Catherine Murphy is a travel journalist who travelled the Rota Vicentina with CaminoWays.com. This article was originally published by Daily Mail Ireland in March 2019.
In the distance, a lone fisherman is perched on a rock. He has followed a route used by generations of Alentejo locals and is so close to the water that it’s hard to imagine he is safe. He seems completely at ease. Whether fishing for pleasure or for dinner, he’s casting a line along the most spectacular coastlines I’ve ever seen.
What may seem like normal trek to the ocean’s edge for him seems out of this world to me. No matter how many superlatives roll of my tongue, they won’t be enough to describe the wild beauty of this place.
I’m on the Rota Vicentina or Fisherman’s Way in southwestern Portugal, a long-distance coastal path that follows the trails taken by fishermen over centuries and covers 450 kilometres from Alentejo to the Algarve. Although the route goes as far as Cape St Vincent, a traditional place of pilgrimage, the Rota Vicentina is not a Camino. Instead, it’s a nature tourism project designed to allow hikers to explore one of the last great unspoilt regions in Europe.
It’s also the best walking trail I’ve ever done; five days that turn into an endless wow. Myself and my walking buddies no joke but that’s an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishwoman- fly into Lisbon and take a taxi to begin our trip in the little seaside town Porto Colvo, where cobbled streets stretch down to the ocean.
We are travelling with Irish firm CaminoWays which provides airport transfers, accommodation and luggage transfers along the way. We check into the Porto Covo apart-hotel and leave simple but spotless apartment to explore the town. We’ve been dreaming of Portuguese seafood but opt for pizza and pasta, subconsciously stocking up on carbohydrates before our first day’s hike.
Day one covers 20 km, a moderate distance for anyone who is used to the Camino but a tiring walk given that 15 km of it is along sandy beaches. The sand pulls leg muscles and fills hiking shoes. I focus on the Chorao plants which colour dunes red and green and silently wonder why someone hasn’t invented a sandshoe to make this section less tiring.
Sore muscles are no mental match for kilometre after kilometre of wonderful beaches though. We walk along the vast sand dunes of the Ilha do Pessegueira, stopping to admire little coves along Aivados and Malhao beaches.
A few kilometres short Vila Nova de Milfontes, our resting place for the night, we stop at a restaurant and I pour egg timer amounts of sand out of my trail runners. At Vilva Nova de M, we stay at the HS Milfontes Beach hotel, a casual sporty hotel with a buffet dinner, lovely views and most surprisingly, a hammock on my bedroom terrace. After a walk around the old part of town and a light meal, I’m ready to hit the hammock.
Day two to the village of Almograve is 15 km, an easy distance for experienced walkers. But there’s slightly frustrating start-after walking a one-hour loop to get out of Vila Nova, we realise we could have skipped in by taking a boat. We console ourselves with elevenses at a beach café.
This is another day filled with sandy walks and great views over Vila Nova de Milfontes and the Mira River.
Along the way, we begin to see the ubiquitous Acacia, and aggressive exotic plant that has damaged native vegetation. Farming in this area stretches right down to the ocean and we hear that there are stone-age quarries amongst the dunes- a reminder of how long man has toiled in this ancient region.
In Almograve we stay at the Natura Maris Dunas residence, while away the afternoon with other hikers and eat plentiful shellfish in a restaurant that is no more than ten steps from our welcome beds.
Day three is one we’ve been waiting for – 22km of cliff top paths taking us to Zambujeira do Mar. The first two days have exceeded all our expectations but this one blows our minds. Jaws drop as we see close up how land has been formed and shaped over aeons. I can’t help wishing we had a geology guide for the day, even in audio or book form.
If we were looking for a route to calm our minds, we’ve found it. We pause again and again to gaze at incredible rock formations and watch, entranced, as powerful waves crash against cliffs and rush into caves.
From pine forests to little harbours, from intriguing red sand dunes to the unique sight of storks nesting on cliffs, we witness wild nature at its most magnificent. It’s mesmerising.
In some places, the green and blue stropes that mark the Fisherman’s Way are painted on rocks close to the cliff edge so we take extra care. There are also obvious overhangs and an occasional sign warning of cliff erosion. Even on a coastal path where there are so many wonderful beaches, it’s tempting to march on to our destination. To savour the moment, I walk down steep steps to a beach where I pour endless sand out of my runners and dip my feet in the ocean.
The day finishes with another pleasant surprise- a little oasis 3km from the town of Zambujeira do Mar where we’re lucky enough to spend the night. Herdade to Sardanito Da Frente is a rural holiday complex complete with a private lake and charming individual suites.
We would happily stay longer to enjoy a tranquility that’s broken only by birdsong but after a fish stew dinner in one of the town’s restaurants and an early morning swim in the lake, it’s time to move on, this time to Odeceixe, 18 km away.
This is another day of clifftops, stork-watching, and geology. We’re amazed to see that sedimentary rock laid out horizontally over the ages has been folded and pushed out of recognition by the power of nature, and now stands vertically.
We pass more beaches before reaching a natural fishing harbour and restaurant at Azenha do Mar. Tom, the Scotsman has been yearning for sardines which, unfortunately for him, are out of season in October. Luckily for me, mussels are not.
We fill our bellies with seafood and walk on. The October weather has been excellent until this point, warm enough for sunburn if we don’t take care. Then, for the only time on our trip, it rains heavily. Even so, the sweeping view of Odeceixe beach from Ponta em Branco is impressive.
The last few kilometres of the day are wet and tough but finally, we reach Casa da Celeste in Odeceixe, a simple little hotel where we dry out before aperos and dinner.
For our fifth and final day, we have been warned to carefully track our route to the old Moorish town of Aljezur, since there are a number of circular routes around Odeceixe that we could take by accident. We set off like scouts, enjoying yet more beautiful cliff top views before getting completely lost. An hour later it becomes clear that we have walked a ten km circular route right back to where we started.
After much hilarity and head-scratching, we decide to cut our losses and join the Historical Way, an inland route that runs adjacent to the Rota Vicentina and will take us to Aljezur, our final stop.
Our mistake has cost us the last coastal views of our journey and taken us along uninspiring inland trails but we’re happy to finish our walk in the historical town of Aljezur which was founded by Arabs and remained Muslim until the Christian conquest.
The Vicentina hotel is family-run and very friendly. Dinner in the local restaurant is excellent and as we finish our journey, we’re jealous of camper van surfers stocking up in the supermarket for holidays that are just beginning.
We vow to return to hike the Rota Vicentina as soon as possible.
How to get there
Catherine travelled with CaminoWays, flying out to Lisbon and back from Faro. Prices for a Rota Vicentina self-guided walking trip are from 563€.
When to walk
The best months to walk the Fisherman’s Way are March, April, May, September and October when temperatures are not too high.
Tips for your walk
Food and alcohol prices on the Rota Vicentina are reasonable.
A moderate level of fitness is required for this route. Those with a strong fear of heights may not enjoy clifftop sections or rocky ascending trails.
The Rota Vicentina trail is set in a natural park and routes have been chosen to protect native ecosystems so it’s best to stick to designated trails.
For more information on any of our walking or cycling tours please contact the travel specialists.