The Western Algarve and the Alentejo Coast

It’s taken an age to write this blog up, what with my fledgling fiction career kicking off and planning my wedding (this September!). But here we are. It was late February. A late Carneval this year and it couldn’t come soon enough. As ever, we had a precious long weekend, and so we decided to make the best of it. The plan was a road trip to Sagres, in the Algarve, and then to drive back up the Alentejo coast, with a stopover in Vila Nova de Milfontes.

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Despite being the end of winter, we were lucky enough to wake up to a bright, sunny day and so we jumped into my girlfriend’s car and hit the highway. It being a holiday weekend, there was a fair amount of traffic, but nothing too drastic and, some hour or so after crossing the 25th April bridge, we were a little peckish, stopping off in a tiny place in the Alentejo for a bite to eat. We rolled into a tiny village called Castro Verde and walked in what was by then quite blazing sun, to the top of the village and a restaurant called, simply, Castro.

Inside was a wonderfully experience, huge portions of outstanding food, with decent wine to accompany it and very reasonable prices. How I love Alentejo. I ate Carne a Alentejana, a pork steak dish, served with razor clams and, in this restaurant, a huge king prawn. Ana had a steak which was, happily for her, cooked rare. Both were delicious. We finished up with a toucinho do ceu (a heavy egg-based cake, that was a bit too much for me) on the part of my partner and a petit gateau with red fruits and ice cream for me. With wine and coffee, we paid a little under forty euros in total.

There was very little else to see in the town, besides an old building with a particularly interesting wooden tower as part of the architecture. After looking at this, we were back on the road and it was a full two and a half hour slog down to Sagres.

When we arrived in Sagres, it was late afternoon and, at the end of winter, in a place that is so far south, the sun was already setting. Luckily, that meant a spectacular sunset out over the ocean. Sagres’ location, at the southwestern most point of the country means that there is only perhaps 75 kilometres between you and the northern tip of Africa. Too far to see, but the water rolls away, seemingly forever, from the horizon. The Pousada (a traditional hotel network from the early twentieth century) is wonderfully located, right on the rocky cliffs. They’ve also made an effort to keep artificial light to a minimum, making for spectacular sunsets and starlight. The pousada itself is the long, low, white building, featured in many of the photographs.

After freshening up and a bit of a walk on the cliffs, it was time to go and find dinner. The only problem with visiting Sagres – really a small town, relative to its Algarvian neighbours, Lagos, Faro, etc – in the winter, is that many restaurants were closed. We hunted down a few which came recommended, only to find the lights out. Eventually, we stopped at a place called Restaurant Carlos, where we had a really excellent seafood rice to share, packed with crab, lobster prawns, clams and muscles and a refreshing bottle of white wine to wash it down with. This place was a little more expensive, but food and service were both excellent. After the meal we were given a complimentary shot of local acorn liqueur. I’m not sure I’d try it again, but it was an experience!

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Breakfast in the morning, at the Pousada was excellent, with homemade jams, cakes and more alongside the usual variety of international hot food, pastries, cereals and fruit. The coffee was also good, graças a Deus. I have no pictures, though. After breakfast it was a quick shower and then quite the agenda for the day. First was to explore Sagres and, specifically, the old fortress (fortaleza). We walked through the small town for about twenty five minutes to find the fort and the facade is highly impressive the moment you arrive. There is a huge space out the back with a lighthouse, rocky outcrops here and there which are dominated by local fishermen trying their luck and a small chapel, dedicated to ‘our lady of the sea.’

The fort is very cheap to enter and I hugely recommend it. There’s one more interesting thing to be found inside, which is a musical instrument, played by the sea. There are porous caves underneath the peninsula on which the fort and its territory stands so, using the force with which the tide pushes air through the rock, a channel was made a and huge wind instrument was built. You walk inside via a maze like path and then stand over a grate, where a low pitched, thunderous tone blasts you from below. The wind, as well as the sound, is quite something. Take a look at the video, below.

