Southwest Portugal Coastal Hiking: Part 1 – Lisbon to the Fisherman’s Trail

With a half-day in Lisbon after our flight, we took a scenic train ride to Sintra for some exploring and made it back to the city in time for dinner. The next day, we set out for Porto Covo by bus to begin our trek along the Fisherman’s Trail.

This post covers our half day in Sintra and starting our trip on the Rota Vicentina in Porto Covo. From there, our route took us to Vila Nova de Milfontes, Cavaleiro, and Zambujeira do Mar, with Odeceixe and Carrapateira covered in a subsequent post.

Other posts in this series include:

Lisbon and Sintra

Arrival in Lisbon

Our arrival at Lisbon airport and trek to baggage claim was quick and painless, but Iberia was in no rush to deliver our bags. After a half hour wait, we exited through customs and found the Vodaphone store upstairs next to the post office, which had no line (unlike its smaller sibling kiosk on the ground level). In less than 10 minutes, we left with an activated (cheap, by U.S. standards) data SIM card for our phone.

We strategically booked our two Lisbon arrival and departure hotels separately — the first closer to the Sete Rios rail station, and the second next to the airport. This worked wonderfully for quickly dropping our excess bag at the airport hotel —  Tryp Lisboa Aeroporto (Booking.com) — which was only a five minute walk from the terminal. We then backtracked to the Metro station outside the airport to catch our red line train to the other hotel.

Tip: This station has two banks of ticket vending machines, but the lines were quite long due to arriving passengers from the airport. Our wait time to purchase tickets was around 30 minutes, so plan accordingly!

After a quick stop at the SANA Reno hotel (Booking.com) to check in and drop our remaining bags, we made our way to the Sete Rios station to catch a train to Sintra. The ticket vendor for the Sintra-bound line did not accept foreign credit cards (local cards or debit only), so we had to pay with cash.

Sintra

After a pleasant 35-minute train ride, we stopped by the ATM at the Sintra station to get some cash for the tourist shuttle to Pena Palace. On this particular Friday evening, the shuttle was mostly empty, and the foot traffic around the palace was rather light. As the driver expertly guided the bus through the tiny streets (and around some very tight corners), we took in the scenery of the historic town center. We arrived shortly thereafter at the entrance to the Park at Pena. With only a few hours before the park closed for the day, we wasted no time getting our tickets (€10) and walking the short distance uphill to the Palace. My high-level review of the Palace is that it feels like a brightly-colored adult playhouse on the outside, with some intriguing furniture and lavish painted paneling on the inside.

After the palace tour, we roamed around the park grounds until a few minutes before closing time. The shuttle picked us up back at the park entrance and we headed back to Lisbon for dinner. Despite not having a dinner reservation, we were fortunate that the staff at Salsa Rosa Bistro agreed to seat us later that night. I was excited by the menu and partially relieved that they were out of several items, which made choosing much easier in my jet-lagged and hungry state. Both of our meals were excellent and filling.

The next morning, we readied our backpacks and connected to the first Porto Covo-bound bus at 07:30.

Porto Covo to Vila Nova de Milfontes

Day 1 (20 km / 7 hr)

In Porto Covo, the bus stops next to a public market, which at the time had several seafood vendors. After a quick look at the local catches, we switched to our hiking boots and walked the short distance down to the water and the start of our route.

Based on the route description from the Rota Vicentina website, we knew to expect a long first day of hiking along sand dunes and beaches. In retrospect, I am glad to have completed this section on our first day, as I was so thoroughly impressed by the coastal vistas that I had little time to dwell on the effort required to move along the sandy trail.

Once in Milfontes, the town felt very dense (compared to Porto Covo). The route takes you directly through the town, and by the Forte de São Clemente (Castle Milfontes). Our first hotel —  Casa do Adro da Igreja (Booking.com) — was just a short walk from the castle. I chose this hotel based on a healthy portfolio of outstanding online reviews. The delightfully charming owners did not disappoint! We were greatly warmly in Portuguese, and despite the language barrier, we immediately felt welcome into their home. This hotel is notable for its delicious welcome treats (a local juice and a slice of homemade cake), a complimentary kitchen with fresh fruit and drinks, and a delightful morning breakfast. We highly recommend a stay here if you find yourself passing through Milfontes!

