The beginners guide to Portugal by Van

20181109_074619Waking up like this has been a dream for me for a while.  Parking a van in a hard to reach place, opening up the doors and having your morning coffee in a new spot every day.  It became something I had to do.

And so, I write this article to assist you, if you, like me, have never been a camper, a campervanner or a backpacker.  I will hand over some of the advice I think I would have found valuable.  I will write my romantic and excitable version of our trip in a seperate blog.

Let’s start at the beginning, choose your COMPANY wisely.  And by this I mean the people or person you travel with.  You will be in a very confined amount of space for a number of days and you don’t want them getting under your skin.  My company was perfect! My mum, sister and I travel very well together.  We love to adventure, we all like our own space, we all love to do different domestic activities (clean, cut, cook, laundry, pump gas) and we all love each other.

I am telling you now, don’t underestimate the importance of that decision 🙂

And then choose your Van company wisely.  I did a spreadsheet of the van companies available in Portugal and we chose what was important to us and made our decision that way.  For us, we wanted space, we thought we wanted a bathroom, we wanted hot water and we wanted a bbq 🙂 Obviously price was also a question in our mind, and so was our pick up and drop off point.  The company we went with was called Portugal By Van– and we really enjoyed them.

From the moment we arrived at the pick up point to the moment we left, we felt that they were attentive, enthusiastic and helpful.  We had NO clue what we were doing and Rui was wonderful; helping us with all of our questions.  No matter how bizarre (how to fill up gas in Europe!).

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We had hired Nessy (our much LOVED van, who took on her whole own character for us- VANessa, Nessy- okay!), for a week and had roughly planned to get down to Lagos by the end of the week and then come straight back up to Lisbon.  But we had not mapped out anywhere in particular.  We were hoping the open road would reveal some magic to us….and that it did.

We paid 95 Euro per day for Nessy and we paid for a couple of extras – set of linen & duvets (25 Eu for the trip) & a chemical toilet (25 euro for the trip) .  The day rate included tables, chairs, bbq, shower and unlimited mileage.  My advice is not to get the chemical toilet.  It takes up so much space and it is definitely not necessary –  we found a way around this and actually NEVER used ours.

These are the things I would say are essential for your trip:

  1. Google Maps (4G) – these really saved us in some moments when we had broken down or needed to pull into a campervan park to fill up or dump water.
  2. A large grey water tank/water tank.  It is really nice to be able to have that facility (this was included)
  3. A gas stove top to cook breakfast, boil your kettle, make your meals! (this was included)
  4. A Kettle – we bought our own one from a Chinese shop along the way for 6 Euro and it was a brilliant addition!
  5. A fridge – to be able to keep your fresh produce, cheese and tonic waters cold! (included)
  6. A broom (no matter how strict my “no shoes in the van” policy was, it still got sandy, you don’t want sand in your bed) & other cleaning products – scourer, cloth, drying up cloth, washing up liquid(this was included) & anti-bacterial wipes.
  7. Chairs for each person & a table (this was included)
  8. The basic utensils (don’t over complicate things, it is fun to have to use mismatched things one wouldn’t normally) Sharp knife and bottle opener – essential.
  9. Black out – really good to have for the morning sun, however, my mom was our very own alarm clock and no matter how much blackout we had, she always woke us up at 6am. You can borrow her too if you need an entertaining human alarm clock. She comes with many benefits.  And is extremely proficient with the aforementioned broom. Even at 6am.
  10. Tea & Coffee – for those magical mornings mentioned above
  11. Blankets – make things cosy, especially if you go out of summer season like we did.
  12. Duvet, Pillow and sheet – not always included and if you don’t have a sleeping bag, necessary.
  13. Laundry detergent – most campsites have facilities to wash your clothes, the detergent is not always provided
  14. Towels or shammy – not always included. Obviously, a necessity.
  15. And then your usual car safety items – jumper cables, crank for the tyres, triangle for breaking down etc etc.
  16. Good Sing along music
  17. Pack less than I did. Not just for this trip, as a general rule for every trip.  You will not need fancy clothes, you will want to be comfortable. Slip on shoes, comfy pants, walking shoes….!

