I'm sorry San Martinho do Porto, you may no longer be our favourite seaside town. No offence - we still love you for your safe, scallop-shaped bay, your playground on the beach, your friendly cafes, lovely locals, and superb location on the 'Silver Coast' - but we've discovered Sesimbra...
If you don't know Sesimbra, you'll find this gem of an Atlantic resort "lying at the foothills of the Serra da Arrábida, a mountain range between Setúbal and Sesimbra" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sesimbra), 45 minutes South of Lisbon. It's a great day out for anyone visiting the capital, who fancies a manageable trip out in the hire car, to get a more local, less metropolitan taste of Portuguese life. It'll mean a drive over the Tejo (on the remarkable '25 de Abril Bridge', passing Christo Rei (the HUGE Jesus statue) and seeing life South-of-the-River, which will enrich any visit.
The journey there will likely surprise you with a good view of the said mountains, and possibly a glimpse of the delightful Arrábida National Park, notable for being the location where Diana Rigg is shot dead in the Bond movie - 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'.
I'm guessing parking will be a predictable pesadelo (Portuguese for nightmare) anywhere near the height of the season, but we managed to place our hire car not far from the front, enjoying parking costs that never seem greedy or exploitative here.
On this overcast, but mild day, it was fairly sharply downhill to the Atlantic, in only a couple of minutes, getting a taste of real local life on the way with Sesimbrians (?) hanging out around their homes and bars just behind the tourist front-line. Upper Sesimbra (where most amenities and charming shops are found) is not ideal for the unsteady or wheeled among us, although there are places to park along the front, and the promenade looked mostly manageable. I didn't however survey accessibility too closely. Suffice to say, it's certainly safe and negotiable for family ambling with toddlers.
This was our second visit. This time a Sunday, arriving mid-afternoon, and feeling a good vibe despite the lack of blazing sun, which apparently is temporarily shining on the righteous back in the UK. Despite our blow-in status, we like a good balance of locals and tourists, and Sesimbra has that. Mrs M felt that it was a town where people live, rather than one just brought to life at weekends, when the shutters go up on holiday homes.
"Due to its particular position at the Setúbal Bay, near the mouth of the Sado River and its natural harbour, it’s an important fishing town," adds wikipedia. You definitely get a sense of peixe-power here, but that's not unusual anywhere along Portugal's wonderfully ample and alluring Atlantic border.
One hostelry featured a Brazilian trio who provided an excellent, hip-swing-inducing soundtrack for guests and passers-by alike, resounding far from its rhythmic epicentre. Across the road, on the near-shore, surfing Adonises also entertained 'promblers' (slow-moving, delighted, yet confused tourists), flustering my wife with their bronzed torsos and lustrous, salty hair!
We enjoyed a very adequate, if not homely snack - re-fuelling four bellies for less than 30 Euros, a bill which was eventually settled with the third payment card that would work on their system; 'card roulette' is not unusual and the indigenous account won the day. It's worth having some cash to avoid that kind of 'declined' shame; a cash machine can be found not far away, by the 17th century fort - Fortaleza de Santiago, built along the beach as part of Portugal's ancient coastal defences.
It was here, just over 400 years ago that English sailors defeated a Spanish galley fleet, severely damaging the fort in the process, perhaps giving the Portuguese a taste of British seaside hi-jinx, that now resonates further South fin the Algarve. For that, we are sorry.
After a very leisurely lunch, with a delightful sea view and cover from a brief shower, it was down the street to a great ice cream parlour, where two delicious scoops, from a mouth-watering range, weighed in at 2.80 Euros. I improvised an affogato with the children's left-overs and my much-need espresso. Then on to the children's, new-looking and well-featured play park.
Sand dusted from between little toes, and shoes back on, we concluded our enjoyment of Sesimbra with a walk out to sea along the breakwater walkway (for want of a better term), pictured above. A simple, but invigorating experience with some bouldering and rock-pool-hopping along the way, it's great added value for adventurous kids and sea-sound loving adults.
Back up the hill to the car, which I'm always relieved to see is there - in case I've have missed any Portuguese small print - and home, via the castle, visible at all times up on the hill. Too late to penetrate its defences, we promised to return tomorrow, albeit metaphorically. Castelo de Sesimbra will get a review another time, as will the delightful town of Vila Nogueira de Azeitão, which we de-toured through on our journey home.
With a lovely, clean beach, a huge variety of places to eat, children's playground, superb views from above the town, surfer-friendliness, ubiquitous street art and many other attractions around and en route, Sesimbra has so much to commend it. English was spoken widely and attempts to converse in Portuguese were met with patient grace. We always like to have a go.
There's no shortage of accommodation (the Hotel do Mar looks like it might have a lovely view over the West end of the bay) if you'd like a couple of relaxed days, or more. A great day or half-day out, Sesimbra's 50,000 or so inhabitants should be proud of their welcoming, well-resourced and easy-going town with turquoise water and textbook sandy beach.
It's now on the A-list for us, and a lot closer that San Martinho, which will always hold a special place in our hearts for reasons I'll expand on elsewhere. What we've realised is that we rushed to create a favourite. The thing about beaches in Portugal is that there are thousands. And I suspect that many of those are (quietly) world class.
We can't wait to discover more...
Anyone returning to Lisbon might like to take the long way home via the spectacular Vasco da Gama Bridge (see below), and re-enter the city from the South-East.
SesimbraPortugal.net - the best independent guide to Sesimbra
The Vasco da Gama Bridge - By F Mira from Lisbon, Portugal - Merging in the mist
Uploaded by JotaCartas, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11088403
As well as hosting the "Good Morning Portugal!" Radio Show, I write about this wonderful country - the places, people and the lovely experiences I'm having here.