Seven years ago, southwest Portugal unveiled a network of walking trails, Rota Vicentina, that traces the wild and preserved coastline between the city of Santiago do Cacém and the Cape of St Vincent. Comprising the Historical Way, the Fishermen’s Trail and several Circular Routes, it totals 280 miles and follows a route once used by shepherds and fishermen to journey the southwest coast of Alentejo and the western Algarve with its raw and wild beauty.
Visitors can follow in their footsteps, hiking through fragrant forests, expanses of grass and shrubs and colorful fields of heather and rosemary. Along the way, you take in the chirping of the birds, the hum of insects and seabird song. This summer, the travel association that manages Rota Vicentina just launched a new program that spotlights the region’s people, who all have their own stories to tell and share.
The newfangled Touro Azul (“Blue Bull” in Portuguese) program features 15 tours curated to blend what Marta Cabral, director of Rota Vicentina, outlines as southwest Portugal’s main values: “the people, the landscape, the nature and the culture.”
These new tours offer a hands-on, intimate tourism experience that locals benefit from, too. Careful focus is placed on social sustainability. “The local culture and identity need to be part of the tourism offer,” explains Cabral, “in order to become economically stronger and also to add important value to the visitor’s experience”. Tour highlights range from cooking freshly picked ingredients in a local’s home and visiting rammed-earth houses to tangoing in a farmhouse and listening to viola campaniça music in a village church.
Touro Azul tour designer Madalena Victorino, who also works as a choreographer, cultural programmer and teacher, collaborated with local artisans and residents to create a variety of content. “All the 15 paths are very special. Some tours look to the interior land and others connect with the water and the ocean,” notes Victorino. “Some tours include one very special person who guides the group through their life in that particular place, while others feature a curated collection of people with different insights, who together offer a complete view of a certain place.”
The Zaia tour is a great example of the many nuances that the Touro Azul program showcases. It presents a visit to a countryside farmhouse, a stroll to the sea with the farmhouse owner Nídia and her many animals, including horses, wild boar and dogs, and a tango-paired neighborhood soiree. Bonding with locals and a seafood dinner top off this extraordinary intimate experience, capping at eight people (with eight as the participants’ minimum age).
Touro Azul also has family options, like the Aurora tour, featuring a hike across the lands of Olho Branco, Amieira, Almarjanito and Calçada. Walking through a forest with wildflowers and ancient cork trees allows you to explore local legends and rural life in Portugal. Visitors are hosted by a farming family, who offer vegetable picking in their garden to snack on, along with fruit, goat cheese, fresh bread and carob jam. Children can collect pebbles, flowers and natural pigments for homemade postcards to send or keep as a memento. This tour hosts up to 15 people, has no age limit and includes train transport.
The Ajudada tour is named after an expression that denotes the art of helping each other, followed by eating and celebrating. True to its name, this tour is for those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Together with the organic farmer and traditional music singer Ana, visitors sow, plant and harvest ingredients. The group then cooks the fruits of their labor in Ana’s home. All the while – traditional work songs are sung accompanied by harmonica music. The tour hosts up to 16 people, age eight and up.
Touro Azul offers an experience for everyone. “Each program is rich in content, experiences and people,” adds Cabral. “It’s much more than your typical tour; each one is unique and has a soul.”
Touro Azul tours last between two and seven hours and range in difficulty levels. Tour prices vary; some include transportation and food. Group sizes run from six to 25 people; each tour is arranged in Portuguese and English. Comfortable, sun-protective clothing is always recommended since the program presents southwest Portugal alfresco. Though these tours run year-round, visitors should keep in mind the season and area of their visit: inland summer temperatures average over 30 °C and make for crowded beaches, winter sees many rainy days with temperatures staying above 11 °C, while fall and spring are mild.
The wilds of southwest Portugal encompass landmarks from white-sand beaches and sea coves to rugged cliffs and dirt hiking paths. While natural beauty is no doubt essential to the program, Touro Azul is people-focused. These tours aim to give nature a human face and create respect for the local people, their identity and their own unique way of storytelling. A personalized experience for visitors and a chance for locals who shape the land to present themselves, Touro Azul functions as a tourism-driven cultural exchange.
“With this program, you get a unique chance to learn about farming, fishing, the Portuguese aristocracy, the boom of big industry in fascist Portugal, the life of black bees who live in the ocean cliffs…” explains Victorino. “You encounter people who are part of the immense story that makes up this southern part of Europe, each of them offering a view of their land and a passion they nurture for it.”
This unique access to fascinating local people, curated and crafted with cultural sensitivity, is coupled with some of Europe’s most striking and dramatic landscapes. With their Touro Azul (Blue Bull) program, Rota Vicentina has hit the bullseye.