And these are the things I would suggest bringing along so that you either don’t have to buy them or that would take your trip from lovely to UN-FRIKKEN-BELIEVABLE.

  1. Gin, wine & whatever drinkable liquid you would want to watch the sun go down with. Essential in my mind.
  2. Olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon.
  3. Matches, firelighters, charcoal – those evening braais were the highlight of my trip!
  4. Fabric shopping bags – makes the market adventures awesome when you know you are cooking dinner in the comfort of your car and your bedroom and your lounge and nature 🙂
  5. Coffee, Tea, Hot Chocolate – for the cooler evenings and wonderful morning sunrises. (again, my mom was the cause of this)
  6. Picnic Blanket (I always love a picnic blanket, its my favourite place to eat)
  7. Cards and backgammon. The best way to spend your evenings with the stars out and the braai sizzling away.
  8. A line to hang washing and maybe one or two pegs
  9. A speaker – not wise to use the radio, drains the car battery
  10. In summer – mozzie spray
  11. Dark chocolate. That’s standard for me. Daily.

Once we picked up our van and were shown how to pump our own gas, we made our way along the highway and began our trip.   The van was easy to drive – super smooth and a lot lighter than what I expected.  We decided not to go too far on our first night, but wanted to do what is known as “Wild Camping” – wake up on a beach somewhere and watch the sun come up.  In Portugal it seems pretty free, at the moment, to park where ever you like.  Apparently, in the summer, it is slightly different.  But we felt very safe and okay to park anyway.  We had one slightly dodge night, where we had to stay in a spot we didn’t really like, but I’ll get to that later. And it wasn’t a safety issue, purely aesthetic 🙂

A few things I learnt while driving the van:

  1. Don’t park on a slope, it’s not comfortable for anyone to sleep on
  2. Don’t leave the keys in the igntion – you WILL drain the battery
  3. Stow properly before driving, make sure everything is put away and won’t rattle while you drive
  4. Always reverse your boot to the view you wish to wake up to 🙂
  5. It is virtually impossible to fill up your gas cannister in Portugal.
  6. Your car becomes a portable chinese laundry, we had freshly washed underwear, running clothes, tops hanging all over the car.

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We drove all the way from Lisbon down to Lagos, with a number of coastal and mountainous stops along the way, we only had to fill Nessy up with Diesel once, they are pretty economical and that cost us 100 Euro.  Our grey tank, we emptied twice (in campsites) and our water tank we filled twice (this takes time).  All the domestic things actually become quite fun.

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I will share our itinerary with you, because I think it was awesome:

Day 1: LISBON – COST DA CAPRICA

We had a short stop at LX Factory on the way out of Lisbon for a Chocolate cake to die for at Landeau.  We then drove over the Ponte De 25 April.  P.S. You do not pay on the way out, but will be charged on the way in.

An NB note, set your google maps to avoid tolls…they are CRAZY expensive in Portugal. We avoided them all the way down South and then drove the A2 straight back up (cost us 36.50 Euro).

We wanted to get our heads around the camper the first night and so didn’t venture too far.  We picked up a few items from the town of Costa da Caprica and then went to find our overnight spot on the beach.  We parked up on Praia Da Fonte da Telha, which I think would be beautiful in Summer.  There are some great beach bars around.  For us, it was a little windy and cold, so we set up our bar, made some dinner and headed to bed.20181105_185824

The wake up in the morning was well worth it.  Praia Da Fonte da Telha is a long, long, white sand beach and the sunrise hits it perfectly.  We went for a really long stroll and watched as the paragliders came swooping in.

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We were wanting a different spot for breakfast and so took Nessy further up into the cliffs and the Nature reserve.  It was a beautiful walk, but didn’t provide us with a spot to make our breakfast.  So we ventured on to a lake side spot and made ourselves some eggs.

