PORTUGAL

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes: Part 5

O Arial to Santiago de Compostela: 1 day : 16.5 km

Our last day on the Way started, as usual, in the dark. We only had 16.5 km to do but wanted to get to the Cathedral square with Isobel and Catarina and I was going to go full monty and go to the 12 o clock mass with them. We returned to the main road where we had eaten the day before with Tomas O Maítín from Connemara, an interesting multi Caminoist (17!) who claimed to be a descendant of Ricard Martin AKA Humanity Dick, who had basically owed Connemara. We were initially shocked by the number of pilgrims on the move, but turning off onto the tracks we all spread out and peace returned.

We had breakfast halfway after a couple of hours in a cafe that called itself ” The last Stop” and met up with Rami and his wife who later strode past us at high speed never to be seen again.

Alternating between urban and rural as we moved ever closer to the end the anticipation in the groups, couples and singles with packs on their backs was almost palpable.

The symbols of our journey were all around us as we moved through the suburbs, now with Catarina, and still by times on leafy lanes.

Without warning the cathedral towers were suddenly right ahead and in a moment, but after a fortnight, we entered the plaza, where many many people were experiencing the same emotions. Elation, gratitude, joy, bewilderment and love- to name a few.

We met others, Isobel and Yolanda and saw the Dutch walking group leader dancing madly round with a bunch of kids. People hugging, people sobbing, people laughing with relief. It’s over.

Time to get into the cathedral- the original focus of the whole cult of St James, a show with a cast of millions that’s been running for two thousand years. Leaving our packs outside in a display of faith and trust we followed the young Spanish couple known from many encounters into the sacred space where we visited the saints underfloor crypt before searching for a seat in the already full house.

As great luck, or divine intervention, would have it we had placed ourselves in the very best place to witness an event that happens on various holy days or can, in some circumstances, be paid to take place. The lighting and swinging of the Botafumeiro. A medieval air freshener, designed 800 years ago to purify the air of 100’s of sweaty pilgrims, its 1.5m high, weighs 50 kg and is loaded with another 50 kg of incense and charcoal. A crack squad of “tiraboleiros” do the rope work and get it swinging at 70 kph after a minute and a half of ” pumping” sailing high high up into the naves.

Quite a treat to witness. A last supper with Caterina, check in and shower at old quarter hostel, a wander through the multitude of Camino souvenir shops and I went off to the Pilgrims office and got my Compostela , the certificate that should ensure my sins are wiped and my name is down at the pearly gates. It will join the one I gained 17 years ago and the ” dual pilgrim” cert bestowed after the Kumamo Kodo pilgrimages in Japan. All good insurance cover. The Cathedral plaza was by then a place of relaxation and celebration.

Many foot sore people finally able to rest. We had all done well to get here. Sally’s feet were in very poor shape, I still had painful gout in my right foot, Emma, the Camino newbie, had finished un blistered. To celebrate we had dinner in Paradise, or Cafe Paradiso. Emma was leaving on an early flight in the morning while we had time to visit the Pilgrimage museum with interesting displays on the history and culture of this timeless worldwide phenomena.

So many Ways. So little time. Ultreia !

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes : Part 4

Pontevedra to O Areal: 3 days : 55.5km

A good evening in Pontevedra enjoying a meal courtesy of Emma’s prize bond win but a bad night for me thanks to a sudden and acute flare up of an old affliction ” gouty toe”. Awake from 3.30 and fearful of the long climb ahead I was made more understanding of those suffering from blisters and other foot afflictions. “The Camino Provides” they say- seemingly this can include sufficient pain to bring humility and understanding. Or that was my lesson for the day anyway. We’ve taken to adopting a thought or meditation to work through each day in an effort of self improvement. But being us we keep returning to base level after expressing uncharitable opinions, or facts as I like to call them.

Anyhow we set off pre dawn across a smart city with a beautiful old quarter we shared with groups of fun loving youth on the way from party’s and clubs. We also explored a pilgrim vending arcade which catered for all our needs from drinks, snacks and plasters, creams and badges and pilgrim scallop shells to condoms, lubes and a wide range of vibrators and masturbators. And some “Naughty Hedgehogs”.

