When you walk at high altitude - hiking through a mountain range, say - seasoned walkers claim the trick is to go slowly. It gives your body time to acclimatise to the thin air. When my husband and I went walking through south-west Portugal, we set an unhurried pace for a different reason. We simply had nowhere to get to.
We were following the Rota Vicentina, a 450-kilometre network of trails through what's been described as "Europe's empty corner". The paths trace the Atlantic from Santiago do Cacém, two hours south of Lisbon, to Cape St. Vincent, Portugal's most south-westerly point. Rural farmland is punctuated by the occasional village and miles of pristine, rugged coastline are wondrously devoid of development. Other travellers are scarce. As we ambled along the windswept cliffs we marvelled at the many small coves and beaches below, their smooth sand unblemished by a single footprint.
There's very little here to anchor an itinerary; we were never walking to anywhere in particular. Instead, we soaked in the environment until we were saturated with fresh air and a sense of boundless space. In the evenings, over a cheap dinner of grilled sardines or octopus and a carafe of Vinho Verde, we would pick out a section of the trail for the next day. The two main paths - the coastal Fishermen's Trail and the inland Historical Way - are divided into bite-sized portions which can be mixed and matched into a personalised route. One morning we stood at the edge of the continent, the salty wind in our faces and the sound of the Atlantic smashing itself against the rocks in our ears. That afternoon we followed an unpaved country road through verdant pastures, exploring the crumbling ruins of an old farmhouse as disinterested cows lazily flicked their tails around us.
The Rota Vicentina was created in 2012 to preserve one of the last coastal wildernesses in southern Europe, and to inject economic energy into Portugal's poorest region. Urgent and important goals, and yet the newly established tourist industry displays remarkable restraint. The landscape hasn't been transformed by visitors' centres and hotels. Rather, simple wooden signposts in the sand guide you around the next headland, and a network of small, independent guesthouses provide respite for tired feet.
Along the Circular Paths.
On our last day, our hosts Fabio and Barbara at Maravilha da Costa B&B served us a simple but delicious breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, bread, ham and cheese. As we sat down to eat we couldn't help but smile - each slice of cheese had been cut into the shape of a butterfly. It was a small gesture but we were thoroughly charmed by it, as we were by everything else in that unassuming region, that forgotten pocket of Portugal.