On foot in unsung Portugal – walking with storks

On the Fishermen's Way, Portugal On the Rota Vicentina it is possible to walk all day along a dramatically beautiful coastline with storks and yellow legged gulls – but hardly any humans – for company. Inland, where the trail is part shaded by cork oak and eucalyptus, the solitude is even more intense.

The Rota Vicentina, which was completed this spring, is a new long distance footpath in Portugal’s Alentejo region. It was pioneered by an enthusiastic group of accommodation owners and other tourism interests called Casas Brancas, with some funding from the European Union. British tour operators already offer holidays on stretches of it, with baggage transfers between overnight stays. Comprehensive signposting has now made hiking it independently much easier.

Most people outside Portugal would struggle to place the Alentejo on a map. It is east and south of Lisbon and borders the Algarve – but the Algarve it is most definitely not. Its cliffs face west rather than south and the Atlantic can be fierce. There is a handful of mostly small seaside resorts with nothing between them but rocky headlands, sand dunes and stunning bays, many inaccessible to all but the agile and daring. Fishermen perch on ledges and sheer sided precipices. Every year two or more slip and die. Storks build their nests on rock stacks. When I walked there in May you could watch them feeding their young, sometimes without even the need for binoculars.

On the island route The flowers, particularly in spring, almost beggar description. Though it’s a struggle to keep two invasive plants – acacia and the beguilingly pretty Hottentot Fig  from southern Africa – at bay, the profusion of native flora is astonishing. The shrubbery is blousy with stocky leafed gum cistus, blooms like fried eggs with drops of brown sauce on the albumen. There is rock rose, another cistus, dark pink and gold, sea thrift nodding in the wind, yellow and chocolate umbrella milkwort (tolpis barbata), thyme, papillon and green lavender. I could go on.

On the inland branch of the trail there is an emptiness heavy with the legacy of recent Alentejo history. This was a region of great land owners with estates worked by poor agricultural labourers. The Communist Party was strong here. It was fertile recruiting ground for the forces which fought Franco in the Spanish civil War. After Portugal’s largely bloodless revolution in 1974, many of the estates were seized by workers or nationalised. The change was not a universal success. Some owners returned. Others, faced with properties which had become run down, couldn’t face the cost of restoration. Meanwhile there was a drift from countryside the cities. One benefit of the Casas Brancas initiative may be to help tempt them back again.

The cork oak is still farmed widely, though the trees’ owners must curse the advent of the screw top wine bottle. Along the footpath trunks are marked to show the year in which their bark was stripped. That can be done only once in nine years. Almost as prevalent is fast growing eucalyptus, used to make paper, which creaks in the wind and leaves a tinder dry covering of bark and leaves on the ground.

Santiago do Cacem With a guide I walked a section of some 12 miles from the northern end of of the Rota, in the town of Santiago do Cacem, beginning at the hilltop church dedicated to St. James, who gave the town part of its present name. The Cacem bit derives from the name of a Moorish governor whom the townspeople decided to commemorate. Long before the Moors arrived this was, to judge from the size if its hippodrome, an important Roman strong post.

Along the way there were valleys deep in long grass, unmown meadows snowy with daisies. We paused to explore a deserted, ruined convent, built in the 15th century. A little later we skirted a goat farm whose elderly lady owner had been terrified at the prospect of walkers.

On the inland trail you might encounter a shepherd wearing a distinctive short sleeved tunic which protects his shoulders and back from the often relentless sun. Not far from the town of Odemira there was a diversion to some rock pools where Mediterranean turtles sunned themselves on rocks, snake eagles were known to hunt and the Iberian chiff chaff sang its two note song.

Herdado do Touril I stayed at the Herdade do Touril, a property opened ten years ago on a beef cattle farm, not far from the small resort of Zambujeira do Mar and a stone’s throw from the coast. It has a lovely salt water swimming pool – our room offered access across a lawn from an elegant little patio – and does excellent breakfasts but no dinners. While it would a sin of omission to ignore the many good fish restaurants hereabouts this does mean that unless you take taxis, your intake of Alenetjo wine must be severely restricted, And that’s a shame, because you can get a modest but very pleasant white for as little as €6 (about £5) a bottle.

