By Meagan Gittins
Growing up in Idaho, I always dreamed of living by the ocean. Four years ago, that dream came true when I moved with my husband, Micah, and our Labrador, Hunter, to the Silver Coast of Portugal. It was here, while dealing with the effects of an autoimmune disease that forced me to slow down, that I discovered beachcombing. The restorative mental and emotional effects of searching the beaches for sea glass and other treasures was addicting and soon it became a passion. Before long, I felt inspired to start creating with the items I was finding, and that’s when I started an artistic jewelry and home décor business.
Since then, we have relocated to the Alentejo region in southern Portugal, and I feel so happy to call this place “home.” For such a small country, Portugal has much to offer, and not just the beautiful coastlines that are perfect for beachcombing, although that certainly helps!
Visiting Portugal's Beaches
If you’re thinking of visiting Portugal, following are some tips from a “local.”
No one comes to Portugal without visiting Lisbon, the capital city. One of my favorite places in Lisbon is the LX Factory, a shopping and dining area with lots of trendy food and locally made artistic products. Near Lisbon is the famous bakery, Pastéis de Belém, which makes the best of Portugal’s well-known pastry, the pastel de nata. Of course, there are lots of great attractions outside of Lisbon too, if you have time for a longer visit.
My favorite city in Portugal is Porto, in the north. It’s artsy and funky, and you can walk everywhere. In winter, I recommend visiting Nazaré, home of the tallest wave ever surfed at 100 feet (30 meters). You’ll find locally made ceramics, blankets, and other handcrafted items in this beachside town, and if you like Indian food, you should stop by Little India for a chicken tikka jalfrezi and naan. Keep an eye open for the old ladies wearing the seven-layer skirts, the traditional dress of Nazaré. A little further south, the medieval town of Óbidos has amazing vistas, cute streets, and great tourist shops. Sintra is a lovely place with several palaces that are well worth visiting.
While the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region, is famous for its beaches, I am partial to the beaches of Alentejo, just a little north of the Algarve. The Portuguese only go to the beach in late summer, so the rest of the year the beaches tend to be empty. Surfing is a popular pastime in Portugal for locals and visitors alike. There are several surf schools popping up on beaches with smaller waves that are good for learning.
If beachcombing is on your list while visiting, check out some of the beaches along the Tejo River in Lisbon. You’ll find sea glass, tiles, and maybe even a few marbles. The beaches in Lagos are loaded with shells. In Porto, there’s a small beach by the lighthouse where I’ve found some great pieces of glass. In general, it’s a good idea to look near old forts and castles, of which there are plenty in Portugal.
While the Portuguese love the beach and the ocean, sea glass isn’t a “thing” here. Most locals have never heard of it, let alone collected it. The looks I get when the old Portuguese men see me hauling a load of driftwood to my car are priceless! The only other beachcombers I’ve run into were either Portuguese shell collectors or foreign visitors.
The Portuguese were seagoing explorers for centuries. With so much history from the seas here, it is fun to imagine where the various pieces of glass and pottery may have come from. Could it be from an olive oil jug a century old? Perhaps from an 18th century bottle of Port wine? Maybe it came from a pirate ship. Or could it have been tossed overboard from a ship leaving for a great discovery? It seems the possibilities are endless!
I have been in the field of design for many years, in a variety of areas, but always I kept coming back to this dream of mine to make lighting. My dad is an electrician, and I worked with him as a teenager. In my opinion, the right lighting can completely change the mood and feel of a room. Once I discovered sea glass, I felt I had the perfect medium for making artistic lighting, and this led to me starting Silver Coast Designs, a beach-inspired lighting, jewelry, and décor business.
I collect driftwood, all sorts of sea glass, sea pottery, shells, interesting pebbles and sticks, feathers, and even sea grasses and seaweed—pretty much anything I think I can use in my art. When I first started making jewelry, I wanted to make something completely unique. That’s when I discovered electroforming.
Electroforming is the intricate process of fusing copper or silver to other mediums such as organic materials, sea glass or pottery. The process involves a low-voltage charge passing through an electrolyte bath, during which the metal is formed or fused onto the structure. How fitting for me, an electrician’s daughter, to use electricity in my jewelry making!
What I love most about electroforming is how versatile it is. I feel like my imagination can run wild. I am a bit of a perfectionist in life, but in my art, I am very much about the imperfections and the natural process. I like it when you can look at a piece and know it was handcrafted, not machine-made.
For those who are interested in visiting Portugal, I recommend traveling in September after the summer tourists have left, but the weather is still good. Don’t forget to bring an outlet adapter and a debit card to get euros from the ATM. Trains are not common in Portugal, so the best way to get around is by car; just make sure it’s small enough to make it through the narrow streets.
Portugal is a surprisingly inexpensive country to travel in and eating out is very affordable. You can get a coffee and a pastry for about 1.50 euros or less. Order an abatanado if you want an Americano coffee or a meia de leite if you want coffee with milk, otherwise you will be served an espresso. If you like seafood, Portugal has many tasty offerings. Another common meal is the bitoque, a steak with an egg on top served with salad, rice, and french fries, usually around 7 to 8 euros. Be aware that most restaurants don’t open for dinner before 7:30 pm, and most shops are closed for lunch between 1 and 3 pm.
Portugal also has wonderful and affordable wine, so be sure to visit some wineries in whatever region you end up visiting. Some of our favorites are Quinta do Crasto in the Douro region, Esporão in Alentejo, and Quinta do Gradil in the Lisboa region.
Portugal is beautiful, has great weather, is affordable, and the people are very friendly. Like me, you may just love it so much you’ll decide to stay!
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2020 issue.
No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.