An ancient pilgrimage trail in southwest Portugal is now the basis for one of Europe’s most scenic walks. Welcome to the Rota Vicentina.
As martyrdoms go, the fate of St. Vincent of Saragossa was pretty grisly. The third-century Spanish deacon lived during the Great Persecution, when Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered all Christians to recant their faith on pain of torture or death. St. Vincent piously refused and was consequently lacerated with iron hooks and roasted over a gridiron. Legend has it that his body was brought to the wild promontory marking the southwesterly corner of Portugal, where a flock of ravens guarded his grave.
In the Middle Ages, Cape St. Vincent became a place of pilgrimage. Today, it marks the end—or the beginning, depending on which direction you take—of the Rota Vicentina, a well-marked network of walking trails that stretches from the village of Santiago do Cacém in Alentejo to St. Vincent’s resting ground in the Algarve. While the foundations for the route were laid 1,700 years ago, its modern incarnation is a silver lining from the global financial crisis. Faced with a spiraling recession post-2010, especially in rural areas, the Portuguese government looked to develop new tourism projects based on existing infrastructure. The old pilgrim trail to Cape St. Vincent ticked many boxes: it offered walking-only access to the fragile environment of Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park; it could disperse tourist income across a wide swath of countryside; and it could encourage tourism outside of the peak summer season.
The two trails that constitute the Rota Vicentina—the 230-kilometer Historical Way, which follows the St. Vincent pilgrimage trail, and the 120-kilometer Fishermen’s Trail along the Alentejo coastline from Porto Covo to Odeceixe—opened in 2014, complete with a comprehensive website with section maps and lists of hotels and restaurants en route. In 2016, the European Ramblers’ Association recognized the Historical Way as one of the best walking destinations on the continent; last year, more than 23,000 hikers trekked the Rota Vicentina. “The success has been much more than we anticipated,” says Marta Cabral, president of the Associação Rota Vicentina—so much so that the association is now building loop trails through the prettiest regions, with plans to extend the route from Cape St. Vincent to the nearby town of Lagos.
While most visitors opt for the shorter Fishermen’s Trail, increasing numbers—including my husband and me—are combining it with the Historical Way for a 12-day walk. We set out from the cobbled town center of Santiago do Cacém one sunny May afternoon, following red-and-white trail signs past farmland and into rolling hills peppered with cork trees. Occasionally there are glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean, here more than 20 kilometers away. It’s an easy walk, but one we have underestimated. By the halfway mark we’ve run out of water, and the 40 kilograms we’re toting between us becomes burdensome, especially after a pack of incensed sheep dogs forces us to detour into the bush. When the weather turns and drenches us with rain, I’m ready to throw in the towel.
It’s 7 p.m. by the time we stumble, exhausted, upon civilization: Vale Seco, a one-horse town marked by a single shop and the welcoming lights of Moinhos do Paneiro, our home for the night. Built as a village mill—two 19th-century windmills still stand—it’s now a bed and breakfast with six pine-lined villas that have been converted from old stables and grain warehouses. Our tiny bathtub leaks and dinner turns out to be both overpriced and communal, but we’re warm and cozy and have plenty of good local wine to comfort us.
Continuing south the next morning, we troop past scenes of rural life that seem so idyllic they almost look staged: wheat fields bordered by yellow and red wildflowers; backyard farmers tending to orange trees bursting with fruit; spring grass being cut for silage. Day two is easier than day one, but on reaching the small town of Cercal do Alentejo 23 kilometers later, our first order of business is to contact Vicentina Transfers, a luggage delivery service that for the bargain price of 10 euros will pick up one of our packs and take it to the next hotel each day.
Feeling somewhat lighter, on day three we veer west toward Porto Covo to connect with the Fishermen’s Trail. It is easy to see why the latter is so popular: it traces a rugged and largely uninhabited coastline of towering cliffs, sandy coves, and whitewashed villages brimming with fish restaurants.
Day four unfolds much the same as days five to seven, each winding their way along the tops of sea cliffs where wildflowers and scrubby bushes eke out an existence from whatever water is caught in the cracks of rocks. Waves crash on sheer ledges while frigid sea breezes whip at our ankles. Storks, back in Portugal after spending the winter in Africa, tend nests perched precariously on cliff edges. Gulls glide on the wind in search of dinner. The weather is beautiful—big blue skies each day followed by crisp nights warmed by hearty wine.
At Odeceixe, the trail rejoins the Historical Way, dipping back only occasionally to the coast. The route is punctuated with breathtaking views and wilderness moments; it’s also impossible not to notice two troubling features of the region. First are the farmhouses and once productive agricultural land that are either abandoned or for sale. Then there’s the prevalence of invasive plant species like noxious self-seeded acacias and eucalyptus trees, a now-ubiquitous Australian import whose flammable leaves have fueled many a Portuguese forest fire.
Among the Historical Trail’s attractions are the charming villages one encounters en route. There is the medieval hamlet of Aljezur, founded by the Moors in the 10th century alongside an imposing fort that still stands today. In surfer-friendly Arrifana, which comprises little more than a clutch of houses clinging to the cliffs, we watch dozens of board riders tackle the waves that roll into a pebbled bay.
The popularity of the Rota Vicentina and the relative lack of hotels along the route (especially when compared to the well-established package vacation industry on the Algarve’s southern coast) meant we needed to book each night’s accommodation ahead. I did this partly through Booking.com and partly through the Associação Rota Vicentina office. The latter’s accommodation choices trumped mine for comfort, though many of their recommendations were also out of town, adding several undesirable kilometers to each day.
Only a dozen kilometers separate Vila do Bispo from Cape St. Vincent, but the last leg of the trail is also one of the hardest. Scrambling over rocks and down steep bluffs as we’re bombarded by gusting winds and sea spray, it takes all morning for us to edge our way to the precipitous headland. When we do, it is admittedly a bit of an anticlimax. There is no memorial to St. Vincent. Instead, we find a car park full of camper vans and a food truck hawking “the last bratwurst before America.”
It is said that the cape was already considered sacred before St. Vincent of Saragossa was buried here. The ancient Greeks built a temple to honor Hercules on this spot, while the Romans called it Sacrum Promontorium, or the “Holy Promontory.” Camper vans and sausage stands notwithstanding, the exposed headland does indeed have a bewitching, almost mystical air. It’s a fitting place to end our pilgrimage, I think, as a flock of ravens passes overhead.
Emirates flies via Dubai between most major Southeast Asian cities and Lisbon daily. Santiago do Cacém, which marks the start of the Rota Vicentina’s Historical Way, is a 1.5-hour drive south of Lisbon.
The Rota Vicentina website provides a selection of maps, walking notes, cultural activities, and lodgings along the Historical Way and Fishermen’s Trail, broken down into 12-day and 5-day sections, respectively. Accommodation highlights include Moinhos do Paneiro (doubles from US$64); Guarda Rios (from US$128) in Vila Nova de Milfontes; trekker-centric Pure Flor de Esteva B&B (from US$80) in Vila do Bispo; and farmhouse conversion Cercas Velhas (from US$58) on the outskirts of Sagres, just five kilometers from Cape St. Vincent.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Route Less Traveled”).