Portugal's wild coast looks pretty placid where the Mira River flows lazily into the Atlantic Ocean. A few fishing boats bob in the gentle current beneath an ivy-clad fortress built in the 16th century to fend off pirates from North Africa. Offshore, only the occasional breaker ruffles the calm water on this mid-May morning.
On a bank above the river, the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes feels more Greek than Portuguese with its whitewashed houses, red-tiled roofs and blue-trimmed doorways. A few lounging cats add to a Mediterranean ambiance.
My husband and I have come to this southwest corner of the country to escape the hordes of tourists who have recently discovered the Portuguese side of the Iberian Peninsula, and to experience where the Portuguese themselves like to holiday.
"You don't find (this) in Spain or France," according to our driver Bernardo Andrade. "This is the last of Europe's wild coast. Twenty-kilometre stretches with nothing. Italy, Croatia, all the southern countries where you think of going for summer vacation (have) hotels, golf courses, houses, mass tourism."
The same thing would undoubtedly have happened here too had the government not protected 110 kilometres of rugged coastline along with 75,000 hectares of pine and cork forests, mountainous ridges, and deep, green valleys where wild boar still abound.
It's called the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park and we'll spend five days here cycling from Milfontes to Cape St. Vincent at the very southwestern tip of the country and the European continent.
Before leaving Vila Nova de Milfontes, we stop at the town market where the region's riches are on full display. Juicy red strawberries nestle between bags of fat green fava beans and rounds of soft cheese. Seafood caught that morning chills on beds of ice, including the fearsomely fanged black scabbardfish.
Our first day is an easy 23 km, which means we have plenty of time to stop and observe white storks. This is said to be the only place in the world where they nest on cliffs. When we arrive at the century-old Cape Sardao lighthouse (built facing inland by mistake!) we spot several moms tending their fluffy chicks in large nests on the most precipitous of cliff faces.
As we follow our GPS routing each day, we enjoy a pleasant mix of coastline and countryside. People are few and far between in this sparsely populated region. One day, when we stop to photograph some cork trees, we're surprised to see a local man herding cows. He's carrying a walking stick and wearing a brown sheepskin vest that's clearly tailored for his outdoor needs. It has broad shoulders and is short in front but reaches almost to the ground in the back—perfect for sitting on. Except for his jeans and plaid shirt, he could be from a different era.
But Portugal is most definitely in the 21st century. In March of this year, it generated enough renewable energy to power the whole country. We see some of that green power on display one day when cycling a ridge under gently whirring wind turbines.
Thankfully, the wind is behind us every day, a welcome boost for someone (like me) who might prefer an electric bike on some of the hills around here.
Reaching the village of Aljezur—famous for its purple sweet potatoes—we stop to caffeinate before attempting the uphill climb to a medieval castle occupied by the Moors from the 10th to 13th centuries.
Approaching the Atlantic once more, we stop at Bordeira Beach to climb the sand dunes (on foot) and watch a lone kite surfer. A few kilometres further on, a couple dozen surfers are catching waves off another beach that's just as pristine.
Later that day we reach the Pedralva Slow Village Hotel. At one time, more than 100 people lived in Pedralva, but after the 1974 revolution, young people started moving to cities to work. By 2006, only nine villagers remained.
That's when a few entrepreneurs from Lisbon saw an opportunity to buy and restore many of the abandoned houses for a tourism project. "We didn't know who they belonged to. We didn't know where they were," said Carlos Saraiva, Pedralva's manager, explaining they tracked down 200 descendents of the former owners and negotiated to buy 31 houses—pretty much the entire village. Our gleaming white one-bedroom cottage on a cobblestone street is the most charming place we'll stay all week.
At lunchtime on our final day, we realize we've yet to try percebes (goose barnacles). In a small restaurant in Vila do Bispo a waiter shows us how to squeeze fleshy bits from what look like sharp claws protruding from snake skin. They're the ugliest things I've ever eaten and smell "like a mermaid's burp" according to one person, but they're addictively delicious.
Sated, we climb back on our bikes for our final 14 km. My husband has been complaining about how often I've been stopping to take photos so I decide to focus on cycling and let the scenery whiz by.
Then we come to a plateau where yellow mounds of gorse intermingle with purple camphorated thyme and stretch to the horizon. Even pictures are not enough.
I dismount, wander into the wildflower meadow and find a bare spot to sit down. It's no bed of roses—the gorse is coarse and prickly. But as I inhale the scent of thyme and listen to bees buzzing around me, I think how lucky I am to be right here, right now.