A wander guide chronicling two months along the coasts of Portugal, Spain & France via homes five days at a time
We had no desire to end up in popular towns listed on travel blogs. There was no interest in must-see destinations, save for a couple that popped up along the way, which we approached with a 'we might as well while we're here' attitude. We wanted nothing more than to leave the stroller and big suitcases at home, making the singular goal of our trip to see the ocean as much as possible as we drove and swam and ate for two months along the coasts of Portugal, Spain and France.
We named our trip "Five Days at a Time," and lived by the mantra of only booking home rentals for a maxiumum of five days, then near the end of our time, and only then, deciding where we felt like going next. We chose places based on their last minute availability, proximity to the ocean, and outdoor space, which left a natural selection of out of the way, often affordable homes and coastal farm stays still open for rent just a day or so out.
We let go of typical travel expectations, and lived in the moment, wandering and embracing whatever shape happiness looked like for us on any given day or week; be it a 7 hour change in scenery, or an extended stay somewhere that felt like long lost home. More than anything, we wanted to have an authentic experience, falling into the rhythm of the countries and towns we visited, going where local people went, eating where local people ate, letting ourselves experience what it felt like to be a part of these idyllic small communities, if only for five days.
Part I: Portugal
A red eye flight found us gliding in over Lisbon at sunrise, sandwiched between red tile roofs and spitting rainclouds. Things quickly became rural and rustic; an easy feat as Portugal has the nature of never feeling rushed or overcrowded regardless of if you’re in one of its cities or not. Trees and fields and small towns blurred by with passing rainclouds. Never hopping onto a proper highway we nevertheless made incredible time via an almost barren two lane road, the air smelling of salt and cows, earth and rain, and eucalyptus with a tinge of cinnamon.
Two hours later as we approached the outskirts of our small seaside town, Zambujeira do Mar, we began weaving through fields of crops, greenhouses, and farmers. Eventually we entered — then just as quickly exited — through the one main L shaped road passing through town, arriving at our first home 500 meters away. A duplex farmstay, our bright white Portuguese style home came complete with cheerful blue accents painted on the facade, chickens clucking and roosters crowing at the far western edge of the yard, a clothesline already hoisting our duplex neighbour’s suitcase contents, a couple hammocks lightly swaying in the breeze underneath a terracotta porch, and an open air outdoor kitchen and dining area beckoning us to spend evenings in.
Opening the car doors, the natural air conditioning of the Western Coast of Portugal hit us with its familiar chilly blast, the scent of salt air divulging exactly how close we were to the sea; a two minute walk to be precise. Our host, a young local farmer named Luis, who not only kept up with the farm we were living on, but acres and acres of local fields nearby, graciously welcomed us with small crates of strawberries and raspberries he had grown. Despite not living on the grounds of our farmhouse, he always managed to always leave us hints he was never far away by delivering small daily treats to our doorstep from his land; a few oranges, a pint of blueberries, a couple eggs from the chickens out back, and if we bumped into each other, a tour of the garden or the gift of showing our girls how to spot and pick ripe figs anytime they wanted to from the tree outside our door.
We stayed up late and slept off our jet lag without alarm clocks, there seeming to be no reason in rushing on day two of sixty. We threw the children's bedtimes, nap times, and any other sense of timely obligation out the window, and a newfound rhythm began to solidify as we fell into the tempo of Iberia, where never-hurrying-out-the-door, or anywhere really, became our glorious pace of life.
As our internal clocks acclimated and our bodies became more apt to be roused by our morning yard bird orchestra, I was gifted the occasional pre-sunrise awakening, where scaling the outdoor staircase to the roof of the house opened up the view of a pastel painted rural Portuguese landscape slowly coming to life in sync with the rising of the sun; a symphony rousing the world via crowing competitions from the roosters at neighboring farms, cows lowing, birds singing, and dogs barking, the only hint of human life arriving when an older gentleman atop his bicycle made his way down our dirt driveway at exactly daybreak to let the chickens out.
We took our time exploring local mercados, perusing the shelves and filling our baskets with Portuguese jams, sausages, vinegars, biscuits, fruits and chips. We gaped at seafood cases, tested out local lotions, sunscreens, shampoos and toothpastes since we had brought none of our own, quickly discovering balms and bites we couldn't believe we had ever lived without prior to our arrival.
