The old fisherman was the first person I had seen all day. He faced the ocean, but somehow sensed he was no longer alone and turned back. I ventured a head nod, to which he curtly responded before going back to his thoughts. I turned back too, but there was nothing there apart from the long winding path that had guided me down the cliffs and onto the shore. Ahead of me, the sandy beach extended as far as I could see, before disappearing behind the morning mist.
I spent five days hiking the Fishermen’s Trail, a 180km (110 miles) track that follows Portugal’s southwestern Atlantic coastline from Porto Covo to Cape St. Vincent, the end of the known world in the 15th century, before Europeans began their maritime expansion. Along the way, the trail goes by some of Portugal’s most stunning coastal towns, including Vila Nova de Milfontes, Almograve, Zambujeira do Mar, Odeceixe, Aljezur, Carrapateira and Sagres.
The trail is mostly made up of narrow and winding paths used by local fishermen to access the ocean cliffs. The number of fishermen has slowly dwindled but the paths are still there. In some places, where the coastline is too jagged to access even on foot, the trail dives deeper into mainland, snaking through hills and valleys. There is less sand and wind to fight through, but the steep ascents and rocky descents make these sections no less of a challenge.
Apart from the raw beauty of these landscapes, sometimes difficult to capture in pictures, there was one other common theme for these 180km: seclusion. In the eight or nine hours I spent walking each day, I rarely crossed paths with more than four or five other human beings.
Some of you will surely cringe at the idea of spending so much time in isolation, no matter how astonishing the scenery is. Others will be drawn to the idea that there are still such faraway places in Europe. I write this for all of you: to the former, hoping that I can transmit some of the beauty I’ve witnessed; to the latter, as an invitation to do the same.
But let me first manage your expectations: I exited the trail no wiser than I entered it. As Jules and I had already realised when we did our round-the-world trip, plucking yourself from a daily routine is no sure recipe for spiritual enlightenment, intellectual Eureka or physical atonement.
I did however learn something very useful. As most introverts, I enjoy being alone. More than a pleasure, moments of solitude have evolved into a necessity as I grow older. Apparently though there’s a time limit for these moments. You know that feeling of waking up in the middle of the night, troubled by some mundane problem blown out of proportion? After walking for several hours without seeing anybody, I would sometimes find myself in a similar state. Without human interaction to snatch me back from my thoughts, my subconscious would take over.
So, against all my expectations, those four or five daily fleeting moments of interaction with others became something to look forward to. We would rarely exchange more than a couple of words, but those were enough for me to imagine an intricate character. Mr. Alberts, a British retired clerk following the same sandy path he and his wife – just recently passed away – took many years ago. João, a young fisherman with fear still darkening his expression after barely making it back to the shore when large waves got hold of his tiny boat. Anja and Stefan, a German couple that left everything behind to live from a small patch of land, now struggling with the hardships of farming. Cristina and Manuel, two friends hiking through Portugal, feet resting on top of the heavy backpacks, weary from the month long voyage.
Animal encounters were more frequent but no less memorable. Unaccustomed to humans, many would come closer, eyes hinting at a mixture of fear and curiosity. A trio of goats that sprang from the side of the road, its boldest member holding its nose against my leg. A snake crossing the sandy trail, briefly stopping halfway to stare at me fumbling to get my camera out. A young horse, curious to get closer but aware that its elders were keeping afar. A large dog, half domesticated and half wild, uneasy with me passing next to its litter of puppies.
Reaching Cape Saint Vincent was a rude awakening. Big crowds chatted alongside food stands and street vendors, waiting for the sunset. A mass of cars and caravans scrambled for a place to park, filling the air with dust and engine noise. It didn’t matter though: the journey is often more important than the destination, and those five days have been unforgettable.
A big thank you to Rota Vicentina, the group that maintains these trails. They also run an impeccably organized website with everything you need to know to do it yourself. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the Fishermen’s Trail in 90 seconds: