I flew to south Portugal at the end of march 2017, after my american debacle and three weeks of comfortable numbness in London.
What I found there has lifted my spirit to unexpected heights.
In Portugal everything feels easy. It’s a really safe Country, life is quite cheap, and food portions are generous to say the least. You order an octopus salad as a starter, and they put a whole kraken on your table.
It’s not as cheap as Greece, but compared to Greece you feel like you’re treading on a much more solid ground. The Country’s economy is small, but it feels like it’s moving forward. Just two small examples on the subject. First, the internet speed is mind boggling. Who would have thought that in such an unassuming and sparsely populated place I would have engaged in a game of testing the speed of every public wifi, every router in students’ houses, and my cellular connection on deserted beaches to find speeds regularly in the hundreds of megabits…
This is the internet speed in my habitual hostel (33hostel in Ferrel)
If after spending a holiday in Portugal you’re forced to go back to, say, Germany (Europe’s locomotive as they call it), you’ll feel like you’re back to the Middle Ages. The second detail worth mentioning is how new and shiny rental cars tend to be, despite the fact that there is probably no Country on Earth which is cheaper for renting than Portugal. If you don’t believe me, just check the prices on expedia.com for cars rented at the Lisbon airport.
For this beauty (with glass roof) I paid 35€…for 9 days. In total!
Of course it doesn’t end there. Another startling fact about this Country is that I can easily imagine myself living indefinitely in more than one of the hostels I have slept at. Or at least for three months for each year of my life. They tend to be incredibly nice places, in every aspect. The owners take fantastic good care of them, and effortlessly create a pleasant family atmosphere that becomes the yardstick by which you measure every hostel experience in other Countries. Nice furniture, clean bathrooms, very well equipped kitchens which are a joy to use (no small detail for an italian), and lovely couches to socialise with fellow travellers or to quietly look at the pictures you shot during the day on your Apple device of choice.
33Hostel in Ferrel, 2 km from the beach of Baleal
All this great package usually comes at a very low price, among the lowest in Europe. If you want an exact figure, I’d say you can get by easily with 120€/week for a bed in a very nice dormitory, with all sorts of amenities in the common areas, and breakfast in the morning at no extra cost. The ocean is in walking distance or something like that.
The places I visited are, in chronological order, Faro, Lagos, Lisbon, Peniche, Nazarè, Porto, Ericeira, Coimbra. But no fear, I haven’t started this blog only to be the n-th person to scream to the world how interesting and vibrant and cool Lisbon is. Frankly I found the capital to be quite underwhelming and soulless, at least compared to the ultra-hyped version of it that tourists describe. Maybe it was also my fault (I have frankly lost the ability to fully enjoy most big cities), but I didn’t find anything inspiring to do there, and I felt that everything was catering to tourists. At the end of the day I think it can’t hold a candle to Porto, which felt to me much more of a place with a life of its own, where I could easily feel a part of. It’s cheaper too, much more walkable and in general more lively, especially in the evening.
It’s also the birthplace of the francesiña, one of the most insanely naughty dishes of the whole planet (not exactly sophisticated but definitely fun to try), inspiring you to take challenges like “if you can eat it in 5 minutes it’s free”. And of the bifana, a sandwich with spicy pork that melts in your mouth that you can buy for one euro (in Porto at least), that’s so quintessentially Portuguese that you can even get it at the local McDonald’s. Yes, of course it’s called McBifana.
I was not blown away by Faro. Faro is the capital of Algarve region, and if you’re flying to south Portugal that’s where you’ll have to land, but despite being the capital it’s much less exciting than the neighbour Lagos. On high season that’s probably a blessing, but at the time of my visit (end of march) it was dead-ish. I adored the hostel I stayed at though (Casa da Madalena), and praia de Faro (the main beach) is rather spectacular and absolutely immense. The problem is that it’s not in walking distance from the town. Faro isn’t built by the sea but by a lagoon, so to get to the ocean you need a 20-25 minutes bus ride. Another problem with the beach is that it’s mostly a shore break, so surfing and in general frolicking in the water is tricky business. The town is cute enough but after 48 hours you definitely run out of things to see.Praia de Faro
Coimbra on the other hand is mostly a student city where for some weird reasons students don’t seem to go particularly wild. Being italian, when I think of a student city my mind immediately goes to Bologna, which, apart from the weather, has got it all. Spectacular architecture, world class food, and life life life life everywhere in the historical centre. Compared to this, Coimbra doesn’t really register on the radar.
Ericeira felt to me like a place that you can enjoy IF you’re a pro surfer AND you’re not travelling alone. The surfing spots are not really suitable for someone that’s still learning, and everyone eager to change my mind on this will have to erase from my memory the terrifying experience of surfing at the spot called Isla de Ribeiras, where insane currents were constantly pushing me to ride my board in 20 cm deep water with nothing but rocks below me. I never kept my centre of mass so low in my life, praying the flying spaghetti monster to not lose my balance.
Back at the hostel, there wasn’t much of a vibe going on, and I couldn’t help but notice that the town was littered with couples. Frankly, my best memory about Ericeira is the cuttlefish weighing more than 1 kg that I had the privilege of eating at the grill in the Intermarchè supermarket, with potatoes and broccoli, for the ridiculously low price of 6 euros, water included. There’s no way that they made any money on that transaction.Seriously…wtf
Ok, the list of the uninspiring place is finished. Apart from the already mentioned beautiful Porto, I have saved the best for last. But being this the blog of a man who recently got irreversibly addicted to surfing, I must warn you that my enjoyment of the next places is strictly connected to this “drug”.
Lagos is the place where I acquired the healthy addiction. After spending one week in the very central Olive Hostel, which is a fantastic place with a family atmosphere where I managed to accomplish a lot of work of my own (I was basically working, eating, and playing with an adorable german 4 years old kid), I moved to Algarve surf Hostel, which, as the name suggests, is basically a place where aspiring surfers eat and sleep and frolic after the very physically demanding lessons. And it’s a fantastic place for doing all of those things. It’s got one of the best equipped kitchens I’ve ever seen, a massive living room where working on a laptop is a pleasure, a pool, and being populated mostly by surfers you’ll spend time at the beach with every day for a week on average, it feels a bit like the college you never went to, minus the books.
A pool is a pool
The surfing lessons actually take place far away from the town, because Lagos doesn’t reliably receive swells that can be surfable, and is actually one of the few places in Portugal where you can simply go to the beach (it’s got many and they’re quite scenic) and swim without much fear of getting wiped out by a wave. The surfing school is located 40 minutes away, on Praia do Amado, where you’ll be taken every morning by van.Praia do Amado, the classroom
That’s the place where I faced my demons, where I let go of my ego and where I brute forced my brain into finally forming neural pathways which would be conductive to performing a balancing act on a flat object sliding on turbulent waters. It took me two whole bloody weeks to master the stance that every surfer must have if he doesn’t want to hopelessly fall from the board two seconds after jumping on it. And that’s probably 12 days more than the average time a normal human being needs to learn the basic movements of surfing. I don’t know why I decided to persist so stubbornly, because that’s not something I have done many times in my life, but I will eternally be grateful to myself for really giving it more than one go. The environment surely helped. As I said it felt a bit like going back to school, except that I really enjoyed the subject, the teachers, and the class mates. Their average age was probably only slightly more than half of mine, but blending in was never an issue thanks to my still very elastic skin. And nobody complained when I jumped naked in the pool at night after losing a table tennis related bet.
When you spend time in a hostel you sort of give up on privacy, and that may sound like a hefty price to pay. But honestly you can’t have it all: apart from privacy being more expensive, it usually means isolation. And if you travel alone, isolation is surely your enemy number one, because it can destroy you brain chemical balance in no more time than it takes to binge on the first two seasons of Breaking Bad. And at the end you turn into Walter White, with everybody hating you.
And then there’s Peniche. Peniche is a very small peninsula one hour north of Lisbon with a town sprawling on it, which can get waves from all sides and as a consequence is basically a collection of surfing hostels, schools, rental shops, and a flagship Rip Curl outlet. It also features a spot (Supertubos) severe enough to be one stop of the World Surfing League.
And three km north of Peniche there’s Baleal, an even smaller peninsula with some urban development that cannot be called a town, and which is my logistic paradise for surfing. On every day that I don’t have to spend working on my laptop, I can get to the spectacular and duplicitous Praia do Baleal after 3 minutes of driving in my flaming and ultra cheap to rent Fiat500. I park and I immediately drink my coffee in the cozy Bar da Praia while assessing the waves.
I then rent my board at AlexSurf, I smash myself for 2-3 hours in one of the 4 spots I can access in walking distance, take a cold shower on the beach, get changed using the boot of my car as a receptacle for my scanties, eat the best tuna steak I’ve ever tasted at Taberna do Ganao, go for a walk and take pictures of the place and the girls who populate it. I then have another coffee with a pastel de nata at the supermarket/bar on the main road, and finally drive back to the aforementioned 33Hostel, ready to plan my evening cooking for me and for some german/dutch (there’s more northern europeans than portuguese in Portugal) who got lucky enough to be invited to try my beans soup (there’s time for modesty and time for hubris).
At least at this point of my life, I don’t dare asking for more.
Except that I want to see some stupidly big wave with my own eyes, and just get mesmerised by them and take pictures. And for that all I have to do is keep an eye on Magicseaweed.com to know when some serious swell is going to hit Nazarè, and then just drive there in 45 minutes from Baleal. I shall totally ignore the town, head to the lighthouse, and behold the magnificence that nature bestows on us mere mortals a few times each year.For reference, those black spots are jet-skis
I became aware of the existence of Nazarè in 2012 and since then I must have spent weeks worth of my time on Youtube watching those humongous waves foam like giant rabid dogs. They are so much bigger than any wave you can realistically witness in your life that they seem to move in ultra slow motion, spitting so much mist in the air that, in order for me to show them to you without making you fear a sudden cataract, I have to brutally cheat with Photoshop Camera Raw’s settings.
On the right, the original picture before the de-haze treatment
The fact that there’s people actually riding those waves, which can occasionally reach 30 meters in height, and that they normally don’t die doing it, has the ability to shift perspective on how our lives can be lived. Not necessarily barely escaping the grip of a monster like these mavericks do, but at least having a metaphorical taste of the same salty air. This, I think, is the real treasure I found in Portugal while walking on its dramatic rocky cliffs.