HomeJournalThe Ocean Calls: Portugal's Deep Connection to the Atlantic Ocean
28 Apr, 2024

The Ocean Calls: Portugal's Deep Connection to the Atlantic Ocean

Author
Joana Taborda
Lisbon native with a rich multicultural heritage, Joana writes about travel, craft beer, hidden gems and artisan tales in Portugal and globally. Her work appears in Lonely Planet, Fodor's, DK Eyewitness, Atlas Obscura and other publications.

Portugal has always had a deep connection with the Atlantic. You’ll see it in its past maritime ventures, but also in the lyrics of a mournful fado, at summer festivals dishing out grilled seafood, and in the country’s growing surfing scene.

But above all in its people, a nation of born-to-be seafarers, from the explorers who sailed across oceans in the 1500s to the fishermen who, to this day, cast their rods and nets all along the Portuguese coast.

“Here where the land ends and the sea begins” is how the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões described Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Europe, located 25 miles west of Lisbon and only 9 miles from my hometown, Cascais.

But he could be talking about the whole of Portugal, for that matter. After all, this is a country with half of its borders facing the seemingly endless Atlantic. And were it not for today’s maps, you would think there’s nothing else beyond it.

A Land of Comings and Goings

Cover

Cabo da Roca Sign

A marker at Cabo da Roca with the quote: "Here, where the land ends and the sea begins." [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Cover

Cabo da Roca View

Cabo da Roca Lighthouse stands guard over the westernmost point of continental Europe. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

For centuries, this piece of land was coveted by numerous civilizations thanks to its privileged location. The Celts, the Phoenicians, and the Romans all settled here at one point, erecting cities and turning many into ports. Remains of this era are still visible in places like Troia, a sandy peninsula that was once the largest fish salting center in the Roman Empire.

At the start of the 15th century, the Portuguese turned their gaze away from their coast and into foreign waters during what would be known as the Age of Discovery or the Age of Exploration.

Led by Prince Henry the Navigator and sponsored by the monarchy, many took on maritime expeditions in search of new lands. In 1418, the Portuguese set off on their caravels and discovered the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo. In the years that followed they continued venturing further across the ocean, landing as far as Africa, Brazil, and India, where they set up numerous colonies, thus expanding the Portuguese empire.

sea-paul-do-mar-madeiraThe turbulent beauty of the Atlantic Ocean captured at the rocky shores of Madeira. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

The places they crossed are tied to my family history and indeed to the history of many Portuguese who, like me, have a mixed background.

My grandparents were born in India, in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, and later left for Kenya, where my mother was born. Their journey continued to Mozambique before they eventually settled in Portugal. At that time, the country was under a strict dictatorship, prompting many from the younger generations, including my parents, to flee to Brazil. It was only a couple of years later that they crossed the Atlantic once more, bringing me into the world in the Portuguese capital.

Portugal established many trade routes during the Age of Exploration, a legacy that can still be traced in the gold adorning the country's churches and palaces, but also in the endless spices that have since infiltrated the local cuisine and my family’s cookbook, A Taste of the Sea and Saudade.

———

I grew up by the seaside eating Goan shrimp curries and codfish, Portugal’s national dish. Guided by my dad, who worked in Setúbal, a city known for its fishing industry, I began sampling all kinds of seafood, from the strange-looking barnacles to sapateira recheada (stuffed crab) and choco frito (fried cuttlefish).

Cover

Stuffed Crab and Clams

A sumptuous spread of stuffed crab and clams, ready to be enjoyed by the sea in Porto Covo, Alentejo. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Cover

Stuffed Crab

Stuffed crab, a Portuguese delicacy, served fresh and flavorful. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Cover

Seafood sun-drying on racks

Traditional seafood drying in the sun at Nazaré beach, a glimpse into Portuguese culinary practices. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Many Portuguese families have a marisqueira (seafood restaurant) that they swear by.

For us, it was the Eduardo das Conquilhas, a restaurant facing the Parede train station on the Cascais railway line that has been open since 1965. This is where my dad and my brother were sitting at the exact moment when I was born in 1992 and where I had my first taste of seafood. Cascais is just one of the many fishing towns where you can sample these delicacies straight from the source. Up and down the coast, you’ll find a variety of picturesque seaside towns filled with marisqueiras like Ericeira, Sesimbra, and Vila Nova de Milfontes.

statue-fisherman-setubal.jpg

Fishing has long been one of the main industries in Portugal. The techniques and preserving methods have evolved over the years, but some places still follow ancient traditions. In Costa da Caparica, for instance, they do the arte-xávega, an artisanal fishing method where nets are thrown into the sea from a vessel that is relatively near land.

