We’ve helped design three Slow Travel holidays for UK specialists Inntravel this year. All have the essential Slow Travel ingredients but there’s one other particular aspect they share. They are all near areas which are popular destinations and yet they fly below the radar of many British travellers.
When we spend time in a place which woos us, and which doesn’t get written about a lot, we find ourselves having somewhat of a dilemma. When a destination is bulging with features you know discerning travellers will love there’s an urge to share. But there’s also a selfish imp perched on our shoulders whispering ‘say nothing, keep it to yourselves’.
It’s not that Arrábida Natural Park just south of Lisbon is a secret; Portuguese holidaymakers know all about it. But, apart from a handful of more inquisitive travellers, other nationalities are generally conspicuous by their absence.
However, it’s too good a destination not to bring to the ‘right’ people, those travellers who will appreciate its copious qualities rather than just the Midas touch which draws many Portuguese admirers in summer months.
Here are eight reasons to discover Arrábida Natural Park
The beaches aren’t just good they are exceptional. Notice I say ‘they’. There’s more than you could flick a sand covered towel at. Nearly all are concealed within curving bays where the lush green foliage sweeps down to the sea, as though in a rush to claim a spot on those perfect sands. These praias are what most people know of the area and their exquisite beauty tends to blind many to Arrábida’s other qualities, leaving them exclusively for people like us.
Food for thought
Wherever we lay our hats there has to be damned fine dining in easy driving distance. We’ve had our taste-buds blown away by the gastro offerings in and around Arrábida. Friday lunches have become voyages of discovery, culinary journeys which have taken us from the traditional such as alheira sausages made from pheasant, quail, and rabbit to the contemporary – seared scallops served with goat’s cheese ice cream. On the coast, fish and seafood reigns whilst inland, grilled meats and gamey stews nudge their ways onto menus. Top dog though is choco frito, a fried cuttlefish dish which rebooted my idea of what cuttlefish tasted like. My name is Jack Montgomery and I’m a choco-holic.
Our cups runneth over
This is wine country. In some parts of Arrábida there are extensive vine armies marching across the hillsides. We have literally stumbled across adegas (winery) where we’ve been able to simply wander in and ‘discover’ smooth and fruity wines we’d not known about previously. In other cases adegas are difficult to miss; one has woad terracotta Chinese warriors guarding its entrance. The wine is generally dangerously drinkable, and also great value. The area is especially known for its Moscatel. As one waiter put it “if it’s not from Setúbal, it’s not Moscatel.”
And colourful flora
When we walked in Arrábida in May with our friend James from Inntravel, we explored a route which took us through fields of wild flowers and herbs to skirt a small lake. James remarked how magical the setting was. When he knew we were walking the full route in November he sent us a text to say he assumed the scene wouldn’t be quite as magical at that time of year. It was. Autumn colours added a fiery contrast to the intense green of the stone pines whilst the wild flowers had been replaced by a rainbow of berries – blueberries, firethorns, and holly berry-coloured spheres we’ve still to identify.
In a training session for Inntravel staff we described Arrábida as being rural but not remote. The ridges and peaks which make it stand out from the surrounding plains keep the bulk of the park concealed. In Arrábida’s heart it feels as though you could be miles from civilisation. And yet you can climb a ridge and, like magic, the sophisticated wine producing town of Azeitão appears. In Sesimbra, on the coast, a maze of cobbled streets weave past seafood restaurants where sardines and bream are grilled on barbecues cut into exterior walls, sending irresistible aromas on an easy mission to capture customers. On the eastern border Palmela, an historic town with an amiable working class vibe, lords it over the park. Each town has distinctly different and fascinating personalities.
Castles in the sky
Unsurprisingly for an area characterised by low plains stretching to distant horizons, where there are hills there are castles. Arrábida boasts three perfectly preserved beauties, all in commanding spots with expansive and, a neat trick considering the relatively small size of the area, wildly contrasting views. We applaud Portugal’s approach to these monuments to a past which is as colourful and rip-roaring as a series of Game of Thrones. Here castles are places to be enjoyed by all and so not only is entrance to them free, they have individualistic cafes/bars/restaurants in which to soak up local brews along with the heady ambience.
I’ve already mentioned the Chinese warriors and a bra and boot tree in a previous article. You can add to that the Virgin Mary riding a giant white mule; a palace belonging to the explorer who cemented Portugal’s position as a coloniser of the world; emu-following Vietnamese pigs (yes, you read that right); an abandoned house which once was the temporary abode of famous writers and the rich and famous; an over-sized grape fountain; a working windmill where you can still buy bread; and wild boars which, when they get too hot, join sunbathers on the beach. There are a few more curios we’re keeping under our hats.
Wild and wonderful walking
Putting together the Inntravel holiday meant spending time exploring most of Arrábida’s coy paths. As we pieced together a jigsaw of walking routes we crossed jungle like terrain; sauntered through cork forests; meandered alongside endless vines; traversed hillsides with views of a shimmering Atlantic; descended to fishing hamlets (for choco frito of course); climbed out of neat, pastoral valleys; walked on a pilgrims’ route over clifftops above dinosaur footprints; and found a bra and boot tree. Walking in Arrábida is a richly diverse experience.
I used the word coy in the first sentence because what few marked routes there were have fallen by the wayside. Waymarks are a rarity, faded remnants from the past.
Locals are forever telling us about visitors (Portuguese) getting lost in the park, which might sound off-putting to potential walkers (only those with no directions to follow). For us the challenge of creating especially unique walking routes (others we’ve done previously in other locations are also bespoke routes, but usually created from patching together sections of existing paths) has meant an even greater sense of achievement than is usual when we help create one of these ‘unique’ Slow Travel packages.
We chose this area to hang around in for the time being for a good reason. It’s special.