One of the nicest things about our hiking weekends is being able to feast like a king without feeling the slightest tinge of guilt. We might have enjoyed a fabulous meal (chicken in mango sauce) at Vimar Restaurante last night, but it certainly didn’t mean we were going to pass on the opportunity to breakfast well. One of the reasons we returned to the Hotel Baia Crystal for a second time was its amazing buffet breakfast spread. Suffice to say we didn’t need to stop for lunch!
Our full bellies meant our first climb of the day (all steps) felt steeper than it probably should have. We’d be following the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail for the first four or five kilometres; the waymarked trail runs from Praia de Vale Centeanes in the west to Praia da Marinha in the east. The hanging valleys refer to an interesting geological quirk, which left seven narrow valleys along this coastline hanging over the edge of a cliff rather than sloping gently into the sea. It seems the sandstone cliffs eroded so rapidly that the streams emptying into the ocean didn’t have time to change their course and were left hanging high above sea level.
There is a lot of fencing along this section of coastline to keep people away from the worst of the crumbling cliffs. We passed a row of houses set slightly back and noticing some looked rather dilapidated (and in one case, empty), wondered if their proximity to the cliff edge was having an impact on their desirability.
I’m not sure about these waymarked routes. After our disastrous attempt to follow the GR11 from Peniche to Porto Novo in May, I have little confidence that the waymarks will be there on the ground when you need them. We’d just passed hanging valley number one and were shuffling along a narrow footpath when it stopped abruptly; another few steps and we’d be walking on fresh air and plummeting off the edge of the cliff (a bit like the poor truncated stream). We edged our way back, wondering how we’d missed the waymark. Yes, it was there alright … . two stripes painted on a boulder high above the main path so you’d only spot it if you weren’t looking where you were putting your feet.
Soon we were passing Farol de Alfanzina, a 15-metre lighthouse built in 1919. The interpretation board explained how its construction ‘followed the parameters of the engineering schools of the 19th century where the rational spirit was predominant’. Now I’m not sure what that means but apparently the lighthouse was so remote back then that access was difficult even for animal-drawn vehicles. It wasn’t until 1950 that the lighthouse was connected to electricity. I was interested to read on Tripadvisor that the lighthouse keeper does free tours every Wednesday afternoon from 2pm to 4pm. What a shame we can only get out at weekends.
There are some enormous sinkholes along this stretch of coast, an indication of how rapidly the waves are eroding the spectacular sandstone cliffs. On one level, it’s terrifying to think the ground we were walking on might not be here in another decade or so; however, it’s hard not to be fascinated by these vast natural caverns which punctuate the coastline, plunging through hundreds of feet of cliff to the sea. They’re all fenced off, of course, not that it stops people climbing under or over to get a closer view. I couldn’t believe my eyes when a young man with a baby strapped to his chest heaved himself over one section of fencing so he could get closer to the sinkhole edge for a photo opportunity. Minutes later, a smiling woman was standing with her back to the sinkhole for the purpose of taking a selfie, seemingly oblivious to the danger just a foot or so behind her. Moi? I’m a coward so I stay firmly behind the fence … and put up with naff photographs.
By Portuguese standards, this stretch of coastline is quite built up, though I can’t help wondering about the longevity of some of these clifftop villas. One particularly beautiful property had landscaped its gardens to incorporate the eroding cliffs, building a low-level wall around a section where the cliffs had collapsed and planting cacti along its length. It looked great – and was one way of making sure you didn’t lose any house guests over the edge – but how long before the wall itself disappeared into the abyss?
The walking had been pretty tough so far and we certainly weren’t looking for extra climbing, but at Praia do Carvalho we couldn’t resist following some steep stone steps through (this time) a man-made tunnel to bring us out on the beach (it is the only access to the beach unless you arrive by boat). It was tempting to linger here, especially when faced with re-climbing those steps, but the terrain meant we’d covered just a few miles so far … Albufeira was still a long way off!
Benagil was once a busy fishing village specialising in octopus; now the boats lining the beach are there to take tourists to the caves. In fact, Algar de Benagil is generally agreed to be the most impressive cave along this stretch of coastline, with its high cathedral-like roof and arched entrances. It’s a pretty little place. Despite decades of development in the Central Algarve, Benagil has managed to retain its sleepy, traditional feel with its whitewashed houses clinging to the cliffs.
We’d lost track of how many hanging valleys we’d seen by the time we reached Praia do Marinha. We had certainly enjoyed the trail but all that clambering up and down had taken an awful long time … and demanded an awful lot of energy. Thus, when Harri spotted a mobile shop selling cold beers at the far side of the car park, we seized the opportunity to stop and rest for a while. The resident cat colony kept us entertained; we even made friends with a pretty cat who polished off my cheese and restored my faith in tabbies.
Back on the ‘road’, we followed a series of white dots (and the occasional white arrow) for a while, wondering if there was in fact a White Dot Man as well as a Red Dot Man or if Red Dot Man had run out of red paint, used white and become White Dot Man. Or were they, in fact, rivals who used different colours? Perhaps I should explain here … last winter we discovered the clifftop trails around Albufeira had been daubed with red paint to point walkers in the right direction. We found these dots extremely helpful last winter and nicknamed their originator – and our frequent saviour – Red Paint Man. While we were debating the topic, the white dots disappeared leaving us none the wiser.
Soon, we could see the high-rise apartment blocks of Armação de Pêra and, even farther away, the water tower at Pateo. While we were now in familiar territory, we still had a considerable distance to go.
Just before we reached Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Rocha – surely the most photographed church in the Algarve – we dropped into a steep valley with a long, narrow beach extending into it. We’d been descending into valleys all weekend but what was so strange about Praia do Barranco was that there was no sign that anyone had ever lived here, fished from this beach or attempted to attract tourists. There were no ruins. Apart from a track which led to the top of the beach and the footpaths leading to the clifftops either side it was as though Algarve tourism had forgotten this place. Just to add to the sense of isolation, we were just climbing up the cliff to leave the beach when Harri spotted his lizard this year. I guess they just steer clear of the crowds!
We our second beer of the day outside our usual (very busy) bar Armação de Pêra but there wasn’t time to linger. Often we head back to Albufeira along the water’s edge along the stunning Praia Grande, but we wanted to get home