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Listen and subscribe to The Escape Routes podcast iTunes, Spotify or download on Android to hear UK editor Issy Von Simson on Comporta, Portugal’s coolest sweep of shore.
Some people will want to say Comporta in the same breath as Ibiza, but, really, they’re missing the point altogether. Comporta is not Ibiza. It is not St Tropez 30 years ago. It is not Montauk or Tarifa, Oualidia or Trancoso. On the global list of languid beach hotspots, the closest, most relevant where-shall-we-compare-it-to is José Ignacio in Uruguay, for that bleached-wood, barefoot, blustery kind of vibe, but, actually, it’s not that similar. Comporta strikes out on its own path. It is unlike anywhere you have been before.
The name Comporta, roughly translated, means a gate that holds back water, a lock. Which makes sense when you see how many canals there are. This is rice-paddy land. Great, stripey fields of rice, the biggest in Portugal, stretch all the way down the coast, sheltered from the stiff Atlantic breezes by sand dunes. They are kept green and bounteous by a crisscross of irrigation canals. In the heat of summer, when the rest of the country (bar the Algarve golf courses) is dusty and dry, this area still thrums with life.
Rice farmers have been in Comporta since the beginning of time, as have the fishermen and salt makers. They have shaped the look of the landscape in this part of Portugal, dotted with cork oaks, covered with glowing red poppies and yellow carpets of wildflowers, and conserved the unique architecture — small, low-built, thatched cabanas, hooped with tightly packed grasses from the riverbanks and beams of wood from the pine forests.
Sandy fields bulge with organic courgettes and broccoli and pumpkins as sweet as pudding. In high summer, makeshift stalls pepper the side of the road, piled with watermelons, artichokes, tomatoes that taste of sunshine. Knobbly lemons the size of grapefruit hang heavy from the trees. The ground pours forth flowers and vegetables and fruit. It’s hard to think of anywhere else so fertile, so abundant. Here is a rustic, fuss-free way of life. And it seems unperturbed by the nascent fair-weather visitors.
Comporta is a village on the west coast of Portugal, about an hour’s drive from Lisbon. But when people talk about Comporta, what they really mean is the region around it. The Herdade da Comporta is a swoop of coast between the Sado Estuary and the sea, 12,500 hectares comprising seven hamlets: Pego, Carvalhal, Brejos, Torre, Possanco, Carrasqueira and Comporta, too.
The area is well looked after, not only because much of it is a highly protected nature reserve (look out for huge nesting storks and flamingoes in the river), but because it is owned and managed by the Espírito Santo, the country’s leading banking group. These two factors have kept this slice of the Alentejo astonishingly preserved and pristine.
From Easter onwards, people descend from the rest of Europe in quiet droves to stay in the traditional but vamped-up, candy-striped village huts. The smartest families have rooted themselves in Brejos, where the Espírito Santo clan has a cluster of houses. Interior designer Vera Iachia is part of that dynasty and her collection of cabanas, with their polished-concrete floors, wood beams and cushioned day-beds, has set the tone. There are no gates, no tarmac, no high walls. Instead, sandy tracks lead from one unassuming cottage to the next. Their neighbours are savvy, connected Lisboans, Parisians, Brazilians. French designer Jacques Grange, German artist Anselm Kiefer and model Farida Khelfa (Schiaparelli’s new muse) all have houses here. Kiefer has two. The Casiraghis drop by in July and August to stay with Charlotte’s godmother, Albina du Boisrouvray, and Sarkozy and Carla have been spotted further down the coast near Muda. Everyone pootles around in beat-up golf buggies or Mini Mokes, or on sit-up-and-beg bicycles.
Where to stay in Comporta
Campo de Arroz
This wild stretch of Atlantic coast, an hour and a half south of Lisbon, spent generations unnoticed before being snapped up by Portugal’s most powerful banking clan, which ensured strict rules for anyone intending to build a house here. These days, a select band of architects are finding inspiration in the area’s unusual scenery – storks nest on every other telephone pylon – and the homespun vernacular of whitewashed fishermen’s huts and horizontal-striped, woven-reed exteriors topped with palm-frond roofs. Regulars will tell you that the best way to experience Comporta is to rent a house. And this one, a family-friendly project that sleeps 10, makes the most of its views over rice fields that flick from water-logged to luminous green as the seasons change. From the stripped-down main bedroom, which has poured-concrete floors, wooden ladders and shaggy, palm-fibre lampshades, there’s a view of the sunrise over the fields, punctuated only by the orange trees in the garden. Outside is a huge barbecue with a pergola-sheltered table, and a swimming pool to leap into. The other way, the dense forest backdrop is filled with umbrella pines and gnarled cork trees. Without this place’s sandy, wooden decking, it would be easy to forget it’s so close to the beach. But just behind the treeline are miles of unspoilt caster-sugar dunes. From Carvalhal it’s walking distance to Pego for lunch at Restaurante Sal, where locals pull on their Sunday best to feast on grilled fish, octopus-ink rice and endless rosé. This is a great spot to go off-grid in the same way the savvy crowd have been doing for decades. By Tabitha Joyce.
