04 Sep 2013 Clipping Viagens

🇬🇧 Rota Vicentina at The Sunday Times

7 reading time

This walk along SW Portugal was an unique experience, not only for the landscape, welcoming and gastronomy, but also for the “adventure”, described effusively, of having, for moments, lost the trail of the signposts of the Fishermen’s Trail, near Almograve.

Note: it is a detour from the coast, which crosses a pinewood, where the signposts were meanwhile reviewed and reinforced by the Rota Vicentina’s team.

Read the full article below.

Taking a turn on Portugal’s wild side

Empty beaches, towering cliffs, crashing surf — an old fishermen’s trail along the untamed Atlantic coast has us hooked

From where I’m standing, what looks like every last cubic mile of the Atlantic is noisily doing its ocean thing on my left, all the way out to a horizon masking the Azores and, ultimately, the east coast of America. To my right, in front and behind, I can see Portugal. Not the tourist swarms of the Algarve, nor the assured refinement of Lisbon, but something very different indeed: the wild Alentejo, a sprawling, protected area in the southwest, where a vast natural park meets a fearsome coastline.

It has taken six hours of plane, train and automobile to get from London to the Rota Vicentina, a walking route opened this spring as part of a grand plan to showcase this little-known area to the world. There are actually two trails. One is an inland “historical way”, a whopping  143 miles of former pilgrims’ paths that connect Santiago do Cacem, in the north, to Cape St Vincent, in the south. My commuter-grade pins, however, are taking the shorter “fishermen’s trail”. It’s still 62 miles long, mind, and more challenging than the inland path. It skirts the cliff edges north from Odeceixe to Porto Covo.

The name gives it away. Locals have used this trail since forever to access hidden bays and net prize catches, which they hawk to locally run guesthouses and restaurants along the route. You won’t find any chains here. Ergo, filling up on the best of the region’s food and wine is a breeze.

Perhaps misguidedly, my tour operator saw no need to arrange a guide. The walk is dotted with posts showing the way and, as a 21st-century bonus, Google Maps and my iPhone seem to work just fine in this wilderness. For purists, good old-fashioned paper maps and walking notes are also supplied.

Striking out and heading up 250ft cliffs, past the deserted beach at Odeceixe, the Rota Vicentina frequently veers to within a sphincter-tightening pebble of the edge. With the Atlantic doing its level best to remove all trace of the landmass below, vertigo sufferers might want to tread carefully. Don’t be too squeamish, though, or you risk missing the white storks that nest on the extreme edges. They were my introduction to the wildlife living along the Rota, which includes Bonelli’s eagles, peregrine falcons and even the odd wild boar.

Lungs filled with sea air and the pungent aroma of coastal blooms power me onwards and sometimes even downwards: I spy an opportunity to descend a cliff onto virgin sand by way of some steps, then a rope for the final few feet. Having reached the bottom, I feel as though I’m the last man on Earth — those daunting cliffs behind me, a deserted beach all around and, in front, an entire ocean filling the horizon. It’s a humbling experience.

At the buzzy town of Zambujeira do Mar, I head for the Herdade do Touril (00 351-937 811627, www.touril.pt; doubles from £68, B&B), a luxurious farm residence overlooking the ocean, where I’ll be sleeping log-like once I’ve eaten. It’s day one, but I’ve already 12 miles behind me, and I’m starving.

My host, Angela, recommends a small shack near the cliffs, A Barca Tranquitanas (283 961186), where I soon find myself eating sardine pâté and bread (£2.50), polvo frito (fried octopus; £8) and a fresh sole (£12), grilled and served simply with potatoes and vegetables, accompanied by a bottle of Douro. I watch the sun sink into the Atlantic before catching a ride back to Touril to relax in the sumptuous lounge, completely unaware of what’s coming tomorrow…

A biblical downpour, that’s what. And it’s relentless. Back on the trail, mother nature is not happy, slaughtering the cliffs with angry swells that send sonic booms thundering into the air with each impact. It’s rough. Dense flora packs out the headland, eventually giving way to enormous dunes that are tough-going, especially because, it seems, the Rota Vicentina post-marking crew got a bit economical here — I can’t find the damned things anywhere. Worse, Google Maps isn’t playing ball, so I rely on the walking notes and the “sea on left” theory, neither of which works.

An hour later, well and truly lost in the middle of a soggy moor, I employ new thinking: what would Bear Grylls do? I quickly conclude that he’d either drink his urine or eat something still wriggling, which is no help.

I trudge on and reach my destination, Almograve, mostly through aimless wandering — at one point I was in a field populated by snakes, where I took the Indiana Jones line and legged it. Before the trip is out, four veteran walkers will reveal that they, too, suffered total direction failure in those godawful dunes, so consider yourself warned.

There’s nothing quite like a warm welcome when you’re miserable, and the Casa do Adro (283 997102, casadoadro.com.pt; doubles from £56, B&B), in Vila Nova de Milfontes, has got it nailed. Idalia — a banker turned cake-baker extraordinaire — accepts me into her family home as if we’re related.

When she learns that I’m walking solo, she’s horrified, and insists on joining me for dinner at nearby A Fateixa (283 996415), an unfussy eatery on the harbour, where we chow down on a faith-restoring authentic fisherman’s stew and espetadas de lulas (chargrilled prawn and squid skewers; £8). The vinho flows and spirits are high, even as we watch Idalia’s team, Benfica, stuff their final chance of league victory on the bar telly. Like I said, unfussy. But perfect.

The final walk promises to be a cinch, not least because the packed lunch today — all the hotels on my trip provide one daily, and it’s always ham and cheese sarnies — includes Idalia’s baking. I follow the fishermen’s trail north, singing the odd shanty, gawping at inaccessible bays, Iberian azure winged magpies and a Bonelli’s eagle, scoffing chocolate cake and, strangely, stopping to snap the wreckage of an enormous boat. As locals tell it, the

boat was piled high with drugs — or possibly just Idalia’s excellent cakes — and was trying to flee the authorities when it ran afoul of this unforgiving coastline.

At Malhao beach, the route arcs inland, through fragrant pine and eucalyptus fields, to the Tres Marias (965 666231; doubles from £60, B&B), the hotel where the adventure ends. A chic farm property set quietly off all beaten tracks, it’s surrounded by a meadow of superchilled donkeys and one ostrich — the lone, lucky survivor of the owner’s former meat business. A final-night feast — no ostrich, sadly — is served in the main house, with all the guests around one table, sharing experiences, and the confabulating, eating and drinking carry on late into the evening. As with every step of this journey, it’s an unforgettable experience, 99% of which I’d come back for.

Alentejo, I’ll take your fish, your wine and your walking any day of the week, but, by Christ, if I never see another of your dunes for as long as I live, it’ll be too soon.


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