“If there is one portion of Europe which was made by the sea more than another, Portugal is that slice, that portion, that belt. Portugal was made by the Atlantic”. (Hilaire Belloc, Places, 1942)
Nowhere is this more true than along the Fishermen’s Trail which hugs the south west coast of Portugal following tracks used by locals for centuries to reach beaches, coves and cliff-top fishing spots.
The Trail begins in Porto Covo, a pretty, white washed town. Being February, businesses were only just starting to open up after the winter. It was quiet, with the few permanent locals eagerly seeking out the early Spring sunshine.
Day 1 – Porto Covo to Vila Nova de Milfontes: Leaving Porto Covo, the trail leads down onto and along the beach. It’s a slog along the sand, but the beach is beautiful. 300 metres offshore, Passeguiro Island (literally, Peachtree Island) was once connected to the beach by an artificial rock barrier. The ruins of a 16th century fort on the mainland and the remains of an incomplete sister fort on the island can still be seen.
Leaving the beach the trail passes the fort and swings around the back of the dunes, then back to the ocean, where the beaches give way to a rocky, rugged coast.
The cliffs get steeper, with dramatic drops down to the sea. The fisherman on the edge of this one gives some perspective. A great place for fishing, but how long is that line??
Continuing along the cliff tops, the trail traverses the largest succession of consolidated sand dunes in Portugal. It’s slow going in places, trudging through the soft sand, but again the views make it all worthwhile.
The trail passes the tiny fishing port of Canal and ends for the day in Vila Nova de Milfontes. Built along the Miro River where it meets the sea, the town is sleepy in February but gets packed out in the summer. It’s easy to see why. As well as great coastal walks, it’s got soft sand beaches, fishing, kayaking and paddle boarding in the river estuary.
Total walk distance: 20km
Day 2 – Vila Nova de Milfontes to Almograve: In a field not far from the village, there was interesting graffiti on a derelict building.
Then more rugged coast.
The trail snakes through acacia forest. Saturated with vibrant yellow flowers, it’s visually appealing but in fact a pest. It’s an aggressive, non-native plant capable of pushing out native species and reducing the biodiversity of the dunes.
Back on the cliff-top dunes, reserves have been declared to protect endemic species. It’s like a multi-coloured carpet.
Total walk distance: 15km
Day 3 – Almograve to Zambujeira do Mar: It rained overnight and in the morning it was overcast and blustery. The day was cold, but it didn’t rain again and the conditions gave us a greater appreciation of how intense the seas on this coast can be.
Total walk distance: 22km
Day 4 – Zambujeira do Mar to Odeceixe: Next morning the skies were again bright blue and the village of Zambujeira do Mar where we’d spent the night was sparkling in the sun.
The trail followed the cliffs past a series of coves and beaches.
Turning inland through farms, it seemed we’d left Europe altogether.
Then a few more hours walking along those stunning cliffs. Here the dunes are home to colonies of rabbits which are the original stock of all rabbits worldwide. We saw a few scampering around.
The trail runs along the cliffs until Ponta em Branco, where the Ribeiro de Seixe reaches the sea. There are great views over the beach at the river mouth, to the village of Odeceixe do Mar on the south bank.
The trail descends and follows the river inland for a kilometre or so to where it can be crossed by a bridge leading to Odeceixe, a small village built on the hills above the southern bank of the river.
Total walk distance: 18km
Day 5 – Odeceixe to Aljezur: We left Odeceixe and followed the southern bank of the river back to its mouth. In the summer this beach is packed.
Then more of the beautiful coast. Were we getting bored with all these water views? Certainly not.
We saw only a few other walkers on the whole trail, but in this middle section we started to see some camper vans parked up on the cliffs at places where there are tracks in from the road. State-of-the-art vans might afford more luxury, but for pure romance, nothing beats a vintage kombi.
Total walk distance: 22km
Day 6 – Aljezur to Arrifana: From Odeceixe south, the trail makes use of a combination of an existing inland trail, the Historical Way, and new sections of the Fishermen’s Trail which loop back to that hypnotic coast.
So the first part of today’s walk was through lightly forested hills, which were nice enough, and it wasn’t long before we could turn off onto a Fishermen’s Trail extension which took us back to the cliffs. The sun was shining, the coast was spectacular.
Our destination for the night was Arrifana. It’s a mecca for surfers and no one seems to have told the locals that just because the sun is shining it doesn’t mean the water is warm.
Total walk distance: 26km
Day 7 – Arrifana to Carrapeteira: As we set off in the morning the sun was shining but we were walking into a gale strength wind. No surfing today.
It didn’t change all day. Except that along the cliff tops it was also gusting strongly. Great views of the coast, just don’t get too close to the edge.
Total walk distance: 24km
Day 8 – Carrapeteira to Vila do Bispo: This section is entirely inland, following the Historical Way. Initially the trail was through bush that could have been Australia – eucalyptus trees, wattle flowers, humidity.
But then there’s cork oak, pine and olive trees. Not so Australian after all.
And emerging back into farms and villages, it was once again quintessentially Portuguese.
Total walk distance: 22km
Day 9 – Vila do Bispo to Cabo de Sao Vincente: As interesting as the rural walking was, we were pleased to get back to the coast for our final day. After following the Historical Way for several kilometres, another circuit of the Fishermen’s Trail heads to the coast for a final few hours gorging on those spectacular cliff views. The weather was perfect and the cliffs just gets more rugged as you head to Cabo de Sao Vincente.
The walk ends at the lighthouse at Cabo de Sao Vincente, the most south-westerly point on the European continent.
Like many cliffs along the trail, this is apparently a great fishing spot. Look carefully at this next photo and you can see two fishermen perched on the face of the cliff. No, not the two people on the top. Look in the circles down on the near-vertical cliff face. You’d really have to like fish. A lot.
Total walk distance: 15km
Wrap up: We loved this walk. The first four days in particular offer an overload of beach, cove and cliff walking with spectacular views along the coast in both directions and out to the Atlantic Ocean.
February was a great time to walk as there were very few people about. However we were exceptionally lucky with weather – it is the region’s wettest month and maybe our experience wouldn’t necessarily be the norm for this time of year.
The walk is relatively easy in that the trail is generally of good quality. and the ascents and descents are short, although the sections through the soft sand on the dunes can be a slog.
The trail is straightforward and very well marked. It is absolutely a trail you can do without the assistance of a walking company. The Rota Vincentina Association website has all the information you need, and publishes a guide book and trail map (€10 each) available in a range of languages via their website and in the tourist offices in the towns along the way (although if you want a specific language it would pay to organise ahead). The website also has a list of operators, and indicative prices, for luggage transport between the different towns.
If you love coastal walking, the Fishermen’s Trail is a real find. Go for it, before too many more people discover it too.