The local butcher, with his daughter standing by his side, was selling roasted whole chickens and slabs of fresh-cut beef to customers who only had to look into the store and nod to put in their orders, much as it has been done in this tiny hillside village in rural Portugal for decades now. Routines here are as well-worn as the cobblestone streets.
Just a block away, French-speaking visitors waltzed into the row of recently opened boutiques selling designer dresses and bikinis, next to the site where French shoe designer Christian Louboutin is preparing to build this town's first hotel. It is a hint of the two worlds that have come together in this beachside town.
Melides is in the midst of a transformation as a wave of super affluent Europeans — artists, bankers, actors and sports stars — have discovered this extraordinarily beautiful spot, which happens to sit in the middle of a 40-mile stretch of nearly untouched Atlantic Ocean beaches, and at the edge of hundreds of square kilometres of cork oak fields, vineyards and rice fields.
The Alentejo region, as the area is known, has the last unspoiled stretch of Atlantic Ocean coast in all of southern Europe. The coast is largely unknown to visitors from the United States, whose bucket list for Portugal is generally the famed cities of Lisbon and Porto, and the Algarve region to the south, which has some beautiful towns like Lagos but is often overrun with tourists, especially in the peak summer months.
Melides (pronounced Melidesh) and the rest of the Alentejo coast — which starts about an hour south of Lisbon and runs about 114 km down to the southwestern Portugal town of Odeceixe — is what St. Tropez used to be in the 1950s, before Brigitte Bardot, or Ibiza, before the first wave of summer partyers ever heard of the Mediterranean hot spot.
That explains why Louboutin is not only trying to build a boutique hotel in Melides. He has his own oceanside house here. His neighbor is Noemi Marone Cinzano, a countess and winemaker whose family formerly owned the famous Italian brand of vermouth.
"I have been traveling all my life and I have not seen a place in Europe that is this untouched," Cinzano, who built a rustic, seaside home here, said in an interview. (It looks laid back, but it was also recently featured in Architectural Digest.)
Other A-list homeowners in the area include Philippe Starck, the interior decorator and hotel designer; Anselm Kiefer, the German artist; and Jason Martin, the British abstract painter, who took over a cavernous former nightclub as his studio and also built a home on the nearby hillside, where he is also producing wine.
Everyone knows this can hardly last: rich people descending on a pristine rural community in search of their own piece of nature and solitude. But at least for the moment, Alentejo is a region of unparalleled beauty and authenticity.
There is nothing showy about Melides — residents gather in the town square for hours playing cards or engaging in hand-waving conversations, alongside visitors from global capitals.
My family and I showed up here this summer, almost by accident.
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TAP, Portugal's national airline, often offers discounted flights to Lisbon from gateway cities in the United States, such as New York City and Washington, D.C. After booking such a flight, but with no other plans, we read about the crazy stretch of uninterrupted Atlantic Ocean beaches here and decided to book a modest seaside cottage (We used booking.com for a three-bedroom house that cost NZ$300 a night, including all fees) in a town we could barely find on the map, from a couple who lives in Lisbon.
The Alentejo area has long been known as one of the poorest and least populated parts of Western Europe, although its sandy soil is fertile. Grapes, rice, wheat, rye, oats, olives, honey, asparagus, walnuts, berries, truffles, mushrooms and many other things are grown or produced in the region, which is known as Portugal's breadbasket.
The inland parts of Alentejo — featuring historic towns and vineyards — have for some time drawn outsiders. But the Alentejo coast is a newer addition on the international tourist map, pulling in affluent visitors starting around 2000, when many of them headed to the seaside village called Comporta, up the road from Melides.
The land there, which once belonged to the King of Portugal, has been owned since the 1950s by the Espírito Santo family (Portugal's equivalent of the Rockefellers), who, starting in the 1990s, began inviting some of their friends to the area, including Princess Caroline and Prince Albert of Monaco.
Comporta is still an appealing place today, with its own nearby beach and great places to eat, such as Cavalarica Comporta, and a lively nightlife scene. It also has a growing list of luxury boutique hotels nearby, such Quinta da Comporta and Sublime Comporta. But today Comporta feels like a mini-version of the Hamptons: Luxury cars fill the busy streets, couples in bohemian-style outfits walk among the art galleries, housewares stores, nightclubs and outdoor bars. (The mosquitoes are also pretty overwhelming at night, as the village is built at the edge of a rice field)
That is why I was glad we had ended up staying a bit farther south near Melides, a simple town of about 1,500 residents, four or so restaurants, a church and a few small stores and a supermarket. The town square of Melides features a post office, a small cafe, a newsstand, a funeral home and a butcher shop, along with a collection of small tables where locals gather to pass the hours.
There are many area homes available for short-term rentals and a campground that has small, but comfortable, bungalows for rent near the beach. But there is not a single hotel in town.
Louboutin, in an interview, confirmed that he plans to change that with a boutique inn near the village center. Getting permits to build anything here is extremely complicated, so despite plans to start work earlier this year, construction had not started as of August. No opening date has been set.
The best meal we had in Melides was the roast chicken we bought from the butcher on the town square. Nearby, we had a tasty oceanside lunch at Lagoa O Mar on the Melides beach, where the Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams in garlic, olive oil and white-wine sauce) and fresh grilled sardines were particularly good.
But it is the setting itself that is unrivaled.
Our rental was about 15 minutes outside of Melides, and just two blocks from what is, without question, the most extraordinary stretch of beach I have seen anywhere in the world, called Praia da Galé. Yes, that is a superlative that is tough to defend. Let me try.
