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Portugal

A WALK ON THE
WILD SIDE
Head to Europe’s western flank and you’ll find wild and untamed hiking along Portugal’s dramatic
coast, as Matthew Crompton discovers…

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Portugal

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Portugal

B LU E S K I E S A N D R O U G H S E A S

Sines
Santiago do
Cacé
Historical Way
who’s writing?
Vale Seco Fishermen’s Trail
MATTHEW CROMPTON is an award-
Porto Covo
Circular Routes
winning writer and photographer
Via Algarviana preoccupied with hikes, bikes and the
Cercal do Alentejo
mystical solitude of the way-out. American
Villa Nova de born, he later moved to Australia and
Milfontes S. Luís
proudly became an Australian citizen last
Troviscais
Almograve year. His English partner, Alice, promises
Cabo Sardão
ALENTEJO she will eventually lure him to yet
Odemira
another continent.
Zambujeira
do Mar
S. Teotónio
Sabóia
ere on Portugal’s western Alentejo coast,

H
the words sol, mar and azul – Portuguese
Odeceixe
for ‘sun’, ‘sea’ and ‘blue’ – feature prom-
Rogil
Monchique inently in the names of everything from
Arrifana Aljezur cafes and supermarkets to real estate
Marmelete
agencies. Fumbling amongst the dunes in
the howling darkness south of Porto Covo
Carrapateira Bordeira ALGARVE with my clothes sodden and icy in the wet I could think of
Pedralva two more entirely appropriate words to add to them: vento
Vila do Bispo
and chuva – wind and rain.
This is Europe’s Empty Quarter – the southwestern-most
Cabo de Sagres
S.Vicente
corner of the continent, containing nearly a third of Portu-
gal’s landmass but less than a tenth of its population. In the

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Portugal

A GYM WITH A VIEW

RUGGED AND BEAUTIFUL

OBSERVING THE RAW POWER OF THE SEA DESERTED BEACHES

celebrated tourist city of Lagos down on the south coast, I’d Trail’, would be a gem of coastal hiking no matter where it
be bumping up against bar touts advertising cheap drinks was. Wending for days amongst towering dunes, atop dra-
and live DJ sets. Here, there was nothing, no one – nothing matic sea cliffs, through fields and cork-tree plantations and
but the extreme, wild, shattered edge of Europe itself, tow- tiny, historic villages, it’s a walk that definitely feels more
ering cliffs broken and folded like mementos of catastrophe than a little bit land-out-of-time, a feeling made all the
on an unimaginable scale, swallowed and emerging, again more shocking by the fact that you can get here via a Rya-
and again, into and from the relentless sea. The wind was a nair flight.
presence in the night all around me like a thing enraged. I I suppose I wasn’t the only one who found it a bit mystical
really needed to get under shelter. out here, as I soon learned. When I woke the next morning
I finally pitched up on the outskirts of a small settlement the sky was dark and heavy, but the rain cleared as I walked
some miles down the beach, leaving my saturated clothes the loose sand down the coast past Praia do Queimado
outside in a pile as I struggle to get my tent pegs to hold in and Ilha de Pessegueiro – Burned Beach and Island of the
the loose, sandy soil (reminder: the extra weight of a free- Peachtree – the orange dunes tufty with sedges and carpets
standing shelter is totally worth it!). With a slug of cheap of red-green succulents. Sometime past noon I treaded a
tetrapak red wine inside me and the storm outside held at a headland high above the ocean, the waves crashing loudly
literal arm’s length by the sil-nylon walls, I snuggled happily over the rocks below and the wind howling in off the At-
into my sleeping bag, the first steps on my 124-mile trek of lantic like someone had just opened the gates of hell over
Portugal’s ‘wild coast’ accomplished. the western horizon, when I happened upon a 50-year-old
I guess the thing is that people often seem to view west- Dutch woman named Adriana seated on the clifftop, gazing
ern Europe weirdly – as a continent of cities, perhaps, or at out to sea with an intense, yearning sort of look.
least a place where very little can be considered untouched It was an insanely cold spot to be sitting and my fingers
territory. If you want mile after mile of wild, undeveloped were already a little numb, but – oh no – she locked eyes
beaches you head to Costa Rica, Indonesia, maybe Mozam- with me, and the social contract had kicked in, so I stopped.
bique… but surely not to one of the original Eurozone coun- “The wind…” she began. “Yes, the wind… you feel it on your
tries. Yet this trek, the Portuguese Rota Vicentina, officially face, but also,” she thumped an open palm hard against her
recognised in 2016 as a ‘Best of Europe Leading Quality chest, “in your heart!”