Walking one way and organising transport to the start or finish of your hike is not especially difficult. Some Casas Brancas owners will give you a lift, taxis – at under 50p a kilometre, or double if the driver needs to make one leg empty – are not wildly pricey – and in at least one instance you can use the bus.

The Rota Vicentina connects with a long distance route in the Algarve. Its coastal section is called the Fishermen’s Way. Inland it is known as the Historical Way. The former has blue and green markers, the latter, the red and white of the GR (Grande Randonnee) network.

Stork feeding young Don’t go in July or August. Not only may it be too hot to walk comfortably but that feeling of loneliness on the coast will be submerged by a deluge of mostly Portuguese holidaymakers. At other times you may shake your head in wonder that you have such spectalular suroundings to yourself.

More information

Roger Bray’s trip was arranged by Sunvil Discovery. He flew from Heathrow to Lisbon with TAP and picked up a rental car from Guerin and spending seven nights b&b at the Herdade do Touril. A similar package from Sunvil in September, for example, costs from £870 for each of two sharing. The firm can also arrange holidays there with a flight to Faro, which is about an hour closer, from £855. Casas Brancas, which plans to produce new maps and a book on the route later this year, is at www.casasbrancas.pt.
Note: While people with an average head for heights will have no absolutely problems, the coastal sections of the route are definitely not for those who suffer vertigo or are very nervous of steep drops.

TAP flies from Heathrow to Lisbon daily seven times a day.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Sunvil Active Holidays.

287 people found this helpful

Share Article:

Roger Bray

Travel writer

Leave a comment


Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest travel tips on top destinations.

Join the club

Become a member to receive exclusive benefits

Our community is the heart of Silver Travel Advisor, we love nothing more than sharing ideas, inspiration, hints and tips between us.

Most Recent Articles

With over 7,000 years of history, Malta is the ultimate holiday destination for any history buff!…

Come feel the love on a Princess cruise. You’ll enjoy the MedallionClass experience others simply can’t, and it’s exclusively for everyone. Visit incredible destinations and be involved in the best experiences around each one of them.

Experience more with Princess and connect effortlessly with the world around you, spend time away with loved ones, take a moment for yourself, and fall in love with your holiday of a lifetime, every time.

With over 20 years of experience, Wendy Wu Tours has mastered the art of creating exceptional, fully inclusive tours which showcase the very best of each destination.

Each tour is led by a world-class guide, who will highlight the very best of their homeland, and includes authentic cultural experiences so you are not just seeing the sights, but truly immersing yourself in local life.

Say hello to ease at sea. Ambassador’s purpose is simple: they want to inspire every guest to experience authentic cruising, effortlessly and sustainably. Passionate about protecting our oceans and destinations, their ships comply with the highest industry emission standards and there is no single-use plastic on board.

On your voyage, you will receive the warmest of welcomes from the Ambassador community as you sail upon the friendliest ships afloat.

This is a global co-operative co-owned by local partners using real local experts and guides, which supports local communities, environments and wildlife. It offers travellers quirky places to stay, activity holidays and learning experiences. Not In The Guidebooks gets travellers off the beaten track into local culture with day experiences and longer, immersive adventures.

From wild wellness breaks in Wales to painting in Portugal, sustainable adventures in Mauritius to food safaris in Brazil, this is immersive, exciting travel.

Seabourn’s five intimate ships carry guests to the heart of great cities, exclusive yacht harbours and secluded coves around the world, while two new purpose-built expedition ships will combine exhilarating adventures in remote destinations with the sophisticated amenities of the world’s finest resorts at sea.

From the luxury of all suite accommodations to complimentary fine wines and spirits, and a no tipping policy, Seabourn exemplifies the definition of travelling well.