Luckily not far out of town we turned onto the Variante Espiritual and left all lustful thoughts behind as we climbed up past crosses through forest and farmland to the church of San Pedro, where Emma gave an impromptu service from the outside pulpit and we stopped for petroglyphs and coffee.

Moving on through more farmland and forest and grateful for the shade as the sun gained power my toe slowed me to a state where a snail crossing my path before the monastery of San Xoan seemed prophetic.

Soon we were down at the sea/ estuary following a grassy path round to the lovely historic town of Combarro with a wealth of horreos lined up along the shoreline, 8 stone crosses and lots of funky old houses.

And yapping dogs.

A steep steep climb up from sea level to a spring and resting place was the first stop in a 437 m climb in the sun, slowly making it to a viewpoint and then off the road and onto forest tracks again for the final long and painful ascent past more petroglyphs that were too far off route to bother with.

Finally the descent. The last few kms, down through shady forest on rocky track to be rewarded suddenly with a yearned vision. The bar at Armenteira. And the monastery next door. (But later after food and drink).

Another, final, hobble and we were settling in to the Albergue where we again met old camino buddys. Manfred the Austrian snorer, Catarina , the young Portuguese woman we’ve been with for days, Rami and his wife,the Israeli couple with the kettle, the silent Korean man, the mother and daughter from Slovenia and Isobel from Holland who manages just fine with half an arm missing. We’ve left many others behind or they went the Central when we went Espiritual.

In the morning we set out anticipating the highlight section of the route, the ” stones and water” path, a stunning section following the river past 51 ancient mills and cascading falls for the first 7 km.

Truly wondrous- but you kinda had to be there. After a coffee break in Barrantes we followed the croaking frogs and shoals of little fish up the crystal clear waters of the river Umia, busy with walkers and cyclists and surrounded by lush grape and kiwi crops supported by a network of wire and stone pillars.

Finally away from the waters we once again followed small roads and some forest tracks stopping in Mouzos to join in the celebrations for San Michael and have a salsa dance in the plaza.

Arriving hot and bothered at the Ria de Arousa estuary we stopped briefly for paddles and bathing in the warm shallow waters and then limped on for the final furlong into Vilanova de Arousa past lots of people enjoying a more sedentary lifestyle. A good small private albergue with a kettle and milk in the fridge, big sofa and packets of biscuits and a fine waterfront restaurant meal with Isobel put an end to another fine day on the Way with a boat trip in the early morning to look forward to.

Not a good night unfortunately. The lodgings were fine but not the clientele. 3 Portuguese men arrived later and one was an extreme snorer. Emma and then Sally fled to the lounge/ kitchen where a sofa had to do while I was left to employ various short term measures in desperate attempts at restoring peace. In the end exhaustion helped and I slept again till 6 when we broke fast and returned to the harbour to join the group of pilgrims embarking for the Translatio. This is the name given to the boat journey made up river to Pontecesures by the remains of St James after he was martyred in the Holy Lands and is the worlds only maritime pilgrimage route.

” Led by an angel and guided by a star” St James faithful followers brought him back in AD44 to the lands he had converted and landing up river at present day Padrón carried his body by ox and cart and buried him on Mt Libredon where it lay forgotten for nearly 800 years ( allegedly). The Translatio route is lined with 17 stone crosses and a lot more mussel rafts. Dolphins played in the waters around us as we headed out into the estuary and up the River Ulla on the ” origin of all paths”.

We went by the remains of the Torres de Oeste, once a large 7 towered castle now overshadowed by a road bridge and strangely a pair of viking longships.

Soon after passing the Nasty Nestle factory we left the river and walked the couple of kms to Padrón where we got an extremely warm welcome from Pepe in his bar stuffed with pilgrim memorabilia and an even warmer goodbye. Opposite was the Igrexa de Santiago church where we got another stamp in our credentials and admired the painting of the boat journey of James.

We had rejoined the main route again so the place was thick with peregrinos resting, eating and passing through on their last leg to salvation. A lovely old lady called Marina gave us the heads up on the proper original way, thankfully a little shorter, before proudly showing me her garden.

Onwards, down tiny passageways and over the railway, passed churches with Asian looking steeples, pilgrim statuary, intense flowers, tumbledown hamlets and odd graffiti surrounded always by forested hills beneath blue blue skies.