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DAY 2: COSTA DA CAPRICA TO SETUBAL

That night we decided to do a Campervan park, so we could plug our electricity in and charge our laptops.  Both my mom and sister freelance and so they needed to stay on top of work.  You are only able to get 12V in the van without being on additional power.

We found a brilliant campsite with a perfect river view close to Setubal.  We had heard it was a lovely area and with the campsite being inside the nature reserve, we decided to stay there, EcoParque Do Outao.

Features: 

Cost us 9 Euro for the night, including electricity

It had Electricity, Water, Grey Water facilities.

Big Space for each camper with uninterrupted views of the river

Hot, hot water, clean bathrooms and showers

Laundry facilities

2 very nice restaurants offering warm and cosy meals

Very nice children’s area

Nice and green!

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Although it was chilly, we set up to play cards and have our cheeseboard just in front of the river.  There was a fair number of vans around us.  Everyone super friendly.  That night we felt privileged to eat a delicious seafood meal at the campsites’ excellent restaurant – with oysters and lobsters on offer one can hardly complain.

DAY 3: SETUBAL – COAST DO VIZIR

I did some yoga the following morning, we had a coffee and set off to the nearby village, Setubal, we had heard there was some good wine tasting and a nice market.  We didn’t get to do either, with it being off season, the opening times were strange.  So instead we settled for a delicious local restaurant with excellent salmon!

A strange but wonderful highlight for me was the ferry ride on ATLANTIC FERRIES from Setubal (Doca Do Comercio) to Troia (Ponta do Adoxe).  We drove Nessy straight on to the Ferry and then realised we had a floating bar.  So we swivelled our seats around to face each other, opened up our doors and made some gin and tonics.  It felt fabulous.  We offered some drinks to a few people passing by, who admitted to being rather hungover, but took our picture with a laugh and headed off.  It cost 15.80 Euro and took about 20 mins.

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I have seen so many complaints on google reviews about the ferry but I thought it was an excellent service and as I said a highlight for me. At Troia we swivelled our chairs back around and drove straight off the ferry and continued our journey all the way along the peninsula.  It was beautiful and the ferry ride saved us about 90 mins on our journey.  Bonus.

We didn’t want to miss sunset (around 17h15 in winter) and we were keen to get close to Milfontes, so as we got back on the West Coast, we pulled over on the side of the road, set up our bar again and with massive smiles on our faces, watched the sun go down.

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At this point, we learned a hard lesson, you can’t play music while watching the sunset on The Nessy speakers.  Dam.  It was also at this point that we found out that Nessy was as much a part of creating our plan as we were.  If she didn’t want us to go somewhere, she would do whatever it was in her power to change our “plan”. (I’m praying you got that pun, I was proud of it).

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And so, there we were, 3 ladies stranded on the side of the road, with a flat battery and a challenge.  Flag down someone to help us. It didn’t take us long – waving our arms and legs on the side of the road, with our phone torches on.  We managed to stop 2 wonderful cars with 2 very helpful Portuguese men who were willing to assist us damsels in distress.

Fortunately, while everyone was trying to get all the right equipment, I gave Nessy one more go on the ignition and she started humming again.  With a million apologies to our prince charming’s, we packed everything up again and drove to the nearest campsite.  And this is what I mean, we had been forced to stop at this one and it was stunning.  Nessy had a plan.

20181108_101251In a small town called Porto Covo, Nessy guided us to Camping Costa do Vizir.  The facilities were brilliant and here we had our first braai (BBQ) of the trip.  We had bought some fresh goods, some meat for mom and made ourselves a perfect dinner – accompanied by some delicious Portugese wine and a fellow cat.

After a good couple of laughs, we all appreciated the hot showers and clean bathrooms and put our heads down in our bunks.  Another brilliant day 🙂

Campsite Features: 

Cost us 12 Euro for the night, including electricity

It had Electricity, Water, Grey Water facilities.

Big Space for each camper with electricity box for each van

Hot water, clean bathrooms and showers

Laundry facilities

Large dishwashing area

2 very nice restaurants offering warm and cosy meals

Very nice children’s area, outdoor gym, tennis court, swimming pool

Very green, lots of trees and very well kept.

DAY 4: PORTO COVO – ODECEIXE – MONCHIQUE

We had planned to head to Odeceixe and spend the night wild camping on the side of the river.  We had become a little more adventurous in our sleeping spots and this time we knew exactly what we wanted, so after driving up and down both banks of the beautiful river, we found ourselves what we thought was the perfect stop.

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We had got there in the light of day, cut up a delicious cheese board and salad.  Poured our selves some gins and started getting comfy at our spot. Bevylegs (My mum) had gone inside to do the dishes and came out with a look on her face that we could tell something was wrong.

“Ness wants us to move on” she said. This time our water and gas weren’t working. We started to think it was a fuse, or that we had run out of water or something.  We just knew we couldn’t stay, we had to find a solution.  So Bevylegs did some youtube video research.  Obviously, Youtube declared we had a disaster, we needed to send the van back, stop driving immediately. And obviously, we didn’t.  We simply decided to move on.

Nessy, once again, was intervening, she thought we needed to make it to our next destination and my absolute FAVORITE stop of the trip, Monchique.  We drove for about an hour, intermittently chatting to Portugal by Van, who assured us we were not in dire straits and could continue our epic voyage.  All we needed was a mechanic to check the fuse.  But if we made our way to a campsite, plugged in to power, we would be “sweet as a nut”.

And so we wound ourselves up the Monchique mountains, getting more and more excited the higher and higher we got.  I had earmarked this campsite for the following night.  However, we were due to stay somewhere for two nights and before even seeing the campsite, the 3 of us, knew this was the spot.  We excitedly paid our 15Eu to Isabelle, the lovely caretaker of the extremely well kept but modest campsite.

Vale Da Carrasqueira Facilities:

  • 14 individualized pitches, offering each:
    • electric energy-wall socket kind;
    • water tap;
    • drain;
    • extra table.
  • Hot showers.
  • Disposal and cleaning of cassettes/chemical w.c.
  • Laundry sinks.
  • Dustbins.
  • Barbecue shaded area.
  • Swimming pool.
  • Bar with snooker.
  • Dinning room with fire place.

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For me, this is what I had been hoping for, a campsite on the top of an amazing mountain, with views for days and hardly any other vans around.  Not too commercial and super private.  This had that all, it was exceptionally beautiful and all the small touches were stunning.  The electricity boxes were covered in wooden boxes, there was a really nice communal space – a covered wooden deck with a few tables, a bar and a view, a small but beautiful swimming pool looking over the mountainscape, wonderfully clean bathrooms with hot, hot water (this was NB at this time of year) and a very well placed outdoor toilet 🙂

It was quaint, quiet and beautiful.  My kind of place.

We fell asleep so happy with the little change to our plan.

DAY 5: MONCHIQUE TO SIGNES

And so we woke up on the top of the mountain.  Jamie and I went for an exceptional trail run along the mountain paths.  Up to the highest point of the mountain and it felt like all we did was run hills! But it was absolutely breathtaking, despite having been burnt out by a recent fire.

And then we had that exceptional cup of morning coffee set up on the table just behind the van, overlooking the valleys, with very little to think about, besides the sound of the birds and the warmth of the sun.  Pure magic.

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I had decided to treat Jamie and my mom to a spa experience at the wonderful Monchique Resort not far from us.  So after relaxing at the campsite, soaking up the sun and enjoying an afternoon lunch and gin, we made our way down to the spa for an enjoyable afternoon of luxury.

And that it was.  The spa there is beautiful and varied – with a number of different “experiences” to try as well as excellent massages.  We followed this up with an amazing dinner at the restaurant.  We had such a good laugh, such delicious food and equally yummy wine that we landed up staying there later than expected.

Unfortunately this landed up with us being locked out of our campsite and needing to move on from our idyllic piece of heaven.

Seriously, Nessy, again?

Yes, she said, “Move on”.

Unfortunately, this resulted in the first disappointing stay over of our trip.  But with that, some serious belly laughs.

PART 2 COMING SOON — THE ALGARVE 🙂

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