Neil McQuillian explores a new network of trails in Portugal
My ankle rolled to the side and I tumbled over. Our guide, José Granja, came across to check I was OK. “You know, you need to taste the floor,” he said, peering at me as we set off again. “I fell off my bike once, and my head hit the ground hard. As I lay there, I saw an ant.” He held a finger up close to his face as if inspecting it. “I thought, I might as well make the most of being there, because I’d never throw myself off my bike on purpose.”
There’s no ceremonial way to launch a new walking trail system, no champagne bottle-smashing moment. But with that roll in the dust – and José’s spiritually flavoured interpretation – my experience of the Rota Vicentina really began. This new two-pronged hiking system offers a south west alternative to the northern Parque Nacional Da Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park and traditionally its prime walking area. Its two branches, the Fishermen’s Path and the Historical Way, cover a combined length of 340km and straddle the Algarve and Alentejo regions. The name comes from the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, one of the many ‘natural parks’ (parques naturais) in Portugal that enjoy a degree of protection from development.
We were sampling the inland Historical Way first, walking from San Luis to Odemira. This section offers easy walking with plentiful vistas and little climbing. It was gentle country – we passed sheep and goats with hollow, tinny bells that give rich blankets of sound when chiming in unison. An occasional cactus leering from the foot of a wall was the meanest the terrain got. Our one encounter with another human being saw an old farmer chasing after his cows. ‘Ai! Ai!’ he was shouting, followed by a fluent patter of curses as one animal strayed and he stumbled down the hillside after it. José had a chat with him – at shouting volume – from the path, explaining afterwards how important it is to engage with the locals. He wants them to take pride in the trails, and for the young people of the region to start training as guides.
Even though much of this pathway has existed long before the Rota Vicentina team started maintaining it and installing their signposts, we passed few signs of settlement. José pointed out that the Portuguese left what he called this “outback” in the 1970s to go to university. The region became popular with the Dutch and Germans, who built their houses at the tops of blustery hills, in contrast to the local farmers who had sagely established themselves at the hills’ sheltered bottoms.
The aromas of the region were almost more potent than the views. At first it was like walking through a particularly pungent pine forest, but José taught us that the main note comes from the trail’s emblematic plant, esteva (also known as rockrose) whose five purple dots are likened locally to the wounds of Christ. Its leaves are sticky and give a smell as sweet as lip gloss, with citrus undercurrents. One of our group likened it to oleander, another to citronella. It reminded me of Vietnamese cooking. José also broke off something he called ‘white rosemary’. He might as well have been holding a glass of undiluted lime cordial to my nose.
After 11km we stopped for lunch at the Ribeira da Capelinha (‘little chapel stream’). Our packed lunch sandwiches were simple: a folded fried egg and lettuce on moist, dense Alentejo bread. But with the smell of eucalyptus about us, the sound of the stream, and dappling light on tree bark, it was quite enough.
My Historical Way highlight was our swim at Pego das Pias. Semi-circular sections have been cut out of this swimming hole’s sides by the action of rolling rocks. José said that these pegos (small lakes) are associated with the magical female spirits known as mouras encantadas, supernatural beings who are said to guard Portugal’s watery places. A pego close to this one, Pego da Laima, supposedly has a golden arrow hidden in its depths.
We would sample perceves (goose barnacles), the local seafood delicacy, on the third and final evening of the trip. They weren’t mind-blowing eating – chewy little morsels that needed teasing out of their reptilian-looking shells – but I was in awe of them thanks to Nicolau da Costa, who guided us on our second day along a segment of the Fishermen’s Path. He explained that on this “aggressive coast”, fishermen like him risk their lives to gather perceves, sometimes using body boards to go from rock to rock at low tide. That explains why they sell for up to €35-45 per kilo. Near Pontal da Carrapateira, Nicolau pointed out a terrace on the cliff face. “When sea bream come to breed that spot is so prized by fishermen that sometimes we sleep there, and one of us goes to get food and wine for the others.”
On our third day we embarked on a longer trip along the coast from Almograve to Zambujeira, lured by the promise of watching nesting storks. We stood on the clifftop at Cabo Sardão and watched them feeding their wriggling young on precarious rocky eyries. “This coast is too special to be unknown in a world that’s always looking for something new,” said Marta Cabral of Casas Brancas, the rural accommodation collective who have driven the marking of the Rota Vicentina. She was totally right.
A minute’s walk inland away from the clifftop breeze, the aroma of the surrounding scrub hit hard. These dense clumps of rich green seemed to bind the sandy landscape together. In amongst them are lilac and yellow flowers and patches of the invasive Hottentot Fig – known as chorão – which looked as edible as sliced watermelon. The sand itself is almost red in sections. At one point on the walk we made our way down a long flight of stone steps to the small but marvellous Carraca beach. I wondered, not for the first time, why few tourists make it to this region. Marta thought she knew why: “There are beaches with good access, yes, but it’s windy, the water’s cold, the roads are dusty, and there are no bars with lounge music. But it’s a place with strong character, so if you love it, you get addicted”. I was there already.
Casas Brancas can be booked through http://www.casasbrancas.pt. For those who can’t afford these ‘casas de turismo rural’ there are youth hostels in Almograve and one near Arrifana beach, whilst campsites are available at Zambujeira and near Odeceixe and Aljezur.
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