What to Expect in Portugal
Having traveled throughout most regions of the world – including lots of Europe – I thought that Portugal would be pretty much like the other countries. I was wrong. Portugal is unique unto itself. Whatever you THINK you know about the world, and very specifically southern Europe – Let it go. Portugal is the oldest country in Europe with a very strong, yet humble, identity. People will say (in their out loud voices); “We are a small and a poor country.” While it doesn’t take all day to drive from one end to the other, Portugal is not small. And it is super rich in so many things that the hubbub of (most of) North America has lost. It is rich in tradition, culture and a history of exploration and discovery. Portugal has a wealth of regional delights including food, wine and celebrations. We live close to the land and the sea. We know where our olive oil comes from and the differences in each of the wines. The Portuguese know who they are. They have nothing to prove to anyone.
When I arrived in Portugal I thought I understood how doors and windows were hung – not here! I thought I knew how to keep my home cool and the flies outside – nope! I thought I knew how to drive on mostly empty country roads – wrong! Even the way in which a house is painted is different. No huge drop cloths and a myriad of supplies and equipment, yet completed efficiently and beautifully.
Everything is different. The simplest example is this… I’m driving on a seemingly empty road many kilometers/miles from anywhere and I come upon a stop sign. In North America I might very well roll on through. Not in Portugal. Why? Because way more often than not, someone will come whizzing by. Even if it’s an open field in both directions, vehicles seem to pop out from nowhere. So now I come to a complete stop, look carefully both ways, and then get to it! No fiddle diddle because someone may be right behind me. Way out here in the middle of seemingly nowhere. Portugal remains a surprise.
Another example is the Black Pig Distillery. It’s in the middle of a Sobrero Herdade (read: cork oak tree farmland.) There’s nothing there except a garage-like building and a parking lot. It’s not near anything. There is no other reason to go to this area unless you live on a farm nearby. And it is one of the most magical places with actual black pigs and goats you can visit. It has an enormous deck elevated to the height of the Sobreros, and walking trails with hammocks along the way to stop and read or take a nap.
Literally nothing in Portugal is like anything or anyplace else. Expect the unexpected. Expect to be surprised daily and just roll with it.
Here are some fun facts about Portugal, the Alentejo Region + Porto Covo in no particular order:
Driving in Portugal
It is much like driving in North America in that we drive on the right-hand side of the road. The highways are beautiful, easy to navigate and uncrowded.
Here are some major differences:
- NO FREE RIGHT TURN – When the light is red, everyone stops until it is green. Period.
- ALWAYS SIGNAL – When in a roundabout, changing lanes, turning, parking. Always.
- DRIVE IN THE FAR RIGHT LANE – On highways unless passing – and then SIGNAL. Always.
- STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS – especially in crosswalks. We are a friendly country with maximum respect for humans. Stop and wait. You have time.
- ANIMALS – Do not move how you think they move. It’s not just dogs and cats. Birds won’t move in time so slow down. They’re not used to traffic and many may be babies just learning to fly and navigate.
- On our road, the baby owls hang out on the road at night. They’re just babies and learning to hunt. You may need to stop and wait for them to fly away. They are in the middle of the road. DO NOT HIT THE BIRDS!
- Rabbits won’t jump to the side – they go down the road looking for the right spot and it may be 500 meters so slow down. Sheep, cattle and goats sometimes escape. Those pigs are not just barnyard pigs – they’re wild boar or Javali – and they will destroy you and your car so stay away.
- Bottom line: Slow Down, Stop and give all of the critters space. This is their home. We are mere visitors.
Portugal – Getting Here + Getting Around
To Lisbon: Many airlines fly from North America, Asia + Australia/New Zealand to Lisbon. This is the optimal airport for arrival from these continents. There are many ways to travel once in Lisbon.
Car Rental is easy and not crazy expensive. Driving is also easy once on the highways or country roads.
Driving around town in Lisbon (and Porto) it’s easiest to take a taxi or Uber because the roads are confusing and parking is either very expensive or impossible in both Lisbon and Porto. The price of parking tickets is steep IF you can figure out how to pay them.
Driving from Lisbon to Porto Covo is an easy 1-hour drive along a tollway (fee: 8ish euro + bridge 3ish euro) followed by a highway drive to finish on our country road 45ish minutes later.
There are very nice, clean places to stop along the tollway for snacks + meals, toilets, and a little walkabout. It’s a safe drive at night as there are assistance services if needed.
Driving Time to Porto Covo: 1 hour 45 minutes.
To Faro: This can be a good option for those within Europe, Africa, or coming from Madeira or the Azores. Faro is a big town with a busy airport where cars can be rented at the airport. All of the services are available in Faro which is on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea.
Driving to Porto Covo is more challenging as it’s mostly on narrow and curvy roads – some are bumpy in places. The towns along the way are quaint and scenic. Services are available during regular business hours. This means there are no services at night.
Driving Time to Porto Covo: 2 hours
As a reminder, all of Europe drives on the same side of the road as in North + South America. Those coming from Asia, the UK, and other locations, you know what to do.
Information about how to drive in Portugal + rules of the road are above in Driving in Portugal.
Getting to Porto Covo:
Car Rental: All of the major brands are at the Airport – Hertz, Avis, Alamo, etc. In the summer, I have waited up to an hour at the counter to be assisted and have heard of longer wait times from others. The process is quite manual regardless of your status with the company. I have status and have waited a long time. It is that cumbersome and there are that many people. Think of an ocean of families all hot and bored with babies, dogs, surfboards – and very limited internet connection due to the incredible number of people.
There are many other brands available off-site, yet near the airport (7-10-minute shuttle drive away.) I have personally had the most success with Drive On Holidays. Their cars are new, clean and available. Their systems are much faster because they have their own internet connection (vs relying on the airport’s outdated and overtaxed system.) I’ve waiting, yes. But not nearly as long and the cars are right there. No need to traipse through the entire airport parking garage, etc.
Bus: There are busses that come to Porto Covo. The fee is 17ish euro per person each way. They are comfortable and easy. Here’s the thing… You NEED A CAR once you get here. You can reserve a car here locally (in Sines – one stop / 15 minutes before Porto Covo) for when you arrive if you don’t want to drive down.
If you’re meeting friends here, then taking the bus is ideal.
IF you are a very experienced bike trekker, then MAYBE it’s ok to bicycle. The roads are narrow with many hills, curves and bends. The trucks are too big for the roads. People drive fast. Once off of the main highways, there are no shoulders and no services for bicycles. As you can see, bicycling is unfortunately discouraged.
Another non-motorized option is trekking along the beautiful trails designed for hiking.
A beautiful way to see Portugal – and very specifically the Atlantic coast – is via the Rota Vicentina. The Historic Trail goes right through my land. If you want to start, stop, rest, or simply trek a portion of this fabulous trail, the Mermaid Retreat is an ideal location for you!
If you’re with a trekking group, you’ll arrive at the Mermaid Retreat from Cercal right around lunch time. You are welcome to stop and eat here or we’re happy to prepare a lovely lunch for your group if we know in advance. In any event, you’re welcome to stop, rest, and enjoy a beverage before continuing your hike. We may even have some cake or cookies available.