Story & photos by Jay Vogt,
I love walking public footpaths in Europe. To be able to do what I love, in a beautiful place, with my beautiful daughter, Camilla, is the best.
For the place, I chose the Ruta Vicentina, a network of walking trails in Southwest Portugal. This Costa Vicentina region boasts what’s been called ‘the most beautiful and best preserved coastline of Southern Europe’ and ‘Europe’s largest coastal natural park.’ It is famed, not only for pristine nature, but for its fine wines, good food and friendly people.
Within the Ruta Vincentina network, the Historical Way follows the ancient inland pilgrimage path of the Portuguese Camino to Santiago in Spain. It also starts the E9, a 3,000-mile European Coastal Path that stretches from the southwesternmost tip of Portugal to Russia’s Saint Petersburg. It’s the most popular route for visitors but, instead, we chose the Fishermen’s Way, a thread of old paths (still within the Ruta Vincentina network) used by locals to reach favorite fishing spots and hidden beaches along the rugged coastline.
As our travel partner, I chose Inntravel, the British walking holiday company, not only because they offer hundreds of walks, but they’ve been running this particular walk for many years. They are masters at my preferred style of walking, which is self-guided trips where the company makes the reservations, arranges luggage transfers, mails you maps and a guidebook, and then sets you free. They also deliver great value.
I chose late April and early May as the time for our walk because – just as in the fall – the trails are less crowded and the walking temperatures are cooler. Costa Vicentina is famous for its wild flowers, and spring timing promised peak bloomage.
Luckily, Camilla was just leaving a wonderful, yet demanding, job on Washington DC’s Capitol Hill, and she needed a break from working long days and nights to rest and renew. So, we had our place, our time, and each other. My wife/Camilla’s mother doesn’t particularly enjoy walking twelve miles a day, rain or shine, on rough trails, so she wished us both well and we were off.
For most walkers, the adventure starts in lovely Lisbon. We gave ourselves a rest day to explore this wonderful capital, and then traveled the two hours by train to Funchiera, a small town in the Alentejo province, where we were met by a driver (we paid a separate fee for round-trip train and transfer), and taken to our first night’s lodging.
Our home base for the first two nights of this seven-night walking adventure is Casa Vicentina, a small, rural guesthouse compound with cottages, a common building, broad lawns, and an unheated, outdoor pool where we swam despite the chilly waters. The friendly staff served us a dinner of chicken, potatoes, flan, and port (with delicious local wine as a very reasonable extra).
Following breakfast, we walked down to the nearby sea and were astonished at what we found. The sandy trail led right to a steep edge and then cut north along it. Below us were hundreds of feet of rugged rock cliffs, falling sharply to the raging, crashing surf. Certainly not a good walk for anyone with a fear of heights, but the views are spectacular along the trail are consistently spectacular.
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After some miles, we came to a deep, wide sandy beach with long, rolling waves and a handful of bathers. Here, we enjoyed a light lunch at a beach café, and headed inland along a tidal river basin. We came to a small village of white houses with blue trim on stone streets set on a hill, and walked to the top to find an ancient stone windmill. Leaving the town, we followed a small canal through the countryside back to Casa Vicentina. Inntravel’s itinerary includes this lovely one-day, eight-mile circuit walk simply as a warm up. We arrived back in time for an afternoon swim, and a dinner of appetizers, fish stew and butterscotch mouse.
After breakfast, a taxi (fee included) picked us up for the drive back to that little town, dropping us at the start of the second day’s walk. We walked the tidal river basin on the other side back to the sea, climbing a hill to a sandy track along the cliffs. Storm clouds were gathering, and we saw long grey strands of rain out at sea. They soon found their way to us, and for several miles, we walked along cliff edges buffeted by strong winds and pelted by rain. Fortunately, we have a saying in our family – ‘Dress so you can laugh at the weather’ – and laugh we did, as we pushed our way through the storm.
Over the next days we walked along stunning headlands, so high that sea birds flew below us, and where long breaking rollers crashing into powerful rocks were our constant companions. Now and again we’d see gorgeous sandy beaches below us, invariably empty of humans. We marveled at nesting storks, one parent astride the craggy nest with its hungry mouths, the other out hunting. And sometimes we’d see a hardy soul in a wet suit, in some impossible place, gathering goose barnacles, a local delicacy.
The trail was always clearly marked, plus we had guidebook and maps. We stopped and checked our position now and again, but mostly we just kept the sea to our left, and walked north. We talked about love and life, or just walked, not talking at all.
We traveled an average of twelve miles a day. The trails here are mostly sandy so if you struggle a bit with loose sand, this walk may not be the right one for you. We wore light waterproof trail running shoes, and only carried small day packs. As we hoped, the sandy dunes were ablaze with succulents in bloom – yellow, white, fuchsia, purple and red. Inland we passed through swishy bamboo groves, open fields, and sweet eucalyptus forests.
Most walkers start in Porto Covo, at the northernmost point, and walk south. Inntravel’s itinerary starts in the south, and goes north almost ensuring that you will meet very few, if anyone, along the route. We enjoyed having the sun at our backs – just don’t forget to put sun screen on the backs of your neck and legs!
We found breakfast plentiful and, sometimes, they included Portugal’s pride – the delicious custard-filled pastel de nata. Our hosts packed us lunches each day and we had no shortage of spectacular places to pause for our picnics. Dinners were fit for hikers – typically featuring appetizers, bread, soup, perhaps a whole white fish cooked in garlic and served with fresh vegetables, followed by dessert. On two evenings we ate at small nearby seafood restaurants.
Our lodgings were always comfortable and clean, and all of our hosts were friendly and helpful. Many had recently – and proudly – helped organize the Fisherman’s Way extension of the Ruta Vicentina, and have rapidly since seen their businesses bloom, from a summer following of local walkers to an almost year-round flow of international ones. The Fisherman’s Way of the Ruta Vicentina is still largely an undiscovered gem. So if you have an appetite for good food and pristine coastal walking, and don’t mind steep cliffs and sandy trails, find someone you love to be your walking companion, and go soon.
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When not walking, Jay is a consultant in Boston, MA, and a developer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.