The Costa Azul

What you are missing if you just drive straight to Lisbon

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

South of the autoroute to Lisbon, with the best exit at Palmela (site of an excellent castle pousada), lies a peacefully beautiful terrain called by the tourist authorities A Costa Azul.  It’s really a peninsula, the Arrábida, lying between the Tagus and Sado rivers and the Atlantic. The key towns, Vila Fresca, and Vila Nogueira de Azeitao (another name for the region) are only 15 miles from Lisbon on the map, but seem really far away; outside the villages, you see only stars at night.

The Azeitao offers wonderful seafood in mostly unprepossessing restaurants, fantastic ceramics, under-appreciated wines, and a fair amount of history. There are grand Moorish castles.  Many of these military constructions have been turned into elegant inns, or Pousadas, to the astonishment of their former lords if they could return; one, which has been left as it was when the former lords departed, overlooks the sea at the fishing village of Sesimbra, and is gloriously lit up at night.  Ancient palaces, churches, estates, and so forth abound, many filled with beautiful tiles, generally in states of decline, sometimes graceful, sometimes not.  While we wandered we had small snacks during the day.  Most little bars had display cases filled with local cheeses, Setúbal Moscatel (which is very good, not like the moscatel that has become a generic term in the US for cheap sweet wine) and bread.  And such wonderful bread.  Strong and chewy, full of holes in the texture, with a good yeasty taste. 

Tiles, or azulejos, are one of the signature items of Portuguese culture.  In this area there are places that make the tiles just as it was done in the 16th and 17th centuries, the only concession to modernity being the non-woodburning ovens (hardly enough trees left now in any case).  It can take many months to produce a tile.  Whole panels are done, sometimes using designs copied from antique panels.  Fascinating to watch.  Try the Sao Simão workshop in Vila Fresca de Azeitao, where the owner will give you a tour of the operation.  Other workshops nearby also make dishes and jugs by hand as in centuries past.  El Azetuna in Vila Nogueira has a very good selection of both.

We also visited the old cellars of a Vila Nogueira winery, Fonseca (which makes Lancers and many other labels as well), now modernizing (but keeping the old part as a museum).  We were the first and only visitors for the 9:30 run.  The building is faced with beautiful old tiles, and behind are peaceful gardens.  They do not have a restaurant or shop (except to sell a few of the handmade tiles, and their own wine - from the postcard counter).   Doubtless more commercialization must come, but we enjoyed it as it was.  Similarly, the visit to the old palace apparently named after a cod-loving owner, the Quinta da Bacalhôa, consisted of just us, without any guide, wandering through the gardens and the tiled summerhouse, and was much more interesting than the standard tour with a memorized spiel.  That particular palace has the oldest tiles in Portugal other than those in the national Tile Museum...just out there in the garden house, 450-year old tiles.

The drive along the upper road of the national park on the southern side of the peninsula is reminiscent of the California coast, with plunging cliffs overlooking the sea. The ancient monastery here now belongs to the Fundaçao Oriente, and can be toured (in groups of eight, by prior arrangement, and with a Portuguese-speaking guide); it has wonderful views from its very austere rooms.  Later we took a side-trip to Setúbal, another town with a castle pousada (this one built by Philip II to intimidate the Portuguese during the time of Spanish rule, 1580-1640).  Here the boats come in to deliver fresh fish, some of which we ate at a restaurant just behind the docks (O Grelhador da Doca; Rio Azul is another good choice), and here there is a ferry across to Troia, a little-frequented peninsula which reportedly has 19 miles of beach, and sand Nags Head before the crowds got there!  Hotels on Troia are few and far between, and there appear to be no discos, though there is a golf course; and so the crowds stay away.  Which sounds like a perfect reason to go.

We arrived in the Arrábida peninsula from Madrid via Evora, a Portuguese town with a Roman temple in the center and a Romanesque cathedral, sadly “baroqued” on the inside, and another church with a fantastic if literally horrible ossuary, a chapel completely made of bones, the arches of the ceiling being highlighted with skulls.  The motto over the door was “We bones here are waiting for you.”  (The purpose in building the chapel was religious but the feeling now seemed out of kilter as the tour groups took photographs and joked about the bones.) Evora has lovely curving streets, mostly too small to drive on, and many fine buildings - which are astonishingly different from those in the neighboring areas of Spain.  Some of the curlicues on the eaves are reminiscent of the Cape Dutch style of architecture in the Cape province of South Africa.  Many buildings are whitewashed with bands of vivid color around the base and the doors and windows.  Some of these bands are in fact carved into the plaster of the building and then painted.  The impression is almost Caribbean.

We stayed outside the town at the Evora Hotel to have the advantage of a swimming pool, although there is a fine (and more costly) pousada right in the center.  We had the first of many excellent Portuguese dishes here, from a large buffet - I remember especially the marinated garbanzos (grão) with coriander (used a great deal in Portugal) and the marinated black-eyed peas (known as friar beans), plus the wonderful desserts.  The next day on the way out we passed by the pottery market, a kind of ceramic buffet for pottery buffs or those who just cannot resist “stuff”. The pottery of this area is delightful, some almost surrealistic: for example, platters in the shape of fish, with seductive fuschia lips, covered with splashes of tropical fruits.

On our return we went again by Evora, where the navigator forced the driver to make another stop at this market.  We also found that the main street in town, 5 de Outubre, which is set up for pedestrians, has some very nice shops featuring different motifs on the pottery, not to mention some antiques.  Before we completely ran out of money we pushed on, south off the main roads, to the village of Monsaraz.  This is a walled town with whitewashed houses and a ruined castle, overlooking the plains west of the Guadiana river.  There is a fine little inn or Estalagem just on the edge of the town, 7 rooms (about $75 a night) and a swimming pool overlooking the valley (of very ancient habitation, nearby there are dolmens and other stone formations dating back thousands of years).  You can opt for hot-air balloon rides, fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, and a good restaurant, the Casa do Forno...not to mention that much of the pottery sold in Evora appears to come from a village (Sao Pedro) about five miles away.  Buy pottery and pay for your trip!

Practicalities:  Evora hotel: 351-266 73 48 00, fax 266 743 48 06; Monasaraz, Estalagem 351 266 55101 (Fax).

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.