Early November 2019 and there are lots of hikers on this most beautiful Fisherman’s Trail, the Rota Vicentina along the south western coast of Portugal.
At Cabo Sardao for example, there were 11 in 5 minutes – in groups of 2, 5 and 4. A single walker and a pair spotted this morning on the beach at Zambujeira do Mar. Ranging from German to American, there are similar gatherings in cafes and hostels at the end of each stage that you would expect on the Camino.
1. Rota Vicentina
The trail runs from Cabo San Vicente to Porto Covo, or vice versa 350 kms in total, each stage is 12-22 kms in length.
You can be creative in choosing your route – the whole thing or part of it – to suit you, your physical capacity and time availability.
The two grand routes are divided by sections, which vary between 11 and 33 km. If you were to complete all of the sections at the rate of one per day, you would need the same number of days as there are sections that make up the Rota Vicentina.
Circular Routes are shorter, ranging from 4 to 16 km in length.
Ideally, you would prepare yourself before departure and take water and groceries with you for the day of walking, since not all sections cross places with coffee shops and / or grocery stores.
At most start and end of stage points, you will have no problem purchasing groceries. Check each village to see what they offer by way of food and drink.
Both the Fishermen’s Trail and the Historical Way have clear signs in both directions.
Mostly by the sea, the Fishermen’s Trail travels along the paths used by the locals to access the beaches and fishing grounds. It is a single track, walkable only on foot, along the cliffs, with lots of sand and therefore it is more demanding from the physical point of view. It is a challenge, but contact with the wind, the sea, the coastal landscape and the presence of a wild and persistent nature makes it worthwhile.
‘I booked it ahead, very easy as the accommodation is all on booking.com, but I didn’t need to. I got the details from the Rota Vicentina website which is very good, but there was more accommodation than was shown on the site and in most places you have a choice of near empty hotels.’ John Hayes
Porto is colourful, lively, expansive and full of history. It is a very popular tourist destination, both for those taking river cruises on the Douro and those who are land based.
On one side of the river you will find the main attractions, restaurants and bars and the airport; on the other, the old Port wine warehouses where you can take tours and sit in the Jardim de Moro park and watch the water traffic down below.
There is a lot of information available online, so I will not attempt to replicate it, but instead to show you some of the beautiful places I visited and some useful information.
Torre dos Clérigos (tower)
You can see the Clérigos Tower from a long way away and it is free to enter the little museum and church where there are some heavily decorated, religious artworks.
Wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere
The streets are teeming and oh so steep – down to the river, up to the rest.
Red and yellow buildings reflect the earth and sunshine of this east coast Portuguese city.
Tram line 1
We took a tram trip along the side of the river, but sat on the right hand side and so our view was walls, in the main, and some graffiti. This mode of transport is very crowded and not necessarily on time, but they are quaint with wooden seats and a decidedly old-fashioned feel.
Line 1 goes from Infante to Foz (and back again) where there is a nice park – Jardim do Calem – and a lighthouse, good cafés and restaurants and a walk by the river. You can also take the 500 bus (same route and quicker).
The river walk and bridges
There are a series of smart bridges across the river, one by Eiffel (of Paris Tower fame) and one which looks just like it was designed by him, but wasn’t.
The metro crosses Ponte Luís 1 if you want to go to the outdoor swimming pool to cool off. My daughters and I went twice to the Piscina da Quinta sa Conceiçao in Leça da Palmeira as it was affordable (you can either pay for a half day or full – not much shade) and in the middle of a park with fully grown trees. There were local people lunching there in their business clothes and clean changing places. It was very well run.
It does take some time to get your head around metro tickets as there are zones and each andante card (80 cents) can only have one zone so if you are going across 2 zones you need 2 cards. (Remember to write on them so you know which is which.) You can get them topped up by the very helpful man in the wee shop almost opposite the Igreja do Carmo right by the main bus /tram intersection. Look for the sign…
You could also take the river taxi – cheaper (3 euros), fresh air, and more fun!
The Sé Cathedral
Estaçao de trem, train station, Porto
To stay, eat and drink
Breakfast is of course the most important meal of the day! We enjoyed them in these cafés, bars and bakeries: Our local favourite was on the corner of Rua dos Mártires da Liberdade (where we stayed in an air bnb) and Tv. de Sao. It is cheap, small, friendly, crowded at times and there is a delicious array of pastries, cakes, and other morning fare. We also enjoyed Nicolau Porto (eggs and avocado on toast eg) on the corner of Liberdade and Rua da Conceicao; one of the cafes overlooking Praça de Carlos Antonio; and Antonio Névés & Ça. also on Liberdade.
The best evening meal was at Idiota with Portuguese shellfish and great service on Rua das Oliveiras.
We loved Mon Père Vintage (Rua Liberdade as above) where I brought a much admired, silver coloured Camino shell to hang round my neck for 1 euro (10 euros in Santiago de Compostela!) and there was another such shop in a little arcade much further down the same street. Also Livraria Poetria (poetry bookshop) and the Oporto Invictus Hostel (great garden with lively bar, yoga classes and free outdoor cinema showing shorts), both on Oliveiras.