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T H E S U N S E T S O N A N O T H E R G LO R I O U S D AY

Not that I don’t agree with the sentiment, but I was shiv- eight months alone. But I wondered, as the trail led inland
ering and absolutely could not engage with this level of for a spell amongst old, wizened stands of cork trees and
philosophical depth at the moment, so I politely muttered the ruins of crumbling farm estates, if we mightn’t add an-
something about the “natural sublime” and scuttled off like other coin into the mix. Say that while adventure is all the
a creature under threat of predation. I camped that night in a things just mentioned, is danger and difficulty and phys-
dismal caravan park in the little town of Almograve, wet and ical risk, at its heart the idea of adventure is simply that
cranky and not entirely in love with the idea of adventure, of encountering the unknown. Of undertaking a course
which seemed at that moment to be just a salesman’s term of action without knowing what is it that you will find,
for discomfort. and starting down a trail in the morning without knowing
In the village the next morning, though, a church bell quite where it will lead.
tolled in the distance seven times and I opened my eyes to To that end, I found myself at sundown in a tiny café in
see warm lemon light suffusing the membrane of my tent. the cobblestoned old-world village of Odeceixe, drinking
My heart soared. Packed and on the trail again it was like tiny glasses of cold Super Bock lager amongst the dusty
the entire world was transformed – the sky was china-blue tables and exchanging pleasantries in my terrible Span-
and I was humming to myself as the wind whipped the tan- ish-Portuguese with old men as they read the newspapers
gerine sands around me like dervishes. I passed tiny fishing and palavered languidly amongst themselves. I devoured
harbours with crab pots piled outside colourful fishermen’s a chargrilled Portuguese chicken, rich and dripping with
huts. At the foot of cliffs below me beaches receded into the grease (a treat after all my camp meals), then headed off
far, sea-hazy distance without even a single human footprint into the dusk, uphill past the town’s ancient windmill and
to mark them. I was now absolutely in love with this place. into the fields following the winding thread of an irrigation
I found myself, as I walked this wild coastline, reflect- canal. There wasn’t much cover up there, but when I came
ing on adventure. It’s a term for which we normally read to a small stand of pines rising from a berm above the canal,
adrenaline and excitement, physical difficulty and danger. I knew I had found what I was looking for. In minutes my
I’ve certainly trafficked in all those currencies enough to tent was pitched hidden in the centre of the thicket and I
be conversant, having tangled with police in western China was sipping a cup of tea, savouring the little thrill I get every
and been airlifted off a mountain in Nepal in just the last time I wild camp, and happy to have discovered the ending

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Portugal

NO OTHER SOUL IN SIGHT EXPOSED TO THE ELEMENTS

EXPOSED TRAILS HUG THE COAST THE WIND PICKS UP

that the day had brought me. Then, just like that, it was the final day. The Fishermen’s
It’s that sense of constant, evolving discovery that I think Trail returned for the last few miles along the windswept,
I enjoyed most on this trek. The Rota Vicentina actually rocky headlands to the lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente,
combined two complementary routes – the largely inland the cape at the extreme southwestern point of continental
Historical Way and the mostly coastal Fishermen’s Trail – in Europe. As I walked, I encountered my wind-loving Dutch
a mix-and-match tangle of through-routes and circuits friend, Adriana, and we tramped the last few hundred me-
that transitioned between a half-dozen different sorts of tres to the cape together as the trail joined the road. There
landscape from day to day. I hadn’t done huge amounts of were tour buses, food stalls and people hopping in and out
research (the route is superbly signposted for the most part), of cars snapping photos, but I knew as we walked that they
so I always set off each morning curious as to what the trail hadn’t been here in quite the same way that we had. They
would next lay at my feet. hadn’t walked the trail these last nine days, waking and
At Aljezur I climbed the hill above the town to the lookout breathing and sleeping the wild Empty Quarter until you
of a ruined castle, then ambled on through sandy-soiled hear the constant susurrus of the ocean even in your dreams.
woods and orange groves, my heart momentarily jumping I reached the end and I sighed. The end of Europe, the end
into my throat as I surprised a shepherd and his twelve big, of the walk. In a hotel room in the nearby city of Sagres that
wary, snarling dogs on the verge of a pasture. Windfarms night, freshly showered and relaxing on a soft and comfy
appeared in profusion, the churning of the huge turbines bed, I could hear the thump of music from a bar, the clash of
making a deep whooshing sound like a heavy weight being glasses, the spill of tipsy voices, and I was back in the mod-
whipped through space by a titan at the end of a vast tether. ern world again, the adventure finished for now.
I stood atop the sea cliffs high above surfers on the beach at Yet, I think my friend had a point about the wind in this
Arrifana and poked around the ruins of its crumbled military place. Not only that you can feel it in your heart, but that
fortress. A few days later, with the walk nearing its end, I you can carry it with you there, like a locket. That you can
happened upon a giant Lidl supermarket in Vila do Bispo and open it up every now again and feel the wild force of it gust
loaded up on fresh pastries, sausages, wine and real coffee, through you, secretly. Then put it away again, waiting,
then had a gleeful miniature feast in my camp that night knowing it’s there, inside you, for the next time you might
hidden in a grove a few miles out of town. need it.

