy years. When it was rediscovered it was in poor condition but the Louwman Museum bought it in 1991 and restored it to its former glory…and, truly, what glory.

Almost as brilliantly, the Marahaja of Nabha had a smaller version – the Cygnet or Baby Swan Car – made to use on his estate in the 1920s. This makes the Baby Swan the owner of the title, ‘oldest Indian-made car’.

De Dion Bouton Steam Quadricycle, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

De Dion Bouton Steam Quadricycle, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

The Brooke Swan Car, while certainly a highlight, is really only an amuse-bouche to whet the appetite for the rest of the delights that await within the modern facade of the museum. There are motorised vehicles dating back to the earliest days of motorised travel. The collection is extraordinary, a result of the collecting passion of two generations of the Louwman family. Yet this is no petrol-head experience, the museum is more like a social history of our motorised past.

Duesenberg Model SJ, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Duesenberg Model SJ, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Lagonda V12, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Lagonda V12, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Rolls Royce Phantom Barker Torpedo Tourer, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Rolls Royce Phantom Barker Torpedo Tourer, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

There are over 250 antique and classic cars in the collection from all over the world; the earliest dates from 1886 and there is just about every car make and major milestone in automotive history present. There are big cars, small cars, weird cars, ‘celebrity’ cars from films (The Godfather, James Bond), celebrity’s cars (Elvis, Steve McQueen), cars that are boats, cars with motorbikes inside them, cars that won major races…there is more chrome in the building than is entirely decent.

Edsel Pacer Convertible, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Edsel Pacer Convertible, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Edsel Pacer Convertible, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Edsel Pacer Convertible, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Lincoln Sedan Deco Liner with Harley Davidson, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Lincoln Sedan Deco Liner with Harley Davidson, Louwman Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

The museum is pretty big, and we must have walked a couple of kilometres over three floors to see everything; the irony of having to walk so far in a car museum wasn’t lost on our aching limbs. Despite that, this has to count as one of the most entertaining museums I’ve ever visited – and I don’t even own a car.

Zwarte Pete, racist stereotype or harmless fun?

I don’t want to labour a point which, I think, is obvious, but it is profoundly disturbing to stand amongst a crowd of happy families and watch a parade of white people ‘blacked-up’ to resemble a stereotyped black person. To then see this same parade reported on TV news, not as a national outrage but as a joyful national tradition, in a country generally regarded as being one of the most tolerant on earth, well, it’s pretty confusing.

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Notting Hill Carnival it is not.

Perhaps truth is best heard from the mouths of children, after all, defenders of Zwarte Pete insist it’s a harmless tradition for children. One of my non-Dutch colleagues told me of how she never felt comfortable with Zwarte Pete, but took a ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ approach. Then, walking down the street one day, she was mortified when her 3 year-old daughter pointed at a black man and loudly said, “It’s Zwarte Pete.”

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Adult minds are moulded by childhood experiences, social norms and education. Do people really want their children growing up associating non-whites with the simpleton caricature that is Zwarte Pete? This is the stereotyped caricature passed down from colonialism to justify a European land grab. The difference now? Europe has fundamentally changed and is home to significant minority communities.

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

It’s the same caricature that existed for generations in Britain. When I was growing up a well known manufacturer of jams used images of golliwogs to promote its sugary products. You could collect golliwog tokens and get a golliwog doll or badge in return. Characterised by black skin, white-rimmed eyes, clown lips and frizzy hair the golliwog was a 19th Century racist construct that survived well into the 1990s.

When the Robertson’s brand discontinued the use of golliwogs it announced, “We are not bowing to political correctness, but like with any great make we have to move with the times.” I’d suggest the times have changed sufficiently for Zwarte Pete to be discontinued as well. After all, ‘golliwog’ is the origin of the racist term ‘wog’, and when I see Zwarte Pete (and I recently saw 600 of them walking down a street in The Hague), I see a golliwog.

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

It is unimaginable to me that a Zwarte Pete parade is an acceptable part of life in a liberal and tolerant society in the 21st Century; so why do so many Dutch people not just accept it but actively defend it? Some of my Dutch acquaintances are dismayed, not by the inherent racism, but that people want to stop or change the tradition. But why be so fearful?

