Theo and I saunter along the road from Aveiro that crosses its wide, shiny, tame lagoon, and arrive in north Africa, or so it seems. We find scissored-leaf palm trees and heavy white sand dunes on the march, and the relentless wild rumble and roar of the unquiet Atlantic.
Portugal’s Centro region is baffling. It’s between Lisbon and Porto, thus easy to get to and easy to get around. It has peerless beaches, a treasury of gorgeous historic towns and villages, and endlessly lovely people. The pristine coastline, horizons and skies go on forever. Yet there’s almost nobody here. This isn’t spooky: indeed we feel privileged, transported to earlier, more innocent times when Theo was a kid and I was a new, naive dad. So we spend timeless days basking in the richness of space, and soaking in the luxury of simplicity.
The Costa de Prata, Portugal’s Silver Coast, stretches about 155 miles from Assenta, an hour north of Lisbon, to the mouth of the Douro at Porto. The few resorts along its length are low-rise and local, and retain their sense of working fishing villages. The stretches close to Lisbon get busy at weekends and holidays, so we hit the less-visited strands around Aveiro.
The beaches here all have names, but the coastline is an almost unbroken stretch of wide, white, bracing praia, pounded by the majestic Atlantic. This is not a sea for doggie-paddlers, but is ocean heaven for surfers and walkers, twitchers, idlers and all of us who crave the ionised air and space in which to find ourselves again.
North of Aveiro is the Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto, reached by ferry (aveirobus.pt) across the lagoon mouth, or a longish drive. Dunes roll wildly away into the silver surf-hazed distance. There’s a pelt of pine forest between the beach and the lagoon, where at Torreira the fleet of moliceiro fishing boats are painted in carnival colours. They have high, elegant 15th-century prows, crowned often with bunches of flowers or palm fronds, and are emblazoned with pictures of saints, including Cristiano Ronaldo.
People in Centro are friendly and frank. An amused, bantering fisherwoman tidying her nets tells us we’d be crazy fools not to eat at Vítor Alberto’s Onda Sol seafood restaurant, on Torreira’s pedestrianised main street. So we obey and duly suck on whelks and juicy garlicky clams and gorge madly (and cheaply!) on impeccably grilled turbot.
There’s a municipal campsite (+351 234 331 220) nearby, where wind-chimes of Super Bock bottles serenade a solitary lagoonside fisherman trolling for bass. Further up the coast at Praia do Furadouro, Cool and Sea Beach House (doubles from €40 self-catering) is exactly as its name suggests. Inland, across the lagoon, the town of Murtosa is home to the Comur canned fish factory and museum, where the lagoon’s famous eels reach their savoury end; we learn that Mussolini’s army marched on Murtosa tinned fish: “Halt! Or we breathe on you.”
Aveiro, with its two canals, is the Venice of Portugal. Here the moliceiros that would once have gathered seaweed to fertilise the sandy duneside fields, now harvest tourists. The old town is a gem, studded with sexy, curly art nouveau architecture plus all the bars and restaurants we need to refresh ourselves in. Our pick of the pack is the old-school, determinedly non-touristy Restaurante Zico followed by Milano across the road, where we had ovos moles de Aveiro (sugared egg yolk paste moulded in a fish or shell shape) and an ice-cream.
Which waddles us back to the palms and dunes four miles south of Aveiro at Praia da Barra. This stretch of coastline is dominated by its huge elastoplast-pink lighthouse. Its 272 steps can be climbed, but we stroll the dune-top boardwalk past tremendous bouldered breakwaters, leaving behind the beach shops, cafes and quiet buzz to slowly reach Costa Nova.
Here, the brightly striped palheiro (haystack) houses that were once fishing shacks are now mostly holiday homes and lets. In keeping with the resort’s simple vibe, Hotel Azevedo (doubles from €55 B&B) is clean, fresh, welcoming and utterly unpretentious. The wave-shaped lagoon-side tourist office (José Estevão 230, +351 234 369 560) keeps a comprehensive list of holiday accommodation, and there’s a cracking daily market selling slithering eels, sparkle-eyed fish, grill-ready meat, and properly fresh fruit and vegetables.
Heck, there’s even Bronze, a groovy beachside bar and lounge with great food, plus a light sprinkling of restaurants on the lagoon side – we loved the gargantuan eel stew and the seafood rice at Praia do Tubarão.
Further south down the coast, the houses and people peter gently out, as do our cares and inhibitions. There’s miles of beach hemmed with pine forests hazy with lavender, and the occasional dog walker, fisherman or naturist. The wild Atlantic thrum is urgently energising, and Theo and I, son and dad, young man and old relic, careless and carefree, race yelling up and down the dunes, as if the last 25 years were nothing at all.
• The trip was provided by Portuguese tourist board. with kind assistance from TAP, Hertz Portugal and Hotel Moliceiro, Aveiro
FIVE MORE ON HIDDEN GEMS ON THE PORTUGUESE COAST
Peniche is a darling fishing and holiday town, fringed with sandy beaches (my fave is Baleal) but a day trip to Berlengas island takes the (sea) biscuit. Ferries (€20 return May-September only, viamar-berlenga.com) leave from Peniche marina and transport you to a flower-decked world of lonely nature reserve trails, the redoubtable fort of St John the Baptist, and glass-bottomed boat trips to sea caves. There are two cafe and a municipal campsite (book-ahead only, +351 262 789 571).
World-class surf beach
Twenty miles north of Lisbon is one of Portugal’s (which means, the world’s) best year-round surf beaches. Foz de Lizandro, a 15-minute stroll from the town of Ericeira, hosts two international competitions each year but also has waves that even a creaky beginner like me could surf. Class act Rapture Camps (dorm beds from €29, double apartments from €110, surf lessons €30) has accommodation right on the beach, allowing you to check on the waves from under the duvet.
Rustic fish restaurant
Fifteen minutes from sophisticated Comporta, atmospheric Cais Palafítico de Carrasqueira is part-Treasure Island, part-Dickensian fishing village, where the shacks and crooked quays are rickety-built on swaying wooden piles and stretch like witches fingers out into the quiet estuarine waters. Rustic, real Rei do Choco (King of Cuttlefish) +351 265 497 170 cooks the just-landed fish and seafood.
Fun and frolics amid dunes
Bar do Peixe (+351 967 282 117), on Praia do Meco, Sesimbra, is the perfect fun beach restaurant. Exemplary fish, of course, plus a sheltered deck, bean bags, and the friendliest staff, creating the party vibe that welcomes the spectacular summer sunsets. Scoop some green argile clay for your facepacks in the dunes behind and lose yourself in the miles of sand and acres of flesh on this naturist- and gay-friendly broad strand.
(Almost) deserted island
€10 by ferry from Porta Nova pier in Faro, the island of Deserta is all beach. There’s peace here, a summer restaurant, Estaminé (+351 917 811 856) and one inhabitant, the fisherman who is the subject of Pedro Neves’ glorious documentary film A Raposa de Deserta (Desert Fox).