We stand at the top of the cliffs, looking down on the stork’s nests in the cliffs and far below them the crashing Atlantic waves. For miles along the trail in either direction there isn’t another walker in sight; just us, the swirling sea birds and the cooling breeze on an otherwise scorching late summer day. I could stay here all day and watch the swells breaking in the bay below, but I have another ten miles to go and it’s not time yet to put up my feet.
There have always been plenty of good reasons to visit south western Portugal: clean air, fabulous scenery, honest local food and lack of crowds to name but a few. In the last couple of years a new initiative has taken shape that is hoped will bring visitors to this part of the world to enjoy the unspoilt natural beauty of the Alentejo region and its wild Atlantic coastline. The Rota Vicentina, is a long-distance hiking trail (two hiking trails to be precise) that runs through some of Europe’s most remote rural landscapes.
We’re walking on the Fisherman’s Way, the coastal section of the path that hugs the cliff tops for much of the route. We climb formidable dunes, reaching the summits and staring out over the Atlantic before heading downhill, getting our breath back before the next ascent. Every few miles there’s a sudden burst of life: at Zambujeira do Mar there’s a chance to watch the crowds on the beach and enjoy an ice cream. There’s even a masseuse plying her trade in a small tent in the shelter of the cliffs; tempting, but it’s too early to work on those muscles when we haven’t yet reached our destination.
The villages along the route are generally small affairs – ten minutes and they are behind us, hidden quickly by the undulating dunes. We pass a small harbour where fishermen are busy loading up their equipment for a day’s work – this may be a historical trail but for many people living in this part of Portugal, fishing is as important a part of their livelihood as it ever was. We exchange waves and cheery greetings and continue, they with their boats and us with the ascent in the sandy bank ahead.
The Historical Way is the inland part of the Rota Vicentina – if anything even less frequented than the coastal route, yet no less fascinating. We make our way along ancient drovers’ paths, used for centuries to link the remote villages of the Alentejo. A shepherd stands by the wayside as his goats wander without haste across the track.
The trees provide occasional shelter from the sun and towards the end of our day on the Historical Way we are rewarded by the sight of a shaded natural pool in the river. A group of local children are playing in the water, jumping from the rocks and swimming downstream before climbing out on a bank and going round again. We regret not packing our swimwear into our backpack and settle for a drink and a sweet snack as we sit and watch the action.
The Rota Vicentina may get busy in years to come, but I suspect you’ll always be able to find solitude on this lengthy trail. It’s a great place to enjoy a long walk and in the spring and autumn the temperatures are perfect for walking. More than just a trail though, the Rota Vicentina provides a precious interaction with a part of Portugal that hasn’t changed for many generations – something that is certainly best experienced on foot.