Tonight we have a three bed private room so far on our own in a hostel 16 km from Santiago. The bonds with other pilgrims has grown and tomorrow is our last together. We will be surrounded by hundreds of people who have walked for weeks and months with great effort and have finally reached their goal.

Could be emotional.

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes: Part 3

Mougás to Pontevedra: 4 days : 87 km

A short 16 km day ahead planned luckily which will go easy on Sally’s feet and Emma’s first day, although we still started early enough, rising with the pilgrim tide from their beds at the albuergue. With no kitchen and milk that had turned to yoghurt our fresh supplies of Irish tea bags were of no use to us and without a bar or cafe for miles we walked off under the lightening sky to venture once again into Galician Connemara.

Again alternating yellow cycleway with sandy coast path for about 5 km we then turned up a forest track that became a wonderful and ancient stone paved track with the grooves of millennia of wheels carved into the granite. Stopping at the top after a short but sharp climb for restorative chocolate we admired the views over to the Cape Silleiro lighthouse.

Coming down towards the coast on the other side of the headland through the pine and eucalyptus I passed a farmer calmly leading some sheep to graze. The rugged mass of the Cíes islands came into view. Supposedly a fine example of eco tourism, the limited number of permit holding visitors can only stay at the one campsite although there are 3 restaurants and a well stocked shop to enjoy after exploring the sea and trails on this National Park.

Continuing on towards Baiona we passed a lovingly crafted 1940 faux castle tower with a fuente inside and in the plaza where we finally got a coffee, the Baroque Capela de Santa Liberata and the older 12 c church of Santa Maria.

Then through the historical quarter to the shore and ,following a cycle and walkway around it, soon reached the river Minor and crossed it on the beautiful Ponte da Ramallosa guarded by San Telmo, the patron saint of sailers.

A short climb past bars and restaurants to explore later lay our goal, the Hospederia Pazo Pias, where €15 secured a bed in a 17th century palace set in lovely grounds.

Gotta look after the pilgrims.

Pilgrims familiar from the night before joined us but we lost them again the next day when we decided to take another variant. This one avoided a lot of the suburban sprawl of Vigo, instead adding 2.5 km overall, but with an earlier finish for the day after 16 km or so. The start was a mix of urban and rural lanes and streets and woodland paths and tumbling streams.

There were lots of grand old houses indicating great wealth in the area and a fine selection of horreo, the traditional grain stores, wash houses and veg gardens.

A lovely stretch of stone paved woodland took us up to views over the Baiona and Vigo coast and the Cies islands. By coffee time we’d reached Priegue, stopping for refreshment before heading up into the forest again.

We had decided to stay at the Albergue O Freixo which meant leaving the main path and hiking another 5 km through the forest mostly on a trail that led past numerous old water mills and a couple of speeding bikers. Very beautiful and peaceful we stopped for a long rest amongst the towering eucalyptus.

Emerging from the greenery an open landscape of rocky ground and forest lay ahead. Hoping for the Albergue to come into view we were arrowed up and up and finally, gratefully, we arrived- at the same time as Angie, who, with the help of google translate, looked after us well.

The Albergue was also a thriving community centre with function room and fully equipped kitchen we could use to cook our dinner. There was also a community run bar which came in very handy and evening classes in Pilates and ,weirdly, bagpipe and drumming combo which didn’t come in quite so handy as the pipes and drums started just before bed time. They also prevented Austrian pilgrim Manfred from using a mattress in the classroom so as to spare us his monstrous snoring. So late that night the three of us in turn abandoned the dorm and transferred to the classroom- now only disturbed by the carousing of the community drinkers till the early hours.

With a biggish hike of 23/24km ahead in the morning we set off early and a bit bleary after a disturbed night. Down and down into the big city of Vigo as the lights went out and the sun came up.

The walk through the city was much more pleasant than we had feared, going through wooded parks and along riverside trails. Even close to the city centre there seemed room for gardens. And art.

On the north side we joined a route called the Senda da Auga that runs for 10 km beside a covered pipe taking water from the mountains to Vigo. Tarmac road to begin, with gorgeous views down the estuary to the sea, and then lovely shady woodland path with waterfalls and fountains. We passed and we’re passed by plenty peregrinos- so different to the empty Mozarabe route.

