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Hiking & Trail Running

Rota Vicentina Guide | Trail Running on Portugal’s Deserted Coastal Paths

In search of peace solitude on the coast of Portugal

Words by Fergus Scholes | Photos by James Hustler

A heavy atlantic swell is a constant presence on my right; powerful and thunderous yet mesmerizingly calm. The endless line up of glistening waves roll into shore, white horses ending their 3,000 mile journey on the deserted golden sand beaches.

As I look behind, my tracks are erased as quickly as they were made, leaving no trace. This perfectly captures the reason I have headed out here to Portugal, to run 120km along this beautiful coastal trail over the coming three days. I am running solo, peacefully uninterrupted and present in the moment, with just myself and nature for company.

I am on the Rota Vicentina, 450km of interconnected trails in southwest Portugal which wind their way through the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park, ending at Portugal and Europe’s most southwesterly point; Cabo de São Vicente. The Rota Vicentina is comprised two different trails; the Historical Way which tends to run slightly inland, and the Fisherman’s Trail which, as the name suggests, is entirely along the coast.

“It’s liberating, being in a foreign land on trails you don’t know, but your mind is free to take in this magical scenery, to enjoy the peace and space.”

I choose to run the Fisherman’s Trail, which begins in the small quaint fishing town of Porto Covo, around two hours drive south of Lisbon. I arrive just in time for the most beautiful sunset. Flocks of seabirds fly effortlessly across the horizon toward their roost, silhouetted by the deep orange glowing sun now almost touching the horizon.

I awake to beautiful clear blue skies and prepare for the day’s running. After a breakfast comprised mostly of the local custard tarts, I say my a farewell to the proprietor of the hostel, a friendly, knowledgeable guy, wearing flip flops, boardies and a vest, who’s more than happy to share his local knowledge.

He and his girlfriend moved here some years ago and fell in love with the simple way of life. It’s been home since. With my backpack packed with the day’s rations, some water and some other essentials, I stroll down to the start of the Fisherman’s Trail.

And so my southward journey begins. Blue and green markers on wooden posts are a constant companion – the route is signposted all the way, so the chances of map reading errors or taking a wrong turn are kept to a minimum.

This is quite liberating, as you’re in a foreign land on trails you don’t know, but your mind is still free to simply take in this magical scenery, to enjoy the peace and space. I had seen some pictures of the vistas that were in store on this route, but nothing prepared me for the reality. Totally deserted beaches and sand dunes, cliffs, I can’t believe how amazing this is.

Occasionally I see another hiker, sometimes every fifteen minutes or sometimes after a couple of hours, but largely I’m alone; just myself, my thoughts and nature. The sandy trail meanders and undulates along the cliff, just a few feet from the edge, occasionally straying down onto the beach itself. After a couple of hours, the cliffs morph into a huge expanse of rolling sand dunes. The coastline is beautifully varied, so your mind is kept fresh and agile.

After a steady day’s running of around 20km, I wild camp on some cliffs just off the trail. I have always found waking up to the view of the sea to be a very special thing, and the following morning is certainly no exception. The sun isn’t quite on the tent yet, but I unzip the front to be greeted by the Atlantic. By the time I’ve boiled up water for a morning coffee, the sun is heating the tent up and it’s time to out for the day.

Sometimes the rewards for the effort are obvious

The mould has been set for the next two days, and the 100km to come. In many ways I can’t believe my luck – the glorious blue skies continue, and the amazing trails along beautiful cliffs just keep coming. The path is flanked by the most stunning array of plants and flowers; purples, yellows, reds, oranges. I see a precariously perched pelicans’ nest on a tall thin stack of rock barely the diameter of the nest.

On occasion when the cliff is a sheer vertical face plunging into the sea, I come across solitary fishermen, waiting patiently for their catch. At one point I pass a secret surf spot – around half a dozen vans and trucks are parked up with the same number of people bobbing around in the big swell off shore.

As is quite common when I run, after around five hours my emotional state changes and my perspective shifts. The little things in life become all important. Suffice to say with the surroundings of the Fisherman’s Trail, there are numerous occasions – a particularly stunning cliffscape or a patch of brightly coloured flowers – that act as a trigger to make me cry and take a moment to sit down.

From time to time, I take part in races and run as part of an organisation, run with a group, or with friends. Living in London, I regularly run around Hyde Park and along the river Thames, dodging people, cars and traffic lights. But sometimes nothing beats getting away for a few days and being free from a timetable, start and finish lines, rules, other people and civilisation.

Heading out to Portugal, I was searching for that ultimate sense of being foot loose and doing things as I wished, running as far as I wanted, starting and stopping once I had had enough, and being surrounded by beautiful, peaceful unspoilt nature. Portugal and the Fisherman’s Trail delivered this in spades.

To read the rest of Mpora’s June ‘Peace’ Issue head here

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Getting There

The start of the Fisherman’s Trail, Porto Covo, is around 2 hours drive south of Lisbon Airport.

Fergus stayed at Ahoy Porto Covo Hostel at €18  per night. He also stayed in Odeceixe Hostel at €15  per night.

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