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Notes from an author: Catrina Davies on Portugal's surf-battered Costa Vicentina

A return visit to Costa Vicentina throws up memories of a formative solo journey on foot, when freedom was more easily found.

By Catrina Davies
Published 10 Aug 2021, 06:07 BST
Fearless, by Catrina Davies details a solo journey busking across Europe, and is published by Summersdale ...

Fearless, by Catrina Davies details a solo journey busking across Europe, and is published by Summersdale (RRP: £9.99).

Photograph by Catrina Davies

My boyfriend and I are in sleeping bags on the tiled floor of a disused swimming pool, counting shooting stars and drinking Vinho do Alentejo from a plastic water bottle, which we filled up in a bar for €2 (£1.72). The pool is in an overgrown garden — one of many picturesque ruins along the Rota Vicentina, a long-distance hiking trail connecting Santiago do Cacém, two hours south of Lisbon, to Cabo de São Vicente, outside Sagres.

Fifteen years ago, when I was 26, I busked here from Nordkapp in Norway. Twenty thousand miles, from one end of Europe to the other, it was the adventure that inspired my first book, The Ribbons are for Fearlessness. I spent a month unwinding at Praia do Amado (‘beach of the beloved’), near Carrapateira. There were several of us there living in vans, from all over Europe. I surfed so much my eyes burnt. I’d never experienced such waves, sunshine and simplicity.

Protected by the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, the Rota Vicentina takes in Southern Europe’s last wild coast — miles of raw, west-facing, sandy beaches, much of it only accessible via dirt tracks with four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The trek offers a choice of routes: hug the rugged coast or wander inland through a rolling landscape of cork oaks, umbrella pines and sun-soaked fields ringing with the sound of sheep and goats with bells around their necks. This time around I choose the inland route walking with my boyfriend to the small town of São Luis where we say goodbye. I’m to spend the winter finishing my third book, in a wooden cabin set in the garden of a friend’s house that sits on the outskirts of a village that seems largely populated by dogs and chickens. Then, Portugal enters lockdown. Borders close. Brexit fosters uncertainty. The internet curdles my shrunken world. Unable to write, I seek comfort outside, in the open spaces of the Alentejo.

Less known than the neighbouring Algarve, and less developed, Portugal’s largest region covers a third of the country — about 10,000sq miles — yet is home to around 700,000 people, roughly the population of Leeds.

I explore the surrounding fields, where majestic cork oaks seem to stand outside of time. The only evergreen oak, with a fire-resistant outer bark that’s used to make corks for wine bottles, the leaves are constantly falling and regrowing, simultaneously giving a sense of spring and autumn. Farmers must plough around the trees as they can only be cut down if they’re dead or diseased — and even then, only with written permission from the authorities.

I ride through acres of eucalyptus on my mountain bike, emerging on the shores of hidden lakes and snaking rivers. At the coast, when storms permit, I paddle into the cold Atlantic, often the only person in the water. I make a pilgrimage to Amado when lockdown ends, just after the Portuguese government announces a new law banning wild camping in vehicles. There are too many people trying to escape the constraints of civilisation, and not enough toilets or rubbish bins. I get it, but I’m sad, too. It strikes me that freedom is more complicated than it used to be.

Back in rural Alentejo, I find a subculture of young people reversing a decades-old trend of depopulation, choosing to live close to nature and grow their own vegetables instead of pursuing the glittering rewards of capitalism. There are conversations about the drastic consequences of intensive farming in polytunnels, the problems associated with non-native eucalyptus trees.

I pick up the Rota Vicentina along high cliffs south of Praia do Malhão, where a pair of white storks nest with their chicks on a narrow pillar of rock, about 30ft offshore. It’s an impressive spot they’ve chosen, battered by wind, surrounded by crashing waves. At Vila Nova de Milfontes, I sit with my notebook at my favourite cafe, recalling those storks nurturing new life in the face of such wild and ever-changing emptiness. Here I am again, staring at the sun, burning my eyes, making my sentences, word by word, and hurling them into the void.

Fearless, by Catrina Davies details a solo journey busking across Europe, and is published by Summersdale (RRP: £9.99). It is a re-release of her first book, The Ribbons are for Fearlessness. 

Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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