Alentejo: Take a walk on the wild side

Away from the bustle of the Algarve, Portugal displays a more tranquil side in the picturesque Alentejo region, as David Atkinson discovers

It was the first swallow of spring. Helpless and fledgling, its mouth gaping open for food, our life-affirming discovery among the willow and acacia trees was the first sign of the changing seasons. "I always know spring is on the way when I see the first swallow hatchling," said bird-watching guide and guesthouse owner Frank McClintock. "Birds are like a barometer for the standard of the countryside. Portugal's Alentejo is very rich in birds," he added.

Having left the bleary-eyed hibernation of Britain behind, I found the vital signs of Portugal's early spring positively exhilarating. Frank and I stopped on a stone-built, Roman bridge outside the sleepy Alentejo village of Santa Clara-a-Velha and listened to the lush orchestration of the birdsong: the melodic call of a blackcap warbler, the scratchy song of canary-like serins and the loud cawing of a flock of Iberian azure-winged magpies, an endemic species. I'm no twitcher, but the harmonies carried on the spring breeze, spliced with the aromas of chamomile daises and swathes of viper's bugloss, make for a joyous sensory overload.

Better still, it was a private show. Across the Serra de Montague hills lies the Algarve, a melée of behemoth hotels and tailback motorways. In my rural backwater, however, it was just Mother Nature and me. "Tourists?" chuckled Dorset-born Frank, as we drove back towards his rustic lodge, Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, overlooking Lake Santa Clara. "You're more likely to bump into a wild boar."

I was following a new itinerary from the walking and cycling specialists Headwater through the lower Alentejo, Portugal's vast but little visited cork-oak and wheat-farming region. It's a moderately active trip, but not without its rustic home comforts, based on a series of self-guided circular and linear day walks.

Armed with a set of maps and route notes, I spent the days hiking through forests, valleys and coastal cliffs. Each journey highlighted the contrasting landscape and wildlife of the region, as I walked from the hills towards the ocean.

Each evening, after a day on the near-deserted trails, I would return to one of three guesthouses along the route for a home-cooked meal and a chance to recount my discoveries to the owners over a glass of wine. While I walked between the guesthouses, my bags were sent on ahead by taxi, which meant I travelled light. My first two resting places were rustic and family-run, with an easy-going ambience and a make-yourself-at-home vibe. The last of the triumvirate was more modern and design led, a hacienda set in acres of land with a menagerie of resident animals, from chickens to ostriches.

The itinerary appealed to me as a way to have a more grass-roots experience of Portugal than the seaside resorts can provide. Vignettes of village life were a constant feature of my trip: a family gathering around the slaughter of a pig at a remote farm; a slow-moving funeral procession, shrouded in wild flowers, in the town of Odemira; old ladies swapping gossip over milky coffee in a village shop-cum-café. It was raw and deliciously unsanitised. I felt, albeit briefly, part of the community.

"I call the Alentejo the Wild West," said local guide Miguel Alves. "There are no boutique hotels, not much history. But there is a very strong sense of the preserved rural heritage. Everything here is still ahead of us."

The first of the long, linear walks started with a short transfer from Frank's lakeside lodge to the River Torgal just outside Odemira. Ahead lay a calf-flexing 18km hike along forest trails and through shaded valleys to my next guesthouse in the village of San Luis. Striding out steadily in the spring sunshine, I followed a gurgling stream-bed into the tranquil wilderness, crossing the water on foam-frothed stepping stones in search of the vital signs of spring.

Before long, the iridescent wings of purple emperor butterflies started to flutter across the path, and sweet-lemon rock roses perfumed my progress as falcons swooped overhead. I followed the tracks of wild boar, testimony to a nocturnal rampage, then basked on a sun-illuminated rock, feasting on a packed lunch of crusty-bread sandwiches and fruit prepared that morning by Frank's wife.

I was starting to flag by mid afternoon, so made a stop at the lost-in-time village of Garatuja. In a tiny village café, I devoured a pick-me-up snack of beer and goat's cheese served with fresh bread, while a blue-and-white mosaic of Saint Anthony above the bar cast a benevolent eye over me. A group of old farmers, all sporting identical bushy moustaches and well-worn berets, exchanged tentative nods as I tramped into their midst in muddy boots, then returned quietly to their newspapers.

