From beautiful beaches to fortress towns, a road trip along the Algarve coast to Portugal’s Alentejo reveals much to love, writes Kendall Hill.
It's there in the golden fields flanking country roads. In the intense, eye-watering blue of the sky, and the hammer blow of midsummer heat. It's there in the cattle grids and corrals, the rusting machinery propped like antique sculpture outside farmhouses, and the eucalypts, which are everywhere and abundant.
Portugal reminds me of home so often that, after a week-long drive from Lisbon along the Algarve coast to the southern Alentejo interior, I'm convinced this is the perfect European road trip for Australians. And not simply because the landscapes can seem so familiar.
Alentejo wines are among the continent's finest, and more estates, or quintas, are offering boutique accommodation and dining for wine-loving travellers. Food-wise the Portuguese are almost as obsessed with provenance and seasonality as we are, and their seafood is exquisite. The beaches, meanwhile, are wild and glorious and buffeted by waves so exhilarating that the west coast is basically one long sun-drenched surf break.
André the Uber driver warned us about his country on the way to Lisbon airport to pick up our hire car. "Portugal is crazy!" he cried. "It's not like only two or three things to do - here, you don't stop. We are a small country but many, many things to do."
I'm hoping he's right as we cross the 17-kilometre span of Vasco da Gama Bridge (Europe's longest) and watch the Baroque beauty of the capital recede in the rear-view mirror. It's a wrench to leave this lovely city, but I figure if Lisbon is capable of casting such a spell over me, then the rest of the country must have its charms, too.
Within 20 minutes we're cruising through Alentejo farmlands at 120 kilometres per hour. Hawks circle above freshly shaven wheat fields. Olive trees grace one side of the freeway, bushy vines the other (my kind of country). Huge hay bales bake in the sun beneath pastel skies. "It's like a Monet painting," says Guillaume, my road-trip buddy.
We stop at a roadhouse called O Cavalo Lusitano and, as we nibble tasteless, day-old sandwiches at a picnic table beside the car park, blowflies clinging to our lips and our lunch, I'm reminded again of the Australian summer.
Praia Verde beach.
Our route south to the Algarve coast is punctuated by massive posters for family attractions - a Slide & Splash water park with live bird and reptile shows at Lagoa, a Zoomarine theme park at Albufeira. Occasionally the plains are invaded by massive transmission towers, many decorated with Seussian stork's nests. One pylon has nine giant nests installed on its cross beams as though it's the most natural thing to do to raise your young in a high-voltage environment.
The Atlantic winks brightly on the horizon as we descend to the coast and head east on the N125, a rural road that weaves past quintas and glossy green orange groves. We make a quick stop to see Tavira, regarded as the prettiest and most Portuguese city on the south coast. It's sometimes called the Venice of the Algarve - a lazy name that undersells the unique charms of the town's paintbox façades, the bridges criss-crossing the Gilão River and the dozens of church spires piercing its modest skyline.
Beyond Tavira the eastern Algarve coast is cloaked in pine forest so dense that it's not easy at first to make out Praia Verde Boutique Hotel resort. Once a popular camping site for families in the 1960s and '70s, Praia Verde (Green Beach) is now an upmarket holiday hotel of 40 guestrooms with a pool bar and a terrific indoor-outdoor restaurant, À Terra. The beach is a 10-minute walk, mostly on a carpet of pine needles.
The pool at Praia Verde Boutique Hotel.
Praia Verde is a tremendous sweep of shoreline where, apparently, half the Portuguese population has arrived before us. They're lazing beneath cheerful umbrellas, making sandcastles, playing football, jet-skiing, frolicking in the shallows. A trader named Anibal trudges along the beach hawking hot meals. The water, brisk at first, then bearable, is a tonic after the sweltering three-hour drive from Lisbon.
Warm sea breezes bring the scent of pine into the foyer of the Praia Verde Boutique Hotel that evening. Freshly scrubbed and glowing guests assemble in À Terra for generous plates of mod-Med goodness: a gazpacho-style chilled cucumber soup studded with ceviche; a salad of summery figs and just-made goat's cheese; memorable tomato rice in its own iron casserole, and tender charred octopus tentacles with peas, cured pork and mint.
À Terra's charred octopus tentacles with peas, cured pork and mint.
The next morning is already hot, blue and promising when we set off to visit Praia Verde's sister property Vila Monte Farm House in the tiny parish of Moncarapacho, about 25 minutes away. Renovated in late 2015, the public spaces and airy suites on the nine-hectare estate are design-magazine gorgeous. Its 55 rooms are contained in three Moorish buildings of white archways and flowered courtyards perfumed with orange blossom. Tiled floors, local weavings and striped pareo beach sheets accent cool white interiors. A Roman-styled pool inspires hedonistic fantasies.