Meanwhile, in Nazaré, there's a tradition of drying seafood (mostly mackerel and octopus) under the sun. But perhaps the most famous technique used by the Portuguese (and appreciated worldwide) is canned fish.

statue-fisherman-setubal.jpg

In the 19th century, Portugal had over 100 canning factories, producing nearly 34 thousand tons of canned fish. These days, there are about 20, most of which are based near Porto in the north of the country.

Fresh sardines are also a major feature of summer festivals in Portugal, grilled over hot charcoal before being slapped on a slice of bread or served alongside potatoes and salad.

conservas-pinhais-tour2Workers meticulously sort fish at the Conservas Pinhais factory, a testament to Portugal's rich tradition in canned seafood. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Walk around Lisbon in June during the city’s annual festivities, and you’re bound to smell grilled sardines as locals set up makeshift barbecues outside their doorsteps.

Traditionally, it was the men who ventured off into the sea while the women stayed on dry land. In their absence, the women anxiously prayed for their return in chapels located across the coast. This sense of longing has permeated the Portuguese soul and is sort of encapsulated in the word saudade and in the lyrics of fado, a traditional Portuguese music genre that often sings about men lost at sea.

setubal-marinaColorful fishing boats bob peacefully in the marina of Setúbal, a charming snapshot of local life. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Beaches, Waves and Coastal Trails

In Portugal, you’re never too far from the ocean. Even if you live on the country’s northeast border, it would still take you little more than 3 hours to reach the nearest beach in Minho.

The whole coast stretches for 500 miles. Much of it is occupied by a string of pristine beaches, from hidden coves like Praia da Ursa to long sandy stretches like Meia Praia and even small islets like Ilha Deserta. As soon as the heat strikes, locals hit the beach for a refreshing swim. Many spend their summer holidays down south in the Algarve, the country’s sunniest region, which also attracts a fair share of Brits and Germans. Others, like me, prefer the wild (and quieter) coast of the Alentejo.

vila-nova-de-milfontes-praia-do-farol-2
Joana taborda Stepping on Beach in Sagres
my-partner-going-down-garajau-madeira
me-walking-to-the-beach-alentejo
The writer's own coastal explorations. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Much of the shore is accessible by train, from Lisbon to Cascais, Porto to Viana do Castelo, and parts of the Algarve, but to reach the more secluded spots, you will either need a car or hike.

One of the best ways to explore the Portuguese coast is to drive along scenic roads like the N247 or follow the Fisherman’s Trail. Part of the Rota Vicentina, this last one is among Europe's best-preserved coastal trails, taking you along windswept cliffs and some of the country’s wildest beaches.

ericeira-beach.JPG

The 140-mile route starts in Porto Covo and ends in Sagres, at the southwestern tip of Portugal.

Another popular hike is the Seven Hanging Valleys, which runs for about 4 miles from Praia da Marinha in the eastern Algarve to Praia do Vale de Centeanes, stopping near incredible natural sites like the Benagil cave.

ericeira-beach.JPG

Over the last decade, Portugal has earned a reputation as a surfing destination too. Places like Ericeira have become Europe’s first surfing reserve, while Nazaré has made headlines thanks to its giant waves.

In 2020, German Sebastian Steudtner surfed a nearly 90-foot wave, which put him straight into the Guinness World Record.

Suffice it to say that only experienced surfers should attempt this. Those keen to see the show should head to Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo in Nazaré between October and April for the best shot of the towering waves.

I spent my summers camping on the Alentejo coast, trekking down to the beach every single day. It was in one of those holidays that I first learned how to surf. This sport that has since taken the country by storm actually has its roots in my hometown. The late Pedro Martins started surfing around the 1950s at Praia de Carcavelos in Cascais. He was pretty much on his own until the 70s when the sport started kicking off. Today, surfing attracts thousands of visitors to Portugal, who come to participate in competitions like the World Surf League in Peniche or chase the waves at their own pace.

An Unbreakable Tie

It seems Portugal will always have that close bond with the Atlantic. It’s a relationship that has changed across the centuries, but that has remained a part of the nation’s identity. Whether you're coming to sunbathe, surf, or simply tuck into a seafood feast, like the Portuguese, you’ll carry a piece of the Atlantic with you. You’ll know you’re close to the shore as soon as you hear the call of the gaivotas (seagulls).

berlengas-island-scuba-diving-my-partnerA serene underwater exploration near Berlengas Island captures a diver reaching out, immersed in the tranquil world below the surface. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Now that I live on the island of Madeira (that first bit of land claimed by the Portuguese), I’m surrounded by the sea on all fronts, and even though I know what lies beyond the borders, for a moment, it’s just me and the Atlantic. Like Camões, I can’t help but feel as if I’m at the end of the world. ||