From here, it was back in the car to visit Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape St Vincent). It is the westernmost point of continental Europe and was a place where the Romans once thought you could sail off the edge of the flat earth and into oblivion. There isn’t much there other than a lighthouse, but the views up the coast into the Alentejo – our next destination – were more than worth it.

After a quick stop to look at some hand crafts, it was back on the coastal road, up to Vila Nova de Milfontes. There were no stops on the way, besides one to allow a farmer to march his cattle across the road. An hour and a bit later we were rolling into Vila Nova de Milfontes where we would stay for the night. We decided to explore the town a little, before dinner. The town is situated on the banks of the river Mira, immediately before it washes out into the Atlantic. The result is that there are beautiful river beaches, as well as a dramatic ocean beach, where the freshwater meets the ocean, sometimes violently. We stayed at the hotel Mil Reis, a small but immaculately kept town house B&B, right in the heart of the town. Our room was one of the smaller ones, but we didn’t plan to spend too much time indoors, so it was fine. We stopped in another local restaurant, where we ordered fresh seafood. In my case, fried monkfish and for Ana a seafood açorda, a dish with old bread, mashed up with vinegar, coriander and seafood. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.

The next morning, with better light, we decided to drive around the to headland you can see in the dark photo, to take a look at the beach. The tide was coming in as we strolled along, the speed of it nearly catching us out, so we had to dash back across and climb back to the cliffs. The force of the ocean coming in to the beach was really something to behold.

After our little beach trip, it was time to head home, but on the way, we had decided to stop at two places, the first of which was Ilha do Pessegueiro (Peach tree island). This is a place with great views, a lovely beach and the island itself, facing another, smaller sandstone fort. It’s a place so famous that there was even a song written about it. When we arrived though, a storm was brewing and seemed to have stationed itself directly over the island. It made for quite a dramatic effect. On the shore, next to the fortress, there are great slabs of volcanic rock from a time long ago in the past, with trenches carved into them. Whether these are man made or natural, I have no idea, but they certainly added to the impression the place made on me.

After a short time walking here, we were back in the car and up to our last stop before heading home to Lisbon – Porto Covo. I’d heard it was a beautiful place but I wasn’t prepared for the dramatic ocean that we would find there. We arrived some twenty minutes after leaving peach tree island and decided the first priority was lunch. We passed a few restaurants and decided to opt for Restaurante Zé Inácio. We were not disappointed.

We started off with some razor clams ‘à Bulhão Pato’ – it literally means quarrelsom duck, but that has nothing to do with it. They are served in a sauce of olive oil, garlic and coriander and, when they’re fresh like these were, it just works. For main courses we had some really outstanding steak, with excellent side dishes. As Ana was driving, she drank a coke, while I had a half carafe of local red wine (which was delicious). We both had dessert and coffee and the total cost was a measly forty-five euros, all included. We left the restaurant very happy.

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After lunch, it was time to go down to the sea. And what a sight it was. The town of Porto Covo itself is typical of its seaside location. There are the white and blue buildings, the wide, sea facing streets and the cafés, restaurants and boat hire places you’d expect. But the cliffs and the rushing ocean you see when you reach the seafront, you don’t expect. I’ll let the pictures and video speak for themselves.

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Can you find me in the picture?

After watching the ocean for half an hour, with the sun almost down, it was time to hit the motorway and head home.

This is a trip that comes highly recommended from me. It took us three days, but you could probably relax a little more, if you had a bit more time.

If you are interested in exploring Portugal or specifically the Algarve or Alentejo regions, I heartily recommend the guide books linked below. Any purchases made here will kick back a few cents to me for my next trip. Thanks in advance and happy travelling!

 

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Nazaré – Home of BIG Waves

This adventure should be prefixed by a little credit to my flatmate, Ricardo. Oceanographer, surfer, extraordinaire. Since we started living together in March, he’d been telling me about Nazaré and the waves. I’d read a couple of articles he’d sent me. I was impressed, but just not all that moved. Then I woke up one Sunday with an almighty hangover. Seeing me as a sliver of a shadow of a man with a headache, he made his move and put on the film about Garrett McNamara’s first trip to Praia do Norte and the North Canyon surf area. Since then, I haven’t shut up about wanting to go there. Fast forward about three months and I was in my girlfriend’s car passenger seat, excitedly anticipating seeing it for real. I should point out at this stage that I was not going to surf, owing to the fact that I swim ever so slightly less effectively than a brick, but with equal downward momentum.

