Portugal has long been known for its sandy beaches and sun, sea and sport resorts but there is another side to Portugal that offers a magical mix of pretty historic towns, stunning landscape; staggeringly beautiful coastline with hidden beaches and rocky coves; and the opportunity to glimpse traditional lifestyles.
The whole of Portugal’s west coast is beautiful and it is increasingly attracting the attention of the “hip international travel” crowd, areas such as Herdade da Comporta are the current sweethearts of the travel press. For those looking to avoid the places covered by the newspapers and glossy magazines just head a little further south until you will reach the Algarve’s west coast. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful stretches of south Portugal’s coast. Running from Sagres in the south to Odeceixe in the north, it lies in the Natural Park of Southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina (PNSACV). It is a unique landscape that has been protected from development because of its status as a biological reserve and natural park. With the exception of Sagres the area is practically untouched by tourism and you will only find small villages and hamlets scattered through the area. Restaurants and cafes are often to be found in the most unexpected places, alone staring out to sea on a cliff top; clinging to a craggy hill side; or hidden away on a secluded beach.
The landscape is exceptionally beautiful, it reflects the varied geology of the area which in turn shapes the diverse vegetation and terrain, and you will find gleaming golden sandy beaches, black pebbled bays, rocky coves and magnificent rock formations. Whilst it has to be said that the signage is often lacking, all you need is a map and a bit of determination and you will be rewarded with beautiful vistas, empty beaches and turquoise seas. The area can be visited by car but one of the best ways to explore it is on foot using one of the many coastal paths or fisherman’s trails. Many of the beaches can only be reached on foot or via dirt tracks and you can leave your car in a nearby village or parking point.
As a taster head to Pontal, it is about half way between Sagres and Odeceixe. Pontal is a headland with multi-coloured cliffs and spectacular coastal scenery. There is lovely short walk that starts in the village of Carrapateira and goes towards the cliffs where you will have fantastic views along the coast and be able to see some of the many bays, headlands, off-shore stacks and rocky islands waiting to be explored. To the north is Praia da Bordeira with its large sandy beach and elegant dunes and to the south is Praia do Amado a surfer’s beach, with a rustic beach cafe.
Another beautiful spot is the village of Monte Clérigo, it is accessible by car from Aljezur. A steep road winds down to a sandy beach with magnificent rock formations at one end. Fishermen’s huts and a couple of cafes cluster around the entrance to the beach and pretty white cottages cling to the steep green hillsides looking out to sea.
Exploring this wild and rugged area is an exhilarating experience and nothing quite matches a walk along one of the magnificent cliff path then scrambling down to a secluded beach to enjoy the sun and a dip in the cold blue sea. The Rota Vicentina brings together a selection of rural and coastal routes that showcase the pristinely preserved area and places of cultural interest. There are around 350 km of walking routes starting in Santiago do Cacém and finishing at the Cape of St. Vincent. The site www.rotavicentina.com is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to visit the area and includes maps and descriptions of the different routes.
The interior of the Algarve should not be overlooked either. There are the mountains of the Serra; beautiful rolling hills with deciduous woodland and cork trees and lovely lakes and rivers. The villages of the interior tend to be very charming with pretty chapels and churches sitting on old cobbled squares. Here the traditional ways of life are strong and villagers still till the land using traditional methods. You may also pass shepherds tending their flocks in the surrounding hills and valleys. A good way to start to explore the interior of southern Portugal is along the famous Via Algarviana. This is a 300 km trail that runs from Alcoutim in the South East to the Cape of St Vicente in the South West and passes through the mountains of Serra do Caldeirão and Serra de Monchique. There are many day walks that start in small villages which are accessible by car and the Via Algarviana Organisation provides an abundance of information about the routes and the different areas along the trail. More information can be found on their website: www.viaalgarviana.org
Where to stay: If you want to have access to tourist type facilities then Luz, Sagres or Burgau are good places to base yourself. If you are looking for a more authentic experience and interested in culture, walking and surfing then try Carrapeteira, Rogil or Aljezur.
Most major airlines fly direct to Lisbon and Faro.
The roads are fantastic in Portugal; make sure you rent an electronic toll payment meter for your car to beat any queues on the fast roads. Luz is around 3 hours from Lisbon and 1 hour from Faro, add 30 – 60 minutes more if you stay towards Sagres or the interior.
Tips: Please remember that the areas featured here are slightly off the traditional tourist routes and whilst many people will speak English, it is not guaranteed and a little Portuguese or a phase book will go a long way. If you are hiking remember to take plenty of water, sun screen and a hat, the sea breeze can make it feel deceptively cool and the sun is strong. Spring is a particularly beautiful time of year to go as the area is a mass of colour with spring flowers and the weather is warm but not too hot.