If we saw five people (the definition of a crowd in Zambujeira) queued up outside a door on a small side street, we hopped in line to see what the fuss was about, and were rewarded with treats like a bakery run by local elder women selling delicious homemade pastries and boules of freshly baked bread from a tiny windowless shop that could only fit one or two customers in at a time; honey toast for breakfast quickly following.
Strolls to Zambujeira's tiny but mighty farmer's market resulted in bags of shrimp and fresh fish offloaded from the local fishermen's boats just an hour before. Farmers offered local vegetables, fruits, herbs, and honey, alongside their suggestions in Portuguese (with lots of hand gestures, pointing, and graciousness) on the best ways to prepare and enjoy them, and with that, our meals quickly took the delicious shape of Zambujeira.
The kids immediately took to the Polish children in the other half of our duplex, and despite not speaking each others’ language, managed to create games, converse, and become friends, playing on the porch hammocks or with the garden hose in morning and late evening hours. We would share an occasional glass of wine or coffee with their parents, exchanging favorite local beaches and restaurants, upcoming travel plans, or helping making sure we had both installed our rental carseats into our cars correctly; an innate connection being forged by both of our families choosing to come to this small plot of earth, and both so clearly seeing the magic in being here.
While our neighbors would take off at earlier morning hours, we'd lazily shuffle about the farm, making second and third pots of makeshift pour over coffee into the glass carafe. We never found the bialetti or bothered to ask Luis about it as we appreciated the challenge of tinkering and perfecting our own pour overs, finally settling on two filters modestly filled with grounds to ensure filtering without an explosion into the carafe. While listening to the chickens chat we would enjoy the stillness of rural life, the restoration of a good sit and a slowly cooked big breakfast.
We did our best to mimic our neighbor's clothesline skills, ours admittedly embarrassing as we had decades of bad machine dryer habits to break; our technique and love of air dried laundry increasing by the load. As the coming weeks passed we paid more and more attention to the art of hanging clothes properly--and perhaps just as importantly, the weather-- only finding ourselves rushing out at 10pm to grab everything off the line in the downpour of a passing thunderstorm or waking up to clothes strewn about the yard more wet than when they were hung up only two or three times, which to us, seemed a decent batting average.
Finally lumbering towards the sea around early afternoon, we were always greeted by the uncrowded and often deserted shores of beaches like Praia de Pedra da Bica, and found ourselves in near constant awe of the stomach churning unroped cliffs dropping into the sandy beaches below. It wasn't uncommon for us to spend the first ten minutes of our time at the beach everyday turning circles marveling in its beauty and hypothesizing as to why there seemed to be no one else there, always ending in a gleeful shrug at our good fortune. The shadows of tall rocky cliffsides served as the perfect substitute for beach umbrellas, giving way to shady spots ideal for a break from the sun's rays, and it almost immediately became a common sight for our two year old to lay claim in the shadows of the cliffs, bogarting the family's towels, layering herself between them as a human mille feuille, putting herself to sleep for a nap completely on her own without encouragement; the first real sign we were all learning to find our own rhythm.
Staying as late as we pleased, we often were on shore until sunset when temperatures began to plummet, showing up to dinner with gritty sand dusted scalps and sun kissed skin; aiming for outdoor seating at casual restaurants, and always with a change of clothes in the trunk at the ready if we felt like pretending fresh clothes would mask our disheveled hair and zinc smudged faces.
My first trip to Portugal almost ten years before had left me with a memorable food experience: after pulling off the heads of a shrimp dish and putting them to the side on a plate at dinner, our server returned and playfully refused to pick up our plate until we had sucked the heads; this was the best part of the shrimp he had told us. In American culture however, one can easily go a lifetime of eating shrimp without ever knowing what a shrimp head looks like, let alone tasting one, and to my surprise and utter joy that night, our server expanded my food horizons in a way that I will be forever grateful.
Looking again to the Portuguese for their warmth and know-how, we found ourselves on our current trip requesting the expertise of a professional once more, as gooseneck barnacles were on the menu at Restaurant Rocamar and we had no idea how to eat them. Delighted, gracious, and without hesitation at our request, our server grabbed the first barnacle off the top of the pile as if he had already been eyeing them and expertly modeled how to peel back the skin to reveal its buttery sweet bite, treating himself to the first one. Delighted by his love of food, lack of formality, and affection for our curiosity, we quickly followed suit gaining his "I knew you'd love it" approving nod, and on day two of our trip, discovered one of our family's all-time favourite foods.
