Going off Road to capture the Raw Beauty
A van breakdown in Portugal almost scuppers their travel plans
Column by Jo Gregory
Standing on the water’s edge watching surfers battle with the waves I turn to my husband Tom and asked “Shall we swim?” but the ferocious and freezing Atlantic doesn’t quite have the same appeal out of a wetsuit. I’d love to try surfing someday, however with extremely decent two euro wine on tap and all the bread and cheese one could wish for, I’m sure I’d sink straight to the bottom of the unmerciful ocean. We’ve been stopping at a few beaches as we’ve made our way down Portugal’s west coast, the roar of the water became the soundtrack to our quiet nights in the van.
We headed for praia da Ursa, a wild but stunning paradise in the National Park of Sintra. As we amble off-road, potholes and rough terrain make for a slow and bumpy ride. We rock side to side, our hanging plants bearing the brunt of our misplaced decision to take the dirt road. Brambles screech as they scrap the sides of the van. But as we emerge, so too does the jaw dropping landscape ahead. Blue skies and sharp peaks are interrupted by deep aqua coloured sea. We park up, the van blanketed in dust and begin our hike to the beach. As someone who is scared of heights, the uneven rocks and sheer drops make it an interesting descent. It’s at this point I realise why we took out travel insurance. After half an hour of pigeon steps, we’re greeted by a secluded, unspoilt beach. Calm waters brush against the Palaia coves, a colossal rock named the Giant towering above. We paddled into the icy waters and took a moment to absorb our surroundings. A couple playing guitar and a few nudist fishermen are the only people we have for company.
The following day we head to the Pena National Palace. It was our last day of sunshine before storm Emma raged on what should be warm and sunny climes at this time of year. The castle sits amongst Sintras mountains and the romantic 19th Century monuments have resulted in its classification as a World Heritage Site. We spend the afternoon soaking up the last of the rays, strolling around the incredible Palace gardens. Two hundred hectares of exotic trees and narrow paths make this place a majestic labyrinth.
Our final day of sunshine in Sintra was sweet, the two weeks that followed were not! Persistent rain and high winds forced us off the coast, and we took refuge in a campsite to the east of Lisbon. We’re running off solar power and without the sun, we can’t charge anything, which would make for some very long days in the van. So we hooked up to the campsites mains electric and whiled away the hours watching documentaries on Netflix (Wild, Wild Country being a favourite) playing chess, cooking and reading. But after a week the romantic camaraderie began to wane. The van sprung leaks, our boiler failed again and we couldn’t venture outside for fear of getting drenched. Being holed up with anyone for that amount of time is testing.
As cabin fever set in, we decided to move location and parked up in a little fishing village called Alvor on the south coast. The place served our rainy days well but after a rare walk on the beach we returned to find that our beloved van wouldn’t start. It was an anxious time trying to get it sorted, made trickier by language barriers and unhelpful insurance companies. At one point we thought it was going to take three weeks to fix which meant scuppering our plans to meet my father in Seville and no doubt a hefty bill. However, the heaven sent mechanics managed to bring her back to life, just as Storm Emma passed.
We hit the road again and headed for a sunny few days in Seville. Coincidentally it was Saint Joseph’s Day when we were there and the place came alive. Streets lined with traditional brass bands and bars buzzing with locals. It felt good to finally be out of the van, meeting people and joining in the local festivities. The people of Seville are just as warm as the suns welcomed return on our faces. We sit in a bar telling my father tales of our adventure over a glass or two of sherry. It reminded us that our first month of nomadic life has truly been an eventful but brilliant one. In some ways, I think our fourteen days holed up in the van did us good. It toughened us up for what lies ahead and made us into a stronger unit. And as the weather begins to warm and our grand plans of exploring Spain becoming a reality, it’s made us appreciate that even when it seems like it’s all going to pot, something amazing is waiting around the corner.