The Guardian has walked Rota Vicentina trough the feet of the journalist Liz Boulter. Check ou her notes over a few walking days along the Historical Way and the Fishermen's Trail.
Walking Portugal's Atlantic coast
The Rota Vicentina is a new trail along Portugal's Atalntic coast and, with its cheap hotels and hearty cuisine, it's already perfect for walkers.
«Good old economic downturn. Marta Cabral, of non-profit organisation Casas Brancas, is in some ways grateful for the financial crisis. She had been working on a new walking route in south-west Portugal, the Rota Vicentina, which follows the Atlantic for 110km along the wildest, most unspoilt coastline in southern Europe. One thing that stood in her way was the fact that stretches of beautiful coast are also attractive to property developers.
But the world economy caught a cold and the euro took to its bed. Plans for an oceanside golf course were torn up; a projected large-scale, village-style resort up the coast was never started.
Such development would have brought money to the Alentejo, the poorest region of one of western Europe's poorest countries, but its postponement gave the Rota Vicentina a little breathing space: to get paths and waymarking laid, GPS coordinates online, and rural hotels, restaurants and activity providers convinced that smaller-scale, sustainable tourism offers a future.
The whole Rota Vicentina is now – just – open, but my husband and I had a brief preview of its two sections last summer. The Historical Way starts at Cabo de São Vicente, in the far south and winds its way through cork forests and high hills to the ancient town of Santiago do Cacém. But we started in Brejão, 2½ hours south of Lisbon, to try the Fishermen's Trail, which splits off at the little town of Odeceixe to follow 75km of coastal paths long used by locals to reach good fishing (and smuggling) spots.
The roads from the airport were smooth and empty, and we were feeling mellow when we arrived at Casa da Seiceira, just outside Brejão. This charming turismo rural has rooms in low, blue-and-white buildings round a swimming pool. There were hammocks and deckchairs, and a pond with a weeping willow on a little island reached by a bridge.
Marta is glad locals have come on board, but they must have taken some persuading. Antonio, owner of Casa da Seiceira, was helpful and welcoming, but did regard us with vague wonder – or was it pity? This, we learned, was because in these parts walking for the sake of walking seems strange. Especially on holiday. Traditionally, you only walked if you couldn't afford a mule, never mind a car. So what's with these comfortably-off Brits and Germans, tramping around with boots, maps and rucksacks?
But the kindly Alentejanos seem to have decided that if these weirdos are set on choosing feet over wheels, the least they can do is make sure we are well-fed. Dinner at Casa da Seiceira was a banquet of local cheese and ham, freshly caught fish, veg and salads; breakfast was fruit, more cheese and gorgeous sourdough bread with jam. And, before we left, they staggered out with a gargantuan packed lunch for us.
It looked like a lot to carry, but my comment that we could pick up something on the way showed my ignorance of this sparsely populated region. There'd be no food or drink between here and our next stop – 18km away near Odeceixe.
A short walk away we hit the Fishermen's Trail. Putting the Atlantic on our right, we turned south on a secluded path. There is something about being on the outer reaches of Europe that you don't get on the Med, or in much of Britain – a wildness, a feeling of life on the edge. The ocean looked calm, but at our feet, Atlantic rollers were pounding in, and a breeze took the edge off the hot sun.
The trail, at times steep and rocky, is magnificent. Paths down ravines revealed deserted sandy coves; each headland climbed brought a further vista of cliffs and stacks, home to raggedy storks' nests. And lunchtime brought two ravenous people, glad to dive into their picnic. The clifftops we tramped after lunch held such a profusion of flowers they could have been a well-tended garden rather than a remote shore.
The Portuguese do enjoy seaside, but they come en masse to resorts such as Praia de Odeceixe in August, when the wind keeps temperatures in the high 20s, rather than the 40C found inland. We peered down at this wide beach with its lazy river: it was mid-June, yet there were maybe two families on the sand, and a few surfers. At the foot of the cliff a British couple – campervan, surfboards, Kindles – had an idyllic riverside spot to themselves.
At our next stop, Monte do João Roupeiro, 3km from Odeceixe, the owners also thought walkers must be on the brink of starvation. At dinner, starters of sliced tomatoes and cheese, and cold octopus salad with parsley were followed by fish with two sorts of potatoes, carrots and beans, a huge salad, melon and delicious sweet potato and coconut cake. Phew!
Come morning we shouldered a possibly even bigger picnic, and hit the historical trail towards São Teotónio. We had thought nothing could match the ocean walk, but were soon among majestic hills, rushing rivers with stepping stones, and vast forests.
A day later, walking with Balthasar Trueb of turismo rural Tres Marias near Vila Nova de Milfontes, we learned that 21st-century developers are but the latest in a long line of people exploiting south-west Portugal's natural assets. On his favourite stretch of the route, Balthasar picked up a strange bulbous black stone and handed it to me. "Ancient slag," he said. He wasn't being rude about my age or morals, but explaining that this was a by-product of iron ore smelted here 2,000 years ago for sale to ancient Rome.
This was also our favourite stretch: a secret valley alive with butterflies led to the Rocha de Agua d'Alte, an impressive waterfall from October to May, but a trickle in June. Balthasar told us of wild camping trips here with his children – tent beneath cliffs, swimming in clear pools.
There are still mines in the Alentejo, but on a crowded continent, its most valuable resource is probably its open spaces – mountains and valleys, forests and beaches. And unlike with mining or property development, exploiting the riches of the Rota Vicentina will help preserve the area, keeping small hotels open and bringing income to local producers. Best of all, you don't need to be a tycoon to do it: rooms in rural hotels are astoundingly affordable, and more food than you can eat costs a lot less than you'd think.
And if lots of us go, maybe the locals will realise we're not actually mad.»
Way to go
The trip was provided by Casas Brancas, which has doubles in rural properties from €60 a night B&B, with set dinners from €20 a head; most providers offer luggage forwarding. More information on the Rota Vicentina at rotavicentina.com/en
The flights were provided by TAP Portugal , which flies to Lisbon from Manchester, Heathrow and Gatwick airports from £114 return