You walk down a long pathway toward the vast expanse of the Atlantic. Then you climb down a precarious set of stairs built into the sandstone cliff before you reach the beach. On the way, you pass a dazzling collection of reddish, weathered sandstones, which look like abstract sculptures. These formations, around 5 million years old, reach 130 feet into the sky, sitting atop a carpet of wild yellow chorão das praias flowers.
Finally, on sea level, as you turn in both directions, as far as you can see, there is nothing but a vast empty reach of beach and the occasional fisherman with a pole planted in the sand, or a sprinkling of families with beach umbrellas. So few people frequent parts of this beach that the sand is crusty, and your feet break through as you take each step.
Mile after mile after mile — you can walk, uninterrupted. Not a single hotel or resort, just the occasional snack shack and during the day, a few lifeguards supplied by the regional government. Long stretches of this coast are permanently protected as national parks, and in other areas there are restrictions prohibiting any new construction near the beach. Even inland, anyone buying certain farmland must agree to continue some kind of farming, even if just grapes for wine.
I found myself drawn to the beach — and not just for the traditional reasons. After dawn, I would take a hike on the cliffs, some 200-feet high, overlooking the ocean — you can imagine the view.
This area has a network of sandy trails that extend from the coast kilometres into the countryside. I spent hours walking alone, except for the birds, beetles, wildflowers and pines. Thankfully, the GPS on my phone still worked, as I got lost one morning on these unmarked trails. As I turned away from the ocean, what could I see? An endless canopy of green — formed by umbrella pines — tall trees whose branches are umbrella-shaped, so when the trees are huddled together they create a pine blanket in the sky.
I was back again in the afternoon, with my wife and daughters, after the sun finally warmed the cool morning air. We were there in the evening, to see the sun set as the beach faces directly west. Finally, late at night, I was there, standing by the cliffs overlooking the ocean, gazing at the crazy display of stars; there are no nearby cities to spoil the show.
I asked Jason Martin, the British painter whom I visited at his studio, to describe what makes this area so special. At first, he talked about the colors: the four shades of evergreen that illuminate the region: olive, pine, eucalyptus and cork.
"The landscape is extraordinary and verdant, even in the dry months," Martin said.
It was early in the morning and his helpers — welders, paint mixers, frame builders — were just arriving for another day of work, as we walked through his studio, with dozens of his paintings in various states of completion, including paper soaking in vats of red, yellow and green paints, and large abstract canvasses with layers of oil paint and acrylic gel.
Portugal, in general, is a laid-back place, compared to much of Europe. Alentejo takes that to another level, Martin said.
"It is the remoteness, and the unpretentiousness," he said. "It doesn't seem to fall in the contemporary world that we are used to. It is backdoor escape. When I get back to London, I need a crash helmet."
There are, not surprisingly, all kinds of outdoor activities to choose from. Simplest is the vast network of so-called fishermen's trails that stretch for 450 km inland and along the Atlantic called Rota Vicentina. You can also go on horseback rides, take surfing lessons, watch dolphins, and go biking, fishing, kayaking or ballooning. Several of the beaches, including an area called Santo André, have natural lagoons, making its calm, shallow waters safe for young children. The Santo André area is also a nature reserve; it boasts more than 240 bird species and hundreds of kinds of butterflies.
Melides also served as a great launching point for day trips throughout the Alentejo region, including Comporta.
Jaunts we took included a drive through cork oak fields (every nine years, the bark is cut by hand from the trees, which look almost like they have had haircuts but gradually regrow. The cork is used in wine bottles, of course, as well as shoes, bags and other items, all of which are sold in local shops).
From the cork fields, we reached the picture-perfect town of Evora, built by the Romans and later taken over by the Moors — which has a second-century Roman temple and Portugal's largest medieval cathedral, along with restaurants, bars and stores. The United Nation's World Heritage list, which includes Evora, calls it the "finest example of a city of the golden age of Portugal after the destruction of Lisbon by the 1755 earthquake." This was the most tourist-intense part of our week but well worth the detour.
We spent an afternoon at a large organic farm, Herdade Aberta Nova, that welcomes visitors (including families with young children) to its compound, which includes a vast collection of peacocks, pigs, horses, donkeys, chickens, goats and other farm animals.
We also stopped by Grandola, the county seat, where there is an enormous and very traditional farmers market the second Monday of each month. Grândola is also home to a classic Portuguese restaurant, A Talha de Azeite, where some of the best dishes include Açorda de Bacalhau (a traditional Portuguese bread soup) and Arroz de Lingueirão (rice with razor clams).
We got as far south as Zambujeira do Mar, a coastal village near the bottom of the Alentejo region. It seemed like a sleepy spot but in early August is home to a massive music festival, the Meo Sudoeste, which draws crowds of backpackers, mostly from Portugal and Spain, who camp in tents next to the festival grounds.
Our ideal version of a day was just hanging out in the nearly empty village of Melides, or by the beach. It was on the drive back to Lisbon — we went directly to the airport to fly home — that I was reminded how disconnected we had been. As I saw the billboards, big box stores of Lisbon, the car dealerships, I realized we had crossed some kind of threshold to return to the contemporary world. The nine-year cycle of growing cork, Alentejo's clock, is stubborn, slow moving, durable — and just right.
Written by: Eric Lipton
Photographs by: Daniel Rodrigues
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES