Allow yourself to be carried away by the relaxing colours of the Atlantic, the rivers, and the sky, amongst dolphins, storks and endless beaches. Fall asleep listening to the sea or the tree frogs, in a summer that still dares to be silent – the summer in Portugal’s Costa Azul (Blue Coast)
As we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we can’t judge a whole summer by the first dip in the sea. But this one, in praia da Califórnia (yes, California beach), looks very promising … The quiet waters enable us to float with no effort, to look up at the clear sky and to notice how the body slowly begins to feel refreshed. On land, the thermometers register 30C (85F) and the landscape seems to undulate toward you, like a mirage. I close my eyes and I imagine Sesimbra, a village that has been Celtic, Arab, Roman and Christian and which is still overseen by a medieval castle – the fishing village, now also a tourist village but no less picturesque, is worth a visit when the sun goes down. By now, history is not enough to make me leave this salty pleasure, but I admit I’m rather curious: “why is there a California beach in Portugal’s Costa Azul?”
The enticing smell of freshly caught fish being grilled on street barbecues is the reason why I leave this bay that opens up almost like a nutshell to the village. We go, then, to Rodinhas (Rua Marquês de Pombal, 25), a tavern which is popular for its culinary delights, namely snails, crabs, octopus salad or fried cuttlefish – all that sounds good in a sunny outdoor café.
When we finish eating, we go to the Tourist Office (Largo da Marinha, 26/27) to solve the mystery of the cosmopolitan beach. There are two versions of the same tale. The first one says that, once upon a time, a local seaman arrived in the current region of California, in the United States, and found it so similar to his homeland that he gave it that name. The second story says that it was the crew of that ship who decided to name it California when they returned. The reason was the same: the similarity between those American beaches to the one in Sesimbra.
The full sun reminds us how smart the Spaniards are for having come up with the “siesta”, and we don’t think twice: we decide to go to the Sesimbra Spa (www.sesimbrahotelspa.com), one of the most recent hotels in the town, located right in front of the beach. This luxury four-star hotel has 84 double rooms, 8 suites and 8 apartments with two rooms, all of them with sea views, and its interior design was conceived by the architecture and decoration studio Viterbo Imaginação, in a partnership with Decorpisus.
Setúbal: dolphins in the river estuary
The day starts bright and early in the morning. Today, we get up a little earlier than usual, because the dolphins are waiting for us, as well as the crew of Vertigem Azul (www.vertigemazul.com) in Setúbal, who have promised us some memorable moments within the community of bottlenose dolphins living in the Sado river estuary. These sea mammals are commonly real nomads searching for quality food, this being the reason why they constitute a unique population in the country and one of the rare specimen populations in Europe. As the law establishes 30 minutes as the maximum time period allowed to observe them, we sail along the sea for the rest of the trip down Costa da Arrábida (Arrábida Coast), taking in the view of the Mediterranean vegetation, the Convento dos Franciscanos (Franciscan Monastery), the seven hermitages perched up on the slopes, and the Forte de Nossa Senhora da Arrábida (Our Lady of Arrábida Fort). When we return to Setúbal, we bring those good moments stored away in our minds and nicer skin tones on our faces.
Next stop: praia da Comporta (Comporta beach). We don’t have an established time of the day to go there, but the image of those green waters prompts us to take the ferry-boat to shorten the trip by one hour. In the twinkling of an eye, we find one of the most beautiful sandy beaches of Costa Azul. Even during the height of the summer season, there is still plenty of room for both beach towels and private conversations and the holidaymakers can swim without bumping into other people.
When everybody starts leaving, we deicide to stay on. This is the best part of the day, that hour when the sun goes down, appearing to set the Serra da Arrábida (Arrábida mountain range) on fire, which is as far as the distant horizon. Moreover, dinner will be served right here, at the Praia do Peixe terrace (www.praiadopeixe.com). No detail seems to have been spared, from the decoration to the lighting. Outside, the colourful bean bags are very attractive. Inside, the light from the lamps is very cosy. In both cases, the food, inspired by the local produce and gastronomy, surprises for the originality of its combinations and the freshly caught fish is the star dish.
Nectars from Comporta
One of the most valuable resources of Costa Azul lies in nature itself, stretching over 123,500 acres of protected land areas. Pine groves. Hills and fossil cliffs. Joaquim Ferreira, owner of the Mil Andanças (www.mil-andancas.pt) travel agency, takes us for a ride in his jeep across the vast rice fields; we’d never thought it possible for them to be as big as this in Portugal. Then we make a stop at Adega da Herdade da Comporta (it is required to book visits in advance: firstname.lastname@example.org), where we learn about their wine production methods and we take the opportunity to buy some of their rice.
After that, we have lunch near a restaurant that was once a primary school. Its name is A Escola (www.restauranteaescola.com). In 2002 this restaurant won the second prize in the “Gastronomia, Património Nacional” contest with its wild-rabbit pie and rice with pine nuts. But they also have many fish dishes on the menu.
Stories from Alcácer
We are already halfway to Alcácer do Sal, the town where this summer tour will end. We cross the old bridge and we see the white houses which, in the evening, are reflected onto the surface of the Sado River, like a mirror.
Despite its quietness, this is a small town with plenty of history: before the Roman occupation, it was called Eviom and it maintained strong commercial relationships with the peoples of the Mediterranean. When it was under Roman rule, its name was changed to Salatia Urbs Imperatoria and it had the same rights as the cities of Old Lazio. During the Visigoth times, it became the Episcopal capital. In the end of the 8th century, it went under Arab rule. Two centuries later it was coveted by the Vikings, and in 1158 King Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, tried to conquer it. It became a Portuguese town in 1217 and it was the stage for the marriage between King Manuel I and Princess Maria (the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs, of Castile and Aragon), in 1500. It is tempting to visit it. But, for now, the swimming pool of the Pousada Dom Afonso II (www.pousadas.pt), set in the Castelo de Alcácer (Alcácer Castle) makes a stronger appeal – the one for pure laziness.
It is hard to believe that this building was once anything more than ruins. It is a majestic creation, where the austerity of the architectural structure of the old Franciscan Monastery of Aracoeli (Altar of Heaven) that existed in here is relieved by some contemporary details in the decoration and furniture. When the sun goes down, we only hear the wind blowing. We have the city beneath us; we will be kings or queens for at least one night, with a book in our hands or slipping away into quiet contemplation.