Ericeira is a pretty fishing town with whitewashed houses and cobbled streets.
It’s easy to miss if you’re taking the fast lane from Lisbon to Porto. But it’s well worth a detour because it gives you an authentic, un-touristy experience of Portugal.
Still very much a working town, Ericeira is a little rough at the edges but full of charm. It’s perched high on golden sandstone cliffs, so there are great vistas of the local beaches and coastline from the town and the surrounding hills. If you go there after being elsewhere in Portugal for a while, such as Lisbon or the Algarve, beware – you will find it a few degrees cooler thanks to the Atlantic breezes.
The direct service from Campo Grande bus station in Lisbon reaches Ericeira in about an hour. Being slow travellers, my husband and I decided on a more complicated route. First, we took the train to Sintra, and spent a very pleasant morning and lunchtime there before seeking out what we thought was the right bus stop for Ericeira. Except that it wasn’t. After 40 minutes of waiting in hot siesta sunshine, we decided to enquire in a local cafe, where friendly locals directed us to the stop we should have been at!
Ericeira received its first charter in 1229. As well as being a centre for fishing and commerce, it has also been a popular weekend break destination for royalty and the city dwellers of Lisbon for centuries. Its sunshine and chilly waters were thought to be beneficial for health.
In the 19th century, Ericeira’s harbour was THE most important in the province of Estremadura. It was a hive of commerical activity and had its own Customs House. Grain, wines and spirits were among the commodities which were transported in and out. The town’s commercial importance dwindled when road and rail links were built, allowing goods to be transported by land. But the visitors kept coming – and eventually, a whole new area of commercial activity opened up for the town.
Surfing on the Silver Coast / Costa de Prata
This beautiful, wild stretch of coastline north of Lisbon is belted by fierce Atlantic swells. Some of the waves generated are so gigantic that they have swept people off beaches, fortunately not too often. When we arrived at Ericeira, the town was in recovery after a massive storm, which had caused considerable damage to sea walls and paths.
An advantage of the huge swells is that the region has become a mecca for surfers. Indeed, Ericeira is the only designated World Surfing Reserve in Europe. My husband, who enjoys the sport, jumped at the chance to take a couple of lessons at the local surf school and try out the waves during our most recent visit. He highly recommends the experience. The surf schools accommodate all levels, from beginner to advanced. On the day of the lesson, they assess the weather conditions and the level of the group’s ability in order to decide which beach to take them to for their lesson.
My plan was to explore the shops while the surf lessons were in progress. Unfortunately this was thwarted by a nasty gastro bug that decided to pay me a visit. My husband, who speaks little Portuguese, headed bravely to the Farmacia and returned with armfuls of medicines and friendly advice. Within a couple of days I was ready to step out. Luckily Ericeira is small enough to walk around and enjoy in a fairly short time at a relaxed pace.
You can stroll around the old village or follow the coastal promenade around the harbour wall and the many beautiful beaches. If you go all the way to Algodio Beach, you have the option to take the local bus back into town.
There are some attractive houses and public buildings around the village centre, such as the stunning church of São Pedro (see main picture). There are also plenty of interesting shops and boutiques to explore.
You can enjoy Portuguese and international dishes at the many bars and restaurants, such as those in the main central square – the Praça da República. As you can imagine, fish and seafood are excellent in this region. You can buy them fresh from the boats from 7 a.m. every morning in the municipal market hall. There’s also a fish auction every afternoon.
Ericeira is said to get its name from the sea urchins, or ouriços-do-mar, which are plentiful in the locality from October to April. Although this theory is disputed, there’s a festival dedicated to the sea urchins in April.
Another speciality is bacalhau na broa, or cod-stuffed corn bread. Flaked cod, onion, garlic, bay leaf and seasoning is stuffed into a hollowed-out corn bread, covered with its ‘lid’ and baked in the oven – yum!
There are plenty of options to suit all budgets, including simple shared houses for surfers. We chose to stay at Vila Galé, the imposing hotel which has a stunning location on a headland overlooking the town. Despite its appearance, the hotel is not grand at all – it’s a modest establishment. But its position is fabulous and the views of the ocean from the rooms are spectacular. It’s well worth forking out a little extra for an upgraded room on a higher floor, with balcony. The picture below shows the view from ours.
Also in the area
If you do take the bus to or from Ericeira, you are likely to pass through the city of Mafra which is about 10 kilometres away. For me, Mafra was a real surprise, as I had never heard of it and didn’t know it was there. But even more astonishing is its 18th century palace. It’s magnificent! The bus stopped outside it, and I had no idea what I was looking at. Turns out it’s one of the most important monuments in Portugal. Why isn’t this place better known?
I’ve since learned that the palace was a favourite residence of the Portuguese monarchy up until the declaration of the Republic. The last king of Portugal, Manuel II, left the palace on 5 October 1910. What a sombre farewell that must have been. He headed to Ericeira where he boarded his yacht and sailed into exile. He spent the rest of his life in Fulwell Park, Twickenham, England. His former palace in Mafra is now a museum.
Other towns to visit on the Silver Coast include Nazaré and Peniche (also surf destinations), Obidos, Foz do Arelho and Caldas da Rainha. Historic, picturesque Obidos gets a lot of attention, but we loved the much more down-to-earth Caldas. I plan to write a separate post on our visit there.
Slow travel in Estremadura
One of the things we love about public transport is the local characters you come across. We took the direct bus service back to Lisbon at the end of our break. One of our fellow passengers was a kind-hearted old man who wandered along the queue at Ericeira bus station, offering everyone a sweet from a large bag. When the bus arrived he took a seat at the front, behind the driver. Everyone who subsequently boarded the bus was offered a sweet and a smile! You don’t get that experience in a hire car.
One day, when we get to return to visit Mafra and that amazing palace, we might go by train. Mafra station is a couple of kilometres away from the city, so we’d have to take the bus for that last part. But this particular railway line, which goes from Santa Apolonia station in Lisbon to Caldas, is wonderful. It takes you through suburbs and small towns – some beautiful, some very run-down – that you don’t get to see from the motorway.
I first discovered Ericeira while studying Portuguese in Lisbon. You might be interested in my separate post about this and other language holidays.
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