Traditions are, after all, nothing more than creations that we as a society find acceptable, instructive or compelling at a particular period in history. Traditions are supposed to act as guides for life, sometimes as moral lessons. When traditions no longer remain relevant, when they stop being instructive or socially acceptable, we change them, we create new traditions, more aligned with the ethos of our own time. We cannot live in the past, but we can learn from it.

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Some traditions don’t deserve to survive. In a multicultural society, Zwarte Pete is one of them. In Britain there is an ancient law allowing the English to shoot with an arrow any Welshman found inside the walls of the town of Chester. We don’t kill innocent Welsh people who are visiting Chester to do a little light shopping. To do so would be insane, just as selling jam in 2014 using a golliwog as a mascot would be insane.

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Do I think people who support the tradition of Zwarte Pete are racist? For the vast majority, absolutely not. Quite the opposite in fact. This begs the question of why people tolerate something many in minority communities find deeply offensive? If the Netherlands was being honest with itself it would accept that Zwarte Pete isn’t just a bit of fun, it’s harmful. It shouldn’t require a national debate to see the truth of that.

For some additional views click here and here and here

Discarded memories, a mystery at Cabo Espichel

It seems fitting that a place as atmospheric as Cabo Espichel, perched on towering cliffs high above the blue-green waters of the Atlantic, would come with a mystery attached. In this isolated and desolate place, it was a mystery that seemed desperately sad and very human.

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

I was walking behind the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo towards the crumbling cliffs that are being slowly eroded by the giant Atlantic waves, when I saw what at first I assumed was a pile of litter tipped over the edge but not out of sight. I was silently cursing the person who had littered in such a wonderful place when I realised that some of the litter was photographs.

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Coastline at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Closer inspection revealed that the pile of paper being buffeted by the breeze was actually several dozen intimate family photographs stretching back decades. Some of them were of weddings, birthday parties, holidays at the beach and family dinners. There were babies, children, adults. One photograph had the date 1920 written in a corner. All of them had been torn into small pieces.

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Some one the pieces had been blown downwards towards the ocean, others had been blown back up to the top of the cliff. I looked at a few, arranged some and wondered to myself about who would have done this and why? Below where I stood the ocean waves provided a suitable soundtrack as they pounded into the cliffs.

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Walking back towards the car park, we stopped at the lovely little cafe next to the old church buildings. I asked the woman working there about the photos and whether this was a tradition or something that happened regularly. She said she’d never heard of anything like it before, and thought it might have been the act of someone who was disappointed in love.

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Ripped up photographs at Cabo Espichel, Portugal

I don’t really accept that interpretation, the photos dated back too far, over too many generations for this to be petty revenge. So the mystery of Cabo Espichel remains unsolved – at least for now. We may have left without an answer but our next stop, the nearby Praia do Meco – an absolutely wonderful beach with a couple of very good fish restaurants on the sand – soon had us turning our thoughts to the mystery of what to have for lunch.

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

Praia do Meco, Portugal

…and with an unsolved mystery and one last stroll on an Atlantic coast beach, our trip to Portugal came to an end. The following morning, as if the fates were telling us not to push our luck, we woke to grey skies and the rain began to pour as we drove to the airport…definitely time to head home.

