Hiking the Fishermen’s Trail
By: Miriam Murcutt
This Guest Post is written by Miriam Murcutt, who has tramped many of the world’s great hiking trails. Miriam (with co-author Richard Starks) has written several travel books, including Along the River that Flows Uphill, A Room with a Pew, and Greenland for $1.99, as well as Lost in Tibet, the true story of five American airmen who, in 1943, were stranded in pre-Chinese Tibet. Here, Miriam tells of her recent hike along the Fishermen’s Trail on the Atlantic coast of southwest Portugal.
TRAILS AROUND THE WORLD presents
Hiking the Fishermen’s Trail in Portugal
When (as I do) you live in a land-locked state like Colorado, beautiful though it may be, you eventually hanker for the sight and sound and the smell of the ocean. This fall, I found just the way to satisfy that longing when, with Richard Starks, I hiked the Rota Vicentina, which runs along the high cliffs and pristine beaches of the Alentejo region on Portugal’s Atlantic coast.
The Rota Vicentina is not one of the world’s more famous hikes; it’s not even well-known; but I’m sure that will change, as it has recently been way-marked and is now justifiably being promoted as a route that offers spectacular ocean-side hiking.
Technically speaking, the Rota is two hikes that total more than 200 miles and that run from the small town of Santiago de Cacem in the north to the tip of Cape of St Vincent in the southwest. The trail splits between the Fishermen’s Trail (the five-day coastal hike we did) and the Historical Way, which is an inland route running through rural villages and cork forests. The two routes join up at a town called Odeceixe and then continue as a single trail to Cape St Vincent. Both routes can be hiked independently, staying in hotels or camping, or you can book through a tour company and hike in a group. We traveled independently, but used a well-organized and friendly company called Ramblin’ Tejano to book our accommodations and provide back-up.
To reach the trail, we flew into Lisbon and, the same day, hopped on a Rede de Espressos bus, which delivered us (in 2 ½ hours) to Santiago de Cacem, a small town complete with Roman ruins and a castle. The following morning, Ray, an ex-pat cockney, who, with his wife, founded Ramblin’ Tejano a few years ago, met us at our hotel and supplied us with a route map and guide book, as well as bottles of water, apples, bananas and muesli bars for our lunch. The hotel also chipped in with ham and cheese sandwiches, which we soon discovered are ubiquitous lunchtime fare in Portugal.
Ray then drove us to Porto Covo – a pretty, blue-and-white-painted village on the Atlantic coast, thirty minutes from Santiago de Cacem – where the Fishermen’s Trail officially starts.
And that was the last we saw of Ray. He appreciated that we wanted to enjoy the solitude of the hike, so he left us alone with just his mobile number in case we needed help. But because we had taken the soft option, and carried only our day packs, in the days that followed, we saw Ray’s presence in the shape of our luggage, which he transported each day to our next hotel room, and in the apples and muesli bars he left behind for our next day’s lunch. (The hotels provided more bottles of water, along with the ham and cheese sandwiches.)
That first day, we set off at about 9.00 a.m., under sunny skies and fighting the brisk Atlantic wind which was to be with us throughout the entire hike. We were lucky with the weather. The sun obliged for three days, and it was only on the fourth day that we had our resolve tested when, for hours, we battled squalls of drenching rain. Luckily that day, a feeble sun sometimes broke through the clouds and dried us off as far as damp; but the storms were a reminder that there’s a wetside to truly spectacular views from high cliffs over hidden beaches and pounding surf. For most of the route, there’s nowhere to hide from the elements, so it’s best to come prepared with rain gear as well as sun cream stuffed into your day pack alongside the ham and cheese.
The trail itself is only modestly challenging, but it does wend its way through heavy sands and over dunes, and sometimes tracks down from the cliffs and along beaches before spiraling up again. But that is a big part of its appeal, as this allows you to put your Man Friday footprints onto virgin beaches and to play cat and mouse with the waves.
The route has been set up as a series of day hikes from village to village: Porto Covo to Vila Nova de Milfontes, then to Almograve, Zambujeira do Mar, and finally to Odeceixe. Each day demands about six or seven hours of walking, depending on how long you spend admiring the expansive views or stopping for coffee or a more intoxicating beverage (Portugal produces wonderful, rich-tasting port) at the cafés along the way.
The villages we stayed in were former fishing ports transformed into small beachside resorts. We were hiking the route in early October (the climate of southwest Portugal allows for a long hiking season), so the peak of the summer visitors had passed. The villages were therefore quiet, inhabited mainly by permanent residents working to smarten up their facilities for next year’s influx of tourists. In season, I’m sure the villages would be crowded and lively, the restaurants and bars overflowing, and the beaches busy with sun-worshippers. It depends what you want; but we were happy with the relative quiet.
The time of year also dictates the nature of the vegetation you walk through (in our case, an abundance of low-lying green and red-tinged ice plants) and the species of birds you’re likely to spot (kestrels, falcons, swifts, and rock doves). In October, we saw mainly the ragged remains of white storks’ nests, and caught glimpses of small, fast-flying birds, which were impossible to identify without binoculars, patience, and a knowledge that we didn’t have.
Without a doubt, the small town of Vila Nova de Milfontes was the most interesting and attractive of the places we stayed overnight, with a ruined castle, cobbled streets, and a tiny ferry that crosses the mouth of the Rio Mira. That said, all of the villages proved to be good stopover places for through-hikers. We stayed in simple, locally-run B&B hotels, and ate dinner in the many inexpensive bars and restaurants that served fresh fish (often sardines, as well as cod cakes and squid) which we washed down with white wine and a Sagres or Super bock beer.
Not bad at all.
Hints for hikers on the Rota Vicentina
Getting to the trail. The Rota Vicentina is within easy reach of Lisbon by bus from Lisbon’s Sete Rios bus station using a Rede de Expressos bus. The journey takes around 2 1/2 half hours.
Climate. Whatever time of year you hike, be prepared for wind and weather. Umbrellas are useless in the rain because of the strong winds. Also, the wind makes it easy to underestimate the strength of the sun.
Footwear. We wore hiking boots, which were a bit heavy for the terrain and the condition of the trail when we walked it. They also shipped a lot of sand and had to be bailed out every three hours or so. Trainers, however, would have suffered from the same problem, and have been useless in rain and mud.
The route. It closely follows the coast, so it’s not arduous, although walking through sand can be a work out. The trail guide warns that the route might not be fun if you suffer from vertigo. It does run along high cliffs – following paths the locals use to reach their favorite fishing spots – so you have to watch either your feet or the view; but we never felt vulnerably close to any precipitous edge. It’s also a well-marked route, all but impossible to get lost.
Where to go for more information about the Fishermen’s Trail and Rota Vicentina: