Vanlife in Portugal after 8th January 2021

From the 8th of January 2021 changes to the Highway Code in Portugal come into effect. The approved changes to the Highway Code clarify the places where motorhomes can stay overnight, parked. It will no longer be allowed to spend the night in car parks, laybys, on the street or on wasteland. The only authorized places where motorhomes will now be able park overnight are the areas designated for that purpose. So unless you are parked on a campsite, aire or other area deemed as an area to park motorhomes you will be breaking the law if you park overnight and sleep in your vehicle anywhere else!

Parking will mean the parking of the vehicle with more space than its perimeter for example having a window open outwards or steps sticking out. A motorhome or similar will mean a vehicle that presents a living space or that is adapted for the use of a living space, or classified as motorhome, or caravan. Overnight stay will mean the permanence of a motorhome or similar at the parking place, with occupants, between 9:00pm one day and 7:00am the next day. Fines for breaking these new rules will range from 60 to 600 euros.

Here’s a little story set in the not too distant future…

So I set off from my home in the UK in my campervan, I am going on a month’s holiday and am very looking forward to exploring some of what Portugal has to offer. I’m particularly interested in the lovely food and the surfing beaches as I’ve heard so much about both. Woo hoo holibobs!!!

I get my ferry to Santander in Spain and drive the 6 hours, I mean I have a break of course, at quite a charming roadside cafe. Anyway it was 6 hours total to my first stop for the night. It was a beautiful free aire in the village of Barril de Alva in the district of Coimbra. I have friends living here and spend a lovely few days catching up. The aire here is brilliant, there is free mountain spring water from the font, treated water for a euro or two, emptying for grey and black water and electric hook up if you want it for 3 euros for 24 hours. There is a limit on the amount of time you can stay at a reasonable 72 hours. If this is typical of the rest of Portugal I can't wait!

After my visit to Barril de Alva I head towards the coast and drive down to Ericeira. I have heard this is a great surf town and I’ve also heard about one of the bars that puts on live music. My luck is in as there is a big that night! I find a great parking spot overlooking the sea on the outskirts of town. Slightly off the road, my van fits neatly into one of the parking bays. I make a small dinner, I don’t want to eat too much if I’m going to dance around to a band! I am just getting my dancing shoea on when the police arrive and tell me that it is nearly 21:00 and if I am still here when they pass back through I will be fined for not being in a designated campervan area! Off come the dancing shoes, I can't drive in them!

I look on Google maps and find that there is one campsite on the other side of town so I quickly drive there hoping to still see the band playing in town. Unfortunately they are full up as there is now lots of people in Motorhomes using campsites due to the new law. I end up having to drive all the way to the bigger town of Mafra and booking into the campsite there. Sadly I didn’t get to see the band play, the dancing shoes didn't get an outing.

The next day I head south hoping the new law won’t be enforced so much, maybe I was just unlucky and met some over zealous cops. I am on a budget and will have to cut my trip down if I have to pay for a campsite every night. The average campsite seems to be around 10 euro a night, with quite a few far more! I was hoping I would spend my budget on sampling some of the amazing restaurants people keep telling me about!

I arrive just south of Sines, near to the village of Porto Covo where a friend has recommend a restaurant. There is ample parking at the restaurant which has a beautiful ocean view which is even more spectacular as the sun starts to set. The restaurant owner is happy enough for me to park outside for the night but it's not actually his land, it's part of the Natural Park. I decide that surely I'm doing no harm staying the night and it's very quiet so I doubt anyone will be round to check. The GNR are not so happy when they tell me at 22:00 I have to leave now or get a fine, even when I explain I might be over the drink drive limit they tell me to leave. Eek, lucky I only had the two large glasses of wine!

Sadly I leave, but at least I had had a great dinner, and wine! Yet again I have trouble finding a space at a campsite and spend an hour finding somewhere that has room. I consider myself lucky, it is still only March, what will happen when the better weather arrives? The next day I am bound for Aljezur and I have heard there is a small parking area where campervans go behind the market in the town. I decide to go there at least for the daytime and go to another restaurant highly recommended to book a table for the following evening when a friend was coming to meet me.

When I arrive at the car park it is not very full with only a couple of motorhomes there. I walk into town and book my table, should I book it for 19:00 just in case I cannot stay in the car park and have to leave by 21:00? I wasn’t sure so thought better be on the safe side and imagine I may have to leave. After the last run in with the cops I'm now on my guard! While cooking my dinner later that night the police arrive almost dead on 21:00 and tell me to leave or get a fine. This is becoming all too familiar but luckily my friend doesn’t live too far away so I go park on their land for the next few nights. We even change our reservation for a bit later the next evening where we have a lovely traditional meal.

After a few days at my friends I am refreshed from the stress of police visits and threats of fines. I have drunk lots of local wine a nd sampled some other eateries in Aljezur. I do want to see a bit of the south coast before heading back to Santander and my ferry home so I leave the safety of private land. Everyone I meet has the same stories, police moving motorhomes on but campsites full and some of the cheaper aires closed since the pandemic started. I arrive in Lagos and book myself into a campsite for 2 nights. It’s one of the more expensive campsites in the area, unfortunately all the cheaper ones are full. A whopping 30 euros for 2 nights, that's at least 2 dinners out!

One day I decide to cook dinner before I go back to the campsite as I’m not so keen on the campsite. To be honest it's quite full and I'm quite a solitary person, my neighbours there have two loud children and a loud dog. I mean they're having a great holiday and I don't want to be a spoil sport but Jesus if the kid screeches again I might just strangle him! Anyway I’m in a carpark in the town when my gas runs out while cooking. Luckily I have LPG so can go and get it refilled but by the time I pack everything away, drive to the garage and fill my tank and drive back to the car park time is getting on. It is 20:30 by the time I am cooking again and 21:00 by the time I am eating!

Next to me in the car park a car pulls up with a family who have just bought a McDonalds and are sat in the car eating it. The local police turn up and tell me I have to go, that I am breaking the law by eating in my motorhome past 21:00 and that they are going to issue me with a 60 euro fine! Of course they do not bother the family in the car, it’s actually only because of the type of vehicle I am eating in that I get the fine! Apparently McDonalds in a car is fine, curry in a motorhome is not.

The next day I drive across the Algarve and into Spain where I enjoy the rest of my holiday free parking where ever I choose with no bother. I enjoy some great tapas with local wines and a great paella one night, again with plenty of wine. Nice to be able to drink alcohol without the fear of having to drive afterwards.

Next time I think I’ll avoid Portugal, very sad about that as it’s a beautiful country with stunning scenery, tasty food and wonderful people but being discriminated against just because I’m in a motorhome and do not want to always use campsites is a bit too much for me. I’ve heard France is very good for campervanners so maybe will try there for my next holiday. C’est la vie!

Thanks for reading :)