For dinner, we struck out at our first choice by not having a reservation. After walking around to see which restaurants were actually open, we eventually settled on a tapas place (Picatapa) near the hotel. The chef (and presumed owner) both prepared the food and waited the tables, which led to a long, slowly-paced dinner as more customers sat down. Despite the service struggles, we enjoyed our steak with sweet potato chips, and the cheese plate with figs, honey, and nuts.

Vila Nova de Milfontes to Cavaleiro

Day 2 (17.7 km / 6 hr)

Under a bright, sunny sky, we set out from Milfontes among the various sprawling sandy beaches, alternating occasionally between the higher cliff route and simply walking along the sand at water’s edge. I found these early hours to be almost therapeutic, with the gentle crashing of the surf, families and kids playing along the beaches, and locals walking their dogs.

As the sprawling beaches and Milfontes faded away, we transitioned back into the mix of cliffs and sand dunes seen during the previous day. Several of these stretches were covered with fragrant blooming herbs, such as sage and rosemary.

I should note here that we deviated from the official recommended route by skipping the detour inland to Almograve, opting instead to end our day in the small village of Cavaleiro. This adjustment better distributed the total distance between days 2 and 3, and gave us extra time to explore after arriving in Zambujeira do Mar. I initially considered keeping the Almograve stop, but the hotel and restaurant options were limited and uninspiring (based on online reviews).

To avoid the Almograve detour, we descended from Fisherman’s Route just as it begins to turn inland, onto the Praia da Foz dos Ouriços. This section is part of the official circular route The Dunes of Almograve, and rejoins the Fisherman’s Route after ascending on the other side of the beach. If you are interested in this detour, I recommend viewing it with Google Earth to better visualize the paths on each side of the beach, which are quite manageable. When we crossed the Foz dos Ouriços river (stream?) near the middle of the beach, it was low enough to avoid getting our shoes wet.

In Cavaleiro, we stayed at a charming farmhouse near the coast and with a view of the local lighthouse. Cavaleiro is a quiet village, especially during our visit, with the Rota Vicentina passing by its main street. Based on our observations (though it may have been a consequence of shoulder season), the town had a single restaurant located near the community center building. This definitely simplified our dinner selection for the night, but we were quite happy to find it open and still serving dinner by the time we arrived. The food was simple, yet delicious; Sean enjoyed the pork migas and I had the fish fillet, with both a biscuit pudding and serradura (“sawdust” pudding) for dessert.

Cavaleiro to Zambujeira do Mar

Day 3 (11.7 km / 5 hr)

Before departing Cavaleiro the next morning, we stopped at Snack Bar Adélia for some breakfast treats. The trail continued past Adélia and quickly out of town, under a cloudy sky that would eventually clear in the afternoon. This section of the coast transitioned to rugged cliffs, with impressive sandstone colors and various nesting habitats for the many native bird species. We paused often to observe nesting storks, their impressive nests, and the fragile eggs within.

Just beyond the halfway point of the day’s trek, we descended and then climbed back up the trail at the fishing harbor Entrada da Barca, where the local fishermen were busy cleaning and resupplying their vessels. The remaining walk to Zambujeira do Mar featured less sand and more of the grand coastal cliffs and nesting storks. We arrived in town a couple hours before sunset, leaving enough time to check in at Hotel Ondazul (Booking.com) and walk along the pedestrian-only streets in the center of town.

According to the staff at the hotel, many businesses in this town were still preparing to open for the season on Easter weekend (the next weekend). Consequently, it was very quiet at the hotel and many of the restaurants were still visibly closed. Among those that were open, we decided on I Cervejaria, where we enjoyed the fried prawns as an appetizer, Sean had pork (again), and I had simple, yet delightful shrimp bread porridge. The most memorable part was definitely my “fidalgo” dessert. This local egg-based treat from the Alentejo region is, unfortunately, far too labor-intensive for us to replicate at home.

Continue the trek in Part 2 – Zambujeira do Mar to Odeceixe to Carrapateira.

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