The beach at Cão, about 25km south of Vila Nova de Milfontes on Alentejo's new walking trail (Peter Mallet)
Article Words : David Atkinson | 13 March

Alentejo: Portugal finds its edge

Quiet beaches, empty trails, forgotten villages, emerging wines... We beat the masses to Portugal’s Alentejo coast path to see if a new classic walk has been born

We were four hours into the trail when Baltz hit me with an existential dilemma. “Do you really need your iPhone, your Nespresso machine?” he asked. “Just ten years ago people used to go to the village café to watch the football match, or make a phone call. They would stay and talk – but the gadgets made us stay at home.”

We walked on in contemplative silence, the Atlantic sea-spray tickling my nose. “The economic crisis in Portugal has made us reassess our priorities,” he added. “Maybe traditional village life was better after all.”

Baltz was onto something. I had come to the vast, predominantly rural Alentejo region for a more rustic take on Portugal, away from the sunloungers of the Algarve and the fado-music bars of Lisbon. The northern city of Guimarães may be the 2012 European Capital of Culture but, for a grass-roots appreciation of real Portugal, the only place to go is the Alentejo.

And the best way to discover it is on foot. The Rota Vicentina, leading from Cabo de St Vicente to Santiago do Cacém, opened in May 2012. Four years in preparation, the 356km, long-distance walking trail is split between two forks: a 241km inland route following the old pilgrimage trail of St James and the more visually alluring, 115km fishermen’s trail, which hugs the Atlantic coast of the Vicentina Natural Park.

Hotel owner Balthasar ‘Baltz’ Trueb is a member of Casas Brancas, an independent association of 62 guesthouses, restaurants and activity providers that developed the project. Five years from now it could be one of Europe’s greatest walking trails, like the Lycian Way or the Wales Coast Path. But, for now, it’s gloriously quiet, freshly waymarked and crying out to be walked.

“The Alentejo has always been the poorest and least developed region of Portugal,” says Marta Cabral, Executive Director of Casas Brancas. “But with Europe in turmoil, it’s the place where real village life survives.”

A super city start

I had started my journey a few days earlier, driving south from Lisbon to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Évora. The late 15th century was the golden age of discovery, an era when Portuguese explorers set sail to find the New World; Évora was Portugal’s second most important city (after Lisbon) during this time.

I spent the afternoon wandering its cobbled, medieval backstreets, bombarded with historical influences at every turn. I ambled from the Roman Temple past whitewashed houses, a legacy of the Moors, to the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos) inside the cloisters of a São Francisco Convent, created during the Spanish occupation of 1580-1640. Historic Café Arcada was still serving up traditional queijada (a cake made from grated coconut and cheese), and the sidestreets off the main square, Praça do Giraldo, were home to traditional family-run shops, thanks to a new project to support local businesses during the economic downturn. On Rua dos Touros, Gertrudas Fialho poked her head out of her embroidery shop, Casa Fialho, emerging between the headscarves and sensible underwear to flash a smile.

Walking with wild cats

A 45-minute drive and I was in Monsaraz, an idyllic whitewashed village, 40km south-east of Évora; it felt like the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Its twin narrow streets, set astride an ancient, incense-wafting church, were alive with bird life. I clambered over the ruined castle, walked around the medieval fortifications and explored the gnarly nooks and crannies of the cobbled passageways, shops selling brightly coloured pottery and woven shawls marking the way.

From the viewpoint outside the city walls, the whole region opened up to me in widescreen: the watery tentacles of Lake Alqueva stretching for miles between the cork-oak forests and the olive groves. Lisbon was just a few hours’ drive away but, already, the simple tranquility of village life was working its lingering magic.

The storks, nesting atop the telegraph poles at Azinhal, near Mértola, surveyed my arrival to the Vale do Guadiana Natural Park, an 80,000-hectare and wildlife-rich region in the Alentejo’s far east. Bird life and small mammals are particularly well represented, while the park authorities hope to reintroduce the Iberian lynx from Spain within the next five years. “This park has the greatest natural diversity in Portugal,” said Carlos Carrapato of the Natural Park office. “Only lynx, bear and wolf are missing.”

Early morning and dusk are the best times to spot the rare species, such as the black stork and the lesser kestrel. More common are wild cats, foxes and deer. The saramugo, a fish endemic to the tributaries of the River Guadiana, is an endangered species found only within the park, while the Spanish imperial eagle is represented by three breeding pairs – and only four pairs survive in the whole of Portugal.

“Our job is to protect the habitat so the animals thrive. It’s all about supplementing the work of Mother Nature,” Carlos noted, his arm slung over the door of his dusty jeep.

As late afternoon cast its shadows over the park, I sat by the St João bridge to watch the colours change over the landscape and the animals come out to play post-siesta – rabbits and numerous species of birds among them. At dusk I hiked up to the viewpoint at Alcaria Ruiva, looking north-west across the park with its holm oak forests and sparse, scattered communities stretching 30km towards the Spanish border. Black vultures soared overhead and wafts of lavender filled the evening air.

The next day I set out early to follow a designated, circular trail around Pulo do Lobo, in the north of the park, with Pedro Rocha, the park’s softly spoken deputy director. The path was good at first and, as we rounded the quartz rocks by a gurgling waterfall, a Spanish imperial eagle soared into view.

We walked on, heading along the bed of the river to a section of overgrown vegetation, obscured waymarking and rough scrambling. “Nobody comes this way. Not even the goats,” laughed Pedro.

It was tough going in the dry heat but the reward was encounters with white-spotted deer, otters and the local-breeding little owl. At the end of the trail, we stopped at a farm belonging to the local beekeeper, Leonel Belchior. He showed off his hives and their organic bounty. “This is pure honey,” he announced with pride, dipping fresh bread into the yellow-gold pot. “The nectar of lavender-fed bees.”

After a tough walk, life was sweet again.

Tracing the coast

It was the Vicentina coast that really showcased the best of the Alentejo: the most scenic walking, the most authentic glimpses of village life, the warmest hospitality.

Idalia José was waiting in the doorway of her homely guesthouse in Vila Nova de Milfontes after I’d spent a day on the trail. She fetched a tray of coffee and homemade chocolate-marble cake, and sat me down among her faded photographs, antique porcelain and family silver. It was like being seven years old again and visiting my grandmother’s house.

“I just leave the heirlooms around,” she smiled as I looked at them. “I think it makes guests feel like part of the family.”

The walk had been glorious – all cottonwool clouds and wave-crashed rocky inlets. I had set out that morning, heading north from Zambujeira do Mar, for a 22km linear day walk. My bags were transferred ahead; I had a picnic in my daypack.

Walking north along the Fishermen’s Trail, the route was broad and clear with fresh green-and-blue waymarking posts at regular intervals and a delicious sea breeze to cool my progress. White-yellow rock roses speckled the dusty track and lizards darted around my walking boots. From the clifftops by the lighthouse at Cabo Sardão, I could peer down into the stork nests and spot bundle-of-fluff baby chicks below.

I stopped for my picnic lunch at Cão, climbing down the rough stone steps to sit under the shady cliffs overhanging the deserted beach. The second half of the trail was more sandy, with fragments of shell and rock ground into the path.

I dipped momentarily inland, walking through a shaded pine forest, before curling back round to the coast to encounter a couple of other walkers also breaking new ground. At times I found myself skirting the clifftops with a frisson of white-knuckle vertigo before the final sandy yomp towards the tiny fishing port of Lapa das Pombas.

The next day brought a quieter 20km walk through the deserted sand dunes towards Porto Covo. The trail clung to the coastline at first, twisting around the wave-washed bays, before leading over flat stones to the beach at Praia do Malhão. Fishermen busied themselves on the rocks, spearing sea bass and collecting shellfish.

I powered through the final lap towards the old fort at Ilha do Pessegueiro and arrived that evening at Baltz’s hotel, Tres Marias, in time to catch housekeeper Rita preparing a rustic supper in the kitchen.

“Save room for the lemon tart,” she winked. Despite the aromas of grilled fish, oil-tossed salad and spinach lasagne, I promised I would.

After dinner, Baltz took us to his favourite café, a lost-in-time little tasca in a nearby village. The retired village baker, Antonio, was savouring a digestif shot of acorn liquor while the owner, Dona Raquel, loaded beers into the museum-piece fridge with an impressive dexterity that defied her octogenarian status.

We drank short shots of sugar-laden coffee in the cool night air and breathed deeply. After a week of adjusting to the rhythms of village life in the Alentejo, I’d long since left behind the spin cycle of city life. I hadn’t even thought about my iPhone, or my Nespresso machine, in days. “Crisis?” laughed Baltz. “What crisis?”

He smiled. “I call this progress.”

Local view: Justino de Jesus Ricardo, market trader

“I’ve been selling oranges at the market here for over 50 years. I’m 79 now. The secret
of a long life is to work hard and drink some good wine every day.”

Local view: Antonia Silva, weaver

“The art of weaving merino wool was brought to the Alentejo by the Moors. The tradition of weaving shawls and bedspreads is kept alive in villages like Monsaraz even today.”

Local view: Patricia Peixoto, winemaker

“Finally the moment has come for our wines. With reds like Touriga Nacional, we can taste the more structured, softer terroir of the Alentejo and the subtlety it brings.”

The author travelled with Sunvil Discovery and Inntravel.

Sunvil offers a tailormade, five-day itinerary from £728pp based on two-sharing, including two mights B&B in Evora, one night on a houseboat on the Alqueva Lake and two nights B&B in Mertola, return flights to lisbon and car hire.

Inntravel's seven-night Along the Coast Vicentina trip costs from £610pp based on two sharing, includes B&B accommodation, four dinners, five picnic lunches, luggage transport and route notes; flights and transfers cost extra.