The children regaling Luis the next morning with their newfound passion for barnacles opened the door to an even deeper education from our host, as he told us barnacles, like wine, are highly susceptible to their taste being affected by their location and micro climate. The barnacles we tasted were a phenomenal benchmark to start at, as they were harvested on the perilous cliffs right below the restaurant. We were told to eat them as often as possible when they tasted this good, as just 50 meters away they can taste terrible; the best barnacles always being the ones the most dangerous to harvest because the more violent and cold the waves are crashing upon the jagged cliffs they attach to, the more oxygen and plankton the barnacles receive, and the better their taste. A second dinner back at Rocamar (something we are not typically keen to do while travelling but were thrilled to repeat) was in order.
As the days passed we picked up on local delicacies, diving headfirst into Portugal's stellar seafood and stew scene, with wholesome hearty bean and cuttlefish concoctions over rice, traditional tomato based stews of rice and monkfish served family style in clay pots, bowls of mussels and clams, massive crabs, and warming cataplanas. If a majority of local patrons at a restaurant seemed to be ordering a particular dish we simply learned to guess it off the menu or discreetly point, never once being led astray; this being how we also learned to use our table bread to swab out (or 'dunkie-bouchie' as my family grew up saying, and 'scarpetta' as the more serious Italians in my family might say) the soupy insides of a brown crab's body in a sapateira recheada.
For dinners at home we would grill on the woodburning stove in our outdoor kitchen, tossing heaps of sardines and shrimp onto the barbecue, watching our girls perfect the art of sucking out shrimp heads. We would drink wine and google tutorials on how to clean and scale local fish, making mental notes to commit to memory how to ask the fish monger "Can you clean and scale the fish please?" in Portuguese next time.
As we melted into the slowness of Zambujeira, trying out new beaches daily, we decided we already felt compelled to extend our 5 day stay at Luis', but unfortunately missed out on the window, as our home had already been booked by other shrewd travellers; this seemingly the one true downside to our plan. Deciding that if we were to change homes we might as well move onto another town in case we loved them all as much as we loved Zambujeira, and thus decided to continue down the coast to the warmer waters of The Algarve.
Arriving in Carvoeiro, it was nothing like I had remembered from visiting almost a decade prior when the town seemed an undiscovered gem sitting against the backdrop of Portugal’s infamous jaw dropping sand colored cliffs, sea stacks, and turquoise water, back when you could walk along the cliffs to a deserted Benagil Cave, feeling as if you had somehow discovered it on your own, no tour boats or other visitors in sight. Wanting to show my family what I had remembered as a needle in a haystack on an infamous coast was now bursting with very pale and simultaneously sunburned tourists. The immediately recognizable upside being the beaches were just as beautiful as I had remembered, if only more crowded, and the only shop where I've ever felt compelled to enter middle age early and buy tons of pottery at, Loja Da Fabrica, was still in business.
Prioritizing outdoor space for the kids again, we had luckily chosen a home on the outskirts of town in a quiet residential neighborhood, accepting that the jaw dropping beaches and warmer temperatures were worth the hoards of oceanside company. An obligatory day at the infamous Praia de Marinha spent shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Europe taught us that the most clever way to visit popular beaches -if one must- was to go at sunrise, where to our pleasant surprise, not another soul was around.
We spent the rest of our days in the Algarve sticking to smaller, lesser renowned beaches, and found our rhythm more aligned with the uncrowded shores of Praia do Barranquinho's small cove, and Praia de Albandeira with its sea arches, beach caves, and seaside restaurant nestled into the backside of the cliffs; a wonderful low key spot to grab an espresso, beach beer or table for lunch, allowing for an extended full morning through sunset in the sun with aqua water lapping at our feet, amongst other travellers but certainly not in a crowd.
Lazy days spent ping-ponging between our private poolside and the gorgeous local beaches amidst perfect summer temperatures and the inviting cliffsides and nooks of the Algarve, letting our skin take on darkening shades without worry of future wrinkles, paired with the joy of delicious local finds like the salty Argarvia Batata Frita (potato chips), and melt in your mouth Turkish and Moroccan date at the mercados gave us a restorative and long soul warming pause, and the sense that we truly were on some sort of spa-like nature holiday. Near the end of our five days though, we found ourselves ready to swing back off trail further into the more northern regions of Portugal.