The best bar (for port wine of course- red, white, rose) was the Taberna Aduela where you can sit outside (opposite the Teatro Carlos Alberto) on Oliveiras.
Practicalities: at the top of Liberdade, on the left round the corner onto Praça da Republíca, is a self service laundry and Pingo Doce supermarket, while to the right is a big store, such as you find in all big Portuguese and Spanish cities run by Chinese families, which sell ‘everything’ very cheaply, particularly phone chargers and leads, sun hats and underwear!
Don’t forget to visit the Serralves art museum – my favourite and so it has a blog all of its own! It has a small farm and garden not mentioned in the blog.
Places I wanted to see but there was no time or I was too busy
Libraría Lello – famous bookshop (book tickets online and get your money back when you buy a book – long queues)
Jardins de Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace Gardens)
The Botanic Gardens.
I hope you enjoy Porto. Make sure you drop me a comment to say what your favourite place was!
I took a bus with Rede Expresso from Fátima costing 11.90 euros and taking just under an hour. These buses are all on time in my experience and have air conditioning and free wifi as well as somewhere to charge your phone. At the bus station itself, it can be confusing, so allow time.
I arrived in the late afternoon and took a walk with my rucksack (but no donkey!) to the hostel by the river.
Coimbra is a steep city with an ancient university at its apex. I left that until the next day, tired after my hot walks to the Fatima shrines.
I stayed in the Coimbra Portagem hostel which I booked in advance through hostelworld (be very careful to check your dates before pressing pay as there are often mistakes with the system). There was no solid wall between dormitories so I could hear every word of the woman on the phone next door, and the woman she was speaking to, and she was on the other side of the room! The accomodation is right by the river and in the middle of the tourist area, so wonderfully situated.
I ate fish, served in the traditional Portuguese way with boiled potatoes and braised cabbage (sometimes it comes with the odd carrot). As usual, I was treated with respect by the helpful waiters.
The next morning I took a deep breath and hiked up to see the famous library with my rucksack – it’s one hell of a climb! It was already hot, but I loved the maze of tiny streets, looking as if they were mostly full of tourists. However, it turned out that the people I joined to enter the Bibliotec Joanina, the university library, all had tickets. There was a large group who had prebooked so they only let in three individuals. My wait was for nothing. It took a while to find the booking office (which is up more steps, into the big square, right across and through the great gate on the right).
It was the same as the bookshop in Porto (also reputed to be a stunning interior): relatively expensive and an off-putting booking procedure. It’s all tours and Trip Advisor. Even Lonely Planet pushes tours. So, I deduced it was not for the simple individual traveller, unless you perhaps come between November and March.
It does not seem to be possible to book the sights online, and because everyone seemed to be clumped together, it was also tricky to navigate the streets and pavements. I headed onwards, attracted by city walls.
By now I was high up and the views were good. Lots of university students were hanging around in their black robes to tell people about their traditions, but I spotted the Botanic Gardens. Anyone who reads this blog or kens me, knows that I can never resist a Botanic Gardens – so that’s where I went next.
The Botanic Gardens (more arboretum than flower garden) are perfect for informal visits. They do not require appointment or payment. There you can sit in a little nook, watch the dragonflies busy about their work, or goldfish lazily float, listen to the birds or the leaves falling, lounge by running water out of the heat, breathe out and dream.
There is the garden which centres around the fountain : concentric arcs of Box with grand old trees:
Cherry and maple to name but two. This grand example was too big to fit into one frame with its eerie air roots.
There were roses and upstanding blue allium to match the sky.
The Asian inspired bamboo forest offered a cool, green and refreshing environment.
The little chapel seemed to have fallen onto hard times, indeed nature is taking over in places (maybe as it should?)
What a wonderful place to wander through woods which are succumbing to Autumn, past smooth-trunked ash, and be startled by a wood pigeon! The trails are apparently so rarely walked that the tree-lings are well established in the middle of the paths. I do not know what the dead ones were but they are beautiful in their seeding stage.
I spied plenty of lovers secluded and entwined in corners.
And, as I wound down the hill, a bus passed on its way up, so you do not even have to climb on your own two feet!I thought there were no toilets and too many folk around to use the (copious) bushes but I found them close by the hot house entrance.
I noted the growths spreading along the branches, how the leaves, in groups of two, three and five at the end of their stalks, were turning brown
Tiny birds – were they just far away? – were feeding up high, camouflaged through necessity, over time. As I was quiet, they came closer and were in fact about the size and shape of a leaf with pale, green-yellow belly, short pointed-yellow beak exactly the same shape as the tip of the leaves, a darker, stubby tail with a very slight V, and perhaps with more pronounced markings on top – I couldn’t see exactly. The big ‘wasps’ from the Zâzere River were here too. A nearby bell tolled 14.30. A leaf fell on me – it was the start of Autumn.
As the sun moved, different aspects were highlighted: some of the leaves had white outlines, the central veins were a strong brown as diagonals left it, tapering to almost-orange at the edges. When I woke from my reverie (I bit the inside of my mouth – ow) there was a green-bellied bird which had a linea negra down the middle and matching cap. The blacktipped wings were folded as it hopped around, just showing at the sides, from the underneath, in exactly the same way that the black lichen edged the branches. Nature is so clever!
