Our trusty app, Park4Night, has guided us to a parking lot nestled in the middle of a valley and moments away from a white sandy beach with vast boulders battered by the cold Atlantic. This parking lot is busier than some of the others. There’s a couple in their seventies who’ve closed up shop early in their rented van, two surfers enjoying a ‘roley’ outside theirs and a fully-fledged family of 6 in something that resembles a bus. Mom and dad look very free-spirited and the four kids run wild and seem happier than any kids I’ve seen in the city. A trio of three in their twenties come traipsing down the road just after sunset with backpacks, guitars and tents strapped to their backs, no doubt with their sights set on an evening of illegal beach camping. Like something out of the sixties, Portugal has a thriving campervan scene. Perhaps it’s the warm weather, entrenched surf culture, rugged landscapes and laid-back locals that attract people from far and wide to rent vans and hit the road for a taste of pure freedom.
Local in Lisbon
Our trip started in colourful Lisbon where we found a seafood restaurant situated in a square for our first dinner in Portugal. Whilst feasting on a simple plate of fried sardines and potatoes, we talked to a local couple sitting next to us. Keen camper-vanners themselves, they assured us that they’d never had a problem camping pretty much anywhere in the wilderness regions of Portugal. “You’re not really supposed to, but everyone does it,” they explained. Tearing off a piece of the paper table cloth, they drew us a map of the coast with recommended villages highlighted. That folded piece of paper turned into something of a navigational treasure map. We referred to it daily throughout our trip and planned our itinerary accordingly.
Southbound in our Black Sheep van
After collecting our Black Sheep van, which we named Matilda, near the Lisbon Airport, we headed to the wilder, more remote and popular-among-vanners Algarve Coast. Matilda was a beauty, offering everything we could have wished for: spacious seating, a fully equipped kitchen with basin, fridge and gas stove, storage space for food and clothes, a fold-up kitchen table, an outdoor shower fixture, a roof tent for sleeping and an indoor foldout bed.
The bustle of Lisbon with its seven hills, mosaic façades and seafaring history, was soon a distant memory as the road snaked past groves of lemon trees, houses with terracotta roofs and yellow window frames, and scented fields filled with pink flowers. The further south we travelled the more rugged and dry the landscape became. Rocky cliff faces gave way to secluded white beaches and for long stretches, the only signs of life were storks perched up on telephone poles. That evening our app led us to a parking lot next to a beach where we watched the sun dip orange beyond the horizon. As first-time camper-vanners, we had to get used to the idea that we’d actually be overnighting in such a perfect location. As darkness descended over the fynbos-like terrain, we prepared pasta over our little stove and enjoyed technology-free stillness, space and time.
The beach shimmered in the sunshine the next morning with not another soul in sight. Adam swam in the waves like a seal, while I stretched out on the sand with a few yoga poses. We made use of the public beach showers, before heading further south towards Praia da Arrifana, famed for its surf, dramatic views of cliff faces and a massive sea stack. On arrival, Adam promptly headed down the hill to join scores of other surfers in the water.
Later, we stopped in the nearby village of Aljezur, which came highly recommended by our Lisbon friends. Through its lush heart runs a river, which meanders past open-air cafés, red-roofed houses and surf shops. Here we enjoyed our obligatory daily treat: pasteis de natas, a much-loved and celebrated local tart filled with creamy custard and fringed with buttery pastry.
That night we camped between two hills overlooking the sea. After making dinner in the van, we marvelled at a sky ignited by stars and fireflies swirling through the quiet evening air. Before continuing our journey the next morning, I decided to brave sunrise with an icy shower using the handheld device connected to the water tank at the back of the van. Despite the chill, all was going well until halfway through… when the water ran out! At this very point I had lathered my hair into a foamy crown of shampoo and now had nothing to rinse it off with! I yelled to Adam who, half-amused, squirrelled around in search of spare water bottles. To my great relief, he miraculously produced just enough to save the day. After my hair-raising moment, we made a point of religiously stopping at the many petrol stations along the way to fill up our water tank (free of charge).
Following our somewhat crumpled handwritten map, our route took us back north for several days towards Porto. One night was spent on a long beach next to the secluded Santo André and Sancha Lagoons Nature Reserve where fishermen trawled up and down with torches till the early hours of the morning. On another occasion, a fellow camper-vanner ran into the sea for an early-morning skinny dip. Lunch stops were always about finding the perfect view. A highlight was eating fresh baguettes next to the turquoise Mira River flanked on the other side by a dramatic medieval town called Vila Nova de Milfontes. Here we gave a ride to a hitchhiker who planned on starting her own eco-village along the coast.
On another day we stumbled upon a treasure of a family-owned eatery named Taberna 2 a Esquina, situated in the historic river-side town of Alcácer do Sal. The friendly waiter brought forth plates of locally-produced olives and oven-warm bread; octopus salad drenched in olive oil and lemon juice, and pan-fried sardines served with pickled onions. It was culinary perfection!
Once we had driven north past Lisbon, the surrounding areas became much more built-up and not nearly as campervan-friendly as the south coast. Luckily, and because we were in a campervan, we never had to settle for overnight stops that didn’t tick all our boxes. One late afternoon, we followed Google Maps to what looked like a promising blue body of water. In our heads we imaged a beautiful lagoon where we’d set up camp, enjoy sundowners and possibly even a swim. In reality, the camping spot overlooked an industrial port and looked more like a junkyard. Without hesitating, we hit the road again until we found what was indeed a lovely lagoon, the Aveiro. Here we settled among shady trees and spent the next morning hiking along the banks, doing some birdwatching and appreciating the skill of kite surfers gliding across the water.
Finally arriving in Porto did come as a bit of a shock. We’d spent the previous five days virtually living in the wilderness and now we had to adjust to traffic, finding parking and negotiating crowds. Soon, however, we were dazzled by Porto’s many charms, from her narrow alleyways to her ancient churches famously adorned with blue and white mosaics. We admired spectacular vistas of the Douro River and found hidden squares with hipster-cool cafés. Our visit concluded with an architectural tour of architect Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica, a bold, modern landmark in the heart of historic Porto where theatre and music come together.
On our way back to Lisbon we drove into mountainous terrain and spent an evening in the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, a vast nature reserve. Unlike our other stops, this campsite had bathroom and shower facilities – a real treat! We slept blissfully to the sounds of a river running past and took our time the next morning, going for a hike among cork trees to the top of a mountain and then cooling off in a pond fed by a natural spring.
By the time our journey came to an end in Lisbon, we not only had impressive tans, but we felt like we’d been on holiday for about six months. By disconnecting from our phones and laptops for just a few days and reconnecting to Mother Nature, we had given ourselves the ultimate retreat. We learnt to appreciate the simple things in life: waking to the first rays of the day, swims in the sea, cooking by dim light and sitting quietly beneath a starry sky. Portugal with her relaxed approach, generous people and raw landscapes also happened to be the perfect hostess.
ABOUT BLACK SHEEP VANS:
Boasting 31 European agencies, Black Sheep is the answer to epic campervan adventures. You select your departure date and pickup point, select the van that suits your needs, collect your van from a convenient agency and enjoy the ride of your life. There are agencies situated in countries across Europe, including Portugal, Spain, Croatia, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Ireland. Campervans come in a range of models and sizes, accommodating from 2 to 5 people. Prices range from €52 per day for the 2-person van to €124 per day for some of the larger vans. Considering that this covers your accommodation and travel costs (plus an unforgettable holiday), we thought it a pretty good deal!
Tel: +33 (0)951 388815, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.blacksheep-van.com
GETTING TO PORTUGAL:
Black Sheep has agencies in Porto in the north, Lisbon in the centre and Faro in the south of Portugal with each of these cities boasting major international airports. Most flights from South Africa to Portugal are two stretches with stopovers in European cities like London or Amsterdam or via Dubai. As an added convenience, Black Sheep offers an airport pick-up and drop-off service from these airports.