hiking in Portugal

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.

One more stop at a funky beach bar I could have been happy in for hours and off again for another shady pine and acacia forest and another cliff top walk through sandy trails above busy beaches.

Up the wooden steps and into a busy resort town bustling with bars and restaurants. I’ll be glad to be on the empty cliff tops again come 6.30 in the morning.