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
* 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.
* Alentejo Rural Tourism: 00 351 283 327 669; casasbrancas.pt
* Alentejo Tourism: 00 351 284 311 913; visitalentejo.pt
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.
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)
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