My feet were sore that evening, but a hot shower and a comfy bed awaited me. As did a hearty dinner home-cooked by guesthouse owner Jose Falcao in the rustic kitchen of Corte Nova da Preguiça. After breakfast the next morning, Jose took me to a viewpoint to look out across the landscape of small farms, tiny hamlets and whitewashed churches below wide-open skies. The Algarve and urban Lisbon both flickered on the far horizon but the Alentejo felt like my own secret hideaway.

The next day I was back on the distant-horizon trail, heading towards the Atlantic coast and the last of three guesthouses through the Cercal range of hills. The final linear trail, following wooded goat-herding trails, offered another glimpse of the contrasting landscape and flora. The route is fringed by wild strawberry trees, the berries from which are used to distill medronho, the local firewater, said to have a mild hallucinogenic quality.

The first leg of the hike through the hillside montados – the Portuguese cork-oak forests – was tougher going than previous sections with steep ascents and sun-scorched conditions. As I emerged from the forest to a dirt-track junction by a ruined farmhouse, the coast tantalised me through the trees beyond the Vicentine Coast Natural Park. It was temptingly close now but my energy levels were low in the midday sun.

I pushed on, passing a freshwater well shaded from the mid-afternoon glare. Here a goat herder, accompanied by a herd of kids with chiming collar bells, was stealing 40 winks under the shade of a eucalyptus tree. He stirred sleepily as I passed. "Ola campadre," he said, flashing a grin that attested to years of poor dental hygiene. When I arrived at Tres Marias, the Swiss-born owner Balthasar laughed: "That was three-toothed Antonio. He's older than many of the cork oaks."

As I nursed a cold beer on the terrace, the first wafts of sea air reached me from the nearby coastal town of Vila Nova de Milfontes. Better still, there was a hearty supper of soup, slow-cooked Alentejo pork and pancakes, washed down by a glass of the much-underestimated local red wine to look forward to.

Village life in Alentejo may move at a sub-tortoise pace, but its walking trails were alive with a high-octane sense of renewal. It's time to throw open the shutters, compadres: summer is coming.

Travel essentials: Alentejo

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Headwater (01606 720 199; headwater.com), which offers an eight-day "Contrasts of the Alentejo" walking itinerary from £1,039 per person. The price includes full-board accommodation and route notes. There are weekly departures in April and May; the tour resumes thereafter from September to November. With BA flights from Heathrow and transfers, prices start at £1,225.

* You can reach the Alentejo either from Lisbon (served by BA from Heathrow, TAP Portugal from Heathrow and Gatwick, and easyJet from Luton and Gatwick) or Faro, which has a wide range of links from various UK airports on Ryanair, easyJet, Flybe, Bmibaby and Monarch.

More information

* Alentejo Rural Tourism: 00 351 283 327 669; casasbrancas.pt

* Alentejo Tourism: 00 351 284 311 913; visitalentejo.pt

* visitportugal.com

Five stars: Other options in Alentejo

Marvel at marble

The Alentejo region has long been a producer of marble, best witnessed in the swirling colours of Estremoz. The Rainha Santa Isabel is a fine example – a former 18th-century royal palace built by King Dinis of Portugal for his wife. Converted into a hotel in the 1960s, it retains much of its palatial splendour. Doubles start at €150. ( pousadas.pt)

Food for thought

Black back pork is a favourite, served with fresh clams. Vineyards are abundant too; one of the largest being Esporao in the south, which also produces olive oil. ( www.esporao.com)

Water, water, everywhere

The region is scattered with lakes, including Europe's largest man-made reservoir: the Alqueva, or Grande Lago. You can hire houseboats or cruisers from the Amieira marina for day trips and longer holidays. Stop off at tiny Portuguese villages; dine on deck; or board with bikes to explore the countryside. ( amieiramarina.com)

Capital of culture

Revisit Portugal's golden era in the provincial capital of Evora. Some key medieval buildings remain here – preserved from the 13th and 14th centuries and protected by Unesco. In eastern Alentejo, the hilltop town of Marvao is a contender for Unesco heritage status.

River wild

An hour's drive west from Evora takes you to the Sado estuary; a rich area of wetlands inhabited by bottlenose dolphins and winter flamingoes. Vertigem Azul organises three-hour boat trips around the wildlife hotspot starting at €30 per person. ( vertigemazul.com)

Laura Holt

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
people
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices