Introduction – Parque Natural Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina
The Costa Vicentina Algarve is the wild west of Portugal, with some of its most dramatic, unspoilt scenery and beaches, including some of the best places to surf in Portugal. It has protected status as part of the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park, which covers the coastline of the far south-west and western Algarve coast, as well as the coast in neighbouring Alentejo province to the north as far as Porto Covo. This feature covers the Algarve section, commonly referred to as the Costa Vicentina National Park, from Burgau to Odeceixe.
In the Vicentina coast Portugal has one of the least developed stretches of coastline in Europe. West of Lagos and Praia da Luz, the Algarve coast is exposed to the full force of the northern Atlantic Ocean. You won’t find the sheltered coves and spectacular rock formations you see on the much more popular central Algarve. Instead, you’ll encounter a mixture of vast empty swathes of sand or tiny inaccessible beaches, continually pounded by massive breakers, mostly backed by steep sloping grey cliffs.
This is an untamed landscape, wind-blasted and wave-lashed. It has exhilarating coastal walks, including most notably the southern section of the long-distance Rota Vicentina. The sights were amazing enough, but the sounds stay with me as much. One morning Faye went for a coffee in the cafe tucked in on the corner of Praia do Tonel beach, on the edge of Sagres while I walked halfway along the beach and found a sandstone sun-lounger of perfect length. I stretched out, covered my eyes and shut out everything except the mighty roar of the Atlantic, listening intently to wall after wall of white water smashing into rocks. My ears were still ringing with the sound the following day, just as if I had been to a loud concert the evening before.
The wild Costa Vicentina is very different in feel to the resorts of the Algarve to the east. It tends to attract the surfing crowd, though the word ‘crowd’ is misleading as there aren’t enough to constitute one. Conditions are often great for bodyboarding, windsurfing, and kite surfing. Costa Vicentina accommodation is sparse compared with further east. And whereas the likes of Albufeira and Lagos have multiple restaurants all with similar menus and touts vying for your attention, on the Costa Vicentina you’re more likely to find a beach shack, or a choice of a handful of restaurants. You’ll also need your own vehicle, whether that’s a car or a camper van, as public transport options beyond Sagres are very limited.
Costa Vicentina also has a fascinating history. Cape St Vincent is the south-westernmost point in Europe, and the horizon beyond which the sun set was considered sacred by the Romans. The headland and surrounding area were known as the Promontorum Sacrum, the Holy Promontory. The western Algarve is where Portugal’s first voyages of discovery were instigated by Prince Henry the Navigator. He was Governor of Algarve and lived in the region most of his life. He played a
major role in planning early voyages in small ships called caravels. During his lifetime Gil Eanes, a captain from nearby Lagos, sailed beyond Cape Bojador – another place believed to mark the end of the world, this time in the 15th century – and further down the west African coast,
Sagres and Around
The Costa Vicentina officially begins at Burgau and also includes the nearby Salema, a picturesque beach with a small harbour. These are comparatively developed in comparison with the coast to the west and north. Beyond here the beaches become more isolated – from gorgeous coves like Praia da Figueira and Praia da Ingrina to the beautiful open stretch of golden sand at Praia do Zavial, all with stunning clear, relatively calm blue water.
Sagres is the first place you reach with the wild, last frontier feel. It’s the most developed village on the Costa Vicentina, with a resort at Praia do Martinhal, and a sheltered harbour at Baleeira. However it all changes at the headland with the Fortaleza de Sagres, This fortress is sometimes described as the site of Henry the Navigator’s ‘school of navigation’ – he would certainly have spent time there planning these early voyages. This headland shelters the beaches to the immediate east, but here there is no escape from the Atlantic wind. The main things to see here are the medieval chapel and huge wind compass.
There are plenty of Sagres accommodation options, from the resort at Martinhal to Sagres hotels to campsites. It’s the biggest and busiest place on the Costa Vicentina, but to put it in proper perspective, it’s a backwater in comparison with the main Algarve resorts to the east.
Praia do Tonel beach sits to the north of the headland, and also bears the brunt of the wild winds that blow in from the ocean. It’s a magnificent place, with a wide expanse of sand and striking ochre cliffs with some sections eroded by channels of rainwater. The small beach cafe in the corner is a great place to contemplate the scene for an hour or two. The beach is also the venue for the surf school Sagres hosts Further up the road towards the Cape, Praia do Beliche is another fine beach that you can have almost to yourself, even in summer.
