The night still holds its grip over Lisbon at six a.m., as does the biting cold, on an April morning when we walk into the bus depot to catch our ride to Alentejo, a region that extends along southern and southwestern Portugal. My husband and I are focussed on the southwest. Our plan is to walk over three days across deserted trails by the Atlantic and through sparsely populated villages that sit away from the coastline. We board the deluxe bus, and are soon on our way, hearts filling with the thrill of witnessing the slow peeling of a new land, and a new set of people with ways of living so distinct from what I’ve left behind in India, or even the big-city bustle of Lisbon. The bus to Vila Nova Milfontes, three and a half hours from Lisbon, is packed to the brim with hikers and tourists set to celebrate Easter by the ocean. The surprising thing about Lisbon is how quickly one can reach the deep countryside. Within minutes of crossing the Vasco da Gama Bridge—longest in Europe and stretching like a river of concrete and steel over of an estuary of the Tagus river—one enters the sometimes dreamy, sometimes ruinous Alentejo. Alentejo, we learn, translates to ‘the land beyond the Tagus,’ which turns out to be the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, locally known as Tejo.
The driver and the conductor keep up a constant stream of conversation on the journey and play old Michael Jackson hits on the radio. The sound of Portuguese, mingling with MJ’s quick beats and upbeat lyrics creates an endearing, almost lyrical atmosphere—enough to make me switch off the music playing on my phone. Adjusting to slow-stripping sunlight all around, my eyes briefly register passing villages and swathes of empty land where cork oaks grow in clumps, their cropped crowns swaying in the chilly breeze.
Although there are multiple trails to explore in Alentejo, we have picked the Fishermen’s Trail on the Rota Vicentina circuit, running along the coastline for a total of 125 kilometres. Tracing paths used by locals to access beaches and fishing hotspots, it comprises a single track, divided into five sections, and is well-marked with green and blue horizontal lines that look like ‘=’. The track courses along dramatic cliffs and sandy beaches revealing stunning views of a silvery blue infinity. One can count on harsh, cold ocean winds at all times.
We’re dropped off at Vila Nova Milfontes—a town of identical whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs, and spring flowers blooming in the balconies. We reach well before noon and wait until the bus is just a speck on the horizon to change into our hiking shoes and hit the trail, a short walk away. Keeping the Atlantic to our right, we cross a bridge over a secluded, dried-out estuary, take right and walk into a forest rich with tall grass, cork oaks, and wild yellow and orange flowers growing in such profusion that I’m tempted to stop and stare every few minutes. The scraggly wild, and the expanse of the Atlantic, spread out in calm, patient rolls of blue, take my breath away. Out of nowhere, a song rises to my lips.
On day one, we scale down our ambition to a moderate 11 kilometres. We’ve had an early start and by the time we hit the trail, the sun is right above our heads, bright and fierce, rendering the sky and the ocean indistinguishable in its shimmering expanse. While walking can be therapeutic and full of adventure with undiscovered trails, forests and quaint villages scattered along the way, it can, like everything else in life, feel repetitive after a point. At the end of the day, it’s all about putting one damned foot before the other, covering new ground, all the while watching out for those pesky blisters. What keeps the journey alive—other than your will to persevere—are encounters with strangers from across the world, even if only as throwaway chats. We too, meet fellow hikers along the way; there’s an unspoken understanding of keeping enough distance from the next walker so as not to crowd each other. When we do cross paths, we smile, remark on the beauty of our surroundings and walk right on. The German couple we meet are wearing large backpacks and seem to be camping—wet towels are pinned to the sides of their bags, a Scotch-Brite hooked to a zipper. They give us a friendly wave as they walk past, supporting their weight on the slim, broken branches that they use as walking poles.
For hours, we have to ourselves the pristine blue coastline, the air filled with sounds of crashing waves, screeching gulls and the now-familiar strong breeze that takes the edge off the mid-afternoon sun. This ecosystem of sounds keeps us company for two to three hours till a turn away from the ocean plunges us into a pocket of deep silence. We almost stop in our tracks to acknowledge it. I spot the beginning of a pine forest, which smells so sweet and soul-settling, I want to bottle the scent, carry it back with me.