The extraordinary Cabo Espichel

Breathtaking. There is no other word for what awaits at Cabo Espichel. Can there be a more extraordinary sight along this coast than the ornate Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo Espichel, and the rows of pilgrims’ lodges that stretch along the sides of the wide courtyard in front of the church? If the buildings aren’t enough, they sit dramatically on a headland above towering cliffs that plunge to the ocean below. Truly breathtaking.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Constructed in the 18th Century, the church and lodges are a surreal addition to this desolate, brooding landscape. Inside, the church is decorated with the most sublime paintings – no photos allowed, so you’ll have to take my word for it. The grandeur of the buildings is more than matched by the grandeur of the landscape. Yet it is impossible to escape the thought that this was an enormous piece of human folly – it is only a matter of time before the ocean reclaims the land the church is built on.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Adding to the sense of the surreal is the story of Our Lady of the Cape. This area of Portugal is home to an unusually large number of dinosaur tracks dating to the Late Jurassic period. In the 13th Century a local fisherman is supposed to have discovered the tracks; lacking any other possible narrative for what they were, it was decided that they must have been made by a giant mule which carried Our Lady of the Cape to this place.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Cabo, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Around the back of the church is a shrine, the Ermida de Memoria, which houses an image of Our Lady of the Cape and the Virgin Mary; the latter apparently made an appearance on this very spot in the 15th Century. An unfortunate choice, the Atlantic Ocean is slowly eating away at this coastline and soon everything will be in the sea.

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

A short distance from the church is the Cabo Espichel lighthouse. A pleasant walk along the cliffs, you can stroll to the lighthouse and then down to some abandoned buildings on the very edge of the cliffs. These look like they were once houses and also an industrial workshop. They may have been the original lighthouse – this area had the earliest lighthouse on this coast in 1790 – but I couldn’t find any information on them.

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

The views all along this strip of coast are spectacular; they alone make a visit here worthwhile, but being able to explore abandoned buildings on a cliff edge really makes it doubly special.

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

History and street art in Sesimbra

Sesimbra nestles beneath imposing hills and towering cliffs where the Serra da Arrabida meets the ocean. It is lovely town that I imagine would be packed with people on a summer weekend. Lisbon is a 30 minute drive away and Sesimbra feels like a cross between a traditional fishing town and an upmarket resort. Plenty of urbanites, desperate to get to the beaches and swim in the turquoise waters along this coastline, are drawn to Sesimbra.

Coastline near Sesimbra, Portugal

Coastline near Sesimbra, Portugal

Sesimbra, Portugal

Sesimbra, Portugal

Sesimbra, Portugal

Sesimbra, Portugal

The town is famed for its fish restaurants, of which there are many. Fishing boats still head out into the ocean, bringing back fresh fish that are daily served up in small family run restaurants dotted through the narrow town streets. We ate some of the most delicious food we had on our trip while we were in Sesimbra. Walking the streets though, the thing that stands out is the semi-official street art.

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Standing on the beach, the most obvious thing about Sesimbra is the enormous fort that covers an entire hilltop behind the town. The fort was strategically important, guarding this vital port for centuries during both Moorish and Christian rule. The Moors held the fort until 1165 when, with the help of German crusaders, King Afonso I retook the fort and town during the Reconquista.

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

Street art, Sesimbra, Portugal

When you reverse this view and stand on the battlements of the fort, you get stunning panoramic views over the town, ocean and surrounding countryside. We walked through the fort which, apart from the views, holds little of interest. Or at least that is true, until you discover the church of Nossa Senhora do Castelo (Our Lady of the Castle). The uninspiring exterior almost put me off from venturing inside, but once through the door the church comes to life: extravagant blue tiles line the walls.

Fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Church within the fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Church within the fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Church within the fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

Church within the fort overlooking Sesimbra, Portugal

During the Age of Discoveries, Sesimbra was an important port but it wasn’t until the 17th century that Fortaleza de Santiago, the fort which sits in the middle of the town’s main beach, was built as part of Portugal’s coastal defence. The fort was seriously damaged in 1602 by an English fleet during the Battle of Sesimbra Bay. In 1602 Portugal had fallen under Spanish control, and the ongoing struggle between England and Spain arrived in Sesimbra in June.

Sesimbra, Portugal

Sesimbra, Portugal

Fish restaurant, Sesimbra, Portugal

Fish restaurant, Sesimbra, Portugal

An English fleet sent by Queen Elizabeth I attacked and defeated a Spanish fleet stationed in Sesimbra Bay, and the English went on to attack and capture the fort. Amongst the many similar military engagements of this period, this one is notable for being the last attack on the Spanish carried out upon the orders of Elizabeth I. She died the following year.