The hotel is all about experiences: visits to the produce market and fishmongers in nearby Olhão, dawn fishing expeditions and, most intriguing for me, the chance to play castaway on a desert island in the middle of the Atlantic.
Villa Monte Farm House.
From the village of Fuseta, our skipper navigates a narrow channel lined with fishing boats named after their owners - Chiquito, Bartolomeu - before barrelling across the waters to the eastern tip of Armona Island, one of a chain of oversized sandbanks that shelters the wetlands of Ria Formosa Natural Park.
On the shore an attendant materialises to arrange umbrella, towels, chilled water and the picnic basket packed for us by Vila Monte's kitchen. We're set up on our (almost) private beach like a couple of celebrities. And the view is stunning. Caught between sunlight and sand, the Atlantic shallows are a pale, crystal green lapping at a stark white shoreline. It's a tropical island mirage until I dive in and the iced water jolts me back to reality.
I could happily loll on this beach all day, but we have an appointment at the end of the world. Sagres is a fortress town and popular surf centre beside Cape St Vincent, the westernmost tip of Portugal and, according to the ancients, the finisterre, the end of the Earth. It certainly feels that way as we make the ascent from the hamlet of Vila do Bispo, proud "home of the barnacle clam", to a headland of windmills and stunted vegetation set to a frantic dance by Atlantic gales.
Memmo Baleeira hotel is a citadel on the headland, a designer bastion whose acres of whitewash are offset by great slabs of glass so guests can admire the setting without suffering the weather. Staff explain the local attractions - including the most sheltered beaches - but the conditions are hardly ideal for doing anything outdoors. "Yes, it's terrible!" the check-in staffer agrees when I remark on the ferocity of the winds. She says they're the worst in July and August - coincidentally, the Algarve's peak tourist season.
Heading north from Sagres, the beaches of the western Algarve are connected, conveniently, by a single meandering road. There are no overblown resorts in this part of Portugal, just sun-struck villages, untamed countryside and a string of Europe's most spectacular surf spots, each a painterly scene of iron-red cliffs, blue ocean and bursts of white spume. The wind eases the moment we leave the cape.
Memmo Baleeira hotel.
The beach at Amado is typical of this coastline's laid-back, carefree vibe. A dusty car park crowded with campervans. Wetsuited guys and girls hauling surfboards to the shore. A sign painted on the side of a van captures the mood perfectly: "There was once a man who became unstuck in the world. He took the wind for a map. He took the sky for a clock, and he set off with no destination. He was never lost."
Further north we brave a dusty unsealed track to reach Vale Figueiras, where surf-school novices form a circle on the beach around a tousled blond instructor. A communal house nearby sleeps up to 55 surfies (aged 20-45 only) and offers a kids' camp each July. This same coastline hosts a stage of the world tour championships each year. Portugal's passion for surfing just about rivals our own.
By the time we catch sight of Monte Clerigo, a photogenic village tumbling down a headland to the waves, I'm convinced this route must be Portugal's unsung Great Ocean Road. It winds through the Vicentine Coast Natural Park, constantly revealing dramatic sea views and postcard towns such as Monte Clerigo and - my favourite - Odeceixe.
The way Odeceixe clings limpet-like to the rockface above the ocean reminds me of Bronte, one of Sydney's wealthiest beach suburbs. This place has a similar, playground-of-the-rich vibe. It's best enjoyed from the narrow terrace of Esplanada do Mar, where salt-crusted tourists sit on wooden stools and feast on burgers, toasties and one of the Algarve's loveliest outlooks.
Directly below the restaurant, holidaymakers - seemingly all lithe and tanned - play beach sports on a sandbank. Others sunbake in a cove or paddle in the placid waters of the lagoon behind. It's tempting to join them - to lose a day, or a week, in this idyllic spot - but the Alentejo beckons.
The river to Odeceixe Beach.
Portugal's agricultural heartland begins just the other side of Odeceixe bridge. This is the country's bread basket, a land of black-footed pigs, vineyards, sprawling croplands of wheat and sunflowers, acres of olive and cork trees, World Heritage-listed walled towns and, blessedly, our digs for the next two nights.
The 10-room Malhadinha Nova Country House & Spa is a two-hour, 37-degree drive to the north-east. En route we pass several charming three-chicken towns, so named (by me) because the only signs of life we witness are a handful of chickens. Always crossing the road, naturally.
Alentejo is Portugal's largest and least-populated province, spanning a third of the country. Even Beja, one of the bigger cities, appears deserted apart from three ancient men on a roadside bench, one of them asleep.
Dressage champion Pedro Sousa at Malhadinha.
