An an­cient pil­grim­age trail in south­west Por­tu­gal is now the ba­sis for one of Europe’s most scenic walks. Wel­come to the Rota Vi­centina.


An an­cient pil­grim­age trail in south­west Por­tu­gal is now the ba­sis for one of Europe’s most scenic walks.

As mar­tyr­doms go, the fate of St. Vin­cent of Saragossa was pretty grisly. The third-cen­tury Span­ish dea­con lived dur­ing the Great Per­se­cu­tion, when Ro­man Em­peror Dio­cle­tian or­dered all Chris­tians to re­cant their faith on pain of tor­ture or death. St. Vin­cent pi­ously re­fused and was con­se­quently lac­er­ated with iron hooks and roasted over a grid­iron. Leg­end has it that his body was brought to the wild promon­tory mark­ing the south­west­erly cor­ner of Por­tu­gal, where a flock of ravens guarded his grave.

In the Mid­dle Ages, Cape St. Vin­cent be­came a place of pil­grim­age. To­day, it marks the end— or the be­gin­ning, de­pend­ing on which di­rec­tion you take—of the Rota Vi­centina, a well-marked net­work of walk­ing trails that stretches from the vil­lage of San­ti­ago do Cacém in Alen­tejo to St. Vin­cent’s rest­ing ground in the Al­garve. While the foun­da­tions for the route were laid 1,700 years ago, its mod­ern in­car­na­tion is a sil­ver lin­ing from the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Faced with a spi­ral­ing re­ces­sion post-2010, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas, the Por­tuguese gov­ern­ment looked to de­velop new tourism projects based on ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture. The old pil­grim trail to Cape St. Vin­cent ticked many boxes: it of­fered walkingonly ac­cess to the frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment of South­west Alen­tejo and Vi­cen­tine Coast Nat­u­ral Park; it could dis­perse tourist in­come across a wide swath of coun­try­side; and it could en­cour­age tourism out­side of the peak sum­mer sea­son.

The two trails that con­sti­tute the Rota Vi­centina—the 230-kilo­me­ter His­tor­i­cal Way, which fol­lows the St. Vin­cent pil­grim­age trail, and the 120-kilo­me­ter Fish­er­men’s Trail along the Alen- tejo coast­line from Porto Covo to Ode­ceixe— opened in 2014, com­plete with a com­pre­hen­sive web­site with sec­tion maps and lists of ho­tels and restau­rants en route. In 2016, the Euro­pean Ram­blers’ As­so­ci­a­tion rec­og­nized the His­tor­i­cal Way as one of the best walk­ing des­ti­na­tions on the con­ti­nent; last year, more than 23,000 hik­ers trekked the Rota Vi­centina. “The suc­cess has been much more than we an­tic­i­pated,” says Marta Cabral, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­ação Rota Vi­centina—so much so that the as­so­ci­a­tion is now build­ing loop trails through the pret­ti­est re­gions, with plans to ex­tend the route from Cape St. Vin­cent to the nearby town of La­gos.

While most vis­i­tors opt for the shorter Fish­er­men’s Trail, in­creas­ing num­bers—in­clud­ing my hus­band and me—are com­bin­ing it with the His­tor­i­cal Way for a 12-day walk. We set out from the cob­bled town cen­ter of San­ti­ago do Cacém one sunny May af­ter­noon, fol­low­ing

red-and-white trail signs past farm­land and into rolling hills peppered with cork trees. Oc­ca­sion­ally there are glimpses of the At­lantic Ocean, here more than 20 kilo­me­ters away. It’s an easy walk, but one we have un­der­es­ti­mated. By the half­way mark we’ve run out of wa­ter, and the 40 kilo­grams we’re tot­ing be­tween us be­comes bur­den­some, es­pe­cially af­ter a pack of in­censed sheep dogs forces us to de­tour into the bush. When the weather turns and drenches us with rain, I’m ready to throw in the towel.

It’s 7 p.m. by the time we stum­ble, ex­hausted, upon civ­i­liza­tion: Vale Seco, a one-horse town marked by a sin­gle shop and the wel­com­ing lights of Moin­hos do Paneiro, our home for the night. Built as a vil­lage mill—two 19th-cen­tury wind­mills still stand—it’s now a bed and break­fast with six pine-lined vil­las that have been con­verted from old sta­bles and grain ware­houses. Our tiny bath­tub leaks and din­ner turns out to be both over­priced and com­mu­nal, but we’re warm and cozy and have plenty of good lo­cal wine to com­fort us.

Con­tin­u­ing south the next morn­ing, we troop past scenes of ru­ral life that seem so idyl­lic they al­most look staged: wheat fields bor­dered by yel­low and red wild­flow­ers; back­yard farm- ers tend­ing to or­ange trees burst­ing with fruit; spring grass be­ing cut for silage. Day two is eas­ier than day one, but on reach­ing the small town of Cer­cal do Alen­tejo 23 kilo­me­ters later, our first or­der of busi­ness is to con­tact Vi­centina Trans­fers, a lug­gage de­liv­ery ser­vice that for the bar­gain price of 10 eu­ros will pick up one of our packs and take it to the next ho­tel each day.

Feel­ing some­what lighter, on day three we veer west to­ward Porto Covo to con­nect with the Fish­er­men’s Trail. It is easy to see why the lat­ter is so pop­u­lar: it traces a rugged and largely un­in­hab­ited coast­line of tow­er­ing cliffs, sandy coves, and white­washed vil­lages brim­ming with fish restau­rants.

Day four un­folds much the same as days five to seven, each wind­ing their way along the tops of sea cliffs where wild­flow­ers and scrubby bushes eke out an ex­is­tence from what­ever wa­ter is caught in the cracks of rocks. Waves crash on sheer ledges while frigid sea breezes whip at our an­kles. Storks, back in Por­tu­gal af­ter spend­ing the win­ter in Africa, tend nests perched pre­car­i­ously on cliff edges. Gulls glide on the wind in search of din­ner. The weather is beau­ti­ful— big blue skies each day fol­lowed by crisp nights warmed by hearty wine.

At Ode­ceixe, the trail re­joins the His­tor­i­cal Way, dip­ping back only oc­ca­sion­ally to the coast. The route is punc­tu­ated with breath­tak­ing views and wilder­ness mo­ments; it’s also im­pos­si­ble not to no­tice two trou­bling fea­tures of the re­gion. First are the farm­houses and once pro­duc­tive agri­cul­tural land that are ei­ther aban­doned or for sale. Then there’s the preva­lence of in­va­sive plant species like nox­ious self-seeded aca­cias and eu­ca­lyp­tus trees, a now-ubiq­ui­tous Aus­tralian im­port whose flammable leaves have fu­eled many a Por­tuguese for­est fire.

Among the His­tor­i­cal Trail’s at­trac­tions are the charm­ing vil­lages one en­coun­ters en route. There is the me­dieval ham­let of Al­jezur, founded by the Moors in the 10th cen­tury along­side an im­pos­ing fort that still stands to­day. In surfer­friendly Ar­ri­fana, which com­prises lit­tle more than a clutch of houses cling­ing to the cliffs, we watch dozens of board rid­ers tackle the waves that roll into a peb­bled bay.

The pop­u­lar­ity of the Rota Vi­centina and the rel­a­tive lack of ho­tels along the route (es­pe­cially when com­pared to the well-es­tab­lished pack­age va­ca­tion in­dus­try on the Al­garve’s south­ern coast) meant we needed to book each night’s ac­com­mo­da­tion ahead. I did this partly through Book­ and partly through the As­so­ci­ação Rota Vi­centina of­fice. The lat­ter’s ac­com­mo­da­tion choices trumped mine for com­fort, though many of their rec­om­men­da­tions were also out of town, adding sev­eral un­de­sir­able kilo­me­ters to each day.

Only a dozen kilo­me­ters sep­a­rate Vila do Bispo from Cape St. Vin­cent, but the last leg of the trail is also one of the hard­est. Scram­bling over rocks and down steep bluffs as we’re bom­barded by gust­ing winds and sea spray, it takes all morn­ing for us to edge our way to the pre­cip­i­tous head­land. When we do, it is ad­mit­tedly a bit of an an­ti­cli­max. There is no memo­rial to St. Vin­cent. In­stead, we find a car park full of cam­per vans and a food truck hawk­ing “the last bratwurst be­fore Amer­ica.”

It is said that the cape was al­ready con­sid­ered sacred be­fore St. Vin­cent of Saragossa was buried here. The an­cient Greeks built a tem­ple to honor Her­cules on this spot, while the Ro­mans called it Sacrum Promon­to­rium, or the “Holy Promon­tory.” Cam­per vans and sausage stands notwith­stand­ing, the ex­posed head­land does in­deed have a be­witch­ing, al­most mys­ti­cal air. It’s a fit­ting place to end our pil­grim­age, I think, as a flock of ravens passes over­head.

Pho­to­graphs by Leisa Tyler

Ad­mir­ing views of the At­lantic Ocean on the Rota Vi­centina’s coast-hug­ging Fish­er­men’s Trail.

Above, from left: The bell tower of the 16th-cen­tury Nossa Sen­hora da Graça Church in Vila Nova de Mil­fontes, a re­sort town on the Alen­tejo coast; a hiker pass­ing through a cork grove on the Rota Vi­centina’s Cer­cal do Alen­tejo–Porto Covo sec­tion, an 18-kilo­me­ter walk that con­nects the His­tor­i­cal Way with the Fish­er­men’s Trail.

Hik­ers on the Rota Vi­centina’s His­tor­i­cal Way trek, be­tween the towns of Ar­ri­fana and Car­ra­p­ateira. Op­po­site: A view over the coast at Zam­bu­jeira do Mar.

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