The road to Nazaré from home, in Lisbon, is remarkably easy. You find the I-8 road and you keep on going. It has its sweeping turns, but is generally a straight road, and has some lovely countryside either side, dotted with windmills (the old and the new kinds), rivers and streams, and so on.

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On such a clear day, after less than ninety minute on the road, including a few minutes getting fuel, we were coming in to Nazaré itself. I had my google map at the ready, to tell us how to get to the hotel. We wound around tight little seaside streets, stopping to let the old folks of the town pass by as we did. Then, 2 streets from our hotel, we realised that Google were sending us on a path that involved going the wrong way on a one way street. We stopped for a moment, gathered our thoughts, and decided to approach from the sea road, to the south. That was all going swimmingly, when we found that the road was closed to accommodate a Christmas market. Finally, we called the hotel and received some advice. First, that we should just ignore the one way streets and go the wrong way and secondly, that the hotel’s parking area was attached to a partner hotel, which we’d already driven past twice. Fortunately, it’s such a small space, that this entire process took us only 10 minutes, so we laughed to ourselves and dropped the car off for the night. We arrived at our hotel, the Mar Bravo, which ended up being a lovely place to stay and very reasonable, considering its location and their rather good breakfast (more on that later). As we went up in the lift on very much the wrong side of the building, we wondered to ourselves how on earth we might get our partial sea view, and then I opened our window to be greeted by this:

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As partial sea views go, this was about as good as it gets.

With night falling rapidly – it is early December, after all, I managed to persuade Ana to take the funicular to the top of the cliffs and to walk down to the lighthouse to see the waves, even if in the dark. The funicular was open until midnight, even at this time of the year and we arrived with just 4 minutes until the next departure. We paid our 2.40 euros for the return journey and found a seat (after the ticket seller finished his cigarette). Priorities, you know? The ride to the top takes only about 3 minutes, and the view gets more impressive as you go up, but getting a photo is quite impossible, owing to the reed bed, growing alongside the car.

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Once at the top, at this time of the year at least, you are greeted by a slightly insane looking nativity set up. This is made slightly better by the abundance of country folk, who are essentially cowboys in this context. It feels a bit like a Playmobil acid trip, but is at least more joyful than a lot of the more sombre nativity set ups.

 

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But after leaving this technicolour model Bethlehem, the view down to the equally bright Nazaré seafront was quite spectacular.

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Walking on around from the miradouro, we found ourselves in the square of the church of our lady of Nazaré. It’s beautifully illuminated at night, and so we stopped to grab a few photos.

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Checking my google map, I could see that it was not very far from here to the lighthouse so, in spite of the now pitch darkness, I led my lady on the winding path down, alongside what we were later to realise was the steep slope to Praia do Norte on one side and a sheer cliff drop on the other. I used my phone as a torch, so that we weren’t mown down by the occasional cars speeding up the road. When we arrived at the lighthouse, we could see pretty much nothing apart from this sign, affirming the danger there, should we stray too far from the roadway.

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We stood for a few minutes, trying to make out the waves that we could hear so strongly thumping against the rock face below. But it became clear that we weren’t going to see anything that night and so we started to walk back up the hill to the funicular station. It was time for dinner. The hill up to the station was a lot steeper than I’d perhaps realised on the way down, so I was getting pretty out of breath. The cold air burned our lungs a bit and we were glad to arrive and head back down to the level of the south beach. We strolled along and stopped for an aperitif drink at a café while we checked out Trip Advisor recommendations for somewhere to eat. After some discussion, we agreed on the no 5 rated restaurant of the city, “A Tasquinha.” What an excellent decision it would prove to be.

