The Costa Azul south of Lisbon is becoming one of the most talked-about tourist regions in Portugal. Paul Rouse finds out why.
It might not be the new black, but Blue certainly looks as if it could be the new Silver.
The Silver Coast region to the north of Lisbon has become increasingly popular over the past few years, but now Portugal’s Blue Coast, to the south of the capital, is starting to garner similar praise for its unspoiled natural beauty, endless beaches, and charming towns and villages.
For those perhaps unfamiliar with it, the Costa Azul – or Blue Coast – is the corner of the Alentejo that takes in the Setubal peninsula, the Troia peninsula, and the stretch of almost undeveloped Atlantic coastline down to Sines, together with a hinterland that includes the towns of Alcacer do Sal, Grandola and Santiago do Cacem. Close to the capital and dissected by both the A2 motorway and the IC1 highway, the region is far from inaccessible, but has invariably been one that many visitors to Portugal will have driven through in the past, en route between Lisbon and the Algarve, without possibly taking the time to stop.
But things are changing. Troia in particular has recently hit a lot of people’s radar, courtesy of a series of luxury hotel, golf and residential developments taking shape there, and the Costa Azul region as a whole is starting to be discovered by more adventurous tourists, several of whom go on to become property buyers in search of the excellent value for money, slower pace of life, and genuine feel of the ‘real’ Portugal that this part of the country undoubtedly offers.
Comparisons with the other more famous blue coast, the Cote d’Azur, are no mere fancy, as parts of Portugal’s Costa Azul bear more than a passing resemblance to the French Riviera – or at least the way the French Riviera must have looked a hundred years ago, before it became the playground of the rich and famous. That’s certainly true of the spectacular winding coast road out of Setubal that runs towards Arrabida and its 16th century Franciscan monastery, the Convento da Arrabida, which clings precariously to the hillside among the pine and cypress trees. Part of a national park and home to a wide variety of birds and wildlife, this particular stretch of blue coast looks unlikely to suffer the same fate as its over-developed and over-hyped namesake, leaving visitors to enjoy its quiet coves, sheltered vineyards and tiny fishing villages for years to come.
It is just one of many very different natural and man-made environments to be found in this diverse yet compact region, from the sheltered sand dunes and long white beaches of the Troia peninsula to the sheer cliffs and rugged promontory of Cabo Espichel, and from the hilltop castles towering above Sesimbra, Palmela and Setubal to the gently rolling Alentejo plains and the low-lying lagoons of the Sado and Mira estuaries.
As such, the region has a wide appeal, regardless of whether you are seeking the blue skies of summer or escaping the winter blues, with a mild climate most of the year round. Romans, Moors, the kings of Portugal and the industrialists of the 19th century have all left their mark here, along with farmers, fishermen, artisans and winemakers. And whilst a large part of the charm of the region is the peace, beauty and tranquillity that appeals as equally to naturists as naturalists, there is plenty to see and do, from wine routes and gastronomic tours to festivals, sports and a wide range of cultural and leisure activities.
The options are almost infinite. Play golf at one of five courses in the region. Go dolphin watching in Setubal Bay, or sailing, windsurfing, fishing, diving and water-skiing from any number of fabulous beaches. Try horse riding at Rio Frio or karting in Palmela, or take to the air in a balloon, hang glider or microlight. Visit Roman ruins, medieval castles, renaissance churches and baroque palaces, water mills, museums, craft shops and artisan studios. Book tickets to one of the region’s arts festivals, dedicated to film, theatre, street art, world music and jazz. Or simply relax on an almost-deserted beach, go walking through one of the nature reserves and protected areas, or indulge yourself in sampling the region’s fine wines and delicious cuisine.
The Setubal area is known to wine lovers everywhere for its famous Moscatel grape, and the fortified wine which bears its name. A wide variety of other excellent wines are also produced in the region, and a series of wine routes have been marked out throughout the Costa Azul, with recommended wineries to visit including Bacalhoa, Jose Maria de Fonseca and Quinta de Alcube, as well as the wine shop and museum at Casa Mae in Palmela, which also runs courses.
Regional cuisine is fresh, diverse and hearty, with local specialities including Azeitao cheese, rice and poultry-based stews, rabbit dishes, bean soups, eel, cuttlefish and oysters, and there is an extensive choice of places to stay, from small hotels, friendly guest houses and campsites to pousadas in Palmela, Setubal, Alcacer do Sal and Santiago do Cacem.
The most famous festivals in the region are the Grape Harvest in Palmela in early September, with parades, music and fireworks, and the Our Lady of Troia celebrations, in early August, when a procession of brightly coloured boats carry an image of the Virgin Mary across the water from Setubal to Troia. Numerous other events and festivals, running mostly throughout the summer and early autumn, help preserve local traditions and history, as do museums dedicated to everything from industrial heritage to the life of local-boy-made-good Vasco da Gama, who was born in Sines.
It might be some time before Setubal’s most famous son, Jose Mourinho, finds himself suitably honoured, but the Blue Coast, without doubt, definitely deserves the title of The Special One.
BLUE COAST FACT FILE
EAT: Angelus – traditional rustic fare in Sesimbra (+ 351 212 681 340); Copa d’Ouro – fish and seafood in Setubal (+ 351 265 523 755); O Solar do Canudo - Alentejan specialities in Santiago do Cacem (+ 351 269 826 403).
SLEEP: Pousada Sao Filipe, Setubal; Pousada Castelo de Palmela; Pousada Dom Afonso II, Alcacer do Sal; Pousada Quinta da Ortiga, Santiago do Cacem.
SHOP: Livramento municipal market in Setubal for fish, Fortuna Arts & Crafts Centre in Palmela for pottery (+ 351 212 871 068).
VISIT: Setubal for faded charm, Troia peninsula for unspoiled beaches, inland Alentejo for peaceful villages and landscapes, Sado estuary for bird-watching.