I have been wanting to go to Palacio Belmonte, a boutique hotel in Lisbon, for three years, having been sent their tantalizing, very eccentric website, which consisted of haunting piano music with laughter in the background and 17th century tiled walls depicting rather louche looking ladies smoking cigars. The feel of the website was refined flamboyance and a definite sense of time standing still.
So finally I managed to go in March. After winding up through Lisbon’s old town and entering through a discreet door, the Palacio did not disappoint.
Our suite, a huge turreted apartment, was romantic, comfortable and filled with books and fabulous paintings. Jeremy Irons turned out to have lived in it for months while making a film. We had a balcony overlooking the port and I felt like moving in and writing that novel that one never has the time to write.
So after a traditional dinner at Chapito, where I flinched from the mention of local dishes such as the hare or crab shepherd pie and ate boringly but well, although Portugal is way behind on its greens, boiled to a tepid limp state, the grey broccoli was inedible. We then wandered back through winding, secretive streets to the Palacio, already charmed by Lisbon.
I slept peacefully in our beautiful monastic bedroom refreshed by the sea air. I sprung out of bed in the morning with the fervent energy that one has when one is an excited child in a new destination ready to explore, discover.
When I returned at 9am I found the owner Frederic Coustolls was already in our suite and an exotic breakfast had magically appeared. While picking at a mango and smoking a cigar at the same time, he announced casually that he not only owned the Palacio, but a hamlet in France and a Ming Chinese village and that he wanted me to sell them all, as he was entering a different stage of his life, so anybody interested, please contact me!
After clambering over scaffolding with him and marveling at the paintings, mosaics and other wonders, I wondered whether he really was ready to leave. We will see. I had coffee with his literary companions (straight out of a Marcello Mastroianni film) and when I said: “Sadly, I have to go now, to Comporta”, they looked baffled. “Comporta? What is “Comporta?”, they said.
Comporta has been a closely guarded secret by the art and fashion world for several years now, but obviously not known to the majority of Portuguese.
It only took an hour and a half to drive down the West coast on a brilliantly sunny day – Portugal has apparently 200 days of sun a year, orange trees in abundance, dancing wildflowers, so my mood was high. But then it took only two minutes to drive right through Comporta.
My companion was underwhelmed. I became defensive, it was not one of my wild goose chases, we would find the fascination of the area. Comporta is a small town, a very small town, more of a village in fact, so to make two things very clear straight away, when people talk about Comporta, they are talking about the whole region around it, the Herdade da Comporta, which encompasses Melides, Muda, Pego, Possanco and Carvahal.
It is definitely not the new St Tropez or new Ibiza, it is not putting on its finest clothes and fluttering its eyelashes, I have never been anywhere that tries less hard to be anything but itself. The area is so outstandingly beautiful that it doesn’t need to garnish itself with extra entertainment. Staggeringly wide, long beaches that stretch for hundreds of miles, dunes for children to play in and charming beachside shacks, some basic, some more sophisticated.
It is a very natural place. Irrigated rice fields, like giant striped carpets, line the coast. Because Comporta is on the Atlantic coast, it has a wild feel, a bit like Oulidia, but it’s not bleak like some Atlantic towns can be. The area is a protected nature reserve and owned by the Espirito Santo bank, who are intent on retaining its character, let’s hope so. But there are no garish nightclubs, no flashy hippy/chic dress shops, just a few tasteful ones and no juice bars yet.
Destinations that are considered hip are always caused by three things, it seems; the beauty of the location, easy access, although Harbour island and Trancuso break this rule, and the people who decide to buy there originally, and this is the key here – artists, fashion designers, Lisboans in the know, they have all been snapping up properties for years.
The first time I heard about Comporta was from Christian Louboutin, who has bought several fabulous houses there. He raved about the unspoilt nature and the privacy (sorry Christian, but the secret has been out for a while!) Also Anselm Kiefer, my favourite artist, has a house here and as his work is so closely connected to nature, it’s easy to see why he chose the area. As it was spring, poppies were dancing in the fields, giant storks perched comically on their nests on the top of lamp posts, with great old cork trees sprinkling the landscape.
The main people I saw were fishermen and locals going about their business.
But people looking for a big night life will be disappointed, as it’s the kind of place where parties spring up spontaneously and word gets out, those are always the best kinds of parties, I think.
When there aren’t lots of things to do, people make things, I saw giant complicated sand castles, a sail and a propeller plane installation. I found Comporta enchanting and felt I would be able to really relax, which is, after all, what a holiday used to be for.
But be sure about who you go with, as it’s not like Ibiza where you can just jump house parties if you are fed up with your own. Comporta is for families, or to rent a house and invite those that you adore. To relax and restore. When time moves ever faster, with more and more things to take our attention, Comporta is conspicuously not playing into this game.