Breaking up our drive northward, we looped back into Lisbon for lunch, following in Bourdain's footsteps for a bite of mustardy bifanas at O Trevo, grabbing a seat at the counter (the restaurant full but seemingly not of tourists) followed by a couple al fresco fermented cherry liquor shots at A Ginjinha (chock full of tourists but worth it), where the children were warmly given fermented sour cherries in exchange for "obrigadas" from the owner, then off we drove to the coast for a couple night's sleep in a tiny hillside house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Azenha do Mar.
A morning spent winding around the tree covered hills of Sintra, an afternoon at the Masonic Initiation Well, and an evening eating salted cod sandwiches and tosta de sardinha at A Prancha wrapped in blankets by the owners while we gazed at the sun setting over the ocean, and we were headed back off the grid toward Northern Portugal's infamous wine region, The Douro Valley, into a town, and seemingly a time, that got my heart thumping.
Adding to our sense of adventure I kept our final destination a mystery to the entire family, driving us hours deep into the Douro Valley, to a house at the top of a town called Mazes, where women could still be seen washing their clothes in the communal washing fountain outside our house's door, where farmers herded dozens of belled goats under our terrace through the town's cobblestoned streets with a shepherd's crook in hand, and English was never spoken save for our ten minute orientation and key drop off from our host, Cecilia. A welcomed disconnect, we had no wifi and were shown how to fill pitchers of water for drinking and coffee from the town's fountain outside, and were given a quick tutorial on which public washing baths to use for soapy clothes, and which to use for rinsing.
Pin drop quiet nights under a fiery sky of stars were followed by early mornings where we would wake before the children and walk outside to stand amongst the historic houses in our town, breathing in the pink stillness of the tranquil sunrises of Mazes. We spent our days winding up and down hills, watching the Douro Valley bottom out in front of us, washing our laundry in the communal wash basins, eating our weight in baccala, drinking local wines, and walking around with red stained fingertips from the boxes of cherries we would purchase from roadside stands and ate from napkinned laps in the car.
When there was work to be caught up on we would plop down at an outdoor cafe in a nearby town centre, letting the girls eat pastries, chase pigeons and putter around catching warm watchful eyes from locals for a couple hours while we tapped at our keyboards. Returning home to Mazes we would weave through the rural roads which would become increasingly smaller and smaller, until we would reach the heart of our steep hillside town. Pausing halfway up we would stop and align the car, summon our courage, downshift into first gear, and say a prayer for our sideview mirrors as we sucked in our bellies, half closed our eyes, and squeezed between the narrowest set of buildings giving us just a 1 inch birth on either side of the car (tip: be sure to have car rental insurance), skimming through each time with thrilled and relieved screams of laughter. During the evenings we would fill our pitcher from the fountain, brew tea, and leave the front door open waiting for the neighborhor's husky to come by, appearing as a wolf in the doorway on first glance, always on the lookout for a head scratch and a snack.
Stopping by local bakeries became our forté, and we found our improving Portuguese combined with smiles and pointing to be sufficient enough at scoring a plethora of goodies. We kept watch for where people seemed to commune, and found when there were mini mercados with a small number of tables full of locals sitting about conversing and people watching, we would head in, usually coming out with an espresso and a handful of local pastries, which quickly made us loyal fans of Portugal's pastry scene, putting never-too-sweet goodies, like bolos de guardanapos (napkin pastries), and pastéis de nata (custard tarts) at the top of our list for daily accruement. We were always greeted with warmth and curiosity, and felt our presence was accepted at even the most local pit stops where we stuck out like sore thumbs. Traveling with children excited to try new foods and throw out a few 'obrigadas' and 'por favors' proving to be the best way to ingratiate ourselves wherever we went.
As our time in Portugal came to a close, we felt ready for warm beaches again, and heard Spain calling our name. We wound back to Porto, and did ourselves a great disservice by spending only one night in that charming, beautiful, low profile city. In our one evening there, we took Bourdain's advice yet again, and ate francesinha's at O Afonso's, followed by a newfound friend's recommendation of his favorite place in Porto, Lareira-Baixa, where we cheersed port tastings and goblets of sangria over sausages, cheeses, and delicious small plates, our children taking turns napping in our laps and hanging their heads out top of the dutch door by our table in the back, smiling and practicing their Portuguese phrases with passing strangers. The next morning we were off, bidding the magical soul calming pace of Portugal goodbye, and looking for more coastal adventures, warm hearted humans, and soul nourishing food by way of Spain.
Part II Spain, & Part III France, coming soon in upcoming issues of The Paper.
Enjoy our Portugal Playlist here
Beach & Travel highlights:
Zambujeira do Mar
Praia dos Alteirinhos: Chilly and at times rough waters of the Atlantic full of picturesque slanted cliffsides and rocks
Praia da Zambujeira do Mar: Zambujeira do Mar's town's beach. Best enjoyed with a cup of coffee from the cliffs above, strolling it's expansive wide beach, or wading into its long shallow calm waters.
Praia de Pedra da Bica: Beautiful and often empty, a 3 minute's walk from Luis' stay. Accessible by a steep staircase, surrounded by steep unroped cliffs. Take shade in solid rocks near ends of the shore, do not sit under crumbly cliffsides.
Praia de Nossa Senhora: An easily accessible beach with a restaurant/cafe overlooking the ocean, perfect for a day when lunches are not packed.
Mercado da Zambujeira do Mar: The town's fish & farmer's market. More expensive than mercados, this modest market is excellent for accruing fresh seafood and local cheeses, sweets, vegetables & fruits.
Padaria Augusto Ferreira & Filhos: Local bakery, arrive early in the morning in order to score local pastries. Loaves of bread pair best with local honey from the Zambujeira fresh market, or work equally as lovely as sandwich bread for beachside picnics.
Restaurant Rocamar: Best dishes include gooseneck barnacles, fresh seafood, cuttlefish stew & monkfish stew
Luis' farmhouse rental: rent here
Zambujeira to Algarve:
Fair do Cabo de Sao Vicente: a stop at the most southwestern tip of Portugal is typically en route to the Algarve, and serves as a touristy spot, but is an easy place to stretch your legs and grab a quick bite if you're continuing up or down the coast. More importantly, it's a wonderful spot to catch the roadside vendor selling warm nuts, if you're lucky. These roasted nuts serve as the perfect antidote to the wild and chilly winds of Sagres. If the nut stand isn't there, a roadside bratwurst from Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika may also do the trick.
Praia de Albandeira: Easily accessible beach via a small staircase in a medium sized cove with shady cliffs and sunny sand. Perfect for a low key day with other visitors. Includes seaside restaurant/cafe/restrooms, beach caves to explore, sea arches to admire, and lapping extremely calm water perfect for families with young children.
Praia do Barranquinho: a small and quiet beach that takes a little hiking to get to. The rewards? You may have to yourself if you're lucky. Go at low tide (as there is not much beach at high tide).
Praia de Marinha: Go at sunrise to avoid the crowds and have the magnificence of the beach to yourself, otherwise be ready to sit shoulder to shoulder all day.
Loja de Fabrica, a shop full of local Portuguese Pottery: Go to the top floor and look for the gorgeous pieces made specifically in Carvoeiro (check the back/bottom to see where they're made).
Mercado & Mini Mercado finds:
-Moroccan and Turkish dates: the most buttery melt in your mouth ones that are skewered on wooden kabobs in a tray.
-Loulé made Argarvia Batata Frita
O Trevo-- Bourdain footstep. Grab a beer and eat a bifana at the counter with mustard, you won't regret it. Cash only.
A Ginjinha Espinheira-- A Bourdain footstep. Touristy (and for good reason). Since 1840, these makers have been making Ginjinha, a traditional Portuguese sour cherry liquor that's aged over a year. It's worth the quick moving line to enjoy a taste (or two) or the delectible sour cherry liquor in their open air corner bar, with a couple cherries given to the children alongside a smile from the warm owner.
Azenha do Mar & Sintra:
A Prancha -- one of the best types of places to stop at for a quick casual meal: a small low key kiosk restaurant on the cliffs of the town overlooking the ocean. Owners offer warm toasties and crisps alongside heaps of woolen blankets to wrap oneself in. Best enjoyed on a slow morning with coffee or for a very casual dinner with a beer or glass of wine in hand taking in the view.
Antas de Mazes: Historical open air museum containing the ruins from the original town of Mazes. Be aware the dirt road up can be a bumpy ride.
Tele Bôla: Local pop-ins like Tele Bôla are aplenty in the Douro Valley, rewarding passersby with a variety of salty and sweet Portuguese treats.
Urbano de Resende Park: Douro Valley Playground with a spectacular view of the Douro Valley & River. Best enjoyed watching the children play with a box of local cherries in your lap (bought at a roadside stand) and a coffee from a local café.
O Afonso's: Bourdain's footsteps, order a francesinha.
Lareira-Baixa: perfect for an evening or afternoon of tapas and sangria. A warm, low key atmosphere, with the best seat by the back door on the bottom floor.