Emma listening for water, unsuccessfully.

At the end of the Senda it was a short 2.8 km to our bed in Redondela, housed in a beautiful old stone building nicely renovated into a municipal Albergue where the usual registration, shower, bed making, rest ritual was followed by the usual eating and drinking and more resting ritual.

A quieter night, an early rise, a chilly start- through the mix of old and new on the way out of town. Memorials, sculpture, gardeners, a stretch of busy main road, a climb through woods, and when needed, a funky cafe/ albergue for cafe and tostada.

From the cafe in Arcade we crossed the river Verdugo on the Ponte Sampaio and climbed again on ancient wheel rutted stone tracks through the forest and down through fields and vineyards, stopping for rest and chocolate by a feet soothing frog pool.

We were briefly diverted when crossing a new road construction, and then brought down through another section of towering eucalyptus forest to the Capela de Santa Marta where we gathered another stamp in our pilgrim passports.

A short distance further on was a split in the trail- the shorter by a km and with a cafe was beside a busy road, the longer was a peaceful 4 km stretch beside a tranquil stream. Although we had already decided on the river walk a postman stopped at the junction and proclaimed the virtues of the ” tranquilo” route to us. We had come together with the more popular Central route of the Portuguese Camino back in Rodondela and the Way was busy with peregrinos but many were chilling beside the shady stream.

Leaving the woods and water we went under the highway passing more graffiti and under the railway to arrive, after 19 km, at the Pontevedra albergue just as it opened, where a very stern and officious man had us all filling the dorm in order- top and bottom bunks- no anarchic freeform. Ah well, you’d put up with it for an €8 bed for the night.

And Emma’s won the prize bonds so big dinner tonight!

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes: Part 2

A Guarda to Mougás : 1 day: 20.5 km

Leaving Sally to nurse her feet and catch a later bus I braved the steps ( easy enough first thing) and wove my way past the church of Santa Maria and fading buildings on back streets that led me down to the wild and rocky coast and a charming path north.

It was all very much like a sunny south Connemara with tiny strips of land separated by granite stone walls. After a while I had to leave the coast and climb up to join a sandy track that led to the main road and a yellow strip of cycleway I had to suffer for a while on and off as it alternated with dirt tracks lined with enough broom to ward off any lingering evil.

Luckily coffee time coincided with passing a little bijou cliff top test stop before carrying on caffeine charged through lovely pine woods to the rock petroglyphs that I couldn’t really make out.

The variety of little personal spaces along the sandy tracks was entertaining. Although a few lucky soles had somehow secured permission to build houses most were happy with just garden spaces or cabins/huts/ or boats! And some were ringed by solid granite walls of monumental proportions.

And the variety of track also made up for some stretches of yellow cycle way.

On the approach to Oia I passed the little chapel of San Sebastián and shortly after the massive bulk of the monastery of Santa Maria. Sally had seen me from the passing bus and decided to join me for the last few Km so we continued together through Spanish Connemara.

The last leg of the day continued on by the sea before a little detour inland where we passed a pile of stones celebrating the peregrinos.

21km from my bed in the Convent we arrived at my bed in the Albergue. A different class of accommodation to be sure but a pilgrims way is varied.

And our friend Emma had joined us from Ireland.

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes : Part 1

PORTO to SPAIN : 4 days: 90 km

Emerging from the airport at midnight we only had a few minutes walk to a modern little boutique hostal where free beers awaited in our room. No sooner drunk than a knock at the door bought glasses of pink sparkling wine and cake, and at 6.30 in the morning a breakfast hamper of all we could wish for.

A few meters around the corner we came upon our first yellow arrow of our journey in prosaic form. A painless start from plane to path- we were off down the still misty cobbled streets, past crosses and shrines and gardens and verges rich with the colours and scents of flowers wild and cultivated.

We kept crossing paths with Michael, a German Pilgrim of our vintage who we bonded with over the next few days before our schedule pulled us ahead. After nearly an hour we cleared the end of the runway and the sun burnt off the mist as we followed miles of cobbled road through eucalyptus forest and freshly cut fields of grass. Running alongside the busy motorway and shopping centre for awhile we were glad to return to the ancient streets of Mindelo. Stopping briefly for a tiny super strong cafe and local treat pastel de nata, it wasn’t long before we were crossing the river Ave into Vila do Conde beside the massive monastery of Santa Clara.