Before we settle into our guest house at Almograve, the picture-pretty parish that’s our stop for the night, a late-in-the-day lunch of sardine pâté with bread and local beer relieves us of bellowing hunger.
A post-sundown stroll through Almograve leads us to a group of Nepali workers who greet us with a cheery “namaste.” A fierce chill weaves through the town after sundown, and the roads empty out on cue. The bus stop that stands right across our guest house looks like an abandoned shelter. As the night darkens, the wind howls and the stars hang low enough for the plucking. After a hard day’s walking in the wilderness we feel grateful for the creature comforts of a warm shower, a heated room and a comfortable bed.
We make an early start the following day. The forecast predicts rain, and sure enough, the sky’s bogged down by the weight of angry grey clouds. But we manage to cover our stipulated 22 kilometres after walking for eight continuous hours that leaves us ecstatic and exhausted. The scenes before us are versatile and ever-shifting, changing from the blues of the ocean to dramatic cliffs where we spot storks building nests for their younglings. There are reddish dunes of sand that yield under our feet. The stretch suddenly gives way to fields of bright orange and green succulents, then opening out to small fishing harbours. We walk through villages that have houses built in clumps beside large farms where the ocean winds don’t penetrate and the dogs are friendly and lazy.
When the long walk tires me out, I’m tempted to think of shorter alternative routes. But as in life, so on hikes, there is no turning back. You just follow the trails, make the decisions, and absorb the consequences—in this case a pain so debilitating that I’m reduced to hobbling. I watch incredibly fit Europeans ace it like an everyday affair, and wish I too, could enjoy it as much, in my moment of pain.
We make a stop at Zambujeira do Mar, a former civil parish which houses 911 people, as the board at the beginning of the town so precisely states. The town is spread over a few neatly maintained residential lanes dotted with blemish-free houses that look straight out of a real estate advertisement. A local informs us that the buildings get a fresh coat of paint each year to battle corrosive ocean winds. During our time there, most residents remain out of sight, giving the town an unlived, ghostly vibe. I do however, spot one woman watching T.V. and eating her dinner of chicken legs sitting in her front room, the door to which opens onto the road. In another house is an ancient couple, all wrinkles and spots, sitting still, looking out at an empty street.
On the third and last day of walking the Rota Vicentina, we head to the village of Odeceixe, over an 18-kilometre trail which includes climbs over numerous jagged rockfaces, often dropping into narrow bogs of flowing mountain rivers that make it precarious to cross over to the other side. Failure to land on marshy grounds will send one hurtling into body-disfiguring boulders and gravel.
The rises and dips stretch out on an otherwise amiable trek and when after three hours I discover we’ve only covered four and a half kilometres, I am crestfallen and almost lose my will to continue. I complain like a petulant child, drink water, while my husband waits for the storm to blow over, walking by my side when I’m ready again. We pass sand-biking enthusiasts shredding the still air with the screams of their mean machines revving up.
As we approach Odeceixe, the sky first turns a pale orange and then pink. We huddle together in the vastness of the silence and serenity that surrounds us. The fact that our bodies are sore from the hike makes the hiatus precious. We watch horses graze along the green outskirts, and hear the shepherd dogs growl at passing cyclists. When it’s time to walk again, we down bottles of Gatorade till we are in high gear.
Bathed in early April breeze, luminous in the glow of a descending sun, a whole wonderful world settles before our eyes—green, golden, blue, and abundant. This then is Alentejo. The rural coastal immensity that lies beyond the buzzing, crowded cities of Lisbon and Porto. Where days melt into the evenings as gently as the Atlantic’s surf breaks on its beaches. Where dusk holds its breath till the storks and pigeons return to safety against a rosy sky—as night waits beyond curtains of Cumulus to descend softly on its ample, lush fields.
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.