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

…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

The wild coastal beauty of Praia de Odeceixe

In a country renowned for its beautiful and dramatic scenery, the wild Atlantic Coast along Portugal’s western edge is perhaps the most superlative landscape of all. We would see a lot of this coast over several days filled with beach combing and punctuated by delicious seafood lunches; but the stretch of coast that will linger longest in the memory is around the village of Odeceixe, and its eponymous beach four kilometres west of the village’s whitewashed houses.

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

The scenery of this area isn’t the only thing I’ll remember. We managed to find ourselves staying in a truly wonderful rural retreat of small houses scattered around a peaceful estate dotted with cacti and oak trees. The Monte West Coast is one of the most delightful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying. Tucked away down a dirt track a few kilometres from the main road, it exudes a relaxed and easy charm.

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

There is hardly any noise beyond the chirruping of birds; butterflies waft past and the hilltop pool has views down the valley. At night a canopy of stars unfurls across the sky. If we’d stopped here at the start of our trip I doubt we’d have seen anything of the rest of Portugal. The owner, Catarina, is an expert on the best beaches and restaurants to visit along the coast. Thanks to her advice we had some of the tastiest food anywhere in this region. Truly wonderful.

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

Driving from the Monte West Coast you find yourself alongside the Rio de Seixe, which marks the boundary between the Portuguese regions of Algarve and Alentejo. Follow the river west and you find yourself overlooking the magnificent Praia de Odeceixe. This broad sweep of golden sand is situated dramatically between two craggy headlands and overlooked by vertiginous cliffs.

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

The large Atlantic waves that crash into the rocks also make this a prime surfing beach, and it has a bit of a reputation as surfer/hippy hangout. When we were there there were mainly families and a scattering of surfers, all very low key but I’m told that in summer things can get pretty crowded.

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

We’d driven up from Cabo de Sao Vicente making a few stops along the way, and by the time we had unpacked at Monte West Coast and found our way to the beach the sun had started its long descent into the ocean on the horizon. Standing on the cliff tops watching the reds, oranges and pinks of the light play over the water, cliffs and beach was mesmerising. We’d be back in the morning to explore further…

Visiting Fig Valley on the road to Aljezur

If I was a literal sort of person I’d probably have been disappointed by the Vale Figueira which, not unreasonably, I’d assumed we’d be passing through en route to the Praia de Vale Figueira. As we drove down the dusty dirt track towards the coast, it quickly became apparent that there weren’t any fig trees, and the valley was pretty disappointing as well. Honestly, if you can’t trust the brown tourist signs pointing you towards hidden delights what can you trust in life?

Praia de Vale Figueira, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Vale Figueira, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Vale Figueira, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Vale Figueira, Algarve, Portugal

Luckily the Praia de Vale Figueira makes up for the missing figs trees. This out of the way (for the Algarve) beach is what beaches should be all about: a dramatically located, vast expanse of golden sand without a single other human being in sight. In a part of the world where beaches come with strong associations of swathes of tanning flesh, Praia de Vale Figueira is a real blast of fresh air.

Praia de Vale Figueira, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Vale Figueira, Algarve, Portugal

We were on our way up Portugal’s west coast, bound for a wonderful rural retreat just outside of the village of Odeceixe on the final leg of our Portuguese journey. We’d been given some good tips for the road trip from Sagres, including the best place to have lunch in the small town of Aljezur, and taking a break from the rigours of driving through Portugal’s beautiful countryside at Praia de Vale Figueira.

The beach is supposed to be popular with surfers, never a recommendation in my experience, but the day we were there it was blissfully empty. We strolled for a while with the warm sand beneath our feet taking in the vast, hazy vista as large Atlantic breakers rolled in before deciding that we should definitely check out our lunch recommendation. Next stop Aljezur and grilled fresh squid.

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Views from the castle, Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Views from the castle, Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Views from the castle, Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Views from the castle, Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

If you find yourself thinking, “Aljezur? Doesn’t sound very Portuguese.” You’d be right. Aljezur was founded in the 10th century by North African Moors, who controlled this region for the next three centuries, until the Christian conquest. The dramatically situated castle is the site of fortifications dating back to pre-history, but much of what we see today is built upon the old Moorish castle foundations.

Aljezur is one of many names in this region with North African roots, but it resonates with a special force. Aljezur wasn’t conquered until 1249, the same year that Moorish forces were finally defeated and Portugal, the nation we know today, was unified. The fate of Aljezur echoes that of the Crusader states in the Middle East, holding out against Christian conquest while hoping for aid from ‘abroad’ in North Africa. Eventually it fell to 13th Century geopolitical realities. Aljezur is the Krak des Chevaliers of Moorish Portugal.

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

While the town is many centuries old, today much of it largely dates from the mid-18th Century. The state of the castle gives a hint of the disaster that struck Aljezur in 1755. This region is awash in perfectly preserved castles, so why is this one in ruins? The answer is the gigantic earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755. This 9.0 magnitude earthquake levelled most of Lisbon and, even this far south, had a terrifying impact on Aljezur, destroying the castle and most of the original town.

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

It is a lovely town, quintessentially Portuguese. Narrow streets weave their way up the steep hill to the castle, which commands stunning views over a green countryside dotted with whitewashed villages. I wish we hadn’t left the exploring of the town until after lunch, the streets are viciously steep and the heat and strength of the mid-afternoon sun was all a bit much. Apparently the castle is only 88 metres up from the town, but under these conditions if felt much, much further.

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

Aljezur, Algarve, Portugal

From dawn to dusk at atmospheric Cabo de Sao Vicente

Arriving at the truly dramatic Cabo de Sao Vicente, Europe’s most south-westerly point, at any time of day is wonderful; watching the sunrise over the massive cliffs and red and white lighthouse is pure theatre, played out on a very large stage. This coastline is full of the most amazing seascapes, but Cabo de Sao Vicente really is special.

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Driving out from Sagres towards the lighthouse in the dark of pre-sunrise, it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t be alone watching the sun come up on the south-west tip of Europe. This is an iconic place, sunrise an iconic time and I suspect quite a lot of bucket lists had one less thing on them once the sun had risen. The car park at the lighthouse was busy with people wandering around; quite a lot of people seemed to have spent the night there.

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Despite the number of people, you don’t have to wander too far to find yourself alone on top of alarmingly high vertical cliffs with uninterrupted views in all directions. The lighthouse was doing what its name suggests, sending out a beam of light to warn passing ships of danger. It underplays its importance, but in reality this is one of Europe’s most powerful lighthouses, guarding one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

In the opposite direction the lights of Sagres flickered in the half light of morning. The air was still, just a light breeze came off the ocean, the sound of waves competing with sea birds to make the most noise. This is probably as placid as it gets on this coast, I can’t imagine standing here in a storm.

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunrise at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

The ancient Greeks knew Cabo de Sao Vicente as Ophiussa, the Land of Serpents. Following hard on the heels of the Greeks, the Romans called it Promontorium Sacrum, the Sacred Cape. From those early days of human adventure this headland had a mysticism that it has retained throughout the centuries. The power of this place is undeniable, even I felt a sudden urge to indulge in a little sun worship.

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Being a nerd for the complete experience, and not wanting to have been in the area and missed it, I decided to go and watch the sunset at Cabo de Sao Vicente as well. It may have only been the sun doing what it had done twelve hours earlier, just in reverse, but in this isolated corner of Portugal sunset is loaded with atmosphere. It was magnificent.

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal

Sunset at Cabo de Sao Verde, Algarve, Portugal