Another hour of urban walking brought us finally to our destination for the day after 20 km, the albuergue in Povoa de Varzim where the cafe opposite fed us well while we waited for the albuergue opening hour of 2 o’clock. The obliging host gave us a private room as a married couple- a first for us. We rested, showered, laundered and eat and drank in a sunny beach side restaurant pleased to have succeeded the first day at least.

In the early morning light we headed off along the seafront and onto a boardwalk that took us through the dunes for 8 km. The seaside resorts had not really awoken after winter yet so pilgrims, locals and fisherman were all that were about. Many men were fishing for something on the rocks and in the shallows with gaffhooks , something I had never seen before. It didn’t look like they were having much luck. We passed the remnants of windmills and many neatly stacked and covered piles of seaweed.

Eventually the thousands of decking boards ran out and we were led inland through an area of intensive poly tunnels and fields of crops, all of interest to us gardeners. They were harvesting spuds already!

Through a nice quiet stretch of woodland where we rested for breakfast and on into Fao where pilgrims gathered. We followed the arrows cut into the road over the river Cavado and along the prom in Esposende, a busy town rich in pilgrim sculptures.

Nearly 25 km done, under a hot sun on a lot of hard cobbles, we were getting weary and stopped at a mini market for beers and the makings of breakfast and lunch. A thankfully short distance later we arrived at our Albergue for the night in Marinhas, housed in a beautiful old building, where the shower, rest, drink, eat , sleep regime was a welcome end to the day.

A lot of movement early as some pilgrims were up before 5 making bedtime redundant, so we were out the door before 6.30 heading up more cobbled back streets past the now common mix of traditional and ultramodern homes and well kept veggie gardens. Out of town we began our first real track, a lovely stretch through woodland alongside the river Nieva complete with watermills and an ancient clapper bridge. Many feet had passed over it through the ages.

Our first climb, of about 100m, took us up out of the woodland on wisteria lined narrow cobbled tracks between fine granite walls to the church of Santiago de Castelo do Nieiva, the oldest church outside of Spain dedicated to the Man, with a carved dedication from 862ad. Stopping awhile for a rest and chocolate/ banana breakfast we were soon back on a lovely sandy track through the young oak and unstoppable eucalyptus.

Down into Chafe for coffee and Coke and on over more granite cobbles along more narrow lanes past large ancient houses then steeply up past stone and timber corn houses and decorated washhouse to hilltop shrine and cross.

With Viana do Castelo in view on the other side of the wide river Lima we descended steeply on road and track festooned with wild flowers and crossed the bridge built by Eifflel in 1878 to reach the city where, with over 20 km done and another 10 km to do before our beds, and Sallys feet ailing bad, we did the right thing and caught a bus.

20 minutes bus ride saved us 2 or 3 hours of walk and Sally a lot of pain. Alighting in Carreco we had a beer whilst waiting for the mini market to open then continued to the joyously beautiful Casa do Sardao Albergue, a funky and lovingly restored and converted family farmhouse. The place hummed with good vibes and architectural integrity. The friendly owner showed us proudly around with stories of generations past. I wish I’d taken more pictures. A gem.

A good nights sleep but we were up early under the flashing of the lighthouse on the coast to take the tea before once again setting off on granite cobbled lanes between granite cobbled walls. I don’t know if the plant life is particularly rich here or if the granite is a very hospitable environment but it was a joy to have so much at head height.

We were soon led into the forest on massive granite slab paving where countless thousands of pilgrim feet have trod, passing the very many pillars and crosses where pilgrim hands have placed offerings.

We passed the beautiful but forlorn Quinta de Cabanas, home to the poet Pedro Homem do Melo as well as a huge 280 yr old magnolia tree and site of a monastery since 564AD. Restoration and landscaping is in progress around the huge riverside complex and it will be rewarded. The path took us away up through the wool bombed forest to reach the little chapel of Our Lady of Amparo where the guardian family were deliberating the best placement of the May Day wreath of yellow broom.

