On foot in unsung Portugal - walking with storks
On the Rota Vicentina it is possible to walk all day along a dramatically beautiful coastline with storks and yellow legged gulls - but hardly any humans - for company. Inland, where the trail is part shaded by cork oak and eucalyptus, the solitude is even more intense.
The Rota Vicentina, which was completed this spring, is a new long distance footpath in Portugal's Alentejo region. It was pioneered by an enthusiastic group of accommodation owners and other tourism interests called Casas Brancas, with some funding from the European Union. British tour operators already offer holidays on stretches of it, with baggage transfers between overnight stays. Comprehensive signposting has now made hiking it independently much easier.
Most people outside Portugal would struggle to place the Alentejo on a map. It is east and south of Lisbon and borders the Algarve - but the Algarve it is most definitely not. Its cliffs face west rather than south and the Atlantic can be fierce. There is a handful of mostly small seaside resorts with nothing between them but rocky headlands, sand dunes and stunning bays, many inaccessible to all but the agile and daring. Fishermen perch on ledges and sheer sided precipices. Every year two or more slip and die. Storks build their nests on rock stacks. When I walked there in May you could watch them feeding their young, sometimes without even the need for binoculars.
The flowers, particularly in spring, almost beggar description. Though it's a struggle to keep two invasive plants - acacia and the beguilingly pretty Hottentot Fig from southern Africa - at bay, the profusion of native flora is astonishing. The shrubbery is blousy with stocky leafed gum cistus, blooms like fried eggs with drops of brown sauce on the albumen. There is rock rose, another cistus, dark pink and gold, sea thrift nodding in the wind, yellow and chocolate umbrella milkwort (tolpis barbata), thyme, papillon and green lavender. I could go on.
On the inland branch of the trail there is an emptiness heavy with the legacy of recent Alentejo history. This was a region of great land owners with estates worked by poor agricultural labourers. The Communist Party was strong here. It was fertile recruiting ground for the forces which fought Franco in the Spanish civil War. After Portugal's largely bloodless revolution in 1974, many of the estates were seized by workers or nationalised. The change was not a universal success. Some owners returned. Others, faced with properties which had become run down, couldn't face the cost of restoration. Meanwhile there was a drift from countryside the cities. One benefit of the Casas Brancas initiative may be to help tempt them back again.
The cork oak is still farmed widely, though the trees' owners must curse the advent of the screw top wine bottle. Along the footpath trunks are marked to show the year in which their bark was stripped. That can be done only once in nine years. Almost as prevalent is fast growing eucalyptus, used to make paper, which creaks in the wind and leaves a tinder dry covering of bark and leaves on the ground.
With a guide I walked a section of some 12 miles from the northern end of of the Rota, in the town of Santiago do Cacem, beginning at the hilltop church dedicated to St. James, who gave the town part of its present name. The Cacem bit derives from the name of a Moorish governor whom the townspeople decided to commemorate. Long before the Moors arrived this was, to judge from the size if its hippodrome, an important Roman strong post.
Along the way there were valleys deep in long grass, unmown meadows snowy with daisies. We paused to explore a deserted, ruined convent, built in the 15th century. A little later we skirted a goat farm whose elderly lady owner had been terrified at the prospect of walkers.
On the inland trail you might encounter a shepherd wearing a distinctive short sleeved tunic which protects his shoulders and back from the often relentless sun. Not far from the town of Odemira there was a diversion to some rock pools where Mediterranean turtles sunned themselves on rocks, snake eagles were known to hunt and the Iberian chiff chaff sang its two note song.
I stayed at the Herdade do Touril, a property opened ten years ago on a beef cattle farm, not far from the small resort of Zambujeira do Mar and a stone's throw from the coast. It has a lovely salt water swimming pool - our room offered access across a lawn from an elegant little patio - and does excellent breakfasts but no dinners. While it would a sin of omission to ignore the many good fish restaurants hereabouts this does mean that unless you take taxis, your intake of Alenetjo wine must be severely restricted, And that's a shame, because you can get a modest but very pleasant white for as little as €6 (about £5) a bottle.
Walking one way and organising transport to the start or finish of your hike is not especially difficult. Some Casas Brancas owners will give you a lift, taxis - at under 50p a kilometre, or double if the driver needs to make one leg empty - are not wildly pricey - and in at least one instance you can use the bus.
The Rota Vicentina connects with a long distance route in the Algarve. Its coastal section is called the Fishermen's Way. Inland it is known as the Historical Way. The former has blue and green markers, the latter, the red and white of the GR (Grande Randonnee) network.
Don't go in July or August. Not only may it be too hot to walk comfortably but that feeling of loneliness on the coast will be submerged by a deluge of mostly Portuguese holidaymakers. At other times you may shake your head in wonder that you have such spectalular suroundings to yourself.
How: Roger Bray's trip was arranged by Sunvil Discovery. He flew from Heathrow to Lisbon with TAP and picked up a rental car from Guerin and spending seven nights b&b at the Herdade do Touril. A similar package from Sunvil in September, for example, costs from £870 for each of two sharing. The firm can also arrange holidays there with a flight to Faro, which is about an hour closer, from £855. Casas Brancas, which plans to produce new maps and a book on the route later this year, is at www.casasbrancas.pt.
NB: while people with an average head for heights will have no absolutely problems, the coastal sections of the route are definitely not for those who suffer vertigo or are very nervous of steep drops.
TAP flies from Heathrow to Lisbon daily seven times a day.