Walking a coastal wilderness: solitude on the Rota Vicentina
The Rota Vicentina, in south west Portugal, is craggy, ever changing and endlessly dramatic, and is right on the edge of mainland Europe. What if we Walked bloggers Luke Smith and Nell Sleet have been exploring 'the last coastal wilderness of Southern Europe’.
‘This is the last coastal wilderness of Southern Europe!’
So pronounced an enthusiastic hotelier the morning of the beginning of our walk on the Rota Vicentina. It was quite the statement, delivered with aplomb, but it stuck with us; that this would somehow be a walk in the wilderness, right on the edge of the land.
And in some ways, the Rota Vicentina is a bit of an unknown. It’s a fairly new waymarked route down the south west of Portugal, through the quite empty western parts of the Alentejo and the Algarve regions. The path hugs the coast of this part of Portugal (the Costa Vicentina – from which the route gets its name) and, being on the west, it’s relentlessly buffeted by the wind and waves from the Atlantic.
It eventually finishes at the most south westerly point of mainland Europe, quite literally tumbling off the end of the land.
But there’s more to the Rota Vicentina than this wild west coast (although that seemed enough for us!). The route in entirety is actually a network of spidery paths totalling 450km, including loops and day trips that wind all over the two regions. It’s split between two paths: the Fishermen’s Way, which stays sea-side, and the Historical Way, going inland.
As there is no Cicerone guide to the Rota Vicentina, it was up to us to work out the exact route to take. We chose to follow parts of both the Historical Way and the Fishermen’s Way, simply walking the straightest route from the beginning (a town called Santiago do Cacém) right to the end, to the lighthouse of the Cape of St Vincent – that famed south westerly point. It was 250km all in all, taking us almost three weeks. We felt we would get a bit of everything.
And looking back, those words from the hotelier still ring in our ears: he was right that this stretch of Portuguese coastline would be some of the most wildly beautiful we had ever seen.
But that sense of wildness also came from our utter solitariness on the trail. While the route managed to regularly connect with towns and villages (which is very useful), most of the time we were walking through utterly deserted sea and landscapes.
We were alone for the most part of the three weeks we chose to walk it; only birds and sea and cliff. Coastal wilderness indeed.
The Historical Way
We started on the Historical Way through a rolling landscape covered in cork trees and eucalyptus. Named because it links old villages and traditional tracks together, in the three days it took us to reach the coast we saw only one other walker on the trail. One! Of all of the Rota Vicentina, the Historical Way sections seem particularly empty, and we passed old farm buildings and sleepy villages in an almost hushed quiet. The odd local we did see seemed to only raise an eyelid, apparently only passingly curious as to why exactly two British people were wandering around in the countryside in the first place.
We stopped where it suited us, mixing up our accommodation between hotels, hostels and camping, all of which are perfectly doable on the Rota Vicentina. And on this first section of the Historical Way we even stayed in a windmill, lots of which are dotted around. We watched the sun set that night under its wooden wings, and could see the ocean sparkling ahead for the first time since setting out.
The Fishermen’s Way
We spilled out onto the beach the very next day, eating slices of almond cake to celebrate. And coastal trail it really became: the first section is literally on the beach. For the first time as well there were actual people walking. But only a smattering, and all seemed to be more preoccupied with the beach, here to walk their dogs or (of course) go fishing.
We walked along up above the beach on beautiful grassy coastline to the blue-and-white fishing village of Porto Covo. We camped there and then re-walked the same stretch again the next day along to Vila Nova de Milfontes. It was probably one of the busiest bits: and by that we mean only around 10 other walkers. We would stop and chat together in the silvery marram grass, looking out together over the palest of blue sea.
It was funny, but we only really saw other walkers when we stopped. The trail stretched out on the cliff edges behind and ahead appeared to be totally clear.
With the surprisingly warm February sun overhead, we could walk for 20km along the trail some days. Beach had given way to boardwalk, then dunes and eventually rocky cliffs. We passed several empty little beaches, steep sided and for only the intrepid to make it down. But generally, we found the walk fairly easy, until we lost our rhythm entirely walking in the deep sand dunes. Those days were all wind, sand, hardy flowering succulents and bright, bright blue above and beside us.
There were a few constant companions, though. At every fork in the road appeared a little wooden waymark, painted blue and green. When we were walking the Historical Way there had been an identical waymark, red and white. They were bright little things, buttressing the big Rota Vicentina maps we found in every village. We can tell you with some authority that this walk is spectacularly well waymarked.
The sea of course was an ever-present force, crashing relentlessly into the cliffs below us. We were right on the edge a lot of the time, and the sea spray curled up the rock, dampening our hair and eyelashes. ‘Not suitable for people with vertigo!’ some of those signs said, which we thought was quite exciting.
And there are some living, breathing wayfarers too: at two points along the Fishermen’s Way sit nesting storks.
They wheel above you to land on their nests just offshore. We watched them stand one-legged on their narrow precipices, spectacularly unruffled by the waves and their precarious situation. We saw a lot, particularly around Azenha do Mar just north of Odeceixe, and they became our talismans of the whole Rota Vicentina.
Alone on the trail we may have been, but we did enjoy the opportunity to see a bit of local life every now and then. And the Fishermen’s Way did in fact take us through some tiny working harbours. One was wedged into a tiny cove, where even getting down into it proved a challenge. When we finally did, we found four fishermen calmly worked among the boats and lobster pots. A briny seadog eyeballed us warily. The squat stone cottages above the cove were strung with buoys and festooned with fishing and boating equipment of all sorts. It could’ve been a scene from a painting.
The Portuguese villages dotted along the route are also cheery affairs, pretty much all with cafes. Inland we walked through Pedralva, a former agricultural community that had been abandoned, now entirely made over, white with coloured doors and utterly pristine. Further along was the coastal village of Arrifana, world-famous for its perfect surfing conditions. We stayed in the relaxed hostel, watching the surfers bob around on the water, catch waves, and then pad up the beach as night fell.
So there are some people. We’re not saying you are entirely alone of the Rota Vicentina. But there’s a sense of everyone just intersecting briefly while on their own little wild adventures, and that we weren’t really disrupting each other’s solitude. As well as a few walkers, we saw campers, cyclists, even yogis practicing on the cliffs.
But no matter what people were doing, we found there was a sense of calm and pleasant aloneness, as though everyone was here, right on the edge of the land, to meditate a bit on life.
We suppose we were doing that too – what better way to have a bit of thinking time than on a walk?
On our final day, we picked our way along the rocks to our end point, the lighthouse at the Cape of St Vincent, the most south westerly point. And it was here that we were finally joined by the hordes of tourists, here to see the ‘end of the world’. We suppose they were here to feel a bit of the remoteness that that implied. We thought about saying to them: well, there’s some coastal wilderness for about 450km, starting right round that headland if you’re interested…
Nell is a writer and runs the slow travel blog What if we walked? with her husband Luke. They travel the slow way, exploring the world on foot, and document their journeys on their blog and their Instagram (@whatifwewalked), as well as other media. Their recent journeys together include the Rota Vicentina in Portugal, The Painters’ Way in Germany and the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.View Articles by Nell Sleet
Luke is a writer and runs the slow travel blog What if we walked? with his wife Nell. They travel the slow way, exploring the world on foot, and document their journeys on their blog and their Instagram (@whatifwewalked), as well as other media. Their recent journeys together include the Rota Vicentina in Portugal, The Painters’ Way in Germany and the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.View Articles by Luke Smith