This is an experiment. Can I keep a daily diary of my trip to Portugal to walk a 120 stretch of the Rota Vicentina? Can I do the bloody walk, let alone write about it. I set off from Sydney this week to meet my writer friend Kieran and tackle the longest walk I have ever undertaken in my life. Read on …
Day 1: Flying out of Sydney, premium economy on BA, you forget how bloody long that trip to London really is. Seats in Premium on the 737-300 are big enough but the tall guy next to me struggles a little, even with the generous leg room.
Note to self, book an aisle seat next time – you’re over the wing anyway so a window seat has nothing going for it apart from some minimal random space between your seat and the side wall.
Service is OK and the food is surprisingly palatable. But a nightclub queue style rope appears across the gangway blocking our access to the Business Class toilets.
And that is an issue. There are only two toilets for all of premium and economy on our side of the plane. An hour out of Singapore, one of them is locked off because it’s “out of order”.
What’s really out of order is the security check at Singapore. This now occurs at your boarding gate, meaning a planeload of passengers, given 40 minutes to stretch their legs, spend most of it queuing to have the bags they just took off the same bloody plane run through an X-Ray machine again.
There has to be a smarter way. Back on the plane. London, Lisbon and beyond tomorrow.
Day 2 – London, Lisbon and beyond
90 minutes till we land at Heathrow and the logjam at the bathrooms is already forming as 300 passengers try to perform a full travel wash, shave and do their hair before landing. I’ll sit this one out.
Phone pings to life as I’m getting off the plane – our 8.10 flight to Lisbon has been cancelled. We’ve been put on the 1.35 which should be touching down just as our bus to Vila Nova De Milfontes is leaving the Sete Rios bus station
I transfer by robo-train to the main terminal, scoot through immigration then wait 30 minutes as the bags appear to be being unload one by one. Customs are unmanned on the Nothing To Declare side so I jog through and take the free Heathrow express to Terminal 2 where Kieran is already in the queue of disgruntled TAP passengers.
Using the old trick of not screaming at someone who has been screamed at all morning, Kieran gets us on a BA plane leaving half an hour earlier than our original TAP flight. This means we have to literally run through the tunnels and along the travelators to get to Terminal 3.
I arrive at the security check dishevelled from a night on a plane, stressed from the cancellation experience and sweating profusely from the mad charge between terminals. I must look like a terrorism suspect from Central Casting. But then I somewhat cynically let a pleasant, chatty, brown-skinned elderly man get ahead of me in the cue.
My stuff – a tangle of phones, laptops, chargers and cables that I haven’t had time to sort out after the flight – zips through the X-Ray machine unchallenged. The small brown man is pulled aside for a search. Hey, maybe racial profiling isn’t such a bad thing (I’m joking, for God’s sake!).
On the plane, we are told that due to an air traffic control strike in France, we’ll have to sit on the tarmac for a couple of hours until they can get a clear flight path to London. Groans all round until the pilot stops in mid-sentence and says. ‘My goodness … they’ve just cleared us for take-off’.
Lisbon Airport arrivals is a seething mass of people whom it’s reasonable to assume are all victims of the French strike, in some way or another. The airport is unlikely to challenge Singapore, Amsterdam or Dubai in the best airport in the world stakes any time soon. It is being renovated, true, which does nothing to add to its current sense of slightly organised chaos.
Immigration is long queues, great confusion, faulty equipment and passengers who don’t have a clue how it works or even whether they have the right kind of passport. Baggage reclaim is a little too efficient. The first bags are taken off the carousel by an airport worker. It’s only after we have waited until the carousel stopped for Kieran’s case, that we realise the stack of cases at the side isn’t a massive tour group but luggage taken off to make room for more bags coming through. It’s been sitting there all the time.
The Brits politely queuing in one very, very long line at Customs while everyone else surges forward in a rolling maul. We join the “others” in the tidal wave of humanity, jamming trolleys into ankles accidentally (but not always). One older gent carves his way through the crowd, using his trolley like a snow plough while his wife follows in his wake, apologising theatrically.
We foolishly wait until we have cleared immigration before we look for an airport lounge in which to while away the hours before catching the bus south. Neither of us fancies schlepping suitcases through a city we don’t know. Too bad, the lounges are all on ‘air-side’ but a hairdressesser doubles as a spa so I can have a shower as long as I book a massage. Win-win.
We sample our first pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart, to you) which set a benchmark for the rest of the trip. The coffee in the airport café isn’t half bad either. Maybe this trip is going to be OK.
Finally we take the Airport Bus to the Sete Rios bus station and board the coach for Vila Nova de Milfontes, to the south of Lisbon in the Alentejo coastal region.
The small hotel there, is clean and comfortable. That night we go to one of the restaurants recommended by the tour guides, and eat salted cod recommended by the restaurant. It’s disappointing.
Never mind. We’re here to hike, not eat. And that starts tomorrow.
Day 3 – Porto Covo to Milfontes
There’s a special kind of ego and insanity that inspires you to announce you will be writing a daily travel blog. “Oh, will you really?” the Gods of travel smirk as they line up cancelled flights, blistered feet, catatonic exhaustion and a bug in your laptop that causes it to crash every 15 minutes. Wait till it’s written, then announce it, would be my future plan.
On day 3 things get serious. We are being driven from Vila Nova de Milfontes to Porto Covo … so we can walk back the 20km to Milfontes. We are told to take a litre and a half of water each plus a couple of oranges and nut bars as there is nothing between the two towns apart from sand. We find a “mini-mercado” in Porto Covo where we purchase the water and manage to buy the only oranges in the whole of Portugal that aren’t bursting with juice. When I say “we”, of course I mean Kieran.
So off we trudge, the happy wanderers, and soon hit the first stretch of soft sand that we had been warned about. Being highly dubious about walking poles (we think they are just too nerdy even for us) we’ve bought a pair and share them, one each. Jeez, was that a brilliant idea. Seriously, twenty bloody kilometres of sand dunes, you need all the help you can get.
A couple of 50-something university professors from the USA, on the same tour, disappear off on to the horizon as we struggle along, like extras from Lawrence of Arabia who’ve lost their camels. We have been assured this will be the hardest day of the hike. Thank God for that. I couldn’t handle anything harder. [Note to self: cycling 60km a week is no training for walking 20km a day through sand].
Six hours after we started, we are back at Milfontes. A shower and a couple of beers and we decide to try the restaurant opposite the one that was recommended the night before.
It had an interesting menu, but was empty – unlike the preferred option which was pretty busy. The owner was a forlorn figure in the door, so we took pity, despite a Portuguesse game show blaring on the TV.
He obviously decided we were a gay couple – said I was a “lovely man” several times – and maybe he thought his dream of becoming the go-to gay fish restaurant in Milfontes was finally coming true. I had a beautiful grilled salmon steak while Kieran was defeated by the Porc Combinato which turned out to be basically every conceivable kind of pig meat glued together with melted cheese. It was even more disgusting than it sounds and I had to surrender half my salmon to poor Kieran.
After a disappointing coffee at an allegedly Brazilian café on the way back to the hotel we retired to our rooms, hoping for an easier day on the trail.
Day 4 – Milfontes to Almograve
Yesterday, I neglected to note the sad passing of a pair of reliable friends. One of Kieran’s sturdy walking boots gave up the ghost about 5km out of Milfontes, its flapping sole sucking up sand like a dredger with every step. Held together with elastic bands until we got back to base, into the bin it went, along with its still fully functioning companion, who would just have been lonely without its right-hand (or foot) man. There’s no room for sentiment on the Rota Vicentina.
You have two choices when you leave Milfontes and head south: take the wee ferry and save 2.5 km of the round trip over the bridge. Having conquered the “hardest part” the day before, we took the latter option. We are hiking fools.
All you have to do is follow the signs, small blue and green stripes and/or arrows on wooden posts, power poles, trees or rocks. All you have to do to avoid missing the signs is not be talking about writing, politics, religion or football. Or anything.
To begin with, we were right on track, literally and figuratively even though we were seriously distracted by an abandoned building that loomed up out of a hay field like something from a low-rent horror film.
It got even more bizarre as we got closer and saw the massive mural of a naked pregnant woman holding a snake and an apple. No, it’s not Eve; it’s called Lilith by an artist called Violant. I’m sure the painting put a curse on us for the rest of the day.
