Newest Review: ... - interpretations can be imposed. Back from the cliff-tops, though, all this changes, since they are capped by soft flat sandstone of... more
Up from the Algarve
Member Name: duncantorr
Date: 25/06/11, updated on 20/07/11 (199 review reads)
Advantages: "Well, I'm going to Vicentina..."
Disadvantages: "...get some sand in my shoes" (with apologies to J Cash)
Having more than a passing interest in travel and geography, I don't often find myself wondering "where's that?" on hearing the name of a region in Europe. Yet that was exactly my reaction when I saw 'Costa Vicentina' featured for the first time in this year's Inntravel brochure.
A quick look in the atlas soon put me straight. If you think of the Portuguese coast as forming the outline of a face in profile staring west out into the Atlantic - with Porto on the forehead, Lisbon in the nostril and the Algarve coast underneath the chin - then the Costa Vicentina is the front of the chin, round the corner and up from the Algarve but still some way south of Lisbon. Compared with the south-facing Algarve it is mercifully little developed for tourism, and there is a chance that having been declared a "Natural Park" in 1995 it will be protected from despoliation for at least some time to come. I hope so, since there is much of value to protect, including some of the most spectacular coastal scenery I have ever seen: towering cliffs and natural rock sculptures, jutting promontories surrounding tiny coves. The topsoil is sandy and ill-suited to cultivation, so a wide margin of scrubland is generally left wild behind the shore, providing a habitat for rare flora and fauna. The area reputedly harbours many unusual birds, with over two hundred species to be seen, though we spotted few if any bird-watchers. There are beaches too, but not many people find their way to them, or at least were not doing so when we were there in early June. Along the clifftops we could walk all day and hardly see a soul, often only a lone local fisherman on his way to cast his line from his favourite rocky perch.
Whether or not you'd like the Costa Vicentina depends entirely on what you look for in a holiday. If you are looking for a sunbed on which to bask beside a concrete pool all day and a club in which to boogie all night, don't even think about it - head on down to the Algarve. My wife and I were looking for some scenic, but not too strenuous, walking by day and some relaxed eating and drinking in the evenings, and it suited us very well, with the one proviso that the walking was a touch more strenuous than we'd bargained for. Our holiday was arranged through Inntravel, a company about which I have written a separate review*. They specialise in holidays whereby they book you into a series of places to stay and organise the transport of your luggage between them, while you hike the trail unencumbered and at your own pace. Perhaps it's best if I try to describe what we saw of the region by describing the progress of our walk, followed by some general comments.
Our route took us from south to north between Odeceixe and Porto Corvo. The terrain changes gradually as one moves up-coast, but it can also be regarded as falling into two distinct stages, with the transition coming midway through the third day (of six) at the village of Cavaleiro.
* Saving the best till first: Odeceixe to Cavaleiro *
The first few paces of our trek were taken in Algarve province, though we soon crossed the bridge over the River Seixe into Alentejo, in which the Natural Park is mostly to be found. About Odeceixe I can tell you little; all white stucco walls and terracotta tiled roofs it sat sedately on its hillside as towns do in this region, but we did not see its centre. We followed the far bank of the river, as it meanders through water meadows tufted with olive and citrus trees to reach the sea. Here, beside a wide, surf-swept beach, three Dutch and German camper-vans were parked; five hours later we met a Swiss family on another beach. Those were the only signs of tourism we saw that day. In the meantime we climbed the rocky path up the cliffs and followed its weaving way for miles above the shores.
What's to be seen up there? The sea, of course, dominating the horizon to the west. Birds beginning with an "s": seagulls, swallows, swifts, skylarks and storks, the extraordinary sea storks of the area that build their towering nests like chimneys on the pinnacles of the outcrops along the shore. And what outcrops they are. The underlying geology here is igneous - layers of black basalt and slate shot through with veins of quartz and other crystalline rocks - contorted by volcanic upheavals over millions of years. The result is dramatic: precipices dropping sheer into the sea, swirling patterns and corrugated cross-sections on the cliff-faces, jagged ridges of rock rearing up out of the foaming waves, surreal structures on which imaginative - or fanciful - interpretations can be imposed. Back from the cliff-tops, though, all this changes, since they are capped by soft flat sandstone of a later era, and with consequent sand. Flourishing here were myrtle, oleander and yellow daisy-bush, together with wild allium, lavender, cystus, poppies and many other species that my wife pointed out to me and which I shall be in trouble for not having listed exhaustively here, but how much space can I allot to plants alone? Angel's Fishing Rod, I see from the notes I jotted down at the time; what a wonderful name, although I have only the haziest recollection of what it looks like. At least I should mention that.
Oh, and the Hottentot Fig, a low-lying succulent with pretty pink or yellow flowers, which thrives on dunes. Sounds good? Up to a point, a point reached all too soon since it is voraciously invasive, crowding out other plants, and enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the rats that nest under it, eat its fruit and thereby spread its seeds. The further north one travels up this coast the more it predominates, just one of the reasons why the southern end is to be preferred.
That evening we headed inland again to stay and encountered the only signs of intensive agriculture during our visit: raspberries being forced under plastic poly-tunnels, and fields of gladioli being grown - my wife surmised - for seed rather than as cut flowers. The latter at least were an attractive backdrop to the walk. They were, though, soon left behind the next morning as our route took us back out to the cliff-edges, to the jutting headlands and the secluded coves between. Along this stretch we ran into two New Zealanders; they were on a similar trek in the opposite direction, and were the first other walkers we had met. They were less enthusiastic than us, complaining of the sandy terrain. Later, as we went north, we understood better their complaints. Also, coming from New Zealand, they probably found the absence of crowds less of an unaccustomed pleasure than did we natives of the jam-packed UK.
We were just reaching the conclusion that the beaches must be empty because no roads led down to them, when we arrived at the resort village of Zambujeira do Mar, which does have a road, and two beaches, not quite deserted but with no more than dozen people to be seen on them. Here were a decorative little hermitage, a café for cake and galao (the Portuguese equivalent of latte or flat white) and a shop that sold me superglue with which to repair my disintegrating boots. I knew these time-worn veterans were on their last feet before setting off, but had not wanted to wear in new boots on a long walk, nor appreciated how quickly the fine sand would seep into the smallest of cracks and work its abrasive magic between the layers of the sole. Twine salvaged from beach debris helped to keep them together before the superglue was found. Indeed, we were lucky to find the twine, since the beaches are clean by most standards. The idea that the repairs would settle in better on a smooth surface reconciled me to tramping along the road for a few miles north of Zambujeira, the only stretch on our route where the road runs close to the shore.
By the next morning the road had branched off inland, leaving us to enjoy further more spectacular coastal scenery all the way up to the lighthouse on the Cape of Sardao, where a river inlet forces one to turn inland to the village of Cavaleiro.
* A dune with a view: Cavaleiro to Porto Corvo *
Is the coastline north of Cavaleiro any less spectacular than to the south? No, not really, or at least not immediately. What does change immediately, though, is the vegetation on the clifftops and the going underfoot. The vegetation is lower-lying and less colourful, sparse grass and the ubiquitous hottentot fig, though my wife still found much to interest her. The going, meanwhile, ceases to be merely sandy and becomes unmistakably a series of dunes of increasing height and navigational difficulty. The clear path bifurcates again and again into the faintest of forked trails, which run into the sand. Anyone who has walked over dunes will know how each pace forward incurs half a pace of slipping back, how your feet sink down into the softness and have to be yanked up out again as if from mire. Evading the dunes along the very edge of the precipice requires a formidable head for heights, maybe even a foolhardy one, since the cliffs are in many places undercut by the action of the waves and the traces of rock falls are easily identified. Evading the dunes inland is a circuitous diversion away from the coast that you have come to see.
