COMPORTA: the story

Portugal's Untamed Paradise

„The Hamptons of Portugal“, „Sylt of the South“, „the new St. Barth“ – some comparisons have already been made to describe the spirit of the Portuguese coastal town of Comporta.  The Niche Traveller´s  founder Kerstin Bognár explains why none of these quite fit

There’s a good reason people don’t spend their summer vacation in Comporta. At the most beautiful time of the day, in the evening, when the sun, sweltering and sluggish, sinks into the dancing Atlantic and turns the sky into an irresistible blend of peach and plum, millions of hungry mosquitoes emerge from the marshy wet rice fields behind the dunes and attack every inch of skin, no matter how well protected. The whirring horror has an utterly unromantic effect upon the long-awaited sundowner: Either you drink one hastily in the open air, your feet buried deep in the sand, wrapped in countless layers of beachwear and towels, or, far less sexy but reasonably relaxed, you treat yourself to the cool drink in the domestic „Cave“, as the airy, but mosquito-netted cages are called, in the oh-so-chic cabana featured at the Sado estuary in the vicinity of rice fields and wetlands. Since last summer the restaurant Cavalarica in Comporta has opened their doors at twilight for their irreverent „Mosquito Hour“. Top-shelf cocktails and oysters on ice are served as you sit casually and well protected in a former, now whitewashed, stable. This may sound appealing, but it’s a bit futile. In the short distance between parked car and restaurant entrance, there is zero protection from the thirsty bloodsuckers.

So back to the holiday home bedecked in mosquito netting. Open a bottle of Vinho Verde… and now to the many other reasons we keep coming back. So many family members, to whom we wished not entirely without pride to present the longest, most beautiful, and emptiest beach in Europe, said goodbye to our Alentejo adventure after a single visit. The grandparents for example: „the mosquitoes are intolerable“, „you must go everywhere by car, and there’s not a single place to drink a beer and peoplewatch“. The in-laws too, bemoan the wind „too strong“, the waves „too high“, ands the water „too cold“.

And yes – although described by many as „the Hamptons of Portugal“ or „the Sylt of the South“ – both comparisons are apropos to the endless dune landscapes, but otherwise to relatively little. For neither the East End of Long Island nor the North Sea island are as rough and uncivilized as this approximately 13,000 hectares of the Herdade da Comporta, which belonged to the wealthy Portuguese entrepreneurial family Espirito Santo until its bankruptcy in 2014. It is located in the Alentejo region and is bordered by the Moorish castle-town of Alcácer do Sal in the northeast, the district town of Grândola in the southeast and 12 kilometers of the finest Atlantic beach in the West, covering a total of 60 kilometers, extending from the tourist retreat Troia in the North to Sines in the South. On the estate, which includes pine forests, rice fields, grapevines, beaches and building land, rice was harvested by African slaves in the early 19th century. And even later, until the sixties, the dictator Salazar sent political prisoners and convicts to the fields.

Today, however, land prices in and around Comporta are in line with European city rates, and the availability is extremely limited. „Where the rich pretend to be poor“ is the advertising slogan of a new, elite real estate project in the dunes south of Carvalhal, for which, among other things, the Milanese star architect Matteo Thun was commissioned. The slogan hits the nail on the head: the attraction of the simple combined with seclusion and paradisiacal nature, over 300 days of sunshine per year, pleasant even in July and August, thanks to the windy/warm climate, the crisp turquoise blue, clear Atlantic without any algae or jellyfish  – to many this seems like the new answer to holiday bliss. For our own sakes as well as theirs, we wish Granny and Grandad to return to their relaxation on Sylt or in Tuscany. We travel unflinchingly and now more often than not in a group of six in our Portuguese paradise, playing „who will see the most storks“ during the 120 kilometer drive from the Lisbon airport to Comporta, and are glad when we are able to explore a new holiday house.

Whoever travels to Comporta, usually means not only the place itself, but also the sleepy village with about 1500 inhabitants, which remains so despite its increasing popularity. Within this village can be found a main street called Rua do Comércio, whose roofs and towers are inhabited by storks, and the tiny corner shop Mercearia Gomes, also known as „Little Harrods“, likely the most expensive grocery store in Portugal. In search of Russian caviar, French foie gras, dried bacalhau and the delicious salty-sweet cottage cheese from Alcácer do Sal, the tall, bearded, and Birkenstock-wearing global players from Paris, London and New York can be found there in high season in bathing trunks and tee shirts. When stepping into the nearly always jam-packed mini-market, one asks oneself each year when Junior-Chef Carlos will finally replace the diabolical, dangerous saloon-style double doors with a regular entrance.

