Rota Vicentina: Welcome to Europe's empty corner

Wildflowers, deserted beaches and Atlantic waves set the scene along the rugged Rota Vicentina. Sarah Baxter sets off to enjoy this revelatory route

“The Portuguese don't walk,” Sara explained as we tucked into olives at her chic, rural guesthouse. “Since the revolution in 1974, more people have cars. So why would they?” At the far end of the table a local couple paused their cheese-eating to chime in: “We don't!” the woman concurred, emphatically. “We think walking is crazy!”

Having spent the day doing just that – a hike along the wild Alentejo coast – this dinnertime revelation did suggest the question: why has Portugal bothered creating a new long-distance footpath if no one is ever likely to use it?

Unveiled last year, the Rota Vicentina was created largely from existing rural paths by Casas Brancas. This network of small local businesses – guesthouses, restaurants, agriturismos – works together to bring sensitive tourism and development to an area much in need of an economic boost; it's hoped the Rota will do just that. Starting from Cape St Vincent, Portugal's most south-westerly point, the path follows the country's Atlantic-thumped coast north to the village of Odeceixe, where it splits in two: the Historical Way veers inland, the Fishermen's Trail sticks to the sea.

Whatever the Portuguese attitude to walking, the Rota Vicentina certainly deserves to be used. It lies entirely in the Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina Nature Reserve, a 200km-long chunk of protected shoreline where wildflowers rule the dunes, scrunched and striated cliffs plunge to dragon-back rocks, green-blue waters fizz and the sandy beaches are blemish-free and people-free. Plus, much of it is within the vast Alentejo. This region, a couple of hours' drive south of Lisbon, is the anti-Algarve, a place devoid of English pubs and golf courses.

It was to the Alentejo that we'd headed. My boyfriend and I – presumably exactly the walking enthusiasts those trailblazers want to attract – were following the Fisherman's Trail north from Odeceixe to pretty Porto Covo. We were spending five days hiking this section's 75km length, with detours to rural B&Bs en route.

You can walk the Rota Vicentina independently and camp along the way, but we'd opted to upgrade and make the most of the charming and reasonably priced accommodation, not to mention the excellent regional wines, locally caught seafood and friendly hospitality. On our self-guided itinerary, our bags were transported ahead each day; our picnic lunches (fresh bread, Alentejana cheese, zingy oranges) were packed for us each morning; a new welcoming host – bearing cake and character – awaited each night.

All that remained was to be perversely non-Portuguese and enjoy the walk. The bright-blue sky was cloud-free as we set off from Odeceixe, following a verdant estuary aflutter with birds before hitting the coast. A gentle Atlantic breeze maintained a perfect temperature and tickled the pines and pungent eucalypts.

The Alentejo accounts for more than a third of Portugal's landmass yet is home to only four per cent of the population; it's also the country's poorest region. There's lots of land but it isn't especially fertile, those fragrant and invasive eucalypts depleting the soil. However, our biggest immediate delight was the profusion, brilliance and variety of the flowers. There are almost 750 flora species in the natural park and I was overwhelmed by the colours and smells. The “arid” region hadn't read its own guidebook. It was vividly alive.

The green-blue trail-markers directed us along unpeopled cliffs; we had only gulls, butterflies and lizards for company. We'd look down to where littoral rocks were battered by a pugilistic sea; occasionally we'd spy a fisherman balanced precariously on an outcrop, dangling a line or scraping for goose barnacles. All week we dined on the fruits of these waters, from crisp, garlicky octopus tentacles to dense acorda – a tasty, regional bread-and-shrimp stew.

The walking just about justified the indulgence. There were a few steep hauls up cliffs and a fair amount of toiling through powdery, thigh-tiring sand, but mainly the pace was easygoing. On day two, we'd planned to set off early but discovered there was no point rushing: the pao man didn't arrive with the breakfast bread before 9am. A lie-in it was then.

Already, on that second morning, I felt enveloped by the simple pleasures of sun, sea and a skinny track squiggling off round the next headland. There were curves of sand here to make a developer drool. And yet they remained empty, possibly because many were backed by sheer cliffs, and appeared inaccessible. Although every time we declared a beach out of reach, we'd spy a lone fisherman who'd somehow managed to clamber down. A few other intrepids do make it here. I watched, impressed, as a surfer rode into one bay, making the most of this coast's fine breaks. Also, a few of the perfect beaches had more obvious access. On day three we happened upon deserted Praia da Carraca, an idyllically secretive strand. Creaky wooden steps led to the perfect picnic spot. We felt so smug, pristine sand under our bottoms, lunch unwrapped .... Smug, that is, until a wave washed up the beach, causing a hurried dash and – horror! – a sandwich lost to the sea.

What that sea stole in provisions, it repaid with a salty breeze that cleared our heads after the previous night's carafe of red wine. It also provided a four-fish stew, which we ate as the evening sun's crepuscular beams hit the waves, as if pointing to where dinner was caught.

By day four, we had surrendered entirely to the Alentejo, and on our final day I was still astonished. Leaving the little town of Vila Nova de Milfontes for Porto Covo, our morning brought fly-pasts by storks and a rusty old shipwreck but still no other people. At the long sweep of Praia do Malhao – three kilometres of picture-perfect rocks, pools and inviting sand – I couldn't bear it any longer. In a flash, I scampered down a dune and started to sprint across to the sea, somewhere between an excitable child and a Chariots of Fire-era Nigel Havers, I stopped as the waves threatened my shoes, a grin on my face and, now, a single line of footprints – the only ones in the Alentejo? – trailing behind.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Sarah Baxter travelled with Inntravel (01653 617002;, which offers the seven-night self-guided “Along the Costa Vicentina” trip from £665pp. The price includes B&B accommodation, four dinners, five picnic lunches, luggage transportation and route notes and maps; flights not included.

The writer flew with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet .com), which flies direct to Faro and Lisbon from several UK airports. One-way fares start at around £30. Transfers from Faro/Lisbon to the start/end of the walk cost £14-98pp via Inntravel, depending on whether you chose train or bus and taxi options.

More information:;;

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London