The ancient ritual of Maias in Portugal sees people gathering broom flowers on April 30th to adorn their gates and doors before midnight, to protect from evil for the coming year. Nowadays even machinery and vehicles are likely to be fortified in this way, although I was surprised that super safe Volvo needed it.

After another peaceful stretch of forest on a wide cobble road we descended quite steeply towards the coast, crossing the river Ancora on the medieval stone slab Ponte da Torre and passing another old water mill.

The seaside resort itself was buzzing with Mayday celebrations and markets. After coffee in the square I headed on out of town on a dirt track beside the railway, waving as the train past expecting to see sore feet Sally on board. (But she hadn’t found the station and had hitched- getting dropped off far further than wanted and had to hike back to meet me.)

On reaching the crescent beach in Moledo I followed the esplanade till the end and continued on soft sandy tracks through the forest to the Boat Taxi across the broad river Minho where Sally joined me for the ride to Spain.

Jumping from the speed boat onto the sands of Spain we lost an hour so had a quick lunch and carried on to A Guarda on the boardwalk, through the gallery forest and beside the rocky shore, to finally reach the harbour town bathed in sunshine rising up steeply from the sea. The sight of a long steep flight of steps was enough to convince us that a stay in the converted 16th century convent at the bottom was a well deserved treat after 3 nights in dorms.

We’d made it to Spain.

THE FISHERMANS TRAIL: Vila Nova de Milfontes to Porto Covo (20km)

Our last day on the trail was the toughest with long stretches of deep soft sand traversing the most extensive consolidated sand dunes in the whole of Portugal. It was another reason we had started in the south with a short and easy acclimatization to track life.

Our day had started early to claim as much cool as we could. With all the advice against hiking here in August we had been careful, and lucky, with unseasonable temperatures in the high 20’s rather than 30’s.

Passing through the unfinished developments at the edge of town, strange plants emerged from the gloom.

The overnight sea mist had left its deposit of moisture and the snails were out in force, covering the bushes and making abstract art of their trails in the sand.

After a couple of km we heard boat engines and watched a fishing boat make its way out of the harbor at Porto das Barca’s through the mist.

As the sun started to rise the warming temperature burned off the mist and the coastline appeared again.

After the last few days of luxuriating in the macrocosm of the wide open spaces and dramatic headlands of this beautiful and undeveloped Alentejo Coast I started to appreciate the microcosm of the plant and rock formations.

I think I’d would be fabulous to be here in April or May when there is a carpet of flowers although with so many evergreen species there is always color when a lot of Southern Europe is a uniform burnt brown.

The scent of the various herbs has also been a delight as well as the familiar heady aroma of hot pine needles and the invigorating briny sea smell carried of the spray.

Our aural senses had been satisfied with the constant rhythmic thud and crash of the breakers, the calls of the seabirds and the only vehicle noise was the low hum of boat engines carrying far across the waves.

The rocks told tales of rising and lowering seas and coastline with massive contortions of strata witness to upheavals over millions of years. At times the beaches were 60 miles out into the current waters and yet sometimes we were walking on a bed of coral and shells on the cliff tops high above the sea.

Everywhere were little paths threading down to the fishing rocks on impossibly steep routes. We saw ladders and ropes to aid the fishermans descent and large encampments on very remote beaches. How they got all their kit down and back up was beyond us.

There is a guy fishing from the very end of that far spit of needle like rock in the last photo.

The white stocks also had precarious perches although with very good defenses building their stick nests atop towering sea stacks.

At Angra da Barrela the birds and fishermen came together on a rocky limestone headland lined with men and rods in a landscape very similar to Blackhead, at home in the Burren, another- different – fishing spot.

But it was the cliff top paths across the rugged headlands though the endemic plant life sculpted by the sun, salt and wind that was truly a joy, although the sections of deep sinking sand were slow and hard.

And of course the fabulous beaches with the promise of cold water immersion in the heat of the afternoon were a treat keenly anticipated as the sweat dripped.

We stopped for lunch in the bar restaurant next to the fort above the island protected beach of Ilha do Pessegueiro- hanging on to our last couple of hours on the trail.

The fresh fish available on this route is another plus. In fact the eating alone could justify a visit to the area. There appeared to be a culture that recognized the value of good, fresh, local healthy food- and the wine was also very quaffable! The variety of cheap fruit, veg, fish and shellfish in the markets of small towns and villages was remarkable.