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R O U G H S E A S A N D R U G G E D C L I F F S S T R E T C H A W AY

see another side of


portugal
Head to the Azores, an autonomous region
of Portugal, to experience wildlife-inspired
adventures with tour operator Artisan
Travel. With 24 species of whales and dol-
phins, it’s no understatement to say that
the Azores are one of the best places in the
world for seeing marine wildlife – so much
so that everyone from the National Geo-
graphic to the BBC has paid visits. Artisan
Travel’s itinerary allows you to experience
marine life on three separate occasions
– you will watch for whales from a tour
boat, be taken to swim with dolphins in the
Atlantic, and snorkel close to a colourful
variety of fish and other underwater fauna
when snorkelling at the islet of Vila Franca.
Additionally, bathe in a naturally-heated
spring at the Terra Nostra Botanical Gar-
den, and take a dip in Ferraria, a hot spring
in the ocean. Taste a ‘Cozido das Furnas’
stew – an Azorean piece of geothermal
gastronomy, kayak and cycle at the crater
lakes of the Sete Cidades Lagoon, walk Sao
Miguel’s longest lava tunnel and relaxing in
the warm Caldeira Velha waterfall. Contact
Artisan Travel on 01670 785088 or visit them
online at www.artisantravel.co.uk.

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Portugal

l et’s
go
PORTUGAL

How to get here each daily section (which ranges be- August, are best avoided. Spring from
The Rota Vicentina can be walked tween seven and 15 miles per day) ends March to May, when the wildflowers are
either north to south or south to north. in a settlement with some lodging and blooming, is a good time to walk, as are
If starting in the north, fly into Lisbon services. In any case, bring good walking the autumn months of September, Octo-
(return flights can be had for under £100 shoes and adequate waterproofs. ber and November. Though the route is
from the UK; see www.skyscanner.net) rainiest in the winter months (December/
and catch a bus to Porto Covo (about two Where to stay January/February) temperatures are
hours). If starting in the south, the near- Camping is permitted along the His- mild and typically do not fall below 11C
est airport is in the city of Faro (return torical Way sections of the Rota Vicentina during the day.
fares available for roughly £100), about and officially prohibited along the Fisher-
two and a half hours from the trailhead men’s Trail except in designated camping
by a combined train-bus via Lagos. Taxis areas. Wherever you camp, always follow
are common in both Lisbon and Faro if the leave no trace principles. Accommo-
you prefer private transport. dation in settlements along the route
ranges from simple guesthouses
How to do it and pensiones in private homes to
The whole route takes approximately more formal hotels in some of
nine to 11 days of walking, and can be the bigger towns. There are a
done in any style, from independently handful of youth hostels along
(carrying your own camping and cook- the way, offering inexpensive
ing equipment) to fully pre-booked dorm beds if you simply
tours where your luggage transfers and need a roof over your head.
all guesthouses are prearranged for Accommodation can be
you. Without doubt, the Rota Vicentina searched and booked via
website (en.rotavicentina.com) is the the Rota Vicentina website
best source of information, where it’s (en.rotavicentina.com).
possible to order both a guidebook and
a detailed paper map for the route if When to go
desired. The walk is almost always very Torrid summer tem-
well signposted and you’re unlikely to peratures are the main
lose the trail. There are cafes, restau- consideration on the Rota
rants and supermarkets of varying size Vicentina, and the summer
in most settlements along the route, and months, especially July and

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