Address: Campo de Arroz, Rua Do Conde 52 4 DTO. 1200-637 Lisboa Portugal
Price: From about £390 per night.
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Quinta da Comporta
Until recently, there’s really only ever been one hotel worth considering in this region of drowsy fishing villages and surf shacks, and that’s a place called Sublime. Now to rival is this spot, created by Portuguese architect-designer Miguel Câncio Martins (Buddha-Bar in Paris). Paths wind through the sandy landscape, passing white, barn-like buildings – many of them former grain stores – that overlook the patchwork paddy fields and slim swimming pool. Their interiors match the landscape and are purposefully neutral, dominated by huge, reclaimed beams that were shipped over from Canada, and complemented with low-hanging, rope-tied Balinese lampshades that fill the double-height spaces. Bedrooms have a beach-house feel, with rattan rugs, more of those lampshades and lots of wood and wicker. The rooftop bedroom has two terraces, one that catches the morning rays, the other with views of burnt-orange sunsets over the fields. Portugal’s rustic Alentejo may seem an unlikely area for a full-blown spa, but the one here has ambitious plans to use rice much in the same way that French-based Caudalie has done with grapes. The ingredient is infused into treatments such as the lavender foot bath, and the hotel is creating its own products, enriched with rice-bran oil, which is very good for skin and hair. There are plenty of grains on the restaurant menu, too, including its own-brand Black Pig gin – try it in a cocktail made with passionfruit and honeycomb – and puffed crackers flavoured and coloured with squid ink, saffron and beetroot. And an organic garden will soon be adding to the kitchen’s harvest. This is a next-level arrival that never loses sight of Comporta’s breezy, sand-in-its-hair spirit. By Tabitha Joyce.
Address: Quinta da Comporta, Rua Alto de Pina, 2, 7570-779 Carvalhal
Telephone: +351 265 112 390
Price: Doubles from about £225
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The other way to really get under the skin in Comporta is to rent a villa. Founder of interiors store Homes in Heaven, Miguel Pires de Lima, has a spectacular party house, Possanco (from about £420 per night), made up of thatched cabanas centred around a sunny deck.
Comporta Concierge looks after two whitewashed charmers near Carrasqueira: one-bed Casa do Guisado (about £1,010 per week) and the much larger Casa da Silvandira (about £3,370 per week).
Nearer the river, there’s the often-photographed Casas Na Areia (from about £425 per night), owned by TAP pilot João Rodrigues. He enlisted architect Manuel Aires Mateus, shortlisted for the Mies van der Rohe Award, to breathe life into four traditional masonry buildings. The result is a thing of beauty: a clever mix of the old and the new, with muslin drapes, a deep Gervasoni sofa, anglepoise lights craning over the beds and tree stumps as side tables. Huge glass doors open onto a little slice of nature reserve. A pool, slim, sleek and narrow, with pale, pale water, is framed by thick-mattressed, charcoal-coloured sunbeds. The sitting room has a floor of sand. In the summer, the mini indoor dunes are perfectly cool underfoot.
Still few and far between are the highly designed modern numbers so prevalent elsewhere in Europe. The Herdade da Comporta has rigorous planning restrictions on what can and can’t be built within its jurisdiction. In Muda, about 10km south of Comporta village, the constraints are relaxed and the architects have run with it.
Enormous villa 3 Bicas (about £6,830 per week) makes the punchiest statement — about as far removed from a simple fishermen’s hut as possible, with towering glass walls, sharp edges and Eames furniture.
British company AB Villa Rentals also has a trio of state-of-the-art houses to rent. The two properties just outside Muda, Modern Villa (from £6,930 per week) and Design Villa (from £3,710 per week), are owned by a pair of Portuguese brothers and connected by a winding path. They are brilliant for families, with masses of crashing-about space, clipped, green lawns, large pools and light-filled rooms. Then there’s the Beach Villa (from £2,660 per week), all slatted wood and smooth stone, a curving deck and panoramic rooftop pool. It’s cool and current and slightly show-offy — floor-to-ceiling windows and look-at-me furniture — and a two-minute walk through the lavender and rosemary-scented pine woods to Pego beach.
New places to stay such as Gonçalo Pessoa’s Country House & Spa, a 14-bedroom guesthouse opening in late July near Carvalhal, and João Rodrigues’s planned small hotel in Comporta village are the start of a new wave.
But Aman Resorts has landed too. Adrian Zecha came here in 2008 with an Espírito Santo chairman and was smitten. Work on Amanduna, the group’s first hotel on the Iberian Peninsula, started in April, but everyone is fantastically tight-lipped about its development. The 40-room/36-villa property is taking shape deep in the forests just south of Carvalhal, with plans for it to be up and running for the 2015 summer season. The idea is that the hotel will position Comporta exactly where it needs to be. Though many would argue that this little Portuguese hideaway is very much in the right place already.
Standing tall against the low impact architecture, the Museu do Arroz (a 1950s rice mill) is hard to miss. British artist Jason Martin rents the atelier next door, a double-height workshop filled with his inimitable pieces. In the middle is a cubic sculpture of cork bark, compressed in layers, painted the rich, deep, cobalt Comporta blue, the same colour that you will see, over and over again, on shutters and doors and window frames. Martin, who moved here a few years ago, has big plans for his Arcadia project, south of Muda and where Christian Louboutin is his neighbour. He has a vineyard and hopes to produce the first bottles by 2015. There are olive groves, an art studio and a sculptural garden. It’s a grand design that will be, in his words, Barbara Hepworth-esque in its set-up. Martin is here because he thinks this is the last Wild West of Europe. He may very well be right. But perhaps not for long.
Where to eat in Comporta
Days here are unhurried. It’s an easy, breezy existence. The focus is the beach. And what a beach: 12 km of uninterrupted sand the colour of a pastel de nata, a deep, mellow yellow, fine and powdery as icing sugar.
There is a handful of restaurants along this glorious stretch, wooden creations on stilts, clinging to the top of the dunes. At Praia da Comporta, Comporta Café and Restaurante Ilha do Arroz stand guard. Lunch at Ilha do Arroz, under a cherry-red parasol, is a long, laid-back affair, starting at two or three o’clock and kicking off with an iced jug of white sangria, fizzing and bright with espumante and sweet strawberries. Local cheeses are followed by calamari, tomato-and-sweet-onion salad, clams in garlicky parsley and white wine, steaming pots of coriander-scented rice (predictably, there is a lot of rice on the menu) to mop up cataplana stews.
Praia do Pego has the funkiest lunchtime pitstop, Sal, with a cool bar and an even cooler boutique. At Carvalhal beach, there’s the unassuming O Dinis Bar do Pescadores (+351 967 977 193). Owned by a fisherman, it’s the best spot for catch-of-the-day, grilled, with a squeeze of lemon. The fish here (especially the sea bass), not just in these restaurants but here in Portugal, is outrageously good — something to do with the chilly depths of the Atlantic. It can be a little choppy, but you can see why surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers flock here at the beginning and end of the season.
In the afternoon kids gather at Gervásio in Brejos, a café with a football table that is the social hub for anyone under 16. Grown-ups crash out for a siesta. Or dip into one of the boutiques on Comporta’s Largo de São Jão such as Loja do Museu do Arroz, Lavanda and Coté Sud for Lenny bikinis, beach tunics and Madeline Weinrib ikat cushions. But when dusk is imminent, everyone dashes home. This is the witching hour, when the mosquitos come out. For 30 minutes either side of sunset, they rise from the paddy fields in a humming cloud. But if this sounds like a dealbreaker, it isn’t. All the houses have insect screens and are stocked with huge vats of citronella.
Later at night, there’s a better kind of buzz, and phenomenal seafood, at Dona Bia or in Comporta village at Museu do Arroz, sister restaurant to the one on the beach, owned by Isabel and Tó Zé Carvalho. These two are Comporta old hands. Some even say that Isabelinha, as she’s known, kicked off the scene here 20 years ago, bringing down movers and shakers from Lisbon for the weekend. The restaurant stays open late, as late as she deems fit. When Mario Testino and Patrick Cox were here, it stayed open all night.
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller July 2013.
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Alentejo – Portugal’s secret wine country