I was busy paying attention to all this when a heron surprised us all: it flew at lower-branch level with its u-bend neck and massive slow-flapping wings. It took a while for the littl’uns to return to their foraging.
I didn’t realise until I roused myself, that i was covered in a fine dust. How much did time turn around while I lay there, I wondered.
In the east of Portugal some two thirds of the way from Lisbon to Porto, is Fátima, revolving around its famous Roman Catholic, Marian shrine. It was established in response to the pastorinhos, three little shepherds named Lucía, Jacinta and Francisco who had angelic apparitions in 1917 and walked from their home in Aljustrel to Fatima (2 kms) where this holy place was established as a result.
‘A journey to the altar of the world’ as the Portuguese tourist website calls it, can be made on foot, a pilgrimage to the shrine in Fátima along the four Fátima Ways: the Tagus, the Northern, the Nazaré and the Carmelite Ways, from Lisbon, Spain (Valença), Sítio in Nazaré (‘where the earth ends and the sea begins’) and Coimbra respectively. Based on the life and work of Sister Lúcia, who lived in the Carmelo de Santa Teresa [Carmelite Convent of St Teresa].
There is a large church, mainly white, with small bright and modern stained glass windows, and behind it is a vast space where the Pope gives his addresses. There are all the conveniences you would expect in such a place which draws the penitentious and worshipful thousands from around the globe.
An altogether more peaceful place to visit in Fátima is Valinhos, accessed by the Via Sacra.
The birthplace of the little shepherds is the location of this second shrine – arrived at by a walk, with the Stations of the Cross along the way, and set amidst evocative olive groves.
The quiet and preserved natural environment means that I saw many more birds (and flies) than I have seen so far – a pair of jays, a robin, greenfinch, sparrows, an giant grasshopper, stalkfuls of snails and the white, bobbed tail of a rabbit as it loped away.
I seemed to attract more attention than usual – perhaps the rucksack and baton were the reason. A man gestured for me to stop and he took my photo. He shook my hand and said he was from Brazil. Another gent asked if I was a pilgrim (!) and, in an Australian accent, said he would walk 25 kms a day from Porto a day ahead of me.
A third, a Portuguese, asked if I needed an albergue to stay in, but I had already spent the night in the city in a small, single room with a private bathroom in a great stack of serviced apartments.
I have spent 2 days in the region of Dornes, at the border between Castelo Branco and Santarém, Portugal. September 2019.
The Grande Rota do Zâzere (#33, 370 kms) starts at the Serra da Estrella and follows the River Zâzere to its confluence with the River Tagus at Constância.
The first day was windy. The smell of burning was alarming, not for myself on the opposite side of the river, but for the trees and people over the hillside.
An ominous plume of smoke, orange grey and thick, was rising from behind it and slowly it filled the sky, obliterating the sun. The talk was of despair at how nature was responding to our greedy behaviour.
The water was murky, the wind was rallying in the eucalyptus woods, and black ash fell on me as I swam.
After the endless toing and froing of the emergency services the day before – noisy, yellow bi-planes circling, landing on the lake and, air bound again, leaving to release their wet loads onto the undergrowth (or so I imagined) – there had been rain, most gratefully received.
And the next morning the sky was clear.
High above, I spotted a pair of birds, glimpsing their white under-carriages, and was impressed by their jet, square-ended wings. Not long after, they were joined by others. They made a few flaps to raise themselves, but then lazed on the thermals, way above, around and around so that I could feel their pleasure. When they landed on the water, they splashed like happy dogs!
The mixed plantation behind the rocky beach also drew my attention at intervals: the crackle of brittle leaves, which every now and then fell onto the surface without my noticing how they had got so far from their origin unnoticed; the dry seed pods which fell, singly; and the wiggling of the triangular and smooth, green aspen leaves on their stalks. The silver-green soft fronds of a pine new to me has seeded in the yellow clay of the foreshore and it tickles my elbows.
As I stepped into the water a grass coloured fish darted away silently. I lay as quietly as I could, just sculling under the surface to keep myself afloat, when something leapt twice: up, arcing in a blur, down and then again, up and over, making a plash each time.
The distant voices of fishermen on the opposite bank roused me from my meditation and, eyes open, I admired the ripples stippling the reflections of the slopes across the channel.
A few others bathed along the shore, two camped overnight. There was a water skier, five boisterous water scooters, an altogether calmer paddle boarder, and quite a lot of small yachts, but the predominant sound was of nature.
At night when I swum under the hidden full moon, the water was like a thick liquid slate and the plaintive sound of an owl came from the trees, so different from in the morning when a single sweet call serenaded me. At lunch time, a tapping and knocking could be heard (but not seen) in the forest, and in a garden, a Jay zipped from branch to branch and screeched its existence. The enormous and garish ‘wasps’ buzzed so ferociously I was momentarily woken from my reverie.
Don’t all rush down there at once and spoil the peace!