The Rota Vicentina is an emerging long-distance walking trail in southwest Portugal known largely for its natural beauty. The Fisherman’s Trail, the popular coastal variation of the route, affords sensational ocean views in remote areas of the Alentejo and Algarve.
Although the scenery takes centre stage, that’s not the only reason to walk all or part of this 226km trail. These are our seven major Rota Vicentina highlights:
This is why most people walk the Rota Vicentina, and, more specifically, the Fisherman’s Trail – and it doesn’t disappoint. ‘Coastal scenery’ here doesn’t just mean beaches; it means spectacular beaches whose waters are impossible shades of green or blue, with towering black cliffs in the background and extraordinary rock formations rising out of both water and sand.
Much of the Fisherman’s Trail is spent walking on soft sand on top of dune-like cliffs looking down on this incredible nature. Views from headlands take the form of panoramic vistas of miles of coastline both north and south, while other, more intimate viewpoints rise steeply above secluded and inaccessible coves.
While this stunning coastal scenery can be enjoyed essentially every day on the Rota Vicentina, the northern part of the Fisherman’s Trail is often considered the most picturesque part of the route. The full Fisherman’s Trail is divided into 13 stages, but a four-day walk from Porto Covo to Odeceixe gives hikers with limited time more than a taste of the beautiful scenery.
Hiking on the Beach
While walking on the beach is a luxury at Finisterre at the end of an inland Camino de Santiago, it’s commonplace on the Rota Vicentina. Especially on the first several days heading south from Porto Covo, the route alternates between cliff-top trails and beach walking, and there are also further opportunities away from the official tracks to take off your shoes and put your toes in the sand.
Beyond the joy of feeling the sand and water underneath your feet, walking on the beaches offers a different perspective of the surrounding scenery and adds another layer of variety to the hike.
Some beaches are accessed by wooden staircases, while others offer a more adventurous, rope-aided scramble to get back to the path. Either way, apart from surfer spots such as Praia do Malhão or Praia da Bordeira, you are likely to have these remote beaches entirely to yourself apart from the odd hiker or dog-walker.
Coming Face-to-Face with Storks
For pilgrims or other visitors to the Iberian peninsula, the sight of storks flying high in the sky with their nests atop telegraph poles and, more romantically, church bell-towers, can be one of the most memorable aspects of a trip to the region.
The Rota Vicentina also counts storks as one of its highlights, but with a difference: here, the unusual topography of the land allows walkers to come face-to-face with these iconic birds rather than having to strain their necks to look up at them.
On the Fisherman’s Trail, storks build their nests on top of cliffs that can be at eye level for walkers, or even far below. This allows for up-close views and, if you’re lucky, you may also see an egg or a baby stork from this unique vantage point.
The best place to see storks on the Rota Vicentina is just before Entrada da Barca on the stage between Almograve and Zambujeira do Mar.
Sunsets over the Ocean
On the radio program Portugueses no Mundo, host Alice Vilaça interviews Portuguese people living abroad, and for the final question of every episode, she asks her guests what they miss about Portugal. The answers range from Portuguese bread to the spontaneity of life and even the smell of Portugal, but a response from one guest struck me as particularly memorable: sunsets over the ocean.
With most of its coastline facing west and the vast majority of its population living in the western half of the country, it’s easy to see why ocean sunsets form part of the Portuguese soul. On the Rota Vicentina, sunsets are an unmissable attraction at the end of stages where the final destination is on the coast.
At one of those places, Zambujeira do Mar, Diogo, the friendly owner of the excellent family-run Hostel Nature, got straight to the point when describing his otherwise unexceptional village: “The biggest attraction is the sunset,” he said. Indeed, Zambujeira do Mar has been called the best place for sunset in all of Portugal.
Cape of St. Vincent
The Cabo de São Vicente, at Europe’s southwestern-most point near Sagres, is the finishing point of the Rota Vicentina for many hikers. With its lighthouse, ocean views, and tourist numbers, it’s more than a little reminiscent of Spain’s Finisterre – and the lands around the cape were even once called that by the Romans.
After days of remote walking, the sudden influx of people can make the cape a bit of an anticlimax, but seeing waves crash into the base of the towering cliffs remains a powerful sight, and the cape is connected to two important episodes of Portuguese history/mythology.
The first gives the Rota Vicentina its identity, as the trail, the cape and the entire southwestern coast of Portugal are named after Vincent, the third-century Spanish martyr whose body once washed up on these shores and who is now the patron saint of both Valencia and Lisbon.
The second forms part of the most famous era in Portuguese history, as the cape is where Prince Henry the Navigator gazed out into the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th century and created his famed school of navigation to plot the Portuguese journeys that would redefine the world.
The dawn of the Age of Discovery is more complicated – and less romantic – than that, but you can still look out at the endless expanse of ocean and imagine, as Henry once did, what lies beyond – all while chowing down on the ‘Last Bratwurst Before America’ from a nearby food truck.
“Beautiful seaside scenery but zero culture,” was how one hiker described the Fisherman’s Trail. But while nature is undoubtably the biggest drawcard of the route, it’s not without a few historical elements to satiate those looking for more than scenery, beyond the fact that whenever you talk to local people and eat local food, you are consuming some of that culture.
At the historical village of Aljezur – derived from the Arabic al-jazair, meaning islands – the castle above the old town was built in the 10th century when southern Portugal was under Muslim rule. It was the last castle in the Algarve (also derived from Arabic: al-Gharb, meaning ‘the West’) to be taken as part of the Christian reconquest of southern Portugal by the Order of Santiago in 1249.
Further evidence of the Muslim presence in the lands of the Rota Vicentina can be seen at Ponta do Castelo, where the ruins of a 12th-century Islamic fishing village are perched spectacularly on top of the cliffs.
For some Christian historical flavour, one of the most impressive churches on the Rota Vicentina is the 16th-century Church of Our Lady of the Conception in Carrapateira, which features two original Manueline door frames. It also has its own tragic history, as 10 people were crushed to death inside the church after the roof collapsed during municipal elections in 1873.
Veggie Food Scene
While an abundance of fresh seafood on the Rota Vicentina is to be expected, what may come as a surprise is the increasing number of vegetarian and vegan options along the entire route.
Despite the remoteness of the trail, the smattering of tourists, surfers and expatriates in the area has resulted in a culinary renaissance that becomes more creative the further south you walk. Arte Bianca does fantastic pizzas, including veg-friendly ones, at three locations (Arrifana, Aljezur and Sagres), while Alecrim in Carrapateira serves an excellent vegan pesto dish, among other options.
The standout restaurant on the entire Rota Vicentina, however, is Pisco in Vila do Bispo, which is so popular that reservations are required virtually every night. Among the many vegetarian and vegan choices, the pumpkin calzone is to die for.
The Rota Vicentina’s gastronomical variety also includes South Asian fare on the northern part of the trail due to the presence of seasonal greenhouse workers from that region. The Nepalese restaurant Mar Azul, in Almograve, has delicious momos and a friendly manager, adding a bit more culture to all that scenery.