The sleepy fishing villages of Portugal’s Herdade da Comporta have always been where the fashionable European crowd goes off the grid. Now that new hotels and rental villas are emerging among the dunes, Maura Egan finds that this hush-hush coastal retreat has become more open to visitors — without losing its under-the-radar cool.
For most drivers, the ride from Lisbon to the seaside village of Comporta clocks in at just over an hour, but Isabel de Carvalho can do it in about 45 minutes. “My father raced cars,” explains the restaurateur as she expertly pilots her Peugeot station wagon down the highway and chats on her phone — to staffers, to dinner guests in from Seville, and to her husband and partner, Tozé, who is driving right behind us, transporting food and supplies from the city. We are late to arrive at the Museu do Arroz, the restaurant she opened 18 years ago and which is now the center of Comporta’s nightlife, and it is obvious that the party doesn’t start without De Carvalho.
Housed in a former rice-husking mill, the Museu do Arroz feels like an extension of De Carvalho’s home: The lounge area is filled with overstuffed velvet couches, a disco ball hangs from the rafters, and there’s a colourful Indian welcome banner above the bar. (Originally from Portugal, De Carvalho started out as a programmer for Texas Instruments and IBM in Europe before moving to Brazil and becoming an interior designer.) It’s 10 p.m. and the start of the summer season, so De Carvalho shifts into hostess mode, navigating through the rooms, offering up kisses and menu recommendations (the salt cod fritters are excellent), and signaling waiters to refill water glasses. Tozé works the other side of the room. “We never get a vacation,” he says with a fake exasperated sigh, but you can tell that they both love the work. In the far corner, I see a table of people I’d met when I came to Comporta four years ago. They casually wave as if I’m here every Friday night. “Nothing really changes in here,” says João De Vasconcellos, a businessman who also happens to make wine and breed sport horses. (Comporta is packed with multi-hyphenate hobbyists.) “Nothing has really changed in Portugal in 900 years!”
During my last visit, the local chatter was all about the Aman resort coming to the Herdade da Comporta — the official name of the swath of coastland in the south of Portugal that comprises seven small villages — but it sounded far-fetched. The area is a protected nature reserve in the country’s rural Alentejo region, and it seemed a most unlikely place for a luxury resort. I was mistaken: Come next summer, Aman will indeed open a hotel with 40 suites. The imminent arrival of the Asia-based luxury resort chain has led to the development of more hotels. But the official mandate is to keep them all low-impact and architecturally sensitive. “No one wants this to become the Algarve,” says Mandy de Azevedo Coutinho, a villa rental operator, referring to the stretch of coast farther to the south that has long been a package-holiday destination. While much of Europe’s beachfront has succumbed to developmental sprawl, Comporta has remained untouched. “People come here because it reminds them of St-Tropez in the ’70s,” says De Azevedo Coutinho — or Ibiza in the ’80s, or the Hamptons in the ’90s. “My husband grew up in Angola,” says De Carvalho. “And the first time he came here, he told me it reminded him of Africa.”
Some say De Carvalho put Comporta on the map when she arrived in 1992, but really, you have to look further back. The Espírito Santo family — one of Portugal’s, if not the world’s, biggest banking dynasties — began visiting this rural backwater in the 1950s and bought a plot of land about one and a half times the size of Lisbon. The family fell in love with the untrammeled landscape — the miles of empty beaches, the dense forests of umbrella pines and gnarled cork trees, the endless patchwork of rice fields — and transformed it into their private playground. Clutches of fishermen’s thatched huts were turned into unassuming compounds, with sandy paths leading from one family member’s home to the next. Comporta became their summer retreat, not unlike the way parts of Maine and the Adirondacks were colonized by a handful of patrician American families.
In 1974, after the “Carnation Revolution,” which overthrew Portugal’s authoritarian Estado Novo regime, all of the country’s banks were nationalized and the Espírito Santo group lost much of its fortune. Having been banned from doing business in Portugal, different factions of the family moved abroad to rebuild their empire. In 1991, when they returned to develop Comporta, the land was overgrown, the houses were derelict, and abandoned cars were strewn about. After they restored the area and installed a true infrastructure (roadways, electricity), they decided to diversify their interests by investing in agriculture — namely wine and rice — and quietly parceling out land to individuals beyond the family and board members.
This first wave of friends and foreigners brought the likes of decorator Jacques Grange, shoe designer Christian Louboutin, and artist Anselm Kiefer, who built elegant hideaways in the same humble style as the Espírito Santo originals. While Grange is known for his opulent designs for clients like François Pinault and Ronald Lauder, he kept his Comporta property spare, outfitting his cabanas with Moroccan rugs and rattan furniture. The region’s more modern properties — many of them summer rentals — have a casual boho vibe, with little furniture and plenty of outdoor areas for taking in the landscape.
