If you build it, they will come. At least that’s what Casas Brancas hopes will happen.
After all, the sustainability-focused non-profit just unveiled a long-distance hiking and biking route, the Rota Vicentina, through the southwest coast of Portugal. And, in keeping with the authenticity of this wild acreage that includes a gorgeous 287-square-mile natural park, the low-slung accommodations, restaurants, and outdoor activities — from snorkeling to boating — on offer along the way are all locally owned.
So, yes, they have built it with the hope that many will come, bringing with them their respect for nature and the culture that surrounds and informs it.
My journey begins two miles from Cercal do Alentejo at the Herdade da Matinha, a rural casa with bold abstract paintings covering almost every surface. They’re all the creations of co-owner Alfredo Moreira da Silva, who, along with his wife, Monica, helped design the property. Before tackling the trail, I dig into a lunch of spinach soup, sardines with mustard and thyme, and octopus rice, then lounge poolside under the blazing noonday sun beside almond and cherry trees. The vibe here is as laid back as the Alentejo region itself. But the trail awaits.
The Rota Vicentina spans more than 200 miles from Santiago do Cacém in the north to Cabo de São Vicente in the south. Divided into two interconnected paths, the trail highlights two of Portugal’s best features: its rural charm and its rugged coastline. The aptly named Fisherman’s Trail hugs the shoreline, where hikers and bikers encounter deserted beaches, abundant stork nests, and the occasional fishermen perched on cliff tops, while the Historical Way sends them through cork oak forests and farmlands interrupted by an occasional village.
No need to shoulder heavy packs or suffer through extreme distances, though, unless you so desire. Trekkers can make arrangements with each inn (or with Casas Brancas directly) to be picked up and dropped off at predetermined spots, and to have their luggage shuttled ahead. To ensure you won’t get lost, you can download a GPS data file on your mobile device from the Rota Vicentina website that provides a trail map (it will be augmented with hiking guides in the next few months).
I take on the Historical Way first, tracing a path the Romans once used to bring iron ore from the mountains to the sea. The air smells of eucalyptus, while lavender dots the landscape. The only people I encounter on this six-mile flat hike are two farmers who make wine from the plump grapes in their tiny vineyard. I round a corner, and the ocean suddenly appears, as does a centuries-old fortress built where Roman fortifications once stood.
Another day on the Historical Way, listening to the calls of warblers, kingfishers, and nightingales. After starting in the whitewashed village of Sao Luis, I wander past fern-rimmed streams linked to the Torgal River where butterflies dance. Among these gurgling waterways, I stop at Pego das Pias, a bucolic swimming hole where families and couples alike are spending the afternoon sunbathing on the cliffs or swinging into the calm waters using a simple rope.
After hiking another 15 miles, I rest my weary bones near Odemira at Quinta do Chocalhinho, a place that evokes another era and another part of the world. The owners, Luís Freitas and his wife Margarida, spent time in Macau, so it’s no surprise that I’m served an Asian-inspired dinner consisting of a vegetable wrap with sweet and sour sauce with a side of coconut rice. After dinner I explore the treasures Luis has amassed: a lounge adorned with his grandfather’s furniture and walls festooned with contemporary art from the owner’s own travels.
The next morning, I set off on a section of the Fisherman’s Trail that takes me through ankle-deep sand and yields a beautiful view of waves crashing against limestone cliffs. Along this 12-mile hike from Porto Covo to Vila Nova de Milfontes, rock rose, sea pink, ice plants, and other wildflowers are abundant. Praia do Seissal is one of several picnic-perfect spots cradled in wee bays bound by low cliffs. Ahead, fishermen perch with their poles poised to snag dourada or sea bass, while set-suited surfers flock to the 13-foot waves at Malhao Beach. A stork sits patiently atop a rocky monolith rising from the sea, but she’s not alone. Her chick, a tiny ball of white feathers, nestles at her feet.
And that’s just the sort of experience — intimate, remote, authentic — Casas Brancas hopes will lure travelers to this unspoiled stretch in Portugal where the land meets the sea.