WORD OF ADVICE
If you are allergic to mosquitos, rent a house in the hills where there really aren’t any. The rice fields along the coast do attract them, but there is now a vast spraying campaign in the early summer, so I am told it’s no longer an issue, only at sunset does one have to be careful. All houses are well prepared for this. No need for air conditioning as temperatures are always pleasant at night as it’s on the Atlantic temperatures drop from 28-18 degrees.
If you don’t like eating fish, it will be tough, the whole delight is to eat fish that you have seen literally plucked out of the water that morning. The meat that I ate was tough and not appetizing.
RESTAURANTS/ NIGHT LIFE
They often occur at the very cool RICE MUSEUM, owned by the very charming and energetic Isabel Carvahlo. The first night I was there, I had called the restaurant to be told it was very definitely closed, the season hadn’t started, then I got a mysterious call saying that I could actually go the next night. We were the only guests, which was quite weird, as it’s cavernous but beautiful and dramatic but it didn’t take much imagination to think of it bursting with life in the summer nights and when Isabel breezed in and sat down to chat, I realised that she is the driving force behind Comporta’s social life.
The next morning, she kindly opened her beach restaurant for us, ‘Inha do Arroz’. An enormous fresh fish appeared, caught that very morning. Having given many parties myself, I know the key is total relaxation, which doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been insane manic activity to achieve this effect. I think Isabel does this all summer.
WHERE TO STAY
The Sublime Comporta very kindly opened its doors to me, even though it was closed for the season. I love this hotel, which we now represent. You can rent, or now buy, a one, two or three bed, very chic cabana, make use of the restaurants, pools and spas, or be completely independent. It is situated in Muda and the hotel has vast hectares of land, so each cabana is very private and would it be a perfect place for a wedding or party.
Muda is a tiny hamlet that lies on the road between Carvalhal and Bicas on the way to Grandola, This little hamlet is made up of around 30 small houses and farm land and was once where the travellers exchanged their horses for their horse drawn carriages.
The architects in the area have done a great job. Beautifully designed, spare and minimal but comfortable is the theme. I didn’t see a single manufactured garden or a high wall, houses just sit in their natural surroundings. The original fishermen’s whitewashed houses are charming and pretty, always with deep blue window frames and doors and then there are very chic modern sleek villas that scream of good taste.
We now represent a great collection, from the smallest simplest house, right through to the biggest villas.
In deciding what house to rent:
If you would like a big contemporary house, set in the countryside, choose the Muda area. (ten minutes from the beach)
If you want to be right beside the beach, in a traditional fisherman’s cottage or a modern cabana, choose the Pego or Comporta houses.
If you want to have the breezes choose one up in the hills above Possanco.
Some of my favourite properties in our collection are these:
Les Terraces de Comporta, designed by Manuel Aires Mateus three individual structures give privacy to all guests and its position in the hills means there is a constant mild breeze.
3 Bicas is an often photographed house due to its stunning design and I also loved the Oliviera Villa, beautifully done by two Portuguese architects.
The Beach Villa right near Pego beach is perfect for families, as it’s on the beach road and one can just hire a buggy or get some bicycles and be on the beach in minutes.
Praia da Comporta Beach
Apart from Comporta’s natural beauty, superb gastronomy and wines; A dolphin pod, two hundred bird species, golf courses and traditional architecture, Praia da Comporta Beach is one of the most stunning, award winning beaches south of Lisbon and certainly one of the best beaches in Comporta and within the entire Iberian Peninsula.
Praia dos Brejos da Carregueira Beach.
Praia do Carvalhal Beach is a non pretentious beach where foreigners and locals alike go and boasts two great beach restaurants, Por do Sol and Restaurante dos Pescadores which both serve superb fish and seafood dishes.
Praia do Pego Beach may be considered to be the best beach in Portugal for overall quality, location and clientele. It has one restaurant called “Sal” which is an upmarket destination that serves excellent cuisine both traditional and international.
Praia de Sol Troia Beach is supported by a large bar and superb beach club and restaurant Utopia which also boasts a huge swimming pool.
Praia da Raposa Beach is an excellent beach on which to fish and catch the local shellfish “Cadalinas”.
Praia da Aberta Nova Beach, throughout the year this beach is frequented by local fishermen whose catch may include sea bass and bream.
Praia da Melides Beach, for a livelier time with refreshments one should visit the public beach whilst for total privacy, one should frequent the more reserved secluded private beach.
WHERE TO EAT
Museu do Arroz, Comporta town +351 265 49 75 55 for dinners and spontaneous gatherings.
Inha do Arroz, Praia da Comporta +351 265 49 05 10 owned also by Isabel Carvahlo, beautiful place to have lunch, fresh light food, fun people.
Dona Bia +351 265 497 557 is fantastic for lunch
Restaurante Pescadores Praia do Carvalhal +351 967 977 193
Comporta Cafe better for dinner
Porto Santana also better for dinner +351 265613454
Restaurante Sal better for lunch +351 265 490 129