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Getting to know the neighbours

Alentejo is littered with hundreds of small wineries and farmsteads offering tastings and authentic accommodation.
Alentejo is littered with hundreds of small wineries and farmsteads offering tastings and authentic accommodation. / SUR
  • Planning a springtime road trip to Portugal could be your antidote to lockdown cabin-fever

This year has obliged us all to create coping strategies for lockdowns, confinement and travel restrictions. With bars and restaurants closed, weekends see me honing my skills at cocktail making and losing myself in films. Sci-fi is my guilty pleasure, but my restlessness has also drawn me to re-watch some classic road trip movies.

The appeal of hitting the road without a truly fixed itinerary is compelling. It epitomises freedom - the liberty we used to take for granted, yet now feel we've lost. I can't wait to get back out, although I'm not looking for the intensity of experiences in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, and I definitely don't want to end my trip as Thelma and Louise did in Ridley Scott's cult film!

However, it's true that the thought of once again enjoying freewheeling freedom and indulging my wanderlust, is keeping me sane during these autumn weeks of confinement. Some of my most memorable trips have been on the road, from taking the Pacific Coast Highway down to Los Angeles, to navigating the dusty tracks of Argentina's northern Salta province, towards Bolivia.

Iberian adventures

Yet we don't need to travel long-haul to find adventure. In fact, we don't even need to take a flight, as Spain and Portugal is a dream destination for road trips, with kilometres and kilometres of memorable highways that span some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

Heading for Portugal is a favourite. Within just a few hours you're entering another country, a different culture and the promise of new escapades.

Once you cross the border from Andalucía, pause for a night or two at the belle époque Grand House Algarve Hotel in the town of Vila Real de Santo António. In the past I'd continue along the A22 motorway and not stop until I reached Tavira. But I was missing this interesting former frontier town that faces out over the broad Guadiana river. Santo António shares the same 18th-century Pombaline architectural style of the Portuguese capital. It's evocative of Lisbon's elegant Baixa centre, since both were rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami by the dictatorial Marquês de Pombal.

The Algarve is known for its weatherworn cliffs and glorious beaches.

The Algarve is known for its weatherworn cliffs and glorious beaches. / SUR

Alluring Algarve

Since Vila Real de Santo António was the first town Spaniards from Andalucía would reach after taking the ferry, it was designed to appear impressive. The main street looking out across the river to Ayemonte is a row of elegant houses with extravagant glass windows. The streets hidden behind are humble but now filled with interesting shops and market stalls selling more than you can imagine, from Portuguese towels and linens, traditional cataplana cooking pans, to even singing pet canaries.

For a leisurely coffee or drink, visit the smart main square, the Praça Marquês de Pombal, framed with period buildings, lined with orange trees and paved with distinctive black and white basalt and limestone mosaic tiles, typical of the country's 'Calcada Portuguesa' squares, promenades and pavements.

For an original experience, enjoy a visit to the nearby salt marshes of the Sapal de Castro Marim Nature Reserve. Salmarin is a family-owned business that continues to harvest the flor de sal from water that naturally evaporates in salt pans dug out within the marshlands. Owner Jorge shares his passion for this most artisan of products and invites visitors to try the delicate pyramids of salt, learning about the different varieties that are prized by gourmet chefs.

Then feast on huge Atlantic carabineros prawns cooked on a bed of salt, served with local goats cheese and over-sized juicy beef tomatoes. It will change your perspective of salt for ever.

The Algarve will tempt you to stay longer. From Albufeira to Lagos you can find plenty of places to stay, as well as eat well - most within steps of the weatherworn cliffs and glorious beaches that stretch on for hundreds of kilometres.

Sleepy Alentejo

Getting back on the A2, heading north will take you through part of Portugal few discover in depth - Alentejo. The motorway could lead you to Lisbon in about three hours, even less if you drive as fast as the Portuguese.

But this is a road trip, so exit the highway and take the minor roads. You will be surrounded by countryside that is littered with hundreds of small wineries and farmsteads offering wine tastings and authentic accommodation, surrounded by nature.

Alentejo has understandably emerged as Portugal's slow travel destination, a place of sweeping fields of wheat, ancient cork oak forests, olive groves, and vineyards. It feels Mediterranean with its dry heat, scents of rosemary and pine, and luminous white villages.

If you head north to Lisbon via Alentejo's coast, then on the way home, take time to just meander and maybe get a little lost in the heart of this region, discovering your own route south through the countryside and medieval villages (and don't miss the magnificent medieval town of Évora).

West coast highway

Portugal's wild west coast is Europe's answer to California's Pacific Coast. From Porto Covo there are by-roads that will take you all the way north to Comporta and up to Lisbon. You pass lagoons and remote beaches, lined with dunes, pines and surfers' campervans. It's perfect for hiking, or simply chilling and enjoying some of Europe's best sunsets.

In the coastal village of Porto Covo, look out for the Alma Nomada restaurant. It's a strange location, by a camping area, but here you'll experience some of the cuisine and wines for which Alentejo is renowned. Expect traditionally inspired dishes like a shoulder of Alentejo pork, and Blue Fin Atlantic tuna, each paired with wines from some of the region's independent producers.

The unmistakable Lisbon skyline

The unmistakable Lisbon skyline / SUR

Lisbon is close, so there's time to continue on the backroads through the Arrábida Natural Park before joining the highway over the iconic 25 de Abril suspension bridge crossing the Tagus river into Lisbon.

City of Light

Lisbon needs little introduction. One of the oldest cities in Europe, bathed in brilliant Atlantic sunlight that ricochets off the river and ocean, Lisbon is not only renowned for its vintage trams, pastéis de nata cake shops and melancholic Fado clubs - it is also a nexus for creative start-ups, and contemporary European urban life.

The chic streets of Chiado, the buzz of Cais do Sodré and the historic sights of Alfama and barrio Alto are among the most popular parts of the capital. But I'd suggest also discovering the north east of the city centre, and the Parque das Nações area.

Redeveloped for the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition, this architecturally striking new quarter gives a thoroughly modern view of Lisbon. Myriad by SANA hotels is a landmark property at the heart of this Expo '98 'park of nations' and offers design accommodation and a Martín Berasategui restaurant - all with the most extraordinary views across the city, the Tagus delta and the impressive Vasco de Gama bridge.

It's a reminder that this is a maritime city and the best perspective is undoubtedly from the water. So, it's time to leave the car and instead board a boat.

A sunset river yacht cruise will leave you with lasting memories of this romantic capital, an unpredicted highlight of the trip. There's the other great appeal of a road trip holiday - expecting the unexpected!