TIM MAGEE is captivated by Comporta, PORTUGAL’S POSHEST PENINSULA …
It’s that time of year again. Time to clip the last of winter across the ear. Time for warm thoughts. Time to head up to the attic, averting your gaze from the recently interred C-word decos. Time to avoid banging your head while you reach past the foot spa to carefully dust off the Holiday Machine.
Now, crack your knuckles and begin. Twist the Who dial towards Family Friendly, or in the other direction towards Courting. Adjust the Like slide-rule so that it sits equidistant between Tulum, Ibiza and the Hamptons. Turn the Foodie knob – it’s nearly always a knob – to Local Seafood. Flight time gauge set to minimum. Sunshine dial to maximum. Click the Vinometer all the way around past High to just shy of Hooped. Check that the noise indicators are near silent, put the dampeners on for crashing waves and clinking ice. Then roll your shoulders, shimmy your neck and pull that big golden lever hard. Watch those letters spool. The device should short circuit – it is a lot to ask, like flying a helicopter upside down, but it doesn’t. Instead the letters on the destination panel spin to attention to reveal C-O-M-P-O-R-T-A.
The device is sending you to a sandy spit of land in the embarrassment of regional riches that is Portugal’s Alentejo. Alentejo means beyond the Tagus, and beyond the Tagus is a magical mix of beaches, rolling plains of wheat and rice, vineyards and the cork to keep what comes from them.
Comporta is a white and blue-trimmed speck of a village at the tubby base of that spit. Comporta is also the catch-all moniker for the cluster of coastal villages on the Tróia peninsula that keeps being namechecked as Portugal’s best kept secret by the world’s biggest publications. So it’s rammed in season. Not rammed like tinned sardines but the few restaurants and fewer places to stay are full. The 60 kilometres of beaches not so much. Go for a day trip and you’ll get something lovely back in return. Stay just out of season and you’ll get everything and so much more.
The Holiday Machine sent me there late September, arriving on a little ferry full of locals legging it from Lisbon to Portugal’s poshest peninsula (say that twice and as fast as you can).
The ferry docks just past the Roman salt mines and you roll off and on to the road that dissects the peninsula. You don’t need a return ticket. It’s far quicker back by car – and you will need a car, mind. There are a handful of taxis in the area but getting one requires evening classes in tasseography and throwing chicken bones at a ouija board. The shock of one actually arriving is followed by the aftershock of the fare, priced according to the captive audience – an audience that looks like a casting call for a Ralph Lauren family summer shoot.
Comporta’s visitors may be spoilt but what they are arriving to is not. There’s an island feel and the land is still undeveloped. Apart from one seemingly stalled site, most of the building work comes from showy storks getting some respite from delivering babies in their mega nests on chimneys and telephone poles.
Most of the rest is as it was. A sleepy land of umbrella pines and cork trees, vineyards, electric green rice paddies and dramatic dunes split by sun-bleached woodland paths leading the way to wild beaches that look like they are created for the very first time every morning. Rice is a serious business here. They have their own rice museum, aptly named the Museum do Arroz Comporta, where you can eat every possible iteration of it.
Their cork farming is even more serious. Cork oak trees are hand-harvested. The harvesting of the thick, insulating bark makes the oaks look like abstract sculptures or as if they are donning leg warmers in a counter-intuitive effort to escape the heat. They don’t need to. This bark can take any bite that this world can throw at it and then some. The space shuttle Columbia used cork to heat-shield its fuel tank, cork that came from trees in Alentejo set aside for NASA. It isn’t the done thing but the next time you pop your bubbles let that cork fly in solidarity.
Cork oaks in different stages of undress decorate the Sublime Comporta estate. While the shiny Sublime looks like it is just out of its packaging, it’s so well put together from old things and natural things that the design operates like a cloaking device. The buildings melt into their setting so snugly that you could walk into a wall if it wasn’t for the floor-to-ceiling windows reflecting some sliver of man-made-ness.
As polished as the Sublime is, the first thing that will really get you isn’t the classy glassy camouflage, and isn’t from anything you can see either, but rather from that most powerful sense, smell.
The polar opposite to how Ireland smells now, a steady sun releases the oils and their perfumes from the trees, wild flowers and grasses that carpet the estate. A daily cycle of walloping smells where the spicy herby garrigue scents get stronger through the morning and after midday then hunker down and start to lay low, and then the sun sets over the pool and the trees before the fire-pit takes the night shift with its aromatic wood, and its crackles and pops.
Sublime has a somna-mbulistic quality that makes me sleepy just thinking of it. You might need cold water to wake you from your deliberate sleepwalking and Comporta’s beaches and beach shacks are just a few minutes away. Like Pego beach and the queen of beachshacks, Sal.
Seasonal and local really means something in this neck of the woods. The inky rice on your plate at Sal is from the nearby paddy. The cork for the rosé in your glass at Sal is as local as the wine. The seafood hails from just beyond the drum-roll and brass-band crash of the Atlantic, a single minute’s walk from your table. The childish, gurning game of cleaning your black-stained teeth with the rosé is a gift from me.
The Holiday Machine never lies. With seafood that beats the Med around the head, and a delicious new wine scene, Alentejo has everything, from the gorgeous Sublime to the ridiculous history of minding the trees that mind the spaceships. And Alentejo has its own song too, as Cante Alentejo has been designated by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – a serious local vocal tradition where groups sing about mostly sad things in an uplifting way. It’s a kind of polyphonic comfort eating. I have no idea what they are so sad about.
Tim Magee @manandasuitcase
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