We arrived, fifty metres up one of the streets running perpendicular from the beach front and found the place half full. Seemingly all of the clientele were Portuguese. A cheerful waiter showed us a few empty tables and we chose a spot in the window. In the menu they had a crudely taped photograph of an “arroz de tamboril” – monkfish rice in English. Both of us widened our eyes at the sight of it and we ordered two of them from the waiter, as he arrived with some bread, olives, butters and cheeses. He stopped us in our tracks, and recommended that, instead, we ordered one monkfish rice pot and a portion of fried king prawns, which were served around a portion of homemade Russian, as they call it here (essentially cubed boiled potatoes, coleslaw-ish vegetables and a creamy mayonnaise-based sauce). His suggestion sounded sensible and also worked out cheaper. We had munched our way through about 80% of the bread and the exquisitely marinated olives, and made a start on our drinks (white wine from Alentejo for me, 7up for her, as not much of a wine lover) when the mains arrived.

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The monkfish rice was full of king prawns, mussels, clams as well as the aforementioned monkfish and rice. The flavouring was tomato based, with fresh coriander leaf and black pepper giving it an edge. The flavours blended really well and even I refused the offer of piri piri when the waiter brought it over. That never happens. The service was exactly what we wanted it to be, attentive when required, but also gave us our space to enjoy the food. When we came to dessert, we were thoroughly full, so settled for just a couple pieces of fruit and a coffee. As we were leaving, fully intending to head back to the hotel, the waiter got chatting to us and asked us why we were there, how we’d got together and I explained that I was now rather rooted here in Portugal and planning to stick around. He then offered to tell us of a bar we’d enjoy, both for decor and music and directed us to the Trombone Voador – the Flying Trombone, in English. So we decided we could manage a drink before heading back.

It was only a couple of streets over and as soon as we walked in, we could see that it was a place that had been together with no small amount of love. There were musical instruments mounted all over the ceilings, the lighting was low without straining the eyes, and the bottle collection was impressive. Feeling incredibly British, we ordered two very different gins and relaxed at a comfy table. The barman took extreme care, as he added fresh fruit and herb leaves to skewers, tailored to the taste of the gins we had ordered, mine stronger and hers a little more delicate and fruity. On the tv and super high quality sound system we had a semi acoustic session video by the Goo Goo Dolls, followed by various acts from Jools Holland, which created a really nice ambience. Our one drink lasted over 90 minutes and I’d certainly go back and recommend it to anyone who visits.

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With our drinks done, though, it was a 5 minute walk back to our hotel, and for a good night’s sleep, ready to wake up early the next morning and go to see some waves. The rooms in the Hotel Mar Bravo were very comfortable, and we slept right through, starting our day with breakfast. It was a pretty good spread, with a variety of cold meats, hot scrambled eggs, cheeses, yoghurts and the usual breakfast fare. Astoundingly though, for Portugal, the coffee was from a diabolical Nescafé machine, and tasted as crap as you might imagine it did. Not to mention that it had no caffeine or awakening potency.

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Fortunately, though, my infantile excitement saw us through, and so we set off after breakfast, first to pick up the car and then to head back up to the lighthouse where we’d been the night before.

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Arriving at the lighthouse, we were delighted to see that the small museum there was open and so we were able to get some really nice views on to the ocean, both sides of the rock that juts out, holding the lighthouse in place between praia do sul and praia do norte. It was just 1 euro to get in and the exhibits there are very nicely put together, with displays on the history of Nazaré, as well as its more recent fame as a hot spot for tow in surfing and huge waves. While we didn’t see any of the monsters that made Garett McNamara so famous around these parts, the waves were still substantial, and the force you could see, hear and feel as the water crashed into the land was quite intense. In the pictures the waves look so small, but the smallest of them was around three metres, the average sized ones around six metres and the biggest we saw in excess of 10 metres. This video will perhaps do them more justice. The real shame was that there was no surfing happening, as I really wanted to see people, ant like in perspective, riding these monstrous waves.

