Crawling on my belly towards the cliff edge, it seems I can almost touch the storks standing on their great heap of twigs, balanced on a rock-stack. Their spindly red legs almost buckle with the gusting gale and their feathers blow out of place in the wind, like a spoilt hair-do. Hundreds of feet below, the cliff pumps up and down in the roiling swell of the Atlantic.
In the far south-west corner of the Iberian Peninsula between Lisbon and the Algarve lies the Alentejo, a sparsely populated, little-known, little-visited region of hills, valleys, wild beaches and pristine coast.
Unlike the Mediterranean coast, there’s been little development on Portugal’s southern Atlantic coast. Here, the protected area of the Natural Park of south-west Alentejo and the Costa Vicentina, stretches for over 100km of Atlantic seaboard.
Lacing up routes along this coastline with paths inland, is the 350km long Rota Vicentia, which we’re walking. Follow this network of signed paths and you might only pass through one dot of a village. It might not be postcard-pretty but, in even the smallest fishing port, where concrete harbour walls offer a prosaic haven from the rock-strewn bay, you will find a no-nonsense bar-café serving cheap and excellent coffee, pastries, cold beer and possibly wi-fi. The other customers will likely be locals who’ll turn to look as you enter in boots and rucksack, map holder round your neck.
You’ll have the paths to yourself mostly too. In three days’ walking at the end of March, my friend Andy and I passed just a handful of other walkers, one of whom, a Dutch student, was hiking all the way from Lagos on the south coast to Lisbon, camping as he went.
The landscape is characterised by flowers everywhere; great pillows of lavender and rosemary, yellow rock-roses, and thrift, its familiar pink bobbles bobbing in the breeze. Swathes of Cistus abound too, the shrub’s sticky leaves filling the air with a sweet, homely smell like a vanilla sponge baking in the oven.
A cool wind whipped off the rough Atlantic as we followed sandy paths through nature’s perfectly landscaped cliff-top garden. Sometimes we trudged over dunes long-since loosed from the sea hundreds of feet below, other times on gravel paths through spinneys of lollipop-shaped pine trees, once or twice on minor roads to veer inland around erosion and sometimes on newly constructed wooden boardwalks with information boards – in Portuguese – about the park and its flora.
Once, there was a wooden look-out tower from which to observe the storks. Sometimes they would rise up on great pinions and flap away, their broad wings, long neck and long thin legs giving them the appearance of shirts blown free from a washing line. When one returned to its partner on the nest, they would both throw their heads back and make a clacking sound with bright orange bills that carried above the roar of the waves.
Hike Britain’s Southwest coast path and your total ascent is equivalent to climbing Everest more than three times, but here on the southwestern edge of Europe, the high cliffs barely dip down to shore. Only at Carvalhal beach and Odeceixe, the border between the Algarve and the Alentejo, where the clear jade River Seixe meanders sinuously around a sand-bar overlooked by a cluster of white homes tumbling down a hillside, did our path dip to sea-level and then back up again. You cross other streams that enter the sea, but they do so from mere dips in the cliff tops, falling over the edge, coursing onto the beach as a waterfall.
For the first night we stayed in a terrace of simple solar-powered wooden cabins with jasmine-framed balconies overlooking a lake in the middle of nowhere.
At this first accommodation, remote Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, a jasmine-scented oasis of serenity that is 4km from the nearest tarmac road, we could quite happily have been very inactive, sitting on our flower-decked balcony or in the lakeside sauna before a swim but, foolishly, despite ominous black clouds we set off on a circular inland hike following guided notes and map.
We walked along rough tracks beside eucalyptus plantations and scrub towards the nearest neighbour, a house about 2km away. Narrow paths edged with heathers over head-height opened out to an abandoned smallholding where a ruined dwelling was surrounded by fig trees and an orange tree heaving with ripe fruit. We picked some and ate them – juicy and sweet – wondering how long the place had been abandoned. Rural-urban migration has depleted the population of this remote agricultural area and tourism is helping to revive the local economy.
A gentle pitter-patter of raindrops soon turned to a deluge. There was thunder, lightning and lashing rain, turning the paths to streams, while we sheltered under a cork tree for a while. Despite seeking shelter we were soaked, so cut our walk short and jogged back to the Quinta, where we hung our wet clothes in front of a roaring wood-burner.
That evening, around a table set for 20, rustic fare accompanied by a full-bodied Alentejo red, Frank McClintock the Quinta’s enthusiastic and energetic owner told us his story. Now in his 50s, he came to the region in his 20s, transporting all his belongings from Wales in a double-decker bus. When he bought the parcel of land and rudimentary buildings on which the lush gardens and solar-powered accommodation now sits, there was no track to reach it, and no phone. “In the early days, visitors had to signal with a mirror from across the lake and I’d row for a mile to collect them,” he laughs.
Early in the morning, as a thick mist fingered its way between the hills, Frank drove us in his 4x4 along rough tracks and through the nearest village of Santa Clara to a new hide he had built on the banks of a river. We were rewarded with sightings of rare water rails, azure magpies and a bird with the fanciful name of a zitting cisticola. With the lake for swimming, kayaking and sailing, Frank’s place was my favourite of our three different accommodations.
After a cool dawn bird-watching, we warmed up with cheap and delicious milky coffees and cake in a café in the village and met our taxi, who would drive us to the coast for our first of three days’ coastal walking.
Taxi driver Nelson drove us for an hour along empty roads winding between hills of cork trees, eucalyptus and terracotta roofed farmhouses. He slowed down to show us way-markers for the Historical Way where it crossed the road. “In summer, when it’s hot, people prefer to walk the inland routes where there’s shade from trees and you walk along river valleys,” Nelson explained. The Rota Vicentina has 230km of inland footpaths known as the Historical Way. Headwater only sells its Contrasts of Costa Vicentina tour, which has two and a half days’ of coastal walking, in spring and autumn.
Nelson dropped us at a little coastal car park at the end of a road, pointed out the start of our path – a sandy track along a clifftop – and waved us goodbye as he drove on to our next night’s accommodation with our luggage. The start of the track doubled up as a fitness trail for the local village of Almograve. Joggers overtook us and did pull-ups at exercise stations but soon we were hiking alone on sandy paths through those pillows of flowers, following the blue and green way-markers of the Fishermen’s Trail.
With the markers easy to follow our Headwater trip notes were more or less redundant. Once or twice where we did miss a way-marker, we soon found the trail again. After all, the joy of coastal walking is that if you keep the coast to one side, you’re going the right way. And so we did, for the next 40km or so, over three easy and delightful days, each ending with a cold beer, hot shower, home-cooked dinner and comfy room where our bags waited for us.
After our exploration of Alentejo on foot, we headed south into the Algarve, to follow another newly signed path – only this time, one created for two-wheeled exploration.
The Ecovia Litoral do Algarve is a new cycle route of 214km along Portugal’s southern coast. The route, on quiet roads with some traffic-free sections, runs from Spain in the east to Cabo Sao Vicente, the south-western point of the Iberian peninsula.
Headwater, with whom we’d explored Alentejo, also runs a cycling holiday in this sun-blessed region, promising ‘the real Algarve’ with easy cycling days both along the coast and across the interior of the peninsula. Riding part of the first tour day, which follows the Ecovia from Sagres to Praia da Luz, roughly along the coast, we certainly found it.
Following printed directions strapped to my handlebars while cycling took a little practice but soon we were out of the town of Sagres and on to a car-free track between fields. A crested lark sang from a fence post; white pan-tiled farmhouses watched over ploughed fields; spiky agave plants pointed skywards and cows with bells grazed on lush springtime grass as we pedalled by.
We stopped at a small, whitewashed village for a coffee but it wasn’t until Salema that we reached the coast – an empty stretch of perfect sand, blue sea and palm trees.
At our final destination of Praia da Luz, I swam while my friends sipped beer at a beach-side restaurant. Fit riders could easily complete the Ecovia in a few days but for a leisurely holiday with stops for cafes, sight-seeing, picnics and sea swims, you’d want to stretch it over a week. Or maybe two…
Back at the restaurant with the obligatory chilled Sagres in front of me, the evening sun illuminating the beach’s golden sands beyond, I couldn’t think of a better finish to any exploration of southern Portugal.