Well, it’s certainly been a March to remember here in Albufeira. Everyone we talk to tells us that this inclement weather is NOT normal, that spring is usually well underway by now with temperatures warming up nicely. The only consolation for being at the receiving end of four Atlantic storms in less than three weeks – and having our weekend hiking plans constantly thwarted – is knowing just how desperately depleted Portugal’s reservoirs were and how much the country needed this rain (and, of course, knowing weather conditions have been much, much worse for our family and friends back home in Wales).
If the transformed landscape here in Albufeira is anything to go by, those reservoirs must surely be overflowing by now. Having grown accustomed to Algarve’s arid landscape, it’s been difficult getting used to the lush vegetation that now surrounds us. The dusty, bare slopes on the far side of the marina are now verdant and abundant with plant life, and wide puddles line the tracks. Dry riverbeds have become roaring torrents, overgrown hedges obstruct pavements and the footpaths are so muddy they wouldn’t look out of place in the Welsh hills. It’s a far cry from the balmy spring days we imagined we’d be enjoying, but at least I no longer feel guilty if I linger under the shower.
Suffice to say, we have done very little hiking. In fact, apart from a ten-mile circular to São Rafael and back on Friday, we haven’t done any real walking since our recent jaunt to Spain. It’s got to the point when we are choosing to stay close to home rather than risk another soaking! Which is why today we did the unthinkable and left home without any clear idea of where we were heading, or how many miles we expected to cover. Harri has become so disheartened about planning hikes that we’re later forced to abandon that he just decided not to bother. It doesn’t help that the weather forecast changes from day to day, making forward planning nigh on impossible (we were late setting off today because of an unexpected heavy downpour first thing). Our vague plan was to meander in the direction of the lagoon at Salgados, then make a decision on whether to keep our walk short or continue to Alcantarilha based on the weather. How we would get back to Albufeira from there was anyone’s guess, but we’d prepared for the worst and had packed our raincoats.
Alcantarilha is but a stone’s throw from Albufeira, situated just a few kilometres inland from Armação de Pêra, and yet we had never been there. I had two reasons for wishing to rectify the situation: first, this little town’s main tourist attraction is its Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of Bones. Secondly, my good friend Debbie, who has accompanied me on many a running adventure this winter, is in the process of buying a large apartment here (though sadly the sale won’t be completed until after we leave) and I guess I was just curious to see where she’ll be living.
Away from the coast, the air was surprisingly warm and we were soon stripping off our fleeces. Unfortunately, the moment we hit the coast at Salgados the weather took a turn for the worse and the wind picked up. Getting from one end of the boardwalks to the other was hard work as we were pummelled continuously by strong winds coming from inland. The Ribeira de Alcantarilha – usually an inoffensive little stream – runs across a shallow salt marsh area to the coast. The point where the river meets the beach is usually easy to cross; however when Harri’s parents visited last February a combination of high tide and strong winds had forced us to walk upriver for a kilometre or so until we reached a footbridge. True, the footpath had been a bit boggy in places, but we had managed to keep our feet dry by leaving it occasionally for drier ground.
Now, as we gazed across the extensive wetland area from the gravel track which ran parallel to the stream, it was clear there was no dry ground. The entire area was flooded and awash with seabirds, including egrets and even a wading stork. When we reached the road bridge, the flooding was even more evident, with large sections of riverside land under water. Thank goodness, Harri had anticipated the flooded footpaths and, for once, his preferred route was on piste.
We soon reached Alcantarilha, where the painted electric boxes provided evidence we were now in Silves municipality. My first impression was that the town was as sleepy as the neighbouring Pêra, although Harri was quick to point out that most of the modern properties were on the opposite side of town, while we were heading through the narrow cobbled streets to the main church.
Capela dos Ossos is a popular – if somewhat macabre – tourist attraction and there were several benches in the praça in front of Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora da Conceição, presumably for the benefit of those who need to sit down afterwards.
Frustratingly, we’d barely walked into the tiny sixteenth-century chapel when a queue of four immediately formed outside. Harri, being less intrigued by the macabre than me, indicated there were people waiting and immediately stepped out into the sunshine. I cussed a bit under my breath, but had no option but to follow. Thankfully, when we returned ten minutes later, there was no sign of them.
I wasn’t sure how I’d react to this strange place. After all, the idea of building walls and a ceiling from 1500 human skulls and thigh bones sounds like something from a horror movie, right? Fortunately, there was no foul play involved in collecting all those bones –the skeletons were removed from the old churchyard cemetery, presumably due to lack of space.
Despite feeling nervous beforehand, now I was gazing at those hollow-eyed faces, I actually found it quite a spiritual experience. A crypt in Italy bears the memento mori: As you are, we once were. As we are, you shall be one day. There was no similar message here (well, not that we noticed), but it seemed the role of these long dead individuals was to remind the living that our time on this earth is brief and finite and how, if we wish to live rich, fulfilled lives. we should never lose sight of our own mortality.
Knowing very little about such places, I was surprised to learn that the chapel in Alcantarilha is just one of six in Portugal, the most famous being in Évora (if you’re interesting, this article is really interesting). When my youngest daughter mentioned that she’d visited the Sedlec Ossuary in Prague, I was even more intrigued. In fact, the Czech ossuary makes Alcantarilha’s stacks of leg bones interspersed with skulls seem rather unambitious in design terms (though you could argue that it holds its long-time occupants in higher respect). Bizarrely, bones from the 40,000 and 70,000 skeletons at Sedlec have been used to create garlands and a vast chandelier. I’m really not sure I’d want my mortal remains to dangle from a ceiling for eternity! There are also chapels of bones in Italy, Spain and France, though strangely not in Britain (or not that I can establish).
Having satiated my curiosity, we left Alcantarilha on a lovely historic cobbled road, which meandered past a communal well and washroom before reaching a modern bridge over the fast-flowing Alcantarilha stream. Harri had given me the choice of retracing our tracks or attempting a convoluted and therefore longer route back to Albufeira via the countryside and Guia. With Alcantarilha on one side of the busy N125 and Guia on the other, his challenge was to get us to our destination safely without risking more than a few metres of road walking and this he achieved brilliantly for, puddles and mud aside, our return route through mostly agricultural land was a delight.
There was a moment, when we thought we were about to be savaged by some ferocious-looking dogs; however, as we got close they sloped into the grounds of a warehouse (and continued to bark at us through the fence!). The other problem was circumnavigating the vast puddles we kept encountering … neither of us fancied a repeat of our Spanish adventure when we were forced to take our shoes and socks off twice. Luckily, Harri quickly worked out that as these tracks were used by farm vehicles which, over time, had caused the track to sink where the tyres passed, the centre of the track was likely to be less sunken and the puddle shallower. Using this strategy, we successfully ‘waded’ through several puddles of mammoth proportions without getting our Salamon-clad feet wet.
Harri had done a fine job of avoiding the N125 and we barely skirted its edge before we were entering Guia via the historic part of town, where we were surprised to realise there was a river, a covered well and the remains of a Roman bridge.
Six hours after setting off, we limped into Cerro Grande at around 5pm (quite literally in my case because a bad sock/shoe combination [when will I learn?] meant my little toe had sprung a painful blister). In spite of the weather – and not having a definite route planned – we had somehow managed to cover seventeen miles.
And if you’re interested in following our route, here’s a link to the mapping.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300 km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon and is priced at £2.99 (Kindle edition) and £5.99 (paperback).
Never too old to backpack: More Algarve hiking by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon and is priced at £1.99 (Kindle edition) and £3.99 (paperback)