Malhadinha Nova was an abandoned farm with no water or electricity when João and Rita Soares, Margaret and Paulo Soares and their mother, María, bought it in 1998. They've since transformed the property into a 450-hectare estate with a renowned vineyard, extensive olive plantation, sophisticated small hotel, gastronomic restaurant and a menagerie of endemic black-footed pigs, Alentejo cows and purebred Lusitano horses tended by champion equestrian (and jodhpur-clad demigod) Pedro Sousa.
Arriving here is like turning up at a rich friend's exceptionally well-equipped country house. Four beautiful, tanned children in ironed white outfits scamper around the poolside courtyard at the rear of the farmhouse hotel. Out front, adults lounge on curtained daybeds beside the infinity pool, gazing over vines and crops and hillsides of holm oaks whose acorns fatten the pigs.
Daybeds at Malhadinha Nova.
"It's very simple but you fall in love with this [landscape]," general manager Filipe Seguro tells me. He moved here from the busy northern city of Porto. "It calms me, here," he smiles. "Alentejo for me means relax and drink wine. Very good food and wine."
He proves the point that evening in Malhadinha Nova's glass-walled dining room, matching elegant estate wines with a dégustation menu that includes a cherry gazpacho with peppers and shrimp - the taste of summer in a bowl - and cod with chorizo and a sweet potato purée that's as viscous as caramel. Peacocks pose decoratively outside the windows while we eat.
Malhadinha Nova's lounge.
Much of the produce comes from the farm and local producers. "We want to do simple food and use - as much as we can - our own ingredients," Rita Soares explains over a long lunch the next day on the poolside terrace. She isn't fussed about Michelin stars. "I want people to taste what it feels to be here. They have to taste the meat from our animals, the fruit from our trees, the vegetables we produce here. Everything in harmony."
Breakfast at Malhadinha is such a production it doesn't start until nine o'clock when all 29 plates have been arranged on the buffet. Estate-grown fruits (strawberries, plums, black figs, oranges, melon and mango) dominate among the cold cuts, pâté and local cheeses. The creamy Serpa sheep's cheese is a delight, but the real revelation is a sort of goaty Camembert made by just one family in the nearby hamlet of Albernôa.
Breakfast spread at Malhadinha Nova.
The colours of Alentejo are blue, gold and green, splashed with the occasional white of time-worn villages. It's beguiling country and in less than two days I find myself falling for it, perhaps because it reminds me so much of the Central Highlands of Victoria, where I grew up - though, obviously, without the wealthy, worldly houseguests and the sophistication of Malhadinha Nova.
The main farmhouse features exposed beams above a Philippe Starck chandelier, white leather Chesterfields draped in soft blankets and cool rooms with billowy beds, pastel throws and shuttered windows.
The hotel does an excellent line in wish fulfillment, so if guests want to hear a performance of cante Alentejano, the region's unique polyphonic singing, it can be arranged. So too hot-air balloon flights, horse riding, reiki, photography, cooking and painting. You can even play at being a shepherd for a day.
Malhadinha Nova Country House & Spa.
"I want people to come here and think about how things were many years ago," says Rita. "People who don't have time, they come here and have time again, to enjoy the simple things in life."
She dispatches us to Évora with two restaurant recommendations. The UNESCO-listed fortified city is a living historical monument - its medieval walls enclose some 2,000 years of history, and it's thrilling to wander its Moorish alleyways and stumble across baths dating from the first century BC, a 16th-century aqueduct and, at the summit of the city, the graceful ruins of a classical Roman temple overshadowed by the Gothic gloom of the cathedral.
A Roman temple in Evora .
Évora's other strong suit is gastronomy. Soares urges us to stop by tiny Botequim da Mouraria for pata negra ham and a fine selection of local wines, but after three failed attempts we realise the bar's reputation far exceeds its nine-seat capacity.
Instead we nab the last table at Tasquinha do Oliveira, her other pick. Senhor Manuel Oliveira seats us in the window of his single-room, six-table restaurant. Lanterns and an awning out front lend the tiny bistro a French air, but inside the painted ceramics lining the walls and the scent from the kitchen are pure Portugal.
Tasquinha do Oliveira.
In the 20 years it has stood here Tasquinha do Oliveira has amassed an army of admirers and chef Carolina Oliveira, Manuel's wife, has been awarded the country's highest food award, the Maria de Lourdes Modesto Great Award.
Manuel speaks just enough English to suggest we have the prawn and spinach soufflé, a hot mess of thick Parmesan-cheesy sauce studded with shrimp and laced with spinach. Portugal does posh comfort food like no other nation.
I ask Manuel if he has ever been tempted to enlarge the restaurant and cater to more people. "Não," he says softly, shaking his head. "Small is beautiful."
After a week spent touring his compact, inspiring country, I know exactly what he means. "Small is beautiful" could be Portugal's rallying call to the world.