It seemed too good to be true. Ahead of us was the unforgiving coastline of Atlantic Portugal with its steep cliffs and deep ocean canyons. Yet for the next six days, the forecast was one of mild-mannered seas and gently cooling evenings. The notorious Nortada, the wind from the north that had us double checking the diesel in our tanks in order to brutally bash our way to windward, seemed to have left on vacation. Like the angelic girl of your high school dreams, momentarily still available to join you on the dance floor, timing was critical. Fresh from our land pursuits, we hopped back onboard Sea Rose and exited Marina de Cascais, pointing our bow almost exactly north on the ship’s compass to the first safe harbor of Peniche. We didn’t want to show any disrespect to the weather gods for handing us this unexpected gift.
It didn’t take long before Cabo da Roca, that westernmost point of continental Europe that we had seen by car, to first come into view. My worries about the treacherous rock-strewn shoreline full of whipped up white water were all for naught. You could practically water ski on these benign ocean scapes.
The calm conditions made me feel like they should be put to practical use, and I took the opportunity to service the water maker in the hopes that it would run smoother. We were producing water, but not at the full flow rate it was designed for. I had been aware that the high salt content in the Med caused water makers to work harder to separate out the pure water, but now that we were in the Atlantic, the production rate had not bounced back up. People had warned us of the double-edged sword of a water maker – a tremendous convenience to not have to find clean water ashore, but a big step up in maintenance – so I had no one to blame. In the end, it was good to give the water maker a rest, as we passed several lines of mysterious green goo in the water, looking like a film scene gone awry from a Breaking Bad trailer!
Peniche was a rarity along this coastline, with its mini peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic and a protected southern harbor in the lee of the Nortada. We were by no means the first to recognize the benefits of this helpful geography. Numerous ruins of fortified walls and sentry boxes lined the perimeter of the town, and a healthy size of fishing and commercial ship repair businesses lined the modern day waterfront. Inside the protective harbor breakwaters, we were surprised to only find a few other active sailboats, in amongst several private – almost derelict – sailboats without masts and needing lots of TLC. Still, it was nice to feel safe inside the harbor as a threatening line of thunderstorms tried to spoil our view of the ball of fire setting over the horizon.
With many long days ahead of us, we took the opportunity in the morning to go for a long hike through town and out to the Cabo Carvoeiro lighthouse marking the end of the peninsula. It was a pleasant change to experience a town driven more by the local commerce of day-to-day living than the wallets of tourists. Those visitors that did stop here were likely not well-heeled in the figurative sense, but the practical sense. Just outside of town, Karen and I found the ‘Camino Atlantico’, a walking trail leading down to Lisbon, snaking its way right along the cliff edge providing panoramic views to the hedonists that choose foot travel over mechanized means. Appropriate for the Portuguese, the trail was marked by regularly spaced little fish profiles on posts. We would soon discover this camino was only the tip of the walking trail iceberg in the region.
Our walk around the peninsula gave us a clear view to seaward where the island of Berlengas resided in the close distance, eight miles away. Offshore islands are a rare sight along this coast, so it didn’t take too much deliberation onboard Sea Rose to choose it as our next destination.
From a distance, it looks like a barren rock with a simple white lighthouse, the Farol da Berlenga, on top. But just like book covers, islands at a distance can be mercurial. As we approached and anchored in water questionably too deep, we figured we could spend a few hours exploring the island before taking our leave, as most boaters said it was too rough here for an overnight. Directly in front of us was a majestic round fort, recently turned into a youth hostel. Had it still been armed with cannon along the castellated walls, it would have made short work of sinking Sea Rose.
The island comprised a landing dock for small tour boats and supply vessels, and a diminutive collection of cottages rising up the cliff, with a equally steep and tachycardia-inducing walk taking visitors to a vista and a single cafe with an enticing veranda overlooking the water. Rustic dirt sites marked out for tent campers, perhaps intended for the same hedonists that might travel the Camino Atlantico, appeared to be closed for Covid, but the little pocket village did not lack for commerce. Couples and families and kids of all ages swarmed the dock. One teen boy nearly landed in our dinghy as he tried to impress his mates by jumping off the rocks while we wrestled our way in to tie up. We took to a hiking path that traversed the spine of the island, ending at a large overhanging cliff on the south side, an impressive work of nature made more obvious as I flew the drone over what is named Cathedral Cove. Later, as we explored this spot in the dinghy, we found shallows disturbed by teaming schools of fish. Hats off to the Portuguese government for this well-established maritime nature reserve.
As we rested our hiking muscles back onboard Sea Rose, the calm waters seemed to beckon us to stay at Berlengas overnight. This was another gift the weather gods might snatch away if we weren’t quick enough. The last of the tour boats raced away to Peniche as we dinghied ashore again for a dinner date at the cafe. Every once in awhile, you get a chance to peek behind the curtain, and that was how it felt on this evening. Only one other dinghy tied up at the dock, with that couple joining us at an adjacent table. As the heat of the day gave way to a sky of sunset colors and cooler air, a few voices could be heard in the cottages, but otherwise it was mercifully still. The proprietors of the cafe, and a small gift shop nearby, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as the day visitors departed and they could have their island back to themselves. Our server was quick to profile us as the ‘boat people’, as we clearly weren’t local cottage owners. He proceeded to serve us up some of the finest fish stew we’ve ever had, made all the more favorful by the view over a harbor of dimming light and long shadows on the shore. Soon, a quorum of teenagers gathered at another table, not ordering anything nor bothering the owner by their presence. As teenagers tend to do, gathering and talking in that youthful time of uncertainty. Too young to order a drink, too old to hang out with mom and dad, and all the while bumbling over the boundaries between friendship and love. There are some days I don’t at all mind being 58!
The next logical place to stop along this stretch of the Portuguese coast is Nazare. While the weather seemed accommodating, we decided not to push our luck. We instead pushed 50 miles further to Figuiera da Foz. Literally translated as Fig Tree By The River, that romantic image is one of a bygone era. In the present day, pleasure boats have one option for an overnight stay, at the local marina. The river, draining water from the inland city of Coimbra that we had visited by car, makes for a tricky entrance into the marina, with swirls of water and eddies. Even once we were inside and approaching the fuel dock, a subtle but steady current pushed us sideways, causing us to narrowly miss the sharp corner of the steel pontoon.
In the morning, the waterfront was a buzz with vendors setting up for the day’s open-air market, giving us a front row seat to the curiosities of Portuguese trinket trade. The pots and pans, the ancient computer gear and stereos, the cassette tapes and albums – they were all indistinguishable from any other modern day flea market, and in that manner of predictability, a bit reassuring. Karen and I did find uniqueness in the local farmers market, however. Here, under a sturdy roof, accessible rain or shine and any season, was a collection of deliciously fresh fruits and vegetables the likes of which we thought we wouldn’t see again after leaving the sun bleached shores of the Med.
After unloading the loot back on Sea Rose, we were set to play tourist in this river town. First up was the Casa da Paco museum, a dutch villa renowned for its collection of tile. But it appeared to be closed for Covid. Next, we tried the Sotto mayor palace, but likewise it was temporarily closed. We then thought of renting a bike around town, taking the sightseeing into our own hands, but the self-serve kiosk wouldn’t recognize my credit card. Finally, we took a hint from a bunch of 30-somethings cruising around the boardwalk and decided to rent some scooters. The app wouldn’t recognize my phone number to register. At a loss, we settled on a stroll along the river and a pitcher of sangria. Some travel days are more fruitful than others.
With a full tank of diesel and more calm weather, we set out in the early morning light for our last long push along the Portuguese coast, to the city of Porto. We would have one more hop from Porto to the Spanish Rias, but this push to Porto was the last big one. The winds came up in the afternoon just enough to toy with us, but so did the ocean swell, making it difficult to hold the wind in our sails as the boat rolled. These swells continued past us to long sandy beaches that now took precedence over the earlier sheer cliffs. They crashed onto the beaches with bravado, adding to the sea mist surrounding us. Finally, we could see the entrance to the Douro River up ahead, where we would navigate for several miles inland to find Porto. This river is well known to be difficult to negotiate when ocean swells compete with the ebbing river waters. You can’t always time arrivals perfectly, and as we crossed through the breakwaters, the river was ebbing at a speed of at least 2 knots. Breakers and white water were covering the southern breakwater, encouraging us to stay focussed on the task of steering Sea Rose right down the middle of the river. Channel buoys were small and spindly, making them easy to lose in the background of the shoreline, but we continued to wind our way up river to anchor in a spot recommended by another friend of ours with a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 440. Right in downtown Porto, the channel turns to one side of the river, opening up space along the opposite bank for a maximum of 2-3 boats. Even though the current is strong here, and switches twice a day, you can swing without risk of hitting the river bank or other boats if all boats swing evenly together. Luckily, we had the secret spot to ourselves and got to enjoy the views of the Porto waterfront as the lights of the evening started to come up. We would spend a few days here, celebrating our ‘conquering’ of the Portuguese coast, and savor the delights of this incredible city famous for its Port wine and many more gastronomical gifts.