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Hiking in the Alentejo

I soak up the languid vibe of the Alentejo by being ensconced on a 270-acre property where I lounge beside a pool rimmed by almond, orange and cherry trees. My time is taken up with yoga classes, cooking lessons and wine tastings, and contemplating how my next few days will unfold, hiking the Rota Vicentina, a long-distance route that tracks through the sun-bleached interior and the wild, windswept coast. Herdade da Matinha, my rural boutique accommodation near Cercal do Alentejo, is decorated with a riot of orange, red, pink and other bold hues. But aside from the stimulating aesthetic, this hotel that’s set in a pastoral landscape planted with peach, fig, olive and apple trees is ideally situated for tackling either of two hiking routes that make up the Rota Vicentina: the Fisherman’s Trail and the Historical Way. 

The red and white signage marking the Historical Way from Sao Luis to Odemira may not be defined by dramatic sights, but it’s a no less treasured journey that enwraps hikers in a verdant landscape rich in cork forests and endless wheat fields. Slim streams slice through this landscape with still, pond-like portions (pegos) beckoning all who come to the shores to take a dip and stay awhile. 

A 20-minute taxi ride brings me to Sao Luis, a village that’s especially placid on a Sunday when the residents congregate in the plaza before filing into the simple whitewashed church. Once I embark on this 16-mile section at the far end of town, my views are taken up by forests of gnarled cork trees that stand sentinel, each naked bark bearing a single number. (The Alentejo is the largest source of the world’s cork supply that relies on sustainability: the cork is harvested only when the trees are in their 20s, and then only once every nine years. The number on the reddish trunk marks the last digit of the year the bark was removed.) The base of one tree is ringed by fragrant purple lavender. Later, beyond vast fields of wheat, the delicate blossoms of white lavender make an appearance. 

The myriad green hues as far as the eye can see are punctuated by a variety of colorful wildflowers, some in the daisy family bearing yellows and whites, and others showing off blue and purple flowers, such as blueweed, purple foxglove and rockrose. Each blossom of the brown-eyed rockrose only displays its white petals one day a year when it blooms, releasing a sharp fragrance. 

I have my binoculars at the ready, knowing that this area is rich in birdlife — another eco upside to cork woodlands, which are havens for migratory birds. And, during the course of my trek, I’m rewarded with sightings of a kingfisher, green woodpecker, nightingale, golden oriole, and an Azure-winged magpie.

Paralleling the Togal, a tributary of the Mira River that flows into the sea in the low-key village of Vila Nova de Milfontes, the path meanders through a forest of eucalyptus, something that makes inhaling the fragrant air invigorating. A thick expanse of ferns coats the land where the tinkling of flowing water is the only sound I notice as I cross several wooden bridges over different tributaries. 

With all these sensory delights, it’s hard to resist sitting along a stream bank where a gnarled, moss-coated ash tree provides an abundant shade canopy. At one of these bucolic spots, beside Pego da Laima, I find my ideal picnic spot where the still, clear waters where I take a dip only reflect shades of green. Another stream, Ribeira da Capelinho also offers abundant shade along the shore. Otters are known to feed on lobster that reside in these waters.

As I hike carefully, not wanting to miss anything, I discover the ruins of a stone water mill once used to make flour. Then, suddenly, the ringing of cowbells pierces the air. 

Finally I come to Pego das Pias, a swimming hole that’s especially popular on weekends. Locals play backgammon, swim on a rope to jump into the water. Surroundedby rugged cliffs, Pego das Pias is referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the Alentejo.” 

My journey comes to an end at a bridge not far from the whitewashed town of Odemira where I had arranged a taxi to take me the short distance to my placid accommodation. An evocative place to spend several nights nearby is family-owned Quinta do Chocalhinho where each of the rooms is individually decorated with emphemora and furnishings that open a window into owner Luis Freitas life, whether its his contemporary art collection, or Asian antiques from his time working in Macau. The 170-some undulating acres have been in the Freitas family for almost 80 years, and are networked with paths that are perfect for mindful walking or bird watching. The owners can organize kayaking, diving and boat trips. 

* Michele James is a Connecticut-based journalist and photographer who frequently travels to Portugal.

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