Experiencing Portugal’s wild coast comes at a cost, and that toll can’t be paid to fancy resorts or humble campismos. To truly experience the wild coast is to feel the winds in your face, stand on the dramatic cliffs dropping dangerously to a boiling sea, and expose yourself the elements. The land is hardened and rough covered in a tapestry of leathery plants when covered at all. The wild coast is solitude Crumbling buildings leave a tale of those who tried to stay and tame the western edge.
Up and down the coast, and across the country for that matter, are campgrounds. They are good for a hot shower, but mostly we find them soulless repositories of lost dreams. This time of year there are few campers, maybe one or two or a handful each evening, but the majority of business is in the heat of the summer supplemented by year-round camper “cabins” (now empty), but well entrenched into their 40 feet of space. We imagine the family gatherings, the escape from the city, the place to get away from it all, except it is right next to the person trying to do the same thing. These aren’t places we really want to remember, but places we often sleep none the less.
After such a campground in Porto Covo, where we pay our 13 euro to pitch our tent on a scrappy piece of ground, and for the countless time, the toilets have no seats, the camp sites have no tables, the staff has no humor, we decide we need to work at NOT being too near a campismo as night falls. The alternative, of course, is to hide away, or do as German camper vans do and park anywhere they like for the night.
The next night we approached the porta das barcas (boat launch), noted on our hand drawn map, through the nearly empty vacation villa wasteland thinking once again we would need to head to the campismo with no other option in sight. We had all but given up on finding open land for our tent when a high bluff with a few rough trails and land tracks to the edge of the cliff appeared. We pedaled off the asphalt following the dirt tracks until a perfect bare patch of ground opened up on the very edge overlooking the tiny fishing port below. This patch of land on the edge of the world became our home for the night. We watched the sunset over the sea so close we could touch it, and while there would be no hot shower, there would be the crashing sound of the surf unbuffered by fences or buildings – no walls to fence us in or the elements out. We had broken free.
The next evening we once again found ourselves leaving a small village and easy campismo in time to search for our own secluded hide-away. Something of a dirt track lead into the woods and then into the sand dunes beyond. It held promise and Willie went to explore while I stayed with our bicycles. On his return he tells me that he found a place in the dunes, but it’s a hike … through the sand. We push and pull and eventually carry our bags and bikes up the last pitch to the top of the dunes, before settling into a tent-size landing nestled between two protective mounds. It’s more effort this half kilometer into the dunes than the entire ride for the day.
The view is stunning. The Cabo Sardao lighthouse is far in the distance and we can admire the coast line we traveled that day – the most spectacular four and a half kilometers of wilderness we have every traveled, anywhere. The white washed village of Zambujeira do Mar before us like an oasis in the desert. Perfect calm as we pitched the tent and enjoyed the sun setting over the ocean.
The sun sets early these days, and with it drains all warmth. Most nights we dive into the tent and wrap ourselves in down sleeping bags – we affectionately call pleasure pods – even before making dinner. It was a brisk night like may others, but for being completely alone and completely surrounded by sand and dunes. The nearly full moon was on the rise.
Some time in the night the wind whipped up and sand pelted the thin nylon membrane that protected us from the harsher elements. Rain and wind wrestled our little tent for hours. There is no sleeping when the rains and wind come. The sound is disturbing, loud, sometimes fearsome. The sides of the tent heave and bellow and threaten to sail into the wind leaving us exposed and vulnerable. Naked. We’ve spent many such nights on this trip. We can feel fortunate that rains have come mostly at night, but that also means we mostly don’t sleep and merely wait out the storm.
Times like these feel more like payment for getting to experience the great splendor of mother nature. It’s both sides of the coin.
The storm on the dunes turns into a frenzied wind that eventually whips the tent fly stake from the ground. Willie and I had been sitting and watching both sides of the tent heave and strain for the last half hour or so, when he sensed his side giving way and grabbed it at the last minute. He held on tight on hands and knees for an interminable time waiting for a pause long enough to reestablish the stake in the sand. Praying the tent doesn’t rip.
Exposed, vulnerable, cold. All we can do is wait for a sunrise we hope will calm the angry winds and give us some relief.
We had seen the most spectacular, raw coastline of anywhere on the planet the day before. We had snuggled together behind a small rise to enjoy a lunch thinking this is the last, most beautiful place on earth. Was this now the price we pay for such a privilege? It’s a worthy price. A sleepless night appreciating how insignificant we truly are. The wind, the waves, the rock, the sand, the cliffs have stood the test of time. We can at least hold vigil through the night.