Through vineyards and olive groves, past electric pythons decked with glorious but slightly untidy stork nests, the soil grew evermore sandy. Already I was taking to this neglected little corner of Portugal. Now we were skirting Setúbal, a bustling fishing port during Roman times and these days overlooked by the imposing battlements of the Castle of São Felipe, constructed in the 10th Century during the Moorish occupation. The fort was also the magnificent setting for a reception given by King Manuel I for Vasco da Gama, after the mariner’s discovery of the sea route to India in 1498.
We drove around the bay, and now a lone flamingo rose to the blue sky. Gradually, we were beginning to relax into a forgotten existence of sunshine and peace. ‘Faster, daddy, Faster!’ screamed my toddler Beatrice in my ear, as we neared the beach at Comporta. Next thing, we were sprinting to the shoreline, stripping frantically as we sped over the clean white sand and into the bracing sea.
The sun was lowering and we’d yet to seek out our accommodation, a self-catering villa situated on old farm land among the dark and ancient cork trees. There, it turned out, you could sit by the swimming pool, listen to the cooing of collar doves and think about dipping a toe in.
The next day we were off for a spot of dolphin watching in the Sado Estuary – now an important reserve and host to one of only three resident freshwater pods in Europe.
We settled to the gentle rhythms of the Alentejo countryside. Old ladies sold us bags of caracóis –that excellent snack which is snails – or we barbequed sardines. One day we ventured to the old city of Sines, and the very castle from where Vasco da Gama launched out.
There were more adventures to be had nearby, but the last few days we spent inland, navigating the Great Lake of Alqueva, where we took off in a house boat and for three gloriously innocent days played Swallows and Amazons.
By now we all felt like we were explorers. And of course, being human, we indeed are. But along the shores and in the poppy-laden fields of Alentejo we were reminded of that.