Sesimbra, Portugal

Sesimbra, Portugal

Looking out over the blue waters of Sesimbra Bay today, it’s hard to imagine the violent struggle that took place here when approximately 800 people died in battle; or that once this sleepy town was an important strategic point in Portuguese and Spanish defences. Just another long forgotten battle, like so many others we’d encountered on our Portugal trip.

Cabo Sardao and north towards Sesimbra

Our route pointed north from this point onwards, meaning only one thing: our trip around Portugal was coming to an end. We debated whether we should spend our last day or two in Lisbon, but decided we were enjoying Portugal’s wild western coast too much to swap it for a city. Instead we decided to drive up the coast and stop in Sesimbra for a night or two – close enough to Lisbon airport for a quick getaway, but still on the coast.

Nossa Senhora do Mar, Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Nossa Senhora do Mar, Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

We left Odeceixe early and crossed from the Algarve back into the Alentejo region and headed to the small picturesque town of Zambujeira do Mar for breakfast. The town sits precariously on top of towering cliffs, and on one of the beaches there was evidence of a recent collapse with large chunks of the former cliff laying on the sand. Standing on the cliff edge is the lovely little chapel of Nossa Senhora do Mar (Our Lady of the Sea), which I suspect might be in the sea soon.

It’s hard to imagine on a quiet weekday out of season, but this tiny place is home to a massive music festival in the summer, the Festival do Sudoeste, when the whole town is overrun by festival goers. We had a stroll around town, stopped into a small cafe for coffee and fresh juice before heading back out of town just as a tour bus pulled up in the centre – we made good our escape.

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Following a small road that took us through tiny villages towards Cabo Sardao we got lost several times thanks again to a woeful lack of sign posts, but eventually found ourselves standing on top of high cliffs looking out over Cabo Sardao, a red and white lighthouse behind us. This whole section of coastline provides some of the most dramatic coastal scenery I’ve ever seen, and this was underlined at Cabo Sardao. It is magnificent.

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

We had a short stroll along the cliff tops and then hopped back into the car and set off north again for Vila Nova de Milfontes. Our guidebook told us that there was a really good restaurant in the town and lunchtime was approaching. When we reached Vila Nova de Milfontes we drove into town and immediately got lost. Eventually a parking spot was found and we strolled through near empty streets in an attempt to find the restaurant.

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes is a bigger place than most we’d seen over the last couple of weeks, but out of the main tourist season it felt very sleepy. As did I after wolfing down yet another plate of the Alentejo classic of pork and clams at the Tasca do Celso restaurant. Lunch was accompanied by a lot of people watching as local families gathered to eat together, the restaurant was filled with the noisy hubbub of friends and family having fun.

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

After a little rest down by the beach we were back on the road and heading for Troia at the tip of a long thin strip of land from where we caught a ferry to Setabul, a short distance from Sesimbra. Looking at a map we seemed to be covering half the country in one journey but Portugal is relatively small and you can cover a lot of ground in a day; that said we arrived, tired but happy, in Sesimbra as the sun was setting.

Wild, rugged and isolated, Praia de Carreagem

Standing on the cliff top above Praia de Carreagem is a dizzying experience. Far below big Atlantic waves sweep relentlessly into the beach and surrounding cliffs, the white foam of the waves standing out starkly against the turquoise water. Even from high above the sound of the ocean is immense, and the spray from the waves creates a magical, misty haze over the beach and down the coast.

The waves should make Praia de Carreagem a surfers paradise, but beneath the crashing water lie hidden rocks making this a treacherous stretch of ocean. When you’re standing on the beach watching the waves roll in the rocks sometimes appear beneath the green water, like phantoms they disappear again as the waves wash over.

Road to Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Road to Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Road to Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Road to Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Perhaps it’s the rocks that deter people, because when we arrived at Praia de Carreagem we had the beach to ourselves. We spotted a lone fisherman a couple of hundred metres down the beach, but other than ourselves and a few gulls we’d discovered the emptiest beach in Portugal.

