Coming from Lisbon and the west, ALCÁCER DO SAL is the first town of the Baixo Alentejo, 52km from Setúbal. It is one of Portugal’s oldest ports, founded by the Phoenicians and made a regional capital under the Moors – whence its name (al-Ksar, “the town”) derives. The other part of its name, do Sal, “of salt”, reflects the dominance of the salt industry in these parts; the Sado estuary is still fringed with salt marshes.
Few stop longer than to stretch the legs – both Beja and the coast are less than an hour away – but it’s an attractive enough place to spend some time, particularly along the waterfront promenade where there are various cafés and restaurants. A couple of roads back from the promenade, at its western end, lies a charming quarter of medieval houses where storks nest on any tall tower. Further uphill, above the town, stands the Moorish castle, now a luxury pousada, from where you can look out over the Rio Sado and the distinctive green paddy fields which are still cultivated for rice.
From Alcácer do Sal, the minor EN253 follows the banks of the Sado estuary to the nearest stretch of coast at Comporta, 26km west. It’s a lovely drive and worth it, as the beach – signed just to the north of the village off the EN253-1 – is simply magnificent, a giant stretch of soft sands served by a couple of seasonal beach café-restaurants, popular hangouts for wealthy Lisboetas. You can continue up the EN253-1 onto the Tróia peninsula for the ferry to Setúbal.