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“Princess Caroline comes here every summer because her parents were friends with the family — not that you would notice her in flip-flops and caftan,” says De Azevedo Coutinho. The French aristocrat and garden designer Louis Benech supposedly does away with shoes altogether and walks around town barefoot. Comporta is where the fashionable crowd goes off the grid, and they don’t necessarily want to talk about it — particularly after a Portuguese magazine quoted someone as saying, “Comporta is where rich people go to play at being poor.”
While you can’t deny the socioeconomic divide between the locals (there are 3,500 full-time residents) and the summer crowds, no one seems to be treating this place as their private Petit Trianon. Perhaps because Comporta is in the Alentejo — the breadbasket of a country that is stillseen as the poor man of Europe — there’s a certain strain of humility among even the wealthiest people here. “The early family members were always close with the locals. Like the fishermen and the farmers, they saw themselves as self-made and self-reliant,” says Stefan Harzen, an environmental researcher who first came here from his native Germany in the ’80s to study dolphins at the Sado estuary. This summer he’s shuttling between here and Jupiter, Florida.
Then there’s José Ribeira, who gave up his real estate career in Lisbon to live here full-time and lead horse rides on the beach. “I came because the economy was in bad shape and I was getting a divorce,” explains Ribeira, who maintains 20 or so polo ponies at his handsome stables perched above the rice fields. In his rugged leather vest and dusty jeans, he handles his horses like a master but is quietly dismissive of his riding skills, vaguely telling me he “grew up on a farm.” I later learn that Ribeira comes from a prosperous Portuguese family.
“We call him José of Ribeira,” jokes Gonçalo Pessoa, a pilot for TAP Portugal who opened the hotel Sublime Comporta in May. Surrounded by piney forests, the peach-coloured property is discreet but state-of-the-art: The 14 rooms and suites are equipped with oversized tubs and heated concrete floors, with fireplaces in some rooms; the grounds include a massive fire pit, an organic garden, and an infinity pool. Pessoa, who bought his land here ten years ago, gives me a casual primer on the area’s social strata: The smartest family members are tucked away in the village of Brejos; Comporta Beach is the destination for day-trippers from Lisbon; Pego Beach is more exclusive; and Restaurante Sal, known simply as Sal’s, is the unofficial clubhouse. Still, the Portuguese have an open-door policy when it comes to visitors. Despite the small-town feel, you don’t sense any insularity or exclusivity. “We’re often compared to the Irish,” says businessman and horse breeder De Vasconcellos.
One afternoon, I receive a text from Isabel de Carvalho: “I have a friend who came by helicopter to Sal’s and I’m joining him for lunch. You should come!” On my way to Sal’s, I drive through the village of Carvalhal, where old men sit in plastic chairs at an outdoor café, drinking espresso, as they have probably done every afternoon for decades, and then through a suburban-style neighbourhood of anonymous white stucco houses (built by the government during the family’s absence in the ’70s), where a woman is collecting snails at the side of the road.
Lunch starts late in Comporta, around 4 p.m., so by the time I arrive, De Carvalho has left to oversee the evening’s dinner shift at her restaurant. Still, there are plenty of families on the deck, lingering over their grilled fish, squid ink rice, and half-empty bottles of local rosé. For most of these multi-generational families, dining at Sal’s is a weekend ritual. They dress in their Sunday beach best: polo shirts and Top-Siders for the men, flowing caftans and straw hats for the women. One grandfather is slumped over on a beach chair, the newspaper shielding his head, while his grandson plays in the sand on the nearby dunes.
On weekends, during the siesta between lunch and cocktail hour, the main intersection of Comporta village becomes clogged with BMWs, Range Rovers, and the occasional dune buggy. You might see a group of older ladies sitting on a stone wall, eating ice-cream cones, while others are stocking up on goods at the tiny supermercado — Porto wine, canned sardines, straw baskets. There are a handful of different lifestyle boutiques in town where you can pick up Moroccan pottery and Jack Rogers sandals, including De Carvalho’s shop, A Loja do Museu do Arroz. In addition to caftans and printed bikinis, manager Marcello Rangoni has amassed an eclectic mix of antique garden furniture and retro light fixtures. “You wouldn’t believe who comes in these days,” Rangoni tells me during a cigarette break in the courtyard. “Last summer, Isabelle Adjani came, and the guy from the Rolling Stones… Ron Wood.” He sounds more amused than starstruck.
The British artist Jason Martin came to Comporta after seeing a TV show about the region. “It felt like the last frontier,” says Martin, who spends about ten days of the month at his atelier in an old rice factory next to De Carvalho’s restaurant. “It’s not that different from finding a place with cheap rent in one of London’s industrial sections, but here it’s rural.” Martin says that the surrounding landscape has informed his painting and sculpture, and that his two young sons love spending their holidays at the beach, but he also feels the need to be part of this community. To that end, he’s working on a project in Melides, a village 18 miles south of Comporta, that will include a farm, a vineyard, and a sculpture park. “You have to bring employment to the community, make the best use of the land,” he says. “I spend so much time travelling on the art circuit that this feels like a very genuine life. And as long as this place doesn’t get screwed up like the Algarve, it’s Europe’s hidden treasure.”
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