My bug bites and blisters hadn’t even healed after ten days walking the Camino de Santiago when my mom told me about it. A friend of hers had just returned from a trip to Portugal, where she’d hiked the Rota Vicentina, a new network of walking trails along the country’s south-western Algarve coast.
I’m not quite sure why – masochism or redemption, perhaps? – but I googled the Rota Vicentina immediately. The well-designed website described its two routes – the inland historical way, encompassing some of the old Grand Route (GR), and the coastal fishermen’s trail – along with topographical descriptions, accommodation information, and Google Earth tracking. My interest was piqued.
The truth is that, despite the challenges of our Camino, somewhere along the way I’d learned that I liked long-distance walks. In fact, I was already cross-referencing other interesting trails I’d heard about with our long-term travel plans to see where a few more hikes might fit in.
When I learned that the Rota Vicentina ran along our planned route south, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. True, we wouldn’t have time to walk all 400km of it – our transit south had to take us well into Morocco in a couple short weeks – and I still wasn’t mentally ready to sleep in any other bed than my own, anyway. But Bruno and I could at least sample the Rota Vicentina, right?
We chose the Fishermen’s trail because we love coastal views and because the trail cuts through a big natural park, the Parque Natural de Sudoeste Alatenjano e Costa Vicentina (which I gather is where the name of the trail network comes from). We based ourselves in Vila Nova de Milfontes, the second village along the Fisherman’s trail, because it had a decent campsite. We popped into the tourist office, which seemed to cater primarily to Rota hikers, and were pointed toward the blue and green trail markers that would guide our way out of Milfontes.
And that was that – the next morning, we were off toward Almograve. It was a pretty simple pre-departure organization, compared to our Camino preparation, as we just needed to pack day bags containing enough food and water for a 16km walk. One point for day hikes.
I wasn’t just comparing day hikes to long-distance hikes as we walked the Rota, however. I couldn’t help but compare this walk to the Camino de Santiago. And when I did, the Rota Vicentina came up short in almost all respects: it didn’t have an aura of excitement surrounding it, its coastal cliffs were less high and dramatic; the scenery of the park wasn’t as varied. The biggest drawback of the Rota, in my opinion, is that the trails don’t pass through any villages between the day’s start and end points (at least on the Fishermen’s Trail). This meant that there was much less cultural interest, that you had to lug all the food and water you’d need for the day, and that you couldn’t make your day’s walk longer or shorter unless you bush-camped or doubled-up sections.
There was one thing I liked better about the Rota Vicentina, though: there was hardly any asphalt-walking. The trail was almost always dirt, rock, or sand, meaning that your knees and feet take less of a beating. (Indeed, I could still feel the places on my toes that had barely-healed blisters from the Camino and its nightmarish tar trails). Walking the Rota was more physically-demanding because the trail was about 70% soft sand and we had to ford and river once (thankfully the water wasn’t deep), but at least I knew I wasn’t doing my body long-term damage.
After a quick jaunt around the very small fishing village of Almograve, we hitchhiked back to Milfontes so we could sleep in our own bed that night. A twice-daily bus travels between the two towns, but we didn’t want to wait, and the locals were very obliging. It was my first time hitchhiking, so don’t worry mom.
The next morning we walked in the opposite direction, north toward Porto Covo (the first town on the Fishermen’s trail). We preferred this day’s walk to our previous, both because we were walking north (which meant the sun wasn’t in our face but at our backs) and because the trail hugged the coastline more often. We walked on sand through an astounding variety of shrubs, sturdy plants that must deal with an onslaught of hot sun, salty wind, and dry soil in their attempt to prevent the sand dunes from falling down the cliffs into the Atlantic Ocean. We passed several fishermen parked on the edge of rocky cliffs, caught site of sandy coves and inaccessible beaches, tiny rock islands that fell away from the coast, and even and even a few birds’ nests big enough for me to sit in.
I’d have loved to drive a bit further south, park our vehicle at the intersection of the Fishermen’s trail and the Historical Way, and sample more of the Rota Vicentina. I couldn’t deny that the almost-empty trail and the warm midday sun was doing my body and spirit a lot of good. But, as a sign not far from Milfontes showed us, we still had over 1200km to Agadir, the approximate Moroccan meet-up point for our forthcoming family reunion.
I’ve spent three months touring around Europe this year, and one of the things that has most struck me is its sheer quantity of hiking trails. We’ve stumbled upon them everywhere – in Bosnia, Slovenia, Switzerland, France, and Spain – always well-signposted and carrying a few well-equipped hikers from one lovely point to another. I’ve learned about the GR, or Grandes Randonées, a network of long-distance footpaths across Europe (in France alone, there are 60,000km of GR trails). I’ve learned about the Via Ferrata (or “Iron Road” in Italian), climbing routes covered with steel cables and other climbing aids scattered across the mountain ranges of Europe.
I hadn’t equated Europe with walking trails, but now I do. It may be the thing I’m most excited to take advantage of when Bruno and I come back in our old(er) age.
I’ve been working to expand the list of interesting long-distance walks I’d like to do over the coming years. I can tell you, for sure, that the Rota Vicentina – and a boat-load of other European trails – is now on that list. Are there any others, anywhere in the world, on your radar that you can enlighten us with?