Walking in the Alentejo

Wide-open spaces, towering cliffs, fairy-tale castles looming over picture-perfect towns: the Alentejo is an exciting destination for walkers looking to explore a corner of Europe way off the tourist trail.

For a walk on the wild side, consider a trip to this out-of-the-way region of southern Portugal. Local walking guide Julie Statham describes what’s on offer.

The Alentejo region covers almost a third of Portugal, yet houses a mere seven percent of its population. There is a feeling of emptiness, wildness and remoteness here: most visitors pass it by or make a fleeting visit to the historic town of Evora before travelling to Lisbon or the Algarve. Yet this large area encompasses a captivating and varied landscape, extending from the hills of the Serra de Sao Mamede in the north to the cereal plains of the south, the wild Atlantic coast in the west to the fortified hilltop towns in the east.

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There are three main walking areas in the Alentejo: the west close to the Atlantic coast, the Natural Park of the Serra de Sao Mamede, and the Alqueva lake region.

THE WEST
The western reaches of the Alentejo are home to a newly created footpath, the Rota Vicentina – a 350km trail that stretches from the town of Santiago do Cacem (about 100km from Lisbon) to Cabo de Sao Vincente in the Algarve – the most southwesterly point in Europe. The trail is divided into two parts: the inland Historical Way and the coastal Fishermen’s Way, and each in turn is divided into sections of between 14km and 24km. They converge at Porto Covo on the coast in the north and again at Odeceixe in the south, making it possible to walk a loop covering both in about 14 days.
Cliffs south of Odeceixe
The Rota Vicentina was created to bring tourism to the area and there has been considerable investment in waymarking; the whole route offers great walking and a huge variety of scenery on good tracks and paths.

The Historical Way can be considered the equivalent to a GR route and its 230km is divided into 12 sections passing through sleepy whitewashed villages, a few historical towns, cork oak forests, rolling countryside and river valleys. The whole area is quiet, peaceful and sees very few visitors.

The Fisherman’s Way is a more demanding walk which follows the coastline using small footpaths that until now have only been used by locals making their way to clifftop fishing spots and quiet, sandy beaches. This route comprises of four sections and five complimentary loops totalling 120km and offers some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the whole of Portugal with towering cliffs, spectacular Atlantic rollers, strong winds – a truly powerful wilderness that will really take your breath away. If you walk in spring the storks that build their nests in the cliffs and on rocky outcrops just out to sea will constantly entertain you – to watch them fly in and land is just an amazing sight.

THE SERRA DE SÃO MAMEDE
The Natural Park of the Serra de São Mamede lies in the northeast of the Alentejo adjacent to the Spanish border, and is dominated by the two fortified towns of Castelo de Vide and Marvao. The highest peak is 1,025 metres, and while the park is relatively small (55,000 hectares) it is geologically very interesting with quartzite peaks standing proud above the Alentejo plains. It is also home to some very special flora and fauna, including the Iberian lynx and Europe’s largest population of bats.
Village in the Serra
The Institute of Conservation and Nature has put together a series of walking trails which cover the entire park: these were completed over ten years ago and some of the waymarks have been worn out, with a few of the original tracks covered by asphalt. Nonetheless, they are still well worth walking. In addition the Castelo de Vide council has created some walks starting from the town – these are more up to date and by far the best is the one that takes you from Castelo de Vide to Marvao, a fortified town perched high above the plains. The walk of 10km is not that easy but is well worth the effort, as you are essentially walking along a mountain ridge with views to the east to Spain and south and west across the Alentejo plains. A map can be purchased at a small cost from the tourist office in the town.
 
ALQUEVA AND THE GREAT LAKES
When the Alqueva dam was constructed across the Guardiana River (the natural border between southern Portugal and Spain) it created an amazing landscape of lakes and waterways. The whole area is little known but visitors will find fortified villages, prehistoric cromlechs, menhirs and dolmens, and marble quarries together with the impressive marble palace of Vila Viçosa. To the north of the area vineyards abound.

When walking here it is sometimes hard to believe you are in the 21st century - there is a timeless magical quality with the whitewashed villages showing few signs of the modern era and local traditions and customs, which go back generations, still observed. Walking here is again not easy but there are some waymarked trails provided by the towns and villages of Alandroal, Terena and Monsaraz, and leaflets can be obtained from the local tourist offices.
 
Prehistoric stone circle near Monsaraz
The walks will take you through cork oak woods, olive groves and pastureland, past the castles of Alendroal and Terena and up to the wonderful medieval town of Monsaraz. There is such an amazing variety in such a small area and the walking is really open to all as there are no mountains and therefore no real climbs.

ACCESSIBILITY: POINTS TO REMEMBER
It's worth pointing out that getting out on the trail in the Alentejo is not always simple. There are few way-marked footpaths, and those that exist are often not well maintained. Local maps (the Carta Militar de Portugal are equivalent to the Ordnance survey maps of the UK) are often out of date: there isn’t great demand, as walking is not an activity that many Portuguese do.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. The clifftop walk near Praia de Odeceixe

The beach of Odeceixe is considered to be one of the great wonders of Portugal, and it is indeed fabulous – a superb sandy beach surrounded by dark cliffs. To the south of the beach the cliffs are dramatic, and in the spring large numbers of storks build their nests on jagged exposures of rock that are constantly battered by wind and waves. All this can be witnessed while walking the Fisherman’s Way loop from Odeceixe town.

2. The medieval walled town and castle of Monsaraz

Monsaraz is affectionately known as the ‘eagles nest’, 900 metres above the surrounding countryside on a rocky outcrop of the Serra de Sao Mamede. Its narrow cobbled streets are lined with whitewashed houses, many with decorative doors and windows from the 15th century, and one of the best preserved castles in Portugal. Besides the route from Castelo de Vide, it is possible to walk up to the town from the village of Portagem at the foot of the outcrop – the path is waymarked, but steep!

3. The cork oak forests (montado) of the area

The Alentejo is home to forests the Portuguese national tree, the cork oak, protected by law since the 13th century. A growing awareness of the value of the ecosystem of these forests has led to sound environmental policies. It is a way of ensuring the future, without forgetting the old saying: “Whoever cares for their grandchildren, plants a cork oak”. Many of the walks in the Serra de São Mamede and along the northern section of the Historical Way will take you through these forests.

4. The town of Terena and the Lucefit dam

Most motorists drive straight through Terena but they are missing out on a real treat. Terena was created in the 13th century and much of the old town remains totally unspoilt, with tiny whitewashed houses and cobbled streets leading up the castle ruins. A waymarked walk leads from the castle via the village and countryside to the Lucefit dam. The dam was constructed across the river of the same name to create a large lake, which is now home to many birds, including black storks.

5. The prehistoric monuments around Monsaraz

Monsaraz is itself another amazing medieval walled town that certainly deserves a visit. From the walls there is a walk that takes you down to the countryside below. Here you walk back through time passing two burial chambers (dolmens), two standing stones (menhirs) and a large stone circle (cromlech). All are prehistoric dating from 3500-2500 BC, and remarkably well preserved.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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The region for the most part experiences a relatively continental climate with cool winters and very hot summers: these two seasons are not great for walking. Undoubtedly the best time is spring, when the countyside is awash with colour from the amazing variety of flowers that grow here. The other season for walking is autumn when the dry brown hillsides of summer turn to green with new grass sprouting. During both seasons there is always the possibility of rain but in the Alentejo the rains tend to pass through and not linger for too long.

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