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Day 2, Vale Seco to Cercal do Alentejo, April 22

Historic windmill.
Body paragraph

The morning in Vale Seco started cloudy, but at least behind the cloud, I could see the sun.  Perhaps today, the Dry Valley would be a little less wet. The birds were very chatty all night long in this the most rural of overnights—even more so than at home on rural Salt Spring Island. My favourite start to the day is a cup of tea and the kitchen here made that possible ahead of heading up to breakfast in the main lodge area. A cup of tea is also a good companion to journal writing.

Sheep and goats have been plentiful already along the trail and of course with those animals come the dogs that guard and herd them. The barking is loud, but so far the dogs have always been chained or fenced or sometimes both, which as a walker is a bit of a relief. And strangely enough, the path often seemed to turn just at the barking dogs. We joked that it would be a good title for a mystery, “Turn Left at the Barking Dog.”

After our less than stellar record with a three day walk in Spain’s Alpujarras, we have really stepped up our waymarking. It wasn’t that the marking wasn’t good in Spain, it was just that we didn’t really know what the various marks meant. So on this trip we were primed. For the first day or two, we made a point of noting any turn out loud, ensuring that we were on the correct path (and also seeing that other paths had the “X” wrong way sign). The path is incredibly well marked making our guide and map almost unnecessary but still it feels good to have them, and I often took the time to read the next day’s route in the evening so as to know what to expect in terms of duration and difficulty—a help in planning how early to start. At major junctions there is often a kilometre sign and that can be inspiring to know how far you have come.

Yesterday we were in cork oak forest for a lot of the way. Trees were all numbered with a single digit. We assumed that marked the year that they had last been harvested. Many were huge and lichen covered. We only saw a few pigs—I guess being spring it was not acorn season—and in fact, very few farms at all until closer to the end. Cork oak gave way to eucalyptus plantations. It smells good but is taking a toll environmentally. The long living oak that can be harvested at regular intervals and provides for the pigs is being replaced by the quick growing monocrop. But both can be handy for the walker in need of bathroom break.

Cork oak tree with the number 7 painted on it.
Recently harvested cork oak.

Breakfast at Moinhos do Paneiro was a communal affair at big tables. As well as the Swedish couple, there were three other couples who we would continue to see over the next couple of days. We tucked into a good breakfast with the only lack being that it was instant coffee. For a rather higher end place, that seemed quite shocking, especially to the Germans. I contented myself with more tea, remembering that we would hit a little town not too far in the distance.

Our boots were mainly dry when we headed out at 9:30, stopping to take lots of photos of the old windmills. While the clouds lasted, there was no rain and subsequently so much less mud. At the village of Vale das Eguas we stopped for a much needed coffee but then quickly got going again. We passed beautiful fields full of yellow lupines, more cork oak and stands of eucalyptus. There were lots of sheep and also some cows and for the first time, I really noticed the different timbre of their bells with the low tones of the larger cow bells and the higher, lighter notes of the sheep.

Sunday traffic meant more use of the paths, including dirt bikes and some jeeps. But everyone was respectful of walkers and when we stepped off the broad track to let vehicles go by, we were always greeted with friendly, appreciative waves.

My new strategy for easily finding the hotels we had booked was to plot them on our offline Open Street Map before heading out each morning. Sometimes we had an address or I would find them online on the Rota Vicentina map and then transfer that marker so we could find them offline.  The act of doing this would also help me be aware of where our hotel would be located in relation to major landmarks and whether it would be on our way into town and before we reached the centre. At the end of a day of walking, you really don’t want to go out of your way en route to your hotel.

Arriving in Cercal do Alentejo, I had a pretty good idea of where we were going and it was our first experience of seeing that the way marks would continue through a town being painted on walls, fences or street signs. We headed down the right street but couldn’t seem to find our hotel. We did see a very blue building and our hotel was called Casazul (Blue House) M&B, but there was no sign so we walked on by. We came upon two quite elderly women who were on their way into the seniors centre, but were game to walk back with us to the blue building that was indeed our hotel but under major renovations and so without a sign.

It looked like the hotel (47 € with breakfast) was being gutted and totally redone and our room seemed brand new, with everything in crisp white and bright blue. In what would become our routine, we showered (alternating who got the first shower), donned our non-hiking clothes and headed out to explore. Cercal was a cute little town with a number of cafes around the central traffic circle. We stopped at one for pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and tea before wandering a bit further afield—although there really wasn’t much to see. Our afternoon routine also included picking up fruit for the following day, and topping up our supplies of nuts and dried fruit when needed.

The hotel had recommended a restaurant, but when we walked by it looked very bar-like and was quite loud so we kept looking for other options but couldn’t really find anything else that seemed promising. So we went back, and as we would soon learn, the front was the bar and now that it was 7 the dining room in back was open. It turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. The matronly server who reminded me of my long dead great aunt, basically just asked if you wanted fish or meat and then proceeded to more or less inform you what you were going to have. In our case it started with bread, sheep cheese and olives, then delicious vegetable soup that was a staple and usually very good, followed by breaded fish, rice pilaf, French fries and salad. The food just kept coming—including more fish when we’d valiantly made it through our firsts. We declined dessert being more than full, but then were brought a little bit of cake and candies instead of dessert. All of this with a ¼ litre of red wine was 25 €.

The hotel was so new that they hadn’t quite fixed a glitch with the emergency lighting. But the helpful staff provided cardboard and tape so that we could somewhat dim the green glow and drift off to a well deserved sleep after a pretty perfect day.