Portugal Van Travels: Cool, Calm and Chaotic Recollections
I know it’s been a long while since we’ve posted, but we were completely caught up in our Portugal van travels. It’s a good place to be swept up by; the people, the landscapes and the adventuring all kept us busy. This will probably be a long post, so get a cup of Joe or a cuppa and enjoy. Grin.
Tourism Problems in Portugal
It was our second visit to one of our all-time favorite places in Europe. In just a few years, it had changed a lot. One of the more remarkable things we noticed was the plethora of vans and RVs. Supermarket parking lots were seriously wall-to-wall; surf areas like Arrifana didn’t have a naked street; and the further south we got in the Algarve, the thicker it got.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if Portugal’s a well-kept secret as a winter destination. But our first visit we’d get excited at seeing another campervan and would wave in passing. We found ourselves, in a pretty short time, feeling frustrated at the visitors. Not because they were there; because they had no respect for where they were visiting.
I lost count of how many places we parked and cleaned up the slovenly detritus left behind. Or how many beautiful areas were covered in toilet paper, which was the more ‘polite’ of the leavings.
Watch the Video: Does Vanlife Etiquette Exist?
Unsurprisingly, the locals aren’t amused. Yes, tourism is really important to Portugal. But when tourists come, live in parking lots and using the surroundings as a public toilet, don’t bother to buy anything local and generally snub the Portuguese culture – it becomes a problem. It’s a simple matter of: how would you feel if someone disrespected your home, without apology?
It just takes a listening and eager ear to hear – not a bold, boisterous proclamation of what you intend for them to think. Listening. Heeding. Treating their words as truthful treasures. Ssh. Smile. Nod. Engage. And hear all of the integral in-betweens.
The local discontent (which is valid) has encouraged several things. In the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, the forestry service regularly moves campers at night. Fines are a possibility. Police are pedantic about any amount of driving or vehicle laws, some of which are pretty minor.
We had a fine because our back license plate wasn’t completely visible, for example. And laws are being passed to limit RVs and vans to small areas or campgrounds.
It’s a natural reaction to the increase in the traffic and the seeming disregard for Portugal by the tourists. The same tourists who go there for the ‘pristine beauty.’ We totally get it. We felt pretty grrr, too.
Old Friends and New: Portugal Van Travels & Meetups
One of our first stops was to visit our adopted* family, Filipe and Isabela in Costa da Caparica. Filipe was Armando’s surf teacher (he’s a shaper at Y-Surfboards) and an energetic man, full of laughter and wisdom. Isabela is a beautiful, calm presence with a dry wit (and a fantastic cook).
We had to visit Bulgaria to try to sort out some papers for me – still unsorted – but Filipe didn’t just drive us to the airport. He stored our pricey stuffs, like Armando’s drone, and let Mork park in their drive for the week we were gone.
We also got to see Nick and Noah again; Nick’s a building contractor in Vila do Bispo and in a few short years has really established himself. Vila do Bispo kind of became our unofficial go-to place for food (Lidl) and water from the local wash house. It was also nearby one of our favorite places, near the ‘End of the World’ (Cabo de San Vicente).
We met so many cool, generous and funny ‘van’ people. I can’t possibly list them all here, but I will down at the bottom, so you can discover them for yourselves.
For example, over the Christmas holidays we decided to try something different: a vanlife meetup with strangers. And we had a blast. New Year’s, we met up with old friends again – and met many more.
I’d have to say our time on our Portugal van travels for the past few months was possibly the most social we’ve ever been on our travels. It was refreshing. Though I do have to admit, I did embrace the quiet times a little bit tighter. There’s nothing like the serenity of alone time, memorizing waves.
The Wilderness and the Weather of Portugal
I think one of the reasons we like Portugal so much isn’t just a temperate climate (usually temperate, I should say), but the landscape extremes. The rabidly rising red cliffs to virtuous white sands massaged by sea-foam blue waters; the untidy and unbridled forests to groomed, eye-blinking green hills; and the fractious, frisky weather.
The sea wind blows its woes over all heads, around all legs, clad and unclad. It seems a bit spiteful, yet spritely. It’s the way we all might imagine we’ll be at a certain stage of age.
We went through two ‘mini-canes’ during our stay. Miniature hurricanes. They didn’t feel so mini at the time. When the van was swaying back and forth to some skewed tango in the middle of the night or the winds were etching raindrops into our faces as we attempted to take Ziggy for a walk, it was a little hairy.
We actually saw an RV that had been toppled, along with many cars with broken windshields from broken off branches. Sad little saplings, uprooted and homeless, scattered across streets. It certainly made us more thoughtful about not just where we parked, but how we parked – trying to ensure we were the least wind-resistant.
Portuguese People and Culture
We did a Fun Facts about Portugal post after our last visit. On this tour, we mingled more with the locals and tried to find more local things to do. We went to fresh food markets; a monthly flea market; and even (finally!) got to go to the Loulé Carnival. We were also lucky enough to catch a lot of the Easter celebrations the week before Easter Sunday, and each place has its own unique approach.
We decided to ‘tag team,’ meaning one of us stays in the van while the other goes exploring, throughout the day. The energy was manic. It was loud. And it was contagiously joyful. There were complex street floats, dance groups, bands – everything you’d expect. One of my favorite parts, though, was people watching in the side streets. Imagine everyone dressed in some sort of costume and dancing or singing in any space available. Beautiful chaos. If you ever have the chance, go.
The people are closed initially, but when you ask, when you interact, they shed layers and bloom. Each one has not just a story, but a book to tell. Not just of their own lives, but the histories and meanings of the villagers before them. A meadow of ancestry.
I have many more reflections and I’ve left out quite a bit. It’s not easy trying to compress months of experiences into just a few paragraphs. Grin. As promised, I’m listing people and links below. Be sure to check them out! Safe travels, all. –Mel, Armando, Ziggy and Mork
Dade and Clara, for a lovely dinner and convo
Alberto, Marina and Bahnhof, for being travel buddies
Claudio, for being brilliant
Peter, for meeting us in Lisbon
Rodrigo (our mechanic in Portugal), Old School Garage
Tom, for taking us out for a pint and a great chat, Digital Nomad Jobs
Vanlifers (I’m sure we’ve forgotten a few-!):
Janice and Gregor, Live.Travel.Play.
Madeleine and Anthony, Going Hobos
Saira and Simon, Euro Advantures **
Theo and Bee, The Indie Projects
Martin, Houseless Not Homeless
Michal, Czech Geek on the Way
Rasti the Barefoot
Mandy Mc Nicol Erasmus
Thanks for taking us there with you! You paint pictures with your words Mel!!
Thank you, Mandy! It is really nice to hear. 🙂 I appreciate it.
I totally agree. I’ve just written an article about that same situation in the US… It’s a sad sight… These places that were once-wild are now completely trashed…
Catherine, it’s such a pity that the increase in tourism doesn’t also increase in awareness and respect for the places you’re lucky enough to see. Wilful ignorance of the affects of bad behavior in wilderness areas is an ugly thing.
Wow so you the digital nomads and van lifers post manically all over social media at how amazing their lives are living in a van on the west coast and then get upset when other van lifers turn up to do the same. None of you talk about what you do for your own sanitation. No one talks about going off with a shit shovel and burying their faeces. We Portuguese have had enough of all of you Everyone tries to blame van hire companies like indie but it’s actually Norhtern europeans in their shitty poluting vans that are trashing everything.. You talk about supporting the local economy then go to Lidle to do your shopping. Lidle is the only one making any money out of you guys on the west coast. Most surfers dislike other surfers and most van lifers dont like other people living in vans. I lived in a van in Portugal 20 years ago everybody was so much more respectful of the environment then. Now over priveliged kids assumes that the council will come and clean up after them, and hardworking tax payers like myself will pay to clean up after you. Wow thats freedom .. right…
Marco, thank you for your comments. They’re legitimate on several points; but you clearly didn’t read through very well before replying. We weren’t disregarding others because they want to live in a van. We were commenting on the fact that people now (than on our prior visits) seem to disrespect their surroundings. Not just on the west coast of Portugal, this particular post is on that. We don’t dislike other van lifers. We don’t exclusively shop at Lidl – how do you think we found out about how upset the locals were? By speaking to them. In local shops. We don’t leave our faeces lying around. And we’ve consistently picked up trashed places, usually at seasides, left by both travelers and locals. Including in Portugal. We are middle-aged, not over-privileged kids, and we work for a living as we travel. We don’t post all over social media how fantastic our lives are – again, if you’d checked out our website or social, it talks about the downside. It talks about when living in a van isn’t ‘living the dream.’ We talk about the environmental impact, not just of van lifers but of travelers, too. I’m sorry if you feel we fit into the stereotype you seem to have created, but I don’t feel that we have in the last 7 years we’ve been traveling in our van. Again, we appreciate your reply and hope you’re having a lovely summer. Truly.