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

This coast is home to plenty of wonderful beaches, and you could spend weeks exploring them all, but Praia de Carreagem has a wild, rugged charm that is hard to beat. Plus this is definitely the place to head if you want to be surrounded by nature in splendid isolation – even in this less frequented part of the Algarve, finding yourself alone on a beach is pretty unusual.

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

We almost didn’t make it to Praia de Carreagem. The beach lies several kilometres from the nearest main road, and the route passes down narrow lanes, past abandoned houses, before becoming a dirt track. In traditional Portuguese style, there aren’t many sign posts and we almost took a wrong turn on a couple of occasions. It’s entirely possible that somewhere unsuspecting tourists are still driving around the dirt tracks of Portugal trying to find a beach.

When we finally reached the beach there was a small track leading to a set of wooden steps that twist down the cliff face to the rocks and sand below. The views to the beach and along the coast are spectacular, especially in the fresh early morning air.

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Strolling along Praia de Carreagem it becomes clear that you couldn’t get many people on the beach anyway. The strip of ‘habitable’ sand is narrow and the ocean comes high up the beach, all the way to the cliff in places. All along the beach are rocks and stones rubbed smooth by the constant action of the waves, adding to the beachcombing fun.

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Carreagem, Algarve, Portugal

Beachcombing around Praia do Carvalhal

There really is no shortage of dramatically located beaches on the west coast of Portugal. Drive off the main road down dusty tracks towards the ocean and you’ll inevitably find yourself stood looking at a pristine beach nestling in a cove between towering cliffs, and sheltered from the ocean by monumental headlands.

Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

We’d been told that the Praia do Carvalhal, a few kilometres from where we were staying, was one of the finest beaches in the area – which, given the competition, is quite an achievement. More importantly for those of us who find sitting on a beach a bit tiresome, there is an absolutely tremendous walking trail that heads south from Praia do Carvalhal across the cliff tops.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

First though, lunch. You’d never know it, but the tiny (blink and you’ll miss it) village of Brejao harbours one of the finest restaurants in the area; combining a trip that featured good seafood and a spectacular beach seemed too good to pass up. One delicious fish stew later we plonked ourselves down on the beach amidst a scattering of Portuguese families enjoying themselves. After a little relaxation I decided to leave the beach bum in our party to enjoy the beach while I explored the walking trail.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

The route is wonderful. I set off from the beach and climbed up to the cliff top overlooking it and then headed south. Without a map or a clear idea of where exactly I was going, I stuck to the small sandy trails and passed through some beautiful coastal scenery. On the cliff tops small succulents were growing, many of them in flower, and out to sea small coves and inlets appeared amidst a landscape of jagged, crumbling rocks.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

After an hour of wandering around I found myself overlooking another, smaller but no less dramatic beach with no obvious way of getting to it other than the rough track I’d followed to get there. This whole area is tremendously beautiful, rolling sand dunes, jagged cliffs and vast panoramas over the Atlantic…and you can enjoy all of this without bumping into another human being, for a couple of hours at least.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Magnificent Praia de Odeceixe

We started our morning with a quick visit to the small and sleepy village of Odeceixe, a place that out of season seems to be in a permanent state of slumber. Things can get quite lively in the summer, apparently, but I imagine its a relative sort of ‘lively’. The streets are narrow, the houses whitewashed, roofs are red tile and, up on a hilltop with panoramic views over the valley below, sits a blue and white windmill.

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

It is a charming place that barely has a pulse on a mid-week day out of the main holiday season. Still, a few cafes and restaurants were open and a handful of the older residents were sat around chatting, much as everywhere else in this region.

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

Odeceixe village, Algarve, Portugal

We drove down the broad valley keeping parallel to the Rio Seixe, the road climbs up out of the valley floor through a wooded hillside offering glimpses of the river below. Finally you’re presented with wonderful vistas over the valley and river below before reaching a dramatic viewing point over the arch of golden sand below, the beach hemmed in by tall cliffs on either side.

This has to be one of the most dramatically located beaches along this coast.

Rio de Seixe at Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Rio de Seixe at Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Rio de Seixe at Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Rio de Seixe at Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Rio de Seixe at Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Rio de Seixe at Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal