The Caminho Nascente is a little-known but extraordinary Camino de Santiago route that starts at the Church of Santiago in the city of Tavira on the south coast of Portugal. Also known as the Via Portugal Nascente, the camino traverses the Portuguese regions of the Algarve, the Alentejo and the Beiras for 650km before finishing in the historic village of Trancoso, where it joins the Camino Torres.
Here are the highlights of the unforgettable Caminho Nascente.
Walking on Water (Almost) in the Algarve
Leaving Tavira and its thousand years of history behind, the camino first heads east alongside the Atlantic Ocean. At the village of Cacela Velha, the view from the castle looking out over palm trees and the Ria Formosa estuary is a spectacular beginning to the camino. It’s also a humbling reminder – along with the Arab poetry written on Portuguese azulejos that adorn the dazzling blue-and-white buildings – that the grey stone of Galicia and the tomb of the apostle are more than 1000km away. Later in the stage, pilgrims can walk on the beach and dip their toes in the ocean one last time before embarking on the long journey through the Portuguese interior.
After the camino turns north at Vila Real de Santo António at the southeast corner of Portugal, it follows the Guadiana river – the border between Portugal and Spain in these parts – for the next several stages. The whitewashed castle town of Alcoutim is a beautiful spot for a riverside meal and a glance across the water at the village of Sanlúcar de Guadiana, the closest the pilgrim will come to Spain for many weeks.
The most dramatic stretch of the camino alongside the Guadiana comes after Alcoutim, however, as a remote and overgrown trail leads through forests, olive trees and exceptional wild beauty with fabulous views over the river and beyond. This stage marks the end of the Algarve after just four stages but pilgrims continue following the Guadiana the next day as the Nascente now enters the region that defines it: the Alentejo.
Villages of the Baixo Alentejo
The Alentejo is Portugal’s largest and most depopulated region, and this is typified more than anywhere upon arrival from the Algarve in the Baixo (Lower) Alentejo, where minuscule villages dot the harsh and inhospitable landscape.
Of these villages, Mesquita is where the spirit of the camino shines brightest. Dwindling to a population of just 16 people several years ago, Mesquita is being revitalised due to an admirable community project that has resulted in a pilgrim albergue, a restaurant, several refurbished homes and excavations hoping to uncover more of its Roman and Islamic past. Gazing out from Mesquita’s restaurant patio onto the remote plateau at dusk, watching the last light of the day hit the 17th-century chapel just outside the village, is one of the indelible memories of the Caminho Nascente.
Beyond Mesquita, other hamlets on the plain above the Guadiana serve as time capsules into a remote village life that is quickly disappearing. Disused communal ovens are reminders of how bread was once made to feed the community; now, the honking of the bread van as it arrives in the villages once every few days signals how this is done in the 21st century. At Roncão de Cima, the permanent population is down to two – both old men, whose only company apart from each other is the ludoteca itinerante van that stops by each week with books and activities.
Walking through these villages offers a valuable insight into the recent past, but the hamlets can also reveal snapshots of daily life from ancient history. One such village, Mosteiro, contains one of the oldest churches in Portugal: a late Roman family chapel that remarkably still stands and was converted from an even earlier building, possibly a horse stable.
Although the Camino de Santiago’s raison d’être is as a Christian pilgrimage, there is a significant Islamic heritage on the southern caminos in both Spain and Portugal. On the Nascente, this begins in Tavira, whose Islamic Museum contains the fascinating 11th-century Vase of Tavira and other treasures of Muslim art.
The biggest legacy of five-and-a-half centuries of Islamic presence in Portugal, however, is to be found in the town of Mértola, once known in Arabic as Martulah. Mértola’s main church was built over a mosque and still retains some architectural and artistic features from its earlier incarnation, including vestiges of the mihrab. It is the only mosque to have survived in any form in Portugal from the Muslim period.
Additionally, there is an Islamic collection within the town’s museum that is considered the most important in Portugal and residential ruins from the Muslim period’s ‘Islamic Quarter’ at the base of the castle that can be visited.
To really appreciate Mértola’s Muslim history, however, time your visit to coincide with the biennial Islamic Festival that takes place in May in odd-numbered years. The festival’s North African vibe and the exhibitions, storytelling and waft of spices emanating from the souq enticingly transport visitors — and even Christian pilgrims — back to Portugal’s long-forgotten Muslim past.
Moving deeper into the Alentejo, the isolated villages that were such a feature of the camino before and after Mértola give way to more sizeable towns, where the legacy of various historical epochs is on show.
The most famous of these towns is Évora, the picturesque capital of the Alentejo known for its historic core of whitewashed buildings with yellow trim. Breaking up this architectural uniformity, the first century AD Roman temple is the finest of its kind in Portugal, while the Tower of the Five Shields and the Sé – the largest medieval cathedral in the country – take pilgrims back to the Middle Ages.
Near Évora, other Alentejano towns on the Caminho Nascente have plenty of historic offerings. These include the many delights of Beja as well as the whitewashed churches in Alvito and Viana do Alentejo – the former in a unique Mudéjar Gothic style and the latter considered the most impressive Manueline Gothic building in southern Portugal.
After Évora, Estremoz stands out for its imposing walls, characterful old town and fabulous tile museum, while in cities further north, the Manueline doorways of Castelo Branco and the medieval gates of Guarda are among the highlights.
In such rural yet historic areas, it’s no surprise that centuries-old local traditions abound throughout the Caminho Nascente, particularly in the Alentejo. These customs, which range from the agricultural production of cork and olive oil to unique forms of singing (cante aletejano) and unique ways of making wine (vinho a talha), form part of the intangible cultural heritage of these lands.
And while the pilgrim tradition is not as prevalent on the Nascente as it is on more popular caminos, the spirit of the camino shrines through nevertheless. In Nisa, the local pottery culture has been extended to camino way-marking signs, while in Sousel, a now-abandoned building thought to have once been a pilgrim albergue has two scallop shells and two swords carved into its façade.
Modern-day albergues aren’t common on the Nascente, but the tradition of welcoming pilgrims continues, most spiritedly at César’s community albergue in Mesquita, Sebastião’s pilgrim lodgings on the community oven route in Amarelos and Dona Joana’s remarkable annex-albergue in her backyard in São Miguel de Machede.
The Portas de Ródão
Apart from the final arrival in Trancoso, perhaps the biggest milestone on the Nascente is crossing the Tejo (Tagus), the longest river on the Iberian peninsula and the border between the two most prevalent regions of this camino: the Alentejo (‘beyond the Tejo’) and the Beiras.
The crossing at the Portas de Ródão (Gates of Rodão) is much more than just a regional frontier, however; it’s an imposing natural landmark where rocky mountains rise out of the river to create spectacular natural ‘gates’ – the Pillars of Hercules in miniature. The greenery surrounding these portas, contrasted against the deep blue of the river and the sky, makes for an unforgettable sight after the golden brown palette of the Alentejo.
If time and energy allow, a 45-minute scramble up marked paths from Vila Velha de Ródão, the town on the Beira side of the crossing, leads to the top of the northern gate. There, a single tower remains from a medieval castle said to have been built in the seventh century by the Visigothic king Wamba. The real reward, however, is not the tower but the spectacular view over olive groves and the river far below.
Few images evoke the Middle Ages more than the soaring towers and imposing fortifications of castles, and the Caminho Nascente is bursting with them literally from the first day (Castro Marim) to the last (Trancoso) – 17 in total, according to my unofficial count, or about one every two days even at a slow pilgrim pace.
The finest of these castles are dominated by their intact keeps (Torres de Menagem), such as those in Mértola, Beja and Estremoz. Others, including the castles of Belmonte and Alter do Chão, are more compact but well preserved, while Viana do Alentejo is unique among the Nascente castles as it contains two churches within its walls. And yet more castles offer incredible views over the countryside, notably Ródão and Evoramonte.
If clambering on the ramparts and climbing the towers of these castles isn’t enough to fully appreciate them, you can have an unforgettable overnight stay in one of them at Alvito. The late 15th-century castle in this Alentejano town has been converted into a pousada, Portugal’s chain of historic hotels similar to Spain’s paradores, and prices are reasonable even for pilgrims. If you’re lucky, you may even receive one of the three tower rooms, each with a distinctive window overlooking the old town.
The Changing Countryside
As all long caminos do, the Nascente presents a huge variety of landscapes and scenery, and the slow pace of walking allows the pilgrim to detect subtle differences within these sweeping changes.
The camino begins with wild cacti and citrus groves in the Algarve, one of the world’s most famous orange-producing regions. For large parts of the Alentejo, wild wheat stalks and overgrown grasses predominate, although holm oak, cork and olive trees are also ever-present. Finally, the Beiras offer a greener but no less adventurous landscape featuring pine forests and boulder-strewn mountains.
In spring, there is one feature that binds these diverse landscapes together: wildflowers. Wildflowers are a highlight of the Nascente every single day, blanketing the countryside with floral carpets of red, pink, purple, white and yellow. Such is the lack of pilgrim traffic on the Nascente that flowers occasionally obscure the trail, but they never cease being a delight – as long as you don’t have allergies.
In hindsight, last autumn’s fig heist on the Caminho Português was just a precursor to an even more delicious wild fruit experience on the Nascente: the spring cherries of the Cova da Beira region that turned at least one former cherry sceptic into a devoted fan.
Beginning near Castelo Novo, cherry trees dominate the area for the next several stages, most notably around the village of Alcongosta, known as the cherry capital of Portugal. Alcongosta is so proud of its cherry heritage that even the village’s typical black-and-white mosaic pavements found throughout Portugal, known as calçada portuguesa, have images of cherries incorporated into them.
The majority of the cherry trees on the trail belong to commercial operations and are fenced off, but there are plenty of wild cherry trees as well that are ripe for the picking. Wild cherry trees continue to pop up sporadically all the way to the end of the Nascente and beyond, but in our experience, Cova da Beira cherries were the best of all.
As the Caminho Nascente nears its end in the Upper Beira, it passes through three of the 12 officially classified Historic Villages of Portugal. Far in both distance and appearance from the tiny and isolated villages of the Lower Alentejo, these are timeless castle-villages that draw tourists and even cyclists riding the GR22 route that passes through them.
The first of these villages on the Nascente, Castelo Novo, is delightful and less touristy than the others, featuring stone houses and little alleyways and castle towers that rise out of large boulders. At dusk, silence falls over the village, with the flow of water from the old stone fountains and channels providing the only sound.
The next village, Belmonte, is among the most famous of the 12 owing to its Jewish community that dates back to the Middle Ages and continues to this day. A synagogue and a Jewish museum are among the most visited sights of Belmonte, and naturally the village wouldn’t be complete without an impressive castle.
Finally, it’s before the mighty walls of one of these historic villages – Trancoso – that the Caminho Nascente reaches its end. But while the Nascente finishes its journey here, it will be forever etched into the memory of the pilgrim as one of the most adventurous and fascinating of all the ways to Santiago.