After five kilometres of this terrain it is not only my boots that are suffering. Our capacity to enjoy the views is wearing thin, as is our stamina. More seriously, my wife, whose recovery from various health problems over the past few years can never safely be regarded as more than provisional, finds her ankles swelling and exhibiting a bright red rash, alarming to behold. All told, it is with some relief that we trail that evening into the adjacent villages of Almograve and Longueira, where we stay.
Next day, fortified by food, rest and the knowledge that the next day's itinerary is shorter and, being mostly away from the shore, relatively dune-free, we head north again, touching the coast only briefly to find the cliffs much diminished in both scale and geological complexity. Then it's inland again through cork-oak plantations to cross the river Miro and enter the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes. Vila Nova, clustered around a fort guarding the river-mouth, seemed to us a charming little town, but it is allegedly far more touristy than others in the area, and we were told the population grew ten-fold at holiday times. Still, it didn't seem over-crowded on the evening before a Portuguese national holiday, though we failed to make the most of our visit because my wife's ankles were by now suffering grievously. The next day she was transported separately to our last stopping place, while I trudged on alone through further drifts of dunes with rather poorer compensation in the sea views. The day after that, instead of tackling still further dunes to complete the full itinerary to Porto Covo - which the New Zealanders had warned us was the sandiest stretch of all - we spent recovering on the long beach at Malhao, only walking the few kilometres back to our hotel. This beach, incidentally, which is one of the few accessible by car, was far from crowded on a bank holiday weekend , with perhaps fifty or so people within a hundred metres of us and long deserted lengths beyond which we no longer had the energy to reach. On the debit side, looking north from here, you can see the tall chimneys of the power station at Sines, the first sign of industrial blight encountered along the length of this otherwise almost pristine coast.
* Where we stayed *
It is one of the attractions of the area is that there are very few conventional hotels, and even fewer, if any, purpose-built seaside monstrosities. Five out of the six places at which we stayed could be roughly described as variations on the theme of 'agriturismo' (small hotels based on farm buildings, sometimes still associated with a working farm), all with their merits and each with an individual style of its own.
The five were:
1. Casa Vicentina, near Odeceixe. Characterful room and most attractive grounds, including natural swimming pond with toads. Amiable cats and staff, but food and service unexceptional.
2. Cerca do Sul, Brejao. Smaller and more basic room, but comfortable lounge, terrace and swimming-pool. Vast tasty lasagne for supper, cooked by owner personally.
3. Herdade do Touril, near Entrada da Barca. Larger, more ranch-like establishment, also with pool and stylishly decorated, but we were in an outhouse across a stony carpark. Good breakfast, but no dinner on the night we were there, necessitating a taxi to the Restaurante a Barca at Entrada, where we ate (some of) an enormous fish and potato stew.
4. Monte Novo, at Longueira. Again small, but offering a perfectly adequate room, pool and breakfast. Dinner of delicious sargo grelhardo (grilled sea-bream) at the Josue restaurant in the village.
5. The Tres Marias, inland between Vila Nova de Milfontes and Porto Covo. A former ostrich farm, this still keeps the odd ostrich plus donkeys, sheep and cattle. In truth without many amenities and a touch unkempt, but stylish enough to overcome these drawbacks - my wife suggests "shabby chic" as a description - truly welcoming and with first-class food. I shall be devoting a separate review to it.
Also reviewed separately is the
6. Casa do Adro, at Vila Nova de Milfontes. Not an 'agriturismo' but a traditional town house amid the narrow streets of the old town, lovingly decorated, comfortably furnished and exuding the exceptionally hospitable character of its owners. To describe it as a 'bed and breakfast' wouldn't really do it justice, especially as the breakfast is larger and more lavish than most main meals.
It is, I think, greatly to InnTravel's credit to have discovered six such places at suitable daily walking intervals, even though their location means heading a little inland most evenings. There are, in any case, very few places to stay right on the coast itself, just a few hotels/hostels/rooms to let in the towns and one horrible-looking campsite set back out of sight from the beach at the southern end of Malhao. Long may the lack of accommodation last, if the coast is to stay unspoiled.
* Eating and drinking *
Fish, as you will have already gathered from the above, is a staple, as it is in most regions of Portugal, which has Europe's highest consumption per head. It is often cooked with potatoes or rice, and some dishes combine seafood with pork or beef. Salads were full of flavour. There are some tasty local cheeses, usually eaten with bread - thick-crusted, stone-baked bread - and olives or other nibbles before the meal, while the main course is being prepared. Puddings include some tasty cakes and pastries with baked custard - also eaten as a snack during the day - and delicious local fruit.
As a wine-growing area the Alentejo is traditionally known more for quantity than quality, but great efforts have recently been made to improve the reputation of its output. I rather liked the whites as an accompaniment for fish, full-flavoured as they were, though my wife preferred the crisper vinho verde from northern Portugal. The reds are full-bodied and strong, again more to my taste than my spouse's. The beers were all national brands, not local, with Sagres a much better selection than Super Bock, in my opinion.
When to go
We left it later than advisable, because family reasons kept us at home during April and May. March, we were told, would also have been good for flora, and usually warm enough for walking, though sometimes wet, as is April. By June, the best of the wild flowers are usually over - though we found the landscape colourful enough - and the weather can be hot, especially for walkers in a landscape with little shade. In the event we were lucky, coinciding with a cool and cloudy spell, ideal for our purposes, with a brisk onshore breeze to further keep the heat at bay, but hardly any rain.
* Getting there and getting around *
We booked our own flight to Lisbon, and let InnTravel arrange local transfers (by express coach, mainly because a train strike was threatened, and then by local taxi/hotelier). The express coach took about two and a half hours; train would have been quicker but the high speed line is some way from the coast, necessitating a longer local transfer. We could have arranged to fly to Faro in the Algarve instead, but the transfer times are not much shorter and we wanted to see Lisbon.
If you weren't doing the InnTravel itinerary (or that of another company: Headwater also organise walking tours there, I believe, and so may others), but wanted to be independent, a fly-drive would seem ideal. You would definitely want your own transport while in the region, and driving down from the UK would be a lengthy expedition indeed, even if you shortened it with a ferry to Santander in Spain, an expensive option. Nevertheless, we would think about doing it that way if we revisited another time, something we would like to do.
* Recommendation *
No doubt I shall receive comments to this review to the effect that there are other unspoiled coastlines elsewhere in Europe waiting to be seen, particularly around the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland and in Scandinavia, and for all I know that may be true. What I do know is that for southern Europe, the Costa Vicentina is a rarity, and of rare value. Can it remain unspoiled? Despite the Natural Park designation, that has to be questionable; such protection can only withstand so much pressure. We heard a rumour that Luis Figo, former footballer and budding entrepreneur, has bought 100 prime hectares with a view to turning it into a luxury holiday complex. I have no idea whether there is any truth in this, but it is easy to imagine many acquisitive eyes turning towards those untouched beaches and calculating the potential profits latent in their sands.
So if you want to go to experience the coast as it is, perhaps you should go soon. To see it properly you will need to do some walking over tough terrain, and get some sand in your shoes; the viewpoints for some of the most spectacular seascapes cannot be reached by car. You will find few places to stay, eat or drink, but those that you do find are likely to be welcoming, cosy and full of character. The people are friendly, though little English is spoken except in the hotels, and you will need to be ready to try out your Portuguese. Despite tramping across the sometimes desert-like dunes, I liked the area very much and would heartily recommend it.
© Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011
*For a review of Inntravel, please see:
For a review of the Casa do Adro, see
www.dooyoo.co.uk/ hotels-international/casa-do-adro-vila-nova-de-mil fontes-portugal/1575593/
Summary: Alentejo's splendidly unspoilt stretch of coast