The slow life – Settling in Portugal

We arrived in Portugal almost three weeks ago and to be honest it’s been a bit of a blur. We moved quick in our first week in Portugal when left Galicia in north western Spain swiftly as a storm chased us all the way into Portugal. We drove so far, the exhaust actually melted the side bumper of the campervan. We pulled in to stopover at a little town just across the border in Portugal and woke up the following morning with wind and rain howling at the campervan. It seemed the storm had caught up with us, we got up, opened our blinds to find that every other campervan parked around us had left and we made our move once again. We drove the length of two Netflix movies when we found clear skies and shelter in the gorgeous little town of Porto de Mós. It was there where we crossed paths once again with the fun and lovely Whiting family from the UK. We met our fellow van living family Emily and Steve and their two girls Ada and Sylvie back in San Sebastian last month and it was so great to catch up again. We also made new camper van dwelling friends, Chris, Abby and their 5 year old boy Ed. It’s so great to meet all these lovely people who we will keep in touch with and I’m sure we’ll bump into them again along our travels.

Rainy day play time

We stopped in only two more towns before we reached the south coast, first the stunningly beautiful medieval town of Óbidos and the then the not so pretty industrial village of Sines. Óbidos was fabulous, we joined the Whiting family and our little convoy parked up by the aquaduct just beyond the walled town which is known as “The Wedding Town” as it was the traditional bridal gift of the kings of Portugal to their queens, a custom that began in 1282. A lot of the walls, streets and buildings in the town now are medieval although much of it was damaged during the earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755.

The walled town of Óbidos

We loved wandering around the cobbled streets, shops, chapels, galleries and of course the odd tavern. We even attempted to walk around the perimeter wall which was below waist height along most of the outside wall, quite damaged in places along the path and no inside wall at all, a risk we couldn’t chance with the kids so we settled for a traditional drink called Ginja which was a cherry liquor served up in a dark chocolate cup and it was absolutely delicious 🍒

Traditional sitar player outside chapel behind was the location of the wedding of King Afonso V to his cousin Isabel in 1444 when they were only 10 & 8 years of age

Serving us up our Ginja’s in Óbidos

We parted ways once again with the Whitings as we were eager for some beach time and we drove as far south as we could that day and ended up in the village of Sines further along the west coast which was a stark contrast to Óbidos. We parked late in the evening beside a beach and woke up to discover a massive power plant just north of us. A local told us the plant sucks in water from the Atlantic to cool the station and pumps the circulated water back out. He said it’s not toxic and told us that the sea in this area gets as hot as 20-24’C. Little wonder that we found no trace of life whatsoever on the beach, not even a single shell only bit of plastic washed up on the shorelines. We didn’t chance a swim and kept on truckin’.

Sines, Portugal

Another thing we noticed on our drive through Portugal was the amount of eucalyptus trees. I remember hearing about the devastating forest fires here in Portugal last summer caused by dry lightning but we have since learned that the highly flammable eucalyptus tree may be to blame. We never expected to see so much of it here. There was some in Spain too but its everywhere in Portugal, all along the roads and motorways and all down the west coast, everywhere. Eucalyptus was first brought from its native Australia to Portugal in 1830 and it now accounts for a quarter of the country’s forest, displacing native trees and it’s currently the most common tree here. It took off from the mid-20th century when farmers began to grow it for the paper and pulp industry which is much more lucrative than the native cork industry. Portugal is the biggest producer of paper and pulp in Europe and we spotted the huge steaming pulp factories on the outskirts of towns and cities. For decades, efforts to contain the growth of eucalyptus ran into opposition from the powerful and wealthy paper industry leaders. Maybe with less and less demand for paper in the future, the cork industry might make a comeback.

Eucalyptus trees lining every road and lane

Once we reached the most south westerly point of Europe, it was time to chill. This is where we wanted to be this winter. We pulled up in the surfing town of Sagres on a 60 metre high cliff with the most amazing views overlooking the Atlantic ocean where we parked up alongside 30 or more other wild campers. We had everything we needed all within a 5 minute drive including an aire de servicio for emptying and filling our water, a lidl, a playground / skate park, beaches as well as a couple of tourist attractions. It felt like home, we got well cozy there amongst the surf dudes and best of all it was free and the weather was perfect, just what we had been looking for. We stayed there for nine days until the police came and kicked everybody out. There were campers there for much longer than us, I think the plan was to force everybody into the paid campsites.

Sagres, Portugal

During our time there we took a ten minute drive north to the next headland of Cabo de São Vicente (the Cape of Saint Vicente). Liam and I visited the lighthouse there ten years ago and we were actually very excited to go back. It has changed, I don’t think places are ever the same second time round. It’s a lot busier these days with many more tourists around and they’ve added a really interesting museum with the most angry security guard we’ve ever met at the entrance and a little café on site but the lighthouse itself still isn’t accessible. What hasn’t changed is the stalls outside the entrance selling woolly hats, ponchos and big heavy blankets. We bought a blanket there ten years ago which we use as a throw and it’s still as good as new so we splashed out and bought two more smaller ones for our beds.

Ellen, trying on ponchos at the local stalls at Saint Vincents Point

The lighthouse is one of Europe’s brightest lighthouses that can be seen for 60 miles. It was built in 1846 on the old ruins of a Franciscan monastery which was damaged in that Great Lisbon earthquake in 1755. The old monastery was dedicated to Saint Vicente, whose bones were apparantly found in the cliffs here and who the headland is named after.

We were so glad to be able to bring our kids to see it. It’s a really lovely lighthouse and headland where we stayed and watched the horizon for ages wondering how many sailors have been saved by its bright light.

Cabo de São Vicente

On another day, we took a stroll to the Fort of Sagres located on Portugal’s most south-westerly point. We could see it from our camping spot and just a ten minute walk away. It looked like a giant sandcastle and for €3 for the whole family we entered the fortress and explored the tip of the headland inside which had loads of information displays about wildlife, watched men fishing for sea-bream from the top of the massive cliffs and we saw its small lighthouse with a “Chamber of Sound” built beside it. The sound chamber is a concrete maze built over a blow-hole where you walk round it until you hit the centre and then stand on a metal grill, looking down to the sea and, as the waves break, you are encompassed in the sound of the sea. Such a cleverly designed little build which was both terrifying and amazing.

The Chamber of Sound and little lighthouse at the Fort of Sagres

The fort itself was built in the 15th Century to protect the town in a time when the Portuguese coast was often the target of raids from pirates but it’s not really a typical fort but more like a large wall that divides the mainland from the headland, with the other three sides protected by 60 meter high cliffs.

Much of the original fort was destroyed in the 1755 Great Lisbon earthquake and we learned that the resulting tsunami rose higher than the giant 60m cliffs. That tsunami actually reached Ireland four hours after the earthquake and flooded much of the Munster coast wrecking boats around Cork and even destroying parts of the Spanish Arch as far up as Galway.

Watching lads fishing from the edge of the 60m high cliffs.

While we were parked up at Sagres, we met some really cool people, we loved watching the surfers and felt so inspired by our surroundings. I finally, after a little hiatus from all the shit weather and driving, got back into my daily yoga practise and Liam got more into his own Wim Hoff Method practise. The kids loved it there, they played on the headland every day where they built their own fort and practised making ‘cave people’ tools.

Yoga and Play on the headland at Sagres

We could have stayed there longer but the police moved us on and so on we went eastwards through the Algarve region. The lovely town of Silves was our next stop. Silves is an ancient fortified town which was once the busy capital of Portugals Algarve and these days it is a quiet, calm and peaceful town where many storks hang out and we loved just strolling around spotting them.

Stork spotters

Storks circled gracefully, like in slow motion over our heads every day and we got to the know the resident storks who set up their massive nests on top of trees, pylons and rooftops. They are monogamous birds who can’t sing, they have no voice boxes but you can hear them communicating with each other by clacking their beaks which is actually really loud; at first we thought it was noise from roadworks. We have seen just a fraction of them here in the Algarve as they head south to central Africa for winter. I would love to see it here in Spring when they all return to their same nests every year. In Portugal it is illegal to disturb a storks nest and considered good luck if one nests on your house.

Storks nesting everywhere

We feel like experts in all things stork and we have researched and learned a lot about them, even how it became known for bringing babies to new parents. The legend is very ancient, but was popularised by the 19th century Hans Christian Andersen story called ‘The Storks’ and thankfully a nice story for inquisitive children.

High up overlooking the town of Silves is a huge castle built by “the Moors” between the 8th and 13th Centuries of local red sandstone. The castle has been restored in recent years since it was also affected and badly damaged in the earthquake in 1755. We strolled around the potholed battlements of the perimeter walls admiring the panoramic views while clinging onto our children as there were low walls and sheer drops on both sides.

The castle was built on older fortifications left by the Romans followed by the Visigoths. While the Romans had rule in Portugal, they transformed this town into a commercial center during the first few centuries AD and built the first fortificaction there. Then came the Visigoths (nomadic Germanic tribes) who invaded and defeated the Romans and their empire. They occupied and developed the castle further until the Moors arrived and built the restored castle we see today.

The Moors were nomadic Muslim people from North Africa who invaded Spain and Portugal in 711 when they defeated the Visigoths and they brought their Islamic culture and religion with them. I am just now beginning to notice their influence left here in the art, some of the buildings and some of the place names too. To the Moors, the Algarve was called Algharb (a word meaning ‘west’) and it seems they used the sound al- as a prefix on lots of place names here in Portugal which we are discovering and spotting on signposts along our travels.

Outside the entrance to the castle is a huge bronze statue of the second King of Portugal, King Sancho the first, son of King Alfonso the first who captured the Moors castle in 1189 only to lose it to them again two years later. From then on rulership to’d and fro’d between Christian Portuguese and Spanish forces who fought together (sometimes) against the Moors but it wasn’t until 1266 after many years of fighting when it was eventually definitely taken by the army of King Afonso III of Portugal.

When we were in Portugal ten years ago, our highlight was the little town of Albufeira. We have some fantastic memories from there and we had to go back to find the old town and taverns that we frequented. We searched for free places to park on our maps and apps and all of them had terrible reviews relating to safety and many campers had been targets of robberies in the town. It was first time we’ve seen such terrible reviews on our app and we wondered if we had the same town at all. We decided to stay at a paid campsite, the only one, and we arrived at one on the outskirts of Albufeira which was a ten minute bus trip away from the town. We took the bus in and began to wander towards the old town. Like I said before, a place is never the same second time round and that was the case at Albufeira. I was so sad to see it had been ruined by tourism. Every old building had been turned into a nightclub or an English or Irish pub with the tellies or tacky music on full whack, there was happy hours and cocktails plastered all over advertising boards and locals offering discounts and menu’s outside every bar. We passed at least two GNR’s too, they are a police station for tourist security and support. We haven’t spotted these stations anywhere else and found it odd that a little town would need more than one. We found our old haunt where we sat and watched people over a glass of wine. I didn’t even take any pictures in Albufeira, I guess maybe our expectations of the place were too high. We walked back to the camper and left early the next morning.

Our next stop was recommended to us by some friends we met back in Sagres, it is a cool campsite and just what we need right now to catch up and wind down. It’s a stunningly beautiful clean place full of art, pottery, birds, fruit trees, swimming pools and it has a sort of Hotel California vibe. We met one guy who came here two years ago for a one night stay and he is still here today, a common story from the campervan residents here. I don’t know how long we’ve been here or even how long more we are going to stay but while we are here we are enjoying good vibes and getting loads done. The kids love this place and they have asked us if we are all in a big dream. We’ve been on the move for a few weeks so it’s really nice to just chill and dream together and we couldn’t have found a nicer place to do it.

Being surrounded by so much inspiration, we are riding this creativity wave.

I’ve been accepted onto a month long Yoga Teacher Training course which starts in Spain in a few weeks and I’ve been busy uploading new handmade crochet items in my Etsy shop and have started work on my Hook Crochet YouTube channel where I am uploading free beginner crochet and Irish crochet lace tutorials. I am also putting together online class which will be available to order soon. This is something I’ve dreamed of doing for years but never had the “time” to do it. If you’re looking to try a new craft or learn more crochet, have a look and subscribe to my channel where I’ll be uploading lots of free tutorials for all crochet levels. Go on, give it a go 😉

8 thoughts on “The slow life – Settling in Portugal”

    1. There is none in Sagres but it is allowed to camp in the carpark at the Fort. We were on the headland where it wasn’t allowed, didn’t know though as there loads of other campers there too

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  1. We have come full circle. We started following you in Instagram recently but didn’t realise you had a blog. Then we were contacted by other Instagrammers who said they had read our blog post about Mikki’s Place and were going to stay there based on our write up (Jan & Tim). They then invited Jane & Tim from Bonvanageblog, who we have been following for a few years, to join them. Then in their write up they mention meeting you and link back to your blog! So here we are!
    We have just crossed the north border of Portugal, but will nip back into Spain again tomorrow to get some diesel. We tried in Tui yesterday but there was a 200m queue of Portuguese cars waiting to fill up! Hope to be down on the Algarve within a week or so.

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    1. Hi! What a small world! We had the best time with the Tim’s and Jane & Jan 🙌🏻 They were parked up just a couple vans down from us and so cool we learned loads from them. We’ll be heading for Spain in the next few days too, never thought of it but we should try hold off getting diesel till we’re there too. We’ll be around south Spain / Portugal til March probably so we may even meet you Nomads as well x

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  2. Well done Liam and Niamh, you are giving your kids an amazing gift. Best of luck on your travels, there will surely be ups and downs along the way, but I bet a lot more ups!
    I am Liam’s 1st cousin by the way [one of the many from the O’Connor side!]. We also have a camper van and love nothing more that to head off with our 3 boys and 2 dogs, we love the adventure and the freedom…I see the attraction of what you are doing! Good luck!

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    1. Hi Elaine, Thank you! Yes on a winning streak of good vibes these last few weeks and we hope it continues. Hit a couple of bumbs in the road for sure but it only helps make you appreciate the good times more. Thanks for following x

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  3. Hi Liam,Niamh +2 enjoying the blog,,great to see ye are having a great time,, happy new year to ya all!! This is a very very old blog of mine I had to set up for college lol it’s shite but grand to communicate to ye!! I would be out and about in my own van only a gear linkage needs fixing!! Happy new year to you for 19 enjoy your travels!!
    Louise Treacy!! ( I go to hook all the time to paint)!!!

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