I rolled my ankle and tumbled over. Our guide, José Granja, came to check I was OK. “You know, you need to taste the floor,” he said. Then we set off again.
But José wasn't finished. “I fell off my bike once. 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. Might as well make the most of this. Because I'll never fall off my bike on purpose.”
A gentle introduction to walking in Portugal
That roll in the dust began my experience of the Rota Vicentina.
This hiking system is a south west alternative to Parque Nacional Da Peneda-Gerês,
It comprises two branches: the Fishermen’s Path and Historical Way. Together they cover 340km, straddling the Algarve and Alentejo.
The name Rota Vicentina comes from the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina. One of many protected natural parks in Portugal.
We tried the inland Historical Way first. From San Luis to Odemira is easy walking. Lots of views and little climbing.
The country's gentle. We passed sheep and goats. Their tinny bells chiming in unison. And the odd cactus was as mean as the terrain got.
Our one human encounter was an old farmer chasing his cows.
‘Ai! Ai!’ he shouted. Then followed with fluent curses. José chatted to him from the path. Later explaining it was important to engage. He's keen for locals to take pride in the trails. And also for young people to train as guides.
Follow your nose on Rota Vicentina
Much of this path existed before the Rota Vicentina team began maintaining and marking it. Yet we saw few signs of settlement.
José said the Portuguese left this “outback” in the 1970s. Often to go to university. Then the area became popular with Dutch and Germans who built houses on hilltops. By contrast, local farmers build at the sheltered foot of hills.
The aromas here were as potent as the views.
It seemed like we were walking through a pine forest. But José said the main note was esteva. Known as rockrose it's the trail's emblematic plant. And its five purple dots are likened locally to Christ's wounds. The sticky leaves smell with a hint of citrus. One of us compared it oleander. Another said citronella. It reminded me of Vietnamese cooking.
José also broke off what he called, ‘white rosemary’. It smelled exactly like undiluted lime cordial.
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Walking in Portugal is the stuff of legend
After 11km we stopped at Ribeira da Capelinha (‘little chapel stream’). Our packed lunch was simple. A folded fried egg, lettuce and Alentejo bread. But with the smell of eucalyptus, the sound of the stream and the dappled light, it was enough.
My Historical Way highlight was our swim at Pego das Pias.
Semi-circular sections have been hewn from this swimming hole’s sides by rolling rocks. According to José, these pegos (small lakes) are associated with magical female spirits. They're known as mouras encantadas. And are said to guard Portugal’s watery places. Pego da Laima nearby, is said to have a golden arrow hidden in its depths.
Hiking the Fishermen's Path with fishermen
We tried perceves (goose barnacles) on our final evening. They weren’t amazing. Chewy little morsels we teased out of shells. But I was in awe of them thanks to Nicolau da Costa. Our guide on Fishermen’s Path day two, he explained fishermen like him risk their lives to gather these shellfish. Often going from rock to rock on body boards. Possibly why perceves cost so much per kilo.
Near Pontal da Carrapateira, Nicolau pointed out a terrace on the cliff face. “When sea bream come to breed here. Fishermen sleep on the cliff."
Don't want to sleep on a cliff? Try Hostel do Mar in Carrapateira, close to Bordeira Beach.
This coast is too special to be unknown
“This coast is too special to be unknown” said Marta Cabral of Casas Brancas. And she was right.
Rota Vicentina: a place of strong character
A minute’s walk inland the scent of surrounding scrub hits hard. Dense, green clumps bind the sandy landscape. In amongst them are lilac. Yellow flowers and invasive Hottentot Fig. Known as chorão it looks like sliced watermelon. The sand's almost red in sections.
At one point we descended a long flight of stone steps to Carraca beach. And I wondered why few tourists make it to this region. Marta thought she knew why: “The beaches are accessible. But it’s windy. The sea's cold. The roads are dusty. And there are no bars. It’s a place with strong character. So if you love it, you get addicted”. I was there already.
For a completely different but no less authentic experience, try an adventure in Saxony – step into the best hiking in Germany.
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Top image: Rota Vicentina, Fishermen's trail, Portugal © Cat_s/Shutterstock