Portugal’s like paradise, and I’m happy as a clam: blue skies, cold beer, sandy beach, no tourists

You may not want to hear this, but I am sitting in a bar overlooking the bluest of seas while a waiter brings me an ice-cold beer and a plate of fresh clams cooked in garlic and coriander.

The waiter is wearing a mask and I was greeted with hand sanitiser as I walked in, but otherwise it is like being back in the pre-Covid world of summer beach holidays. Remember those?

Except that this is one with no tourists. The sun is bright, the sand soft and inviting, the views across the Atlantic to the Caparica coast the clearest I have ever seen, the billowing sail of just one yacht on the horizon. I’ve been coming here for 26 years since falling in love with a Portuguese man and have never seen it so glorious — and so deserted.

It feels like a strange, dystopian version of the place I know — people walking past on the esplanade are all wearing masks. Signs give warning to keep beach towels 1.5 metres apart and umbrellas 3 metres apart and to download a beach app to check if your desired location already has too many people. Monitors in white and green uniforms patrol the area.

And Portugal is really, really strict about masks. No shop, even our little corner store, where they have known us for years, will let you in without one. Rules for what they call “state of calamity” are posted everywhere.

Like everyone, I was a bit unsure what travel would be like in the age of Covid-19. We flew here last Monday because my husband’s Portuguese passport expired that night and our tenants had moved out of our flat in Estoril and we needed to sort it. We thought we might as well make it into a holiday.

As The Sunday Times’s chief foreign correspondent, I spend much of my life on aeroplanes. I remember how 9/11 changed travel overnight; the introduction of heavy security, making us strip off belts and shoes and take out laptops, ended the days of arriving at airports at the last minute.

This time round, Heathrow’s vast Terminal 5 was eerily empty, with only 20 flights listed for the entire day. Nothing was open but Boots, which is grim when your flight is at 7.30am and you are desperate for caffeine. The British Airways inflight breakfast was a packet of M&S crisps and a bottle of water.

At Lisbon, passport control took moments and the first thing we saw was a very welcome coffee bar. We walked past an automatic temperature-check camera, picked up our hire car through self check-in, and then were driving to the sea. All remarkably easy.

Outside we found ourselves blinking, not just because of the bright sunshine but, after 12 weeks of lockdown in London, because it felt like a new world, weirdly familiar yet ever so slightly skewed. Maybe bears feel like this coming out of hibernation.

I am constantly marvelling at what is open. Going to a restaurant the first night here! A shopping mall! Nail bars, hairdressers, massage parlours! Cinemas! My husband gets fed up with me exclaiming. We even spot people having driving lessons. Only playgrounds are still taped off.

This is what life can be like if you locked down early and strictly and so could come out after just six weeks. Portugal has one of the oldest populations in Europe and a fragile health system, yet its death toll stands at 1,542 for a population of just under 11 million. The whole of the Algarve saw only 15 deaths — although 69 new cases were recently identified after an illegal party near Lagos. In the past few days, Portugal has seen just one death a day — and it makes big headlines, far more than Britain’s daily three-figure toll. Signs for free coronavirus tests are everywhere. All this means Portugal is now vying with Greece to be the safest tourist destination in Europe.


Holiday fare: fresh clams cooked in garlic and coriander

“Confidence will be one of the differentiating factors at the moment of choosing where to go on holidays,” Antonio Costa, the prime minister, told CNN last week after launching a campaign to welcome back tourists. “We are among the countries that tested the most. We’re one of the countries that better knows the real spread of the virus, where the numbers are the safest and where people can come with confidence.” Uefa agreed, announcing last week it had chosen Lisbon to host the delayed Champions League final in August.

For the time being, it feels as if we have it to ourselves. Walk along the sea from Estoril to Cascais, usually a mecca for British tourists, and at the famous Santini ice-cream shop — where at this time of year you might queue for an hour — we are served straight away, though only three customers are allowed in at a time.

Yet over and over I notice people recoil at my English accent. We have become the lepers of Europe. “What’s it like there?” ask wide-eyed friends, as if I were coming from war-torn Yemen. Few of my husband’s family seem keen to meet up.

Some people want the Brits back, however. Bars have erected screens outside to show Premiership games. Desperate for customers for their €1 beer, waiters try to entice us to sit.

I feel guilty enjoying my freedom while in London everyone is still in lockdown. But I won’t lie, there’s something very nice about having my favourite haunts in Lisbon to myself, particularly as in recent years the city has become uber-fashionable, crawling with tourists.

The old winding streets of Alfama, Lisbon’s Moorish quarter; the hilltop look-out points across to the castle and the bay, with its almond-pink evening light; the old man in the square with his telescope trained on Venus, all just for me. Places normally impossible to get into, such as the Torre de Belém, from which explorers set out to discover new worlds, are just waiting for me.

As for Pastéis de Belém, the blue-tiled café famous for its melt-in-the-mouth custard tarts usually has such long lines that we stopped going. Now you can walk straight in. Sales have plummeted from 30,000 a day to 4,000, according to the manager.

Of course none of this is good for an economy highly dependent on tourism. José Avillez, the first Portuguese chef to receive two Michelin stars, has closed six of his restaurants. Whether for its history, its beauty, its cuisine or its handling of the coronavirus, Portugal deserves to have its tourists back. But in the meantime I am going to don my mask and enjoy it.

No entry by road or rail

Wizz Air is flying from Luton to Lisbon, Porto and Faro, and it is also possible to fly to Portugal with British Airways.

There is temperature screening but no quarantine on arrival to mainland Portugal, though you will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days for the Azores or Madeira, or to produce a negative Covid-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival.

Since the Foreign Office is still advising against all but essential travel, your travel insurance will be invalid if you decide to holiday in Portugal.

And do not think you can drive there either. Entering the country via road or rail is prohibited.

Go to reopen.europa.eu for the latest advice.

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