Travel & Place / The Cabanas

A lone flamingo tap-taps his way along the mud flats. He’s shaking down the estuary, chasing out any last edible resident stranded at low tide. He takes no notice of us as we creep forward down the wooden jetty to take a closer look. A group of storks take off from the rice fields behind him, their wings silhouetted like shadow puppets against the harvest sky.

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Finding romance in landscape is a very particular thing. For me it’s the desolate places that are the most liberating. The expansive, extreme and empty places. The Sado River Nature Reserve is all these, and just an hour’s drive from Lisbon. This sandy peninsula is classified as a ‘new’ geological discovery: ie, a landmass that was revealed less than 2000 years ago. It shows. The place teems with life in a way that feels prehistoric. Herons, flamingos and pelicans are among the 200 bird species that live here, alongside swarms of dragonflies feeding in tall grasses. Storks make their nests in village chimneys or on top of electricity pylons, sometimes five nests to a tower. This is an official bird reserve, incorporating wetlands, sand dunes, pine forests, salt flats, and over 12km of continuous sandy beach with crashing Atlantic waves.

It is this unique setting that provides a backdrop for the Cabanos No Rio, a restoration project of two traditional fisherman’s huts by Portuguese architect Manuel Aires Mateus. Standing alone on the shores of the Sado, the monolithic huts could easily be mistaken for smart bird hides. Everything is built in pre-weathered wood, which ages in time with its surroundings. Form is minimal and function is flawless: crisp white linen on a raised bed for the best sunrise view; an impressively hot and powerful shower which can be taken, if so desired, en plein air; a hidden kitchen for midnight feasts and hot coffee; your own kayak looped up to a drawbridge-like medieval jetty.

The Cabanas are just down the hill from the Casas Na Areia, a collection of thatched cottages also restored and designed by Manuel Aires Mateus. It is here that we meet Corinne, who has driven from Lisbon to meet us. These minimalist cottages are famous for bringing the outside in, via heated sand floors and a wattle and bulrush roof. So famous that a group of German architecture students have made a pilgrimage here to take notes before the next guest arrives. Built within the original wood masonry structure using traditional construction methods and sustainable local materials, the Casas was selected to represent Portugal in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010.

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Comporta has become a secret hotspot in recent years, both for Lisbonites and in-the-know international jetsetters. Designers and artists have built lodges and cabins amongst the sand dunes, and restaurants offering bacalhao and black rice serve long lunches that stretch into the late afternoon. The draw is an unspoilt, unusual stretch of coast that manages to remain off the mass-market radar.

Corinne takes us to the cabanas and hands us the necessities: keys, bicycles and a box of pasteis de nata. The beach is a twenty-minute cycle away, past rice terraces and through sleepy villages. With a sunset deadline, we pedalled hard. A shortcut up a sand dune and we made it: the cleanest coldest waves breaking solemnly on an infinite white beach. Post-high season, the place was almost empty, and as dusk gloamed we looked out across the Atlantic towards America. Cycling back from Comporta beach in the dark is a challenge, but the moonlight is strong as we freewheel past shadowy trees, the air still warm enough for bare legs. That night we slept surrounded by the chattering of birdlife. I woke at five and was convinced the sun was breaking over the horizon in a metallic orange shimmering strip, like I’d seen in pictures of the Serengeti. In fact it was just the lights of the industrial port, a few miles away at Setùbal. I was reminded of Dungeness, that other romantic wildlife wasteland, and thought the place quite Jarman-esque: simultaneously desolate and vigorously alive.

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At dawn we untied the kayak and slid it in to the water. Something about the sedate pace of a canoe, barely breaking a ripple, gave us invisibility as we glided through the wading bird life. Warm light filtered through yellow grasses. Birds preened and sunbathed within arm’s reach. Dragonflies hitched rides on our sweaters. And all this before breakfast, which we found on our return had been laid out on the jetty picnic table.

Nosing around an old fisherman’s wharf, where brightly painted huts stand on stilts over the water, I anticipate a hostile warning from the fisherman headed towards me. I am, technically, trespassing. Instead he passes me with the warmest smile and a wave. If this Wild West really is Europe’s last frontier, it’s a pretty harmonious bastion.

Words and images by Kate Friend. Thanks to Corinne Bucher and the team at Casas Na Aria and Cabanos No Rio.

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