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Nature-Based Outings in The Alentejo

With its undeveloped beaches, and grand expanses of agricultural lands, cork forests and wetlands, the Alentejo is a gem for nature-lovers. 

Serra de São Mamede Natural Park

The Serra de Sao Mamede Natural Park is thick with cork, olive and chestnut trees. Wildflowers, including orchids and irises, are abundant. Bird watchers will delight in the opportunities to spot nightingales, golden orioles, eagles, and griffon vultures, to name a few of the more than 100 species that have been recorded. Several well delineated ancient cobblestone paths offer the opportunity to hike through the wilderness to, for example, one of the most picturesque medieval towns in Portugal, Marvão that hovers over the vast plains from its lofty perch atop a granite crest that’s a mere 10 miles from the Spanish border. (The round-trip hilly trek from the town of Portagem to this treasure of a walled town that seems to hug the clouds is close to five mile long, but is worth the effort.)

Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano - Walking the Fisherman’s Trail 

A sandy path winds atop tall sea cliffs with nary a hotel or resort in sight. The only sound that accompanies me along the 11-mile trek from Porto Corvo to the harbor of Vila Nova de Milfontes is that of the waves crashing against the rocky shore far below. Occasionally, I hear the whistling of a lark and spot a peregrine falcon soaring overhead. Sandpipers and yellow-legged gulls skitter about the sand. This blue and green marked trail, a mere ribbon in places, is thick with sand, making the journey even more challenging than its length. 

Paralleling the coast the entire way, the windswept Fisherman’s Trail couldn’t be more aptly named. It’s common to find fishermen throwing a line off a cliff edge, hoping to snag rock bream or dorado. On one stretch, a fisherman toting a sac scampers down a precipitous cliff in hopes of collecting tasty barnacles that thrive in the turbulent intertidal zone. Nearby, another climbs down a rickety wooden ladder, throwing sardines into the water as bait for sea bass. 

The dune-coated landscape is blanketed with a cornucopia of colorful wildflowers in hues of pink, purple and yellow, such as purple star thistle, blue pimpernel, and purple sand stock. With wild thyme and maritime pines peppering the expanse, the air is redolent with a sweet fragrance, and underfoot are pine cones. 

Small swaths of sand hunkered at the base of the cliffs are each reached by scrambling down a rugged trail. These are secluded little beaches that offer plenty of privacy for a picnic or a place to sun. Ahead of me, I spot a family hefting picnic baskets as they navigate the path to one of these sandy plots that looks particularly appealing, swathed in a bit of shade, thanks to the high cliff walls. 

As I amble down the sandy trail, I stop at several long stretches of sand where surfers decked out in wet suits gravitate. With its waves reaching heights of nine to 13 feet, Malhao is one of these beaches. Others, such as Praia de Ilha and Aivados, not only attract surfers but also picnickers. 

Back on the cliff tops, I notice a white stork nest with two chicks precariously placed atop a stone monolith that rises from the sea. Overhead, another stork flutters about, finally landing in a nest that’s built on the cliff’s rocky ledges.

After soaking up this wild landscape, rich in birdlife and flora, I finally reach the harbor of Vila Nova de Milfontes that’s positioned where the placid Mira River meets the turbulent Atlantic. This low-key village is blessed with undeveloped beaches flanking both sides of this waterway near the mouth of the river, which is also a hot spot for bird watching. 

Sado Estuary Nature Reserve 

The Sado Estuary Nature Reserve is defined by the eponymous river that wanders across the Alentejo’s plains from the Serra da Vigia, eventually, after some 110 miles, flowing into the sea. More than 200 bird species can be found in this estuary that’s replete with salt flats, marshes, and grass-covered dunes. White stork nests pepper the landscape where rice grows atop platforms. A most unexpected sighting is a colony of dolphins swimming at the mouth of the river. (It’s surprising given that dolphins are rarely found in freshwater.) Smack in the middle of the estuary is Moinho de Maré da Mouriscas where a bird observatory offers the opportunity to spot, depending on the season, cormorants, flamingos and spoonbills. (Bring binoculars.)

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

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