On the main street in Comporta, there’s shopping to be had and, wherever possible, strolling. The street is not residential, however, the locals and tourists live elsewhere: on the edge of the nature reserve at the mouth of the river Rio Sado, for example. Near Carrasqueira, a fishing village whose original and primitive log harbor Cais Palafitico actually managed to be featured a couple of years ago as a backdrop for the ad campaign of luxury shoe designer Christian Louboutin, as a relic of a long-forgotten past. Or a similar sounding luxury housing complex, Brejos da Carregueira, between Comporta and Carvalhal, which until recently was only accessible via a gravel road is now a finely paved gated community, keeping out the commoners with a guardhouse. If you are based in Brejos, order a cool Sagres and octopus salad with chips at Gervasio, a simple inn with roadhouse charm, or have one of the chickens clucking in the yard near Gloria freshly grilled. All this is also packaged for take away, beautifully greasy in aluminum foil. One imagines the posh and the high-and-mighty somewhat differently. The parked Cayenne and Defender wear thick layers of dust, and every oh-so-pricey designer sandal is dead on arrival. No matter, you could say, or just wear washable rubber Birkenstocks. And with them an Isabel Marant dress from last season, which fortunately won’t be harmed by a bit of dust and dirt.

Some of the luxury properties in Brejos were designed and furnished by Vera Ichia, who passed away last year. Her name is synonymous with the Comporta style, a minimalist maritime home decor in white, blue, and green tones, which gives the allegedly simple (at least from outside) fisherman’s cottage made of reeds and wood, the desired interior glamour.

No house embodies the pairing of the magic of simplicity with occidental luxury better than the „Casas na Areia“, a multi-award winning holiday property in the marshes of the Sado, with its high-end kitchens and sand floors with heating from below. Originally, TAP pilot João Rodrigues from Lisbon had it built as a weekend retreat for his family; Today it is THE flagship project of the area.

At times Comporta seems to be the last refuge of a pampered clientele who, if anything, loll about for the press of the season opener and to fill their Instagram accounts at the Plage de Pampelonne on the Côte d’Azur. They then spend their undercover holiday free of social media and among their peers between cork oaks, mosquitoes and the most beautiful beach in the world in the Portuguese nowhere of poor Alentejo.

The artist Anselm Kiefer owns a property in the area, as do French interior designer Jacques Grange; founder of Antik Batik Christophe Sauvat; the former journalist and godmother of Charlotte Casiraghi Albina du Boisrouvray; as well as the aforementioned Christian Louboutin. And last summer Madonna came and stayed in the first and only hotel on the square.

The Sublime Comporta is tucked away on 17 hectares of land in the pine forest between Carvalhal and Muda. It has tennis courts, a spa, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and an excellent restaurant. Madonna’s stay only caused a momentary stir, but the lasting effect is that the off-season prices have seen a tidy increase.

Anyhow, one feels the excitement mount in Comporta only from mid-July through August, when the Lisbon upper crust flee the city heat, and the French begin their grandes vacances. Then it becomes full and chic and it would be seemly, at least on elegant Pego Beach, to slip into a somewhat finer beach kaftan.

From certain holiday homes between Brejos and Pego one may gaze upon the lush green rice fields and the rising dunes overgrown with pines. Via the travel paths along the irrigation channels of the rice fields you can reach the beaches Praia do Carvalhal and Pego. Our favorite beach: Carvalhal! And not least because of Ana and Daniel, the delightful and lovable surf instructors who in recent years have taught our family members to surf with angelic patience.

Beyond fishing, horseback riding, birdwatching and road biking, surfing and bodyboarding are pretty much the only activities that divert one from idleness in Comporta.  However – and here we return to the reasons why you’d best not spend your holiday here – the sea is not completely safe. The current is strong and the waves are often huge. And if the Atlantic is unusually lovely and quiet, another danger lurks under the sand, especially at low tide: The weever fish. It is poisonous and can sting. Unfortunately, it’s even more painful than the mosquitoes.

WORDS: Kerstin Bognár
PHOTOS: Mia Takahara