Once we’d cleared the farmland, it was back to sand dunes that sit on the top of the cliffs. What?More soft sand? Ricardo, the tour organiser had said we’d be OK with trainers from this point on. Just as well, given that Kieran had trashed his walking boots. Ricardo must work for Nike – this was no terrain for trainers.
As we trudged into Almograve, we stumbled into a restaurant for a very late lunch of fish soup. It turned out to be the restaurant recommended for dinner so we went back later and had fish stew. We like fish.
When we finally arrived at our motel, we were greeted by an Australian bottle-brush tree. The massage therapist whom I had booked the day before, told me, as she was squeezing life back into my legs, that bottle-brush plants are great for cleansing your chakras.
If only I’d had my chakra cleansed after we saw that mural I might not have acquired blisters on my heel and foot.
Day 5 – Longueira to Zambujeira Do Mar
A word about breakfasts: there’s a lot of bread. In most of the B&Bs and small hotels where we stayed along the route, breakfast was simple but sufficient. Fresh orange juice and drinkable coffee were a given. Fresh fruit – either peeled and chopped or available intact in a large bowl was often on offer. In some places there was egg and even bacon and sausage. Cold meat and cheese were de rigeur, in the continental style and some places even had muffins and pain chocolat. In other words, unless you were a lactose, glucose, fructose and gluten intolerant vegan, you would find plenty to eat.
However, it seems the Portuguese – at least, those in Alentejo – have not yet mastered the art of scrambled egg which tends to be overcooked into hard lumps with the excess liquid drained off. It’s a small complaint, but if you’re hoping for a hot breakfast, be ready to be disappointed.
On the other hand, our motel – Monte Nova Da Longueira – had the best eggs of the trip, presented simply in a glass bowl. Top marks for trying!
The walk from Longueira/Almograve began with a steady climb through more bloody sand dunes, culminating in a detour through a forest to avoid some seriously eroded tracks. The forest meant more opportunities for wrong turnings which we duly took. [Readers suffering déjà vu should know that I accidentally put this in the previous day’s blog – another wrong turning] We went round in 2.5 km of circles and dead ends (according to my GPS watch) before we lucked into the trail again then found a promised café at Cavaleiros.
The daily guides include an “Elevation Graph” showing the ups and downs of the route. On this part of the trail, at about 5km there is a sharp drop of about 60 metres followed by a sharp climb of about 80. The American academics we met the other day said this might just be a “data drop”, when the recording equipment or sports watch or whatever just stopped then started again. We had to admire their optimism, however misplaced it turned out to be, as we scrambled down one side of a rocky gully and up the other.
Along the last, long, straight, made road into Zambujeiro do Mar, there were exercise stations along the way. Kieran thought ith would be hilarious to take a picture to show I wasn’t as close to death’s door as I felt.
When we got to town, we stopped in at a farmacia where the chemist thought it would be hilarious to tell us our hotel was a further 5km down the road (it was around the corner). I found myself saying, in a fake Iberian accent, “I will kill you with my bare hands and steal your car.” Fortunately, few people joke with him in English so he found this hilarious (rather than calling the police).
Armed with Compeed plasters for my now shredding right foot we discovered that the address for our hotel – the Ondazul – turned out to be a private house half a block from where we were supposed to be. But that was OK – when we called the owner he just walked out on to the street and waved.
The rooms were clean and comfortable, and we crossed the road and had a beer with a British couple who complained about the grafitti in Lisbon. How bad could it be? I have been to Yorkshire – they know their way around a spray can there too.
Dinner was in one of a dozen restaurants in a newer part of the town, overlooking the beach. As we staggered back up the hill to the hotel, there was a niggling thought tugging at the pit of my stomach – the “Elevation Graph” for the next day looked like the read-out on a heart patient’s monitor.
Lord, take me now!
Day 6 – Zambujeira to Odeceixe
First, a word about feet. Before I set off for Portugal, my wonderful wife who tries to look after me, insisted I get a haircut. She might have done better to suggest a pedicure. It all began with the second toe on my right foot, the nail of which was too long. So the first discomfort, after the initial 20km walk, was created by the nail jamming back into the toe.
By the time a cure had arrived in the form of a pair of nail clippers, I had completed another 20 km, unconsciously adjusting my foot position to protect the injured toe and in so doing, wearing a sizable hole in my right heel. By the time I had acquired protection for my heel, I had adjusted my foot position again and created a substantial crater in the pad behind the big toe. I know this domino effect to be true because my left foot remained uninjured throughout the trip.
So, if you are thinking of going hiking, my advice is not to go to the hairdresser until you have visited the chiropodist. My right foot was a disaster. My hair could have been down to my waist and not troubled me.
The trip to Odeceixe – pronounced by locals (but rarely by us) Ode-Sesh – was just as challenging as the elevation graph suggested it would be. Let’s just say we could have done with a few more data drops and considerably fewer rock scrambles and death-defying descents. To be fair, the first stretch was OK but we managed to miss a turning in the first 10 minutes. However, we’d only walked about 200 metres before being redirected by a friendly taxi driver (who I tried to brush off, thinking he was touting for fares). Our excuse was that we were distracted by the bison and ostriches in an enclosure by the road (honest!).
This being a Saturday, the trail was almost crowded, mostly by middle-aged couples with frowns of concentration that would have put the elevation graph to shame. Whenever we caught up, as we frequently did due them doing stupid stuff, such as looking at the scenery and taking pictures, they would scuttle off ahead of us like insects who didn’t want to lose their remaining limbs, having been previously partially dismembered by small boys. They also looked like insects because they were pretty soon at a considerable distance, breasting the crest of ridges with the smug self-assurance that only walking poles and $300 anoraks can give.
We were promised a café at Azenha Do Mar but warned that it tended to get crowded at weekends, and so it turned out. A huge tourist group was taking up most of the seats – guarding the empty ones ferociously for people who might, maybe, perhaps want them.
I fixed one gent with a look that said, as best a glare could, “you came in a bus – you haven’t trudged through 10km of rough tracks, up and down massive dunes of soft sand and got lost looking at ostriches, have you?” With a snort of guilt masquerading as contempt, the precious red plastic chair was relinquished. A small victory for the Walking Half-dead.
Two coffees and a nut bar later, we trudge on, immediately confronted by a suicidal descent to a rocky stream followed by a perilous, slippery climb up a near-vertical grass, sand and shale cliff. OK, to be fair, the descent had been managed without fatalities by a group of teenage women, some in platform-soled sandals and most shod by nothing more substantial than Sketchers. This was clearly where Ricardo had received his advice on footware.
Then there were the two women with their 40-something mother who seemed to be able to climb and talk without taking a breath, while I wheezed asthmatically from gully to peak and gully again thinking (as she explained in detail what was wrong with her new bathroom) that at least if I fell and broke something important, a helicopter might be involved.
Ironically, the hardest part of the hike was absolutely flat. First there was the false promise of the Praia De Odeceixe (Odeceixe Beach) which we only belatedly realised was on the wrong side of the river and a long way out of the town proper. Then the last three kilometres were on a bitumen road that snaked along the side of a swamp with the town of Odeceixe appearing and disappearing and not seeming to get that much closer.
Actually, the worst part of this leg was getting to the town and discovering that we still had the highest climb of the day to complete just to get to our lodgings. Not only that, if we wanted to watch the Champions League Final in a bar or restaurant (which we did), we would have to climb the hill, check in, climb back down and then climb back up again when it was all over.
Fortunately, the final climb was well worth it. The Casas Do Moihino (or Windmill Houses) are very cute little workers’ cottages turned into very stylish apartments. It has to be said, however, that we did start to wonder where all the residents of the various villages we stayed in had gone, with most of the houses and apartments shuttered for the season. Had they been airbnb’d to go and live like the locals … in much less attractive localities?
I’m splitting hairs. We settled in, showered and eventually set off down to a restaurant that we were assured would have a giant screen playing the Final. In fact, it had a relatively small screen playing the match with the sound dialled down. Almost as entertaining was watching the bloke at the next table trying to pretend he wasn’t watching the football, every time his girlfriend looked at him meaningfully.
Back up the hill we went, feeling no pain. I had checked the itinerary and consoled myself that at least the next leg started with a climb up the very hill on top of which we would be sleeping – but only for those who were staying in town. It would be an easy start to our final destination and a sure sign it would be smooth sailing for the last two days.
Ha! In fact, it sparked the worst spat we had all trip, which resulted in me refusing to take another step forward.
Day 7 – Odeceixe to Aljezur
“I am not walking down that f#$%^&g hill just to f#$%^&g walk back up again.” I can’t recall if those were the precise words I used but the general gist is spot on.
Kieran and I had emerged from an excellent breakfast in the Windmill Cottages HQ and had set off full of confidence along the only possible route out of town, as described in our brochure, only to promptly run out of route markers.
Kieran suggested we walk back into to town, find the start of the markers and walk back again. Since this was the highest hill on the previous day’s hike and we had already climbed it twice yesterday – that there was the promise of a flat track for most of the way to Aljezur, I was having none of it.
We were already at the top of the damned hill. The instructions said to go past the windmill. We could see the windmill and all routes from it converged on the roundabout where we were now standing, according to both the map in the brochure and one on a nearby bus stop.
“You go back down the bloody hill,” I said. “I’ll wait here because that’s where you’re going to end up anyway.”
The ensuing silence was broken only by the embarrassed cough of a local waiting for a bus. He could tell we were arguing – he just had no idea what about.
I hobbled off down the only exit road from the roundabout that we hadn’t tried and … oh, my good God … there was a little wooden post with the two stripes on it. We were on our way.
Now, even including the hill that I refused to climb, this was going to be the easiest walk of the whole trip … in theory. The start was several km alongside irrigation canals, so by definition the route was flat along a plateau between the ocean and the mountains.
A slight detour round a cyclist who had gone too fast and ended up in the shallow canal, and was now drying himself off and changing his clothes, was the only deviation from the path. Sooner than we expected, we arrived at the village of Orgil where we continued our quest to identify the best Portuguese custard tarts (or pastel de nata) in the world, washed down by some pretty damn fine coffee.
The guide leaflet recommended the sweet potatoes that are the specialty of the Museu de Batata Doce (as they should be since the translation of the café’s name is “Home of the sweet potato”). But we were on a mission and custard tarts were our only acceptable option.
It has to be said that the heat from my dummy spit had evaporated as soon as we spotted that little marker post and our only debate as we flew along the track occurred when we hit the marker post that invited us to take a detour via Amoreira beach.
Having earlier eschewed the route past Odeceixe Beach – we’d seen it the day before, albeit from the other side of the river – we couldn’t pass this one up. On the other hand, if we went straight on we’d take 5 km out of a 22 km hike. We took the detour.
We hadn’t gone more than a kilometre before we were back into soft sand and undulating dunes again. I could have wept. The compensation was fields of wild flowers which, had I been more of a botanist and less of a pessimist, I would have enjoyed immensely.
About halfway along, we descended fairly rapidly to Amoreira which looked like a popular holiday spot and even had a beach café and a surf shack offering massages. I bathed my shredded foot in the chilly Atlantic and rewarded myself with a Magnum bar (which looks like the ice cream disguised as a Snicker).
On we plodded and pretty soon we were trudging back up a series of hills to the plateau we had so cavalierly left behind us. The extra five Ks were taking their toll on me now and neither the ocean nor the ice cream had been enough to compensate.
We reached the town square in Aljezur, an impossibly pretty town that tumbles down a hill from an ancient castle to a river, and we were lost again. Kieran thought we should climb further up the hill to a church – I swear that man is half goat.
Instead we asked for directions and discovered we only needed to walk a little further and we be back on track. Our hotel, the Vicentina, was the real thing, with a bar and restaurant. It sat next to a supermarket looking down on to a busy road but it felt like heaven to me, not least because we’d get to stay two nights in the one spot.
That night we dined in the hotel restaurant, which was OK, as hotel restaurants go. That’s when I dropped my bombshell: given that we were going to be spending two nights in Aljezur, my right foot was in tatters and my left was feeling the strain of compensating, I was declaring myself unfit and I would skip the final day’s hike.
Kieran was contemplating quitting too – or at least he said he was – but I knew that after a good night’s rest, he’d be off looking for new hills to conquer.
Day 8 – Aljezur to Arrifana (or not)
The day started with an interesting breakfast during which Kieran almost projectile vomited on to an American girl who took off her shoes and socks at the table and starting picking bits of dead skin from between her toes. Her friends vacated abruptly, leaving us alone with her feet.
Kieran went off to do the one-way hike to Aljezur beach (I’ll explain “one way” later), leaving me, pleading injury and exhaustion, to write my column for the Australian Financial Review, do my newsletter for my apartment living website (flat-chat.com.au, if you must know) and contemplate what I had learned from this trip.
Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts.
- Writing a daily travel blog is a pain in the butt, especially when you already have pain in your legs and feet.
- However, taking half an hour to make notes of what happened during the day makes it all a whole lot easier when you do sit down to write.
- Cycling 60 km a week is no training for hiking 20 km a day. I should have built up to it with a couple of decent walks around Sydney (with some soft sand hills thrown in, for the good of my soul).
- Pedicures are more important than haircuts.
- Just because wine is inexpensive and drinkable, you don’t have to consume your own volume of it every day.
- Ditto beer.
- Double ditto custard tarts.
- One walking pole is essential, two are a trade off between practicality and vanity.
- The Portuguese pronounce J “szh” rather than the Spanish “hh”
- Portuguese oranges are the juiciest you will ever eat
- Always take a pack of handy wipes (see previous comment)
- A four-day walk (the basic Fisherman’s Trails route) is eminently do-able. Six days (the Best of Alentejo) is just silly for anyone less than keen walkers (which explains why most of the people we met went back to Lisbon after four days)
- Never miss the opportunity to take a hot bath
- Book ahead for a sports massage.
- You can have too many cameras. I had my mid-sized Nikon, my Lumix pocket camera and my smartphone, although the real problem was remembering which pictures were where and keeping them all together. Eventually the smartphone became the basic storage device although I had to transfer pictures from the Nikon to my laptop first.
- Just because all your gear is being transported from place to place for you, you don’t have to take everything you own with you.
- Leave enough time to take pictures, enjoy the scenery, drink coffee and eat custard tarts.
- Take blister pads (or take your chances with comedy chemists).
- And anti-histamines
I mention the last item because I had forgotten to report our trip to the Farmacia in Milfontes, or indeed the streaming cold I had on the first day. My nose started running from the moment we left the hotel and kept going all day. Thankfully I bought two multipacks of tissues in Porto Covo (and used every one of them). It was only when I got back to Sydney that I realised the “cold” had actually been hayfever from which I don’t normally suffer – it was all those alien Portuguese plants in full bloom.
That night, back in Milfontes, we ventured out and found the weirdest pharmacy ever. There were few items on display and it turned out what you had to do was ask the pharmacist for what you wanted, he consulted some sort of catalogue hidden under the desk and from that he got a reference number for a stack of labelled drawers that covered a whole wall. Inside each drawer was one bottle or packet of the medication you required.
It was so strange and controlled, it felt more like pre-unification East Germany than 21st Century western Iberia. So it was a shock a couple of days later when we walked into the welcoming retail chemist in Zambujiera and discovered it was exactly what you’d find back home … including no end of products on display, advertising cards and a sense of humour.
Back to Aljezur.
Kieran returned from the one-way walk to Arrifana Beach which is 18km distant; too far for a round trip on foot so once you get there, and once you’ve topped up on pastel de nata and coffee, you call Ricardo and he sends a taxi.
It turned out my instincts had been right; 1 km from the start there’s a climb of 130m over just half a kilometre if that, followed by a 60 metre descent and ascent through a gully. Kieran said that he reckoned he’d have been carrying me up one of the hills, especially through the soft sand. Maybe he was just trying to make me feel better for piking on the last day.
For the record, as well as writing, I explored the supermercado next door and discovered that not only did it sell decent coffee, I even had a tasty salt cod rice type thing for lunch (and a Portuguese tart, of course). I also had a glorious bath … a rare luxury in modern hotels.
That night we walked back into the old town and had an excellent meal of fish stew in the recommended O Pont’a Pe restaurant. A great little place with terrific service and excellent food. It was a good way to finish our trip.
Tomorrow, it’s back to Lisbon. My only regret for this part of the holiday is that, as much as I enjoyed the hike – and I did – I would have got more out of it if I had been better prepared.
But, hey, that’s the story of my life …