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As time wore on, I had to return to Lisbon for work so, after a tactical stop in a café for a real cup of coffee after that dreadful nescafé rubbish, we were on our way. Just as my break seemed that it couldn’t have got any better, we realised that we were driving through Alfeizerão, the place where one of Portugal’s most famous cakes – Pão de ló – is very famously made. I told Ana to look out for any places selling homemade Pão de ló and, just as we were about to leave the town, we found one, so I managed to bring one back, undercooked, and creamy in the centre, for my colleagues to try. My first visit to Nazaré – but surely not my last – had been a great success!

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A First Taste of the North (and then a second, third, etc)

It’s probably clear from the various contents of these pages that I have what you might call a healthy interest in food. Some might call it a gluttonous obsession, but let’s save the character assassination for another day. While scrolling down my Facebook feed a few months ago, there was a list of “Pages you might be interested in.” Typically, the majority of these were for mail order Russian brides, some god awful musicians that would make me feel quite ill and there, shining like a beacon on the right hand side, was Street food fest. It’s a new concept here in Portugal, but one which I expect will expand rapidly, if this first example is anything to go by. Of course, on any of the big bustling street corners of downtown Lisbon,you can find stalls selling churros or farturas, but this idea of a whole festival devoted to street food is something new. I immediately decided I would go and clicked the little ‘like’ button.

Being someone who takes a half cocked over enthusiastic approach to things, I naturally didn’t bother to look into exactly where the festival was until much closer to the date, whereupon I discovered it was up near a port city called Figueira da Foz. A bit of quick research taught me that it was easily accessible from Lisbon and that a coach departed at a convenient time, right after my colleagues and I finished our Saturday morning work. Ideal. Accommodation was booked opposite the festival, bus tickets were reserved, and I – along with a couple of food appreciating colleagues – were to be off.

The day came and, speeding from my school on the metro to the bus station at Lisbon’s Sete Rios (opposite the zoo), we boarded the very comfortable Rede Express bus, and off we went.

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The route north out of Lisbon was lovely. The roads relatively new and tolled, meaning that there was little traffic and I was able to nap for much of the journey. The rest of the time was spent looking at the lush green countryside passing by, birds of prey soaring in circular patterns, and the interesting looking medieval town of Leiria, where we made a brief stop off. After a few hours, we were dropped off at Figueira’s bus and train station. We were almost there.

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Leiria and its medieval ruins. I'll be back here, for sure.
Leiria and its medieval ruins and old town. I’ll be back here, for sure.

At home, I had been sufficiently convinced by google maps that the destination for the festival, Quiaios beach, was within about 3 – 5km of Figueira itself. So we took out some cash at a petrol station and hurriedly hailed a cab. Some 20 minutes of speedy cab ride later, and we were rounding the last corner into the dusty drive of the Quiaios parque campismo. We walked in to the park and found people busily cleaning up reception. A lady called Sofia was extremely helpful in humouring our ill-formed Portuguese, before deftly changing to English as we were about to hit a brick wall. She showed us to our rooms, in a narrow hotel block which were unglamorous, but perfectly good for the asking price of 25 euros for a twin for the night. Across the way there were some odd looking toy town style houses, which we all admitted we’d rather be staying, but such is life.

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With our bags dropped and our faces freshened, it was time to walk back down the dirt road to the food festival itself. Inevitably taking a wrong turn, we ended up on a long stretch of road alongside the beach, where we realised just how close to the mountain range Serra da Boa Viagem we were. Very close indeed.

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After a bit of self-correction and a couple of turns, we found ourselves at the fest. It was already quite busy with people and a brass and drum band was playing pop songs in an upbeat and amusing way. The ambience was right, now time for the food. We started off with what turned out to be my favourite stall of the weekend – Sustainable Street Food. These guys were all about making high quality, fast food, with a limited menu, but providing a balanced meal in each case. Between us, we got through the vegetable fava – a curried twist on a famous, old fashioned Portuguese meat and bean stew, a deluxe prego, which involved marinated steak, rocket leaves, homemade chutney and shave parmesan on artisan bread and the veal rib sandwich, which involved chilli, rocket leaves, marinated veal met from between the ribs – extra tender, creme fraiche and a good squirt of extra hot pepper sauce. All three were excellent. This was all washed down with very cheaply priced Super Bock beer or a morangoska in the lady in the party’s case.

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After a pause to gather our thoughts, it was time to find out what was next. We considered a burger. We thought about a wrap. We even looked longingly at Porto chips. But then we came across a hot dog stand with a sign saying “cachorro francesinha.” The francesinha is a Portuguese sandwich that involves steak, ham, sausage, chorizo, cheese, bread, beer and meat or fish based sauce, a fried egg on the top and a second plate for chips. It’s so much that I generally only allow myself one every three months or so. So I had to ask what was in it. It was:

A hot dog, chopped chorizo, chopped bacon. The bun was then forced to close in a panini press, before cheese, and francesinha sauce were added. Finally, there was a tray with a space for crispy onions and finger chips. Clearly, we had to eat it. It was delicious, and made me feel like I would certainly live a few days less for the experience.

Francesinha hot dog - a beautiful way to die.
Francesinha hot dog – a beautiful way to die.

After that beast, it was time for a break from the eating, so we took a walk, with some more beers, down to the beach. It was a little cloudy, but it was clearly a really beautiful stretch of sand. The proximity of the mountains to the sea meant that cloud was constantly rolling down from the peaks to the beach so that, even on a fairly warm summer’s day, you could find yourself walking in cloud on the beach.

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Returning to the food fest, without our appetites restored, we stood by and watched as a local man proposed to his girlfriend with the help of the band (she said yes) and prompted uproarious applause and joyfulness, which coincided rather nicely with the opening of a stall ran by a man called Master Gin. Not wanting to take claims of mastery for granted, we dashed over to see what he could do. We each had a different gin, with a different accompaniment and all three of us were very happy. It was very dark by now, and we sat, listening to the music from the DJ, talking, sipping our gin drinks and eating chocolate iced orange love cakes from a vegetarian bakery until it was time for sleep. More accurately, it was time to listen to the mating call of frogs in the area for about an hour and then sleep.

In spite of the frog orgy, I managed to get an excellent night’s sleep and woke up to find a cool, crisp, but sunnier day, and we quickly sped off to the festival site to find some breakfast. The festival was closed til 11 though and, an hour short of that time, we decided to stop in the nearby café bar and deal with our breakfast needs. Galãos were drunk, pastries were eaten and time was passed until the festival gradually came back to life. After a brief hiatus, we returned to have a go at the gourmet burger van, Mister Pig. We scoffed our way through a burger with cheese, bacon, ketchup, mustard, excellent bread and some salad. After that, we decided to go back to the beach for a walk in the sunshine, after the previous day had been fairly gloomy.

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After a good hour of walking down this lovely, deserted beach, we moseyed back for one final meal, me going for a country chicken taco from the first van of the weekend, while my companions opted for the oat based cheesecake. After that, it was time to head back, so we called a cab and made the journey back down to Figueira da Foz. Once there, there was an hour before the guys got their bus, so we stopped in the station café for a beer, where the lovely barmaid was really helpful. Then, after the guys left, I went for a look around the town. I got the impression it’s quite an industrial town, from the heavy machinery in the port and from the real absence of people walking around on a Sunday. It took me half n hour to find somewhere to buy a sandwich!

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With my sandwich eaten and time winding down until my bus back to Lisbon, I had time to think about the weekend as a whole. One of the guys who was running the street food event had told us that 3 stalls had had to leave on the first day, as they had completely underestimated demand and sold out of everything. In spite of the quite remote location, it had turned out to be a really great event and, one can imagine, it would only get bigger for the second iteration in 2016. There is also a sister festival, with a lot of the same sellers, which takes place in Estoril, very close to Lisbon. Whichever venue, it’s a really nice day out and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on next year’s program. You can find more information about the festival (in Portuguese) Street Food Fest.

And, just as I was about to close this adventure without seeing a single cat, I ran into this little beauty (left) and was then photobombed by his friend.

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