From here, the exposed N268 road continues the last mile or two to Cape St Vincent (Cabo de Sao Vicente in Portuguese) and its lighthouse. It sits at the top of rugged sheer cliffs on both sides, with sea stacks and rocky islets along the coast. It’s an unforgettable location with a strong mystique, like many ‘land’s end’ places around the world, and it’s one of the best Portugal highlights you should see. After all, in ancient times this was the limit of the known world, and it’s not difficult to imagine the awe and fear our ancestors would have felt watching the sun disappear from this remote place. Nowadays, it’s also the last place you can buy a bratwurst before America, as the sign on the little Bavarian sausage van says!
North of Cape St Vincent, you’re into west coast Algarve, and the start (or end) of the Rota Vicentina long-distance trail. The coast is so untouched along this stretch, with more popular beaches like Praia do Castelejo and neighbouring Praia do Cordoama having the only signs of any development – literally one cafe each. We’ve only done a few short sections of the coastal path in this area, and the scenery is simply mind-blowing – at some point we’ll be back to explore it more.
The Carrapateira surf is renowned throughout Portugal. Carrapateira is the first settlement of any size up the coast from Sagres and a minor road from the village leads to the two main beaches.
Praia do Amado is one of the most spectacular Costa Vicentina beaches, and one of the best beaches in Portugal. Amado beach has everything – magnificent cliff scenery, rocky headlands, a vast expanse of sand that never feels crowded, a seafood restaurant and a surf school.
And in spring, the carpets of wildflowers are stunning. We followed the track around from nearby Praia da Bordeira beach and stopped at one particularly beautiful viewpoint, looking over the top of some purple cliffs to the beach with the cliffs and mountains behind. There is also an evocative 12th century ruined settlement on one of the clifftops to the north of the beach, which was occupied for part of the year by seasonal Muslim fishermen.
The aforementioned Praia da Bordeira is a beautiful long beach backed by an immense expanse of sand dunes. When we visited it was almost deserted, save for a small colony of camper vans that had congregated on the edge of the sands. It’s a magnificent place to stop for a day or two and just wander the breathtaking coastline.
Aljezur is a pretty whitewashed town built on a hill and along a river, overlooked by a small hilltop Moorish castle. It’s the biggest town in the north of the Costa Vicentina, and is only a few minutes’ drive from the coast and yet more amazing unexplored beaches.
Praia da Arrifana beach is just to the south of Aljezur. It’s another lovely beach backed by dramatic cliffs, but it’s more sheltered than other beaches along this stretch of coast, so much so that it’s home to a small fleet of fishing boats.
Another road from Aljezur leads to the village of Monte Clerigo, which is huddled on a hillside and behind the vast beach. It’s backed at its northern and southern ends by cliffs, and by dunes close to the village. The view back down the road to the village and beach from the northern end is well worth the stop.
It’s a short drive from Monte Clerigo up the cliffs to the north, and a minor road to the left leads off to a cafe / restaurant with one of the best views in Europe – across the estuary of the Ribeira de Aljezur to the stunning Praia da Amoreira beach.
There are some fine wooden walkways down to jetties on the riverbank, giving tantalising views over the beach, backed by dunes and a single sloping cliff, but the only way to actually get there is by returning to Aljezur town and taking another road along the river, which takes you to the small car park and the solitary Paraiso do Mar restaurant. This end of the beach is
also great for exploring rockpools. The neighbouring beach to the north, Praia do Carriagem, is another great one for exploring, with lots of rock outcrops and pools along its broad sandy length.
It’s only ten miles – 16 km – from Aljezur to the Algarve’s border with the province of Alentejo province. Odeceixe is a few miles inland, a lovely whitewashed village with a small windmill on the hill above. It makes a great base for exploring the Costa Vicentina as well as the Alentejo coast to the north, and there are some great Odeceixe accommodation bargains to be had.
Praia de Odeceixe is the last outpost of the Costa Vicentina and Algarve coast, another spectacular beach skirted by an estuary on one side and cliffs on the other. It’s another fantastic location, pristine and unspoilt, with a couple of cafes and it’s h
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.