A last swim and we continued the final couple of km to Porto Covo passed a tiny beach where a couple of lads were working on a piece of land art. Probably the creators of the pebble spiral maze from the day before.

And so for us the Rota Vicentina , ” The last coastal wilderness of Southern Europe”, was a great discovery, and after buying the official map of all its varied routes, one I’m sure we will be returning to.

Our host that night said the hostel had one rule.

Leave your stress at the door.

We had left ours a long way back down The Fishermans Trail.

THE FISHERMANS TRAIL : Zambujeira do Mar to Almograve (23km) to Vila Nova de Milfontes (18km)

As this blog site can testify I’ve hiked a good few trails in the last few years, but I’ve gotta say this one is special.

If you like wild coastal scenery, walking through a gently undulating landscape of exotic flora and geology under blue skies and glorious sunshine before splashing in the crashing breakers of the Atlantic to cool off on secluded sandy beaches- then like me you’d love this Fisherman’s Trail.

Normally walked from north to south, and the route descriptions are all orientated that way, we were going the other way. Partly because of the transport links and logistics but also we thought it a good idea to have the sun behind us as much as possible.

So even though it’s not recommended to be out here on the trail in the heat of August there has been a good few folk coming against us these last couple of days. Well maybe 10 or 20 people, so probably not much relative to many popular routes !

We set off pre dawn from Zambujeira following a long straight road past a huge area of tunnels and greenhouses. Even through the sandy ground would seem infertile they seem to coax a lot of crops out of it. Water and chemicals I guess.

Hoping to see some the many nocturnal carnivores of the area, mongoose,weasel,marten,badger,genet,otter- we only came across a couple of dogs. We had seen a group of wild boar the morning before and a few rabbits, which were supposed to be the ” original stock of all rabbits worldwide.

We reached the little fishing settlement of Entrada da Barca with its charming little houses and huts.

Down to the harbor where the boats were winched up the steep slip and up a zig zag of wooden steps to the cliff top paths above.

The first half of the walk to the little village of Cavaleiro was on a maze of vehicle tracks that ran along the cliff tops above rocky coves, many with precipitous paths or lines of rope to allow access for the hardy fisherfolk. The tracks also allowed access to many and varied campervans.

The dune vegetation got spectacular around the lighthouse of Cape Sardao where we learnt that many species only existed here. Famed for its bird life and unique stork nests the area also claimed to be the home of Rock Doves that are ” the original species from which all the feral pigeons in the world descend”!

There were a number of viewing platforms built here and there presumably to help wheelchair access but seemed a bit of a eurofund folly.

Diverted inland to Cavaleiro to avoid a specially sensitive area we had coffee and chocolate, admired the farm buildings on the outskirts and then continued on a fantastic route of rock and dunes and forest of pine and acacia ( which we had learnt was very invasive and is spreading wildly)

A sea mist had come in lending the scenery a mysterious aura.

The craggy rocks and red sandstone cliffs were laid down over twisted and convoluted layers of an older base making a truly dramatic shoreline.

We’d had a fair bit of soft sand walking by the time we got to the small natural harbor of Lapa das Pombas

and were glad to reach the beaches of Almograve where we took a couple of hours out to enjoy the breakers before heading on again past the final coves of the day to our room in the youth hostel.

In the village there was an exhibition of photos and graphics of a huge oil spill that took place in 1989 and turned the entire coastline we have been walking into a black environmental nightmare. The massive clean up operation seemed successful though as we had been remarking how pristine it appeared to be.

A leisurely start this morning as we expected to be able to avail of a ferry service across the river Mira at the end of the hike, thereby shaving off 4km of mostly road walking. So with what we thought to be an easy 14km ahead of us we laid abed till 7! looking at the misty world beyond our balcony.

A slap up breakfast fueled a brisk walk out out town, past the grotto, fountain and wash area, onto a sandy path beside farmland and off to more coves passing fishermen returning from their spots.

Later we were amazed to see a fisherman casting from a rocky reef way out in the sea. Not sure if you can see him.

There was a lot of soft sand dunes to navigate past another set of beautiful coves for a few km before suddenly emerging next to irrigated glassland for grazing cows and cropped turves.

There was a series of wooden bridges over streams and tunnels through rampant vegetation of canna and acacia, and a lot more sand.

And then we were at the beach bar at Furnas looking for the ferry.

Alas it was not running. Don’t know why. Plenty of signs for it. It meant hiking down river to the bridge and a lot of fast moving cars as we trod the tarmac.

It wasn’t all bad though. The route went passed an interesting landscape of farmland and cork oak and river views before landing us in the maelstrom of a holiday Sunday resort town in full flood.

And a couple of goats on a table.

THE FISHERMANS TRAIL: Rogil to Odeceixe (15km) to Zambujeira do Mar ( 20km)

Somehow or other the Rota Vicentina, a collection of hiking routes through the SW Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park of Portugal entired our consciousness.

The more we read about it the more we knew we had to go.

Running down the Atlantic coast of southern Portugal the trail consisted of the Historical Way, a 230 km mostly inland path, and the Fisherman’s Trail, a coastal trek of about 125km divided into 5 sections of 18 to 22 km between towns or villages to sleep and eat in. Perfect if you don’t want to carry all that camping and cooking gear, which we didn’t given that it was going to be hot and we would be struggling through a fair bit of loose, energy sapping sand.

There’s a very good website for anyone contemplating the Rota Vicentina with a wealth of info and aids and they warned that July and August were too hot to enjoy the route. Well a “summer” at home in western Ireland made us yearn for blue skies and sun so against the advise we headed south.

A flight, Shannon to Faro, train to Lagos and bus to Rogil all went like clockwork although we couldn’t see anything out of our train window.

We had an Airbnb at a young organic smallholding and the kindly host lent us bikes to cycle the few km past the sandy veg plots to a wild beach where we saw the first fisherman whose trails to the best spots our journey was named after.

To avoid the heat we started at 7 the next morning after checking out the livestock and garden and walked out of the village past the canal which supplied a lot of the water to make horticulture viable in this dry and sandy region.

To start we were on paths at the edge of the cultivated area, through woods and rural paths and then emerging out onto the top of the cliffs and continuing across a delightful landscape of herbs, scrubs and flowers, many unknown to us.

The pine trees had been cut/ tapped for something. Turpentine ?

With the heat building to a level where the cold Atlantic waters seem to be irresistible it was with relief that we arrived at the broad sweep of sandy beach before Odeceixe where we found a steep path down to the relatively quiet southern end and quickly cooled off in the breakers among the surfers and holiday makers.

This was prime time for Portuguese beach holiday as the website had warned us but the beautiful beaches were big enough to accommodate all and the busier areas were a work of art from the cliff tops with the colorful dots of sun shades and decorative bodies placed just so.

After a couple of hours R&R we continued to the town walking alongside the sweeping river wishing for a rod to try our luck on the masses of jumping fish. On the other side of the river was a motley collection of campervans that enjoyed one of the free park ups we had seen all along this coastline.

On arriving in Odeceixe we discovered it was fiesta time and the place was decorated accordingly. We didn’t stay up to see the magician or puppet show but retired to bed early enough after a meal in a hippyish veggie cafe. What with the surf scene, the laidback sunny vibe and the legality of all drugs it’s not surprising that we’d noticed a lot of ” types” about and a new age culture thriving.

More signs of which we passed in the morning as we hiked down the north side of the river back to the sea.

Climbing up to the cliff top we were off on another beautiful trek in the rising sun along a sandy trail through a garden like world of plant life.

The trail went up and down, but not too much, and was sometimes hard underfoot and sometimes deep and soft sand. At times we traversed patches of giant rushes and bamboo like cania where springs leaked water through the undergrowth.

And then there were the beaches. Amalia, Machados, Carvalhal, Alteirinhos and finally Zambujeira. Beautiful golden sand and invigoratingly cold and refreshing water. The ones away from road access involved a long walk in and were pretty empty and these were the ones we dropped down to on the ” fisherman’s trails” to chill out on in the heat of midday.

One had a rushing river tumbling over the cliff in a torrential beachside shower. Perfect for washing off the sand and salt!

On our last leg towards Zambujeira do Mar we past a strange place with a massive bull bison, llama and ostrich and later, after enjoying the cool shade of a long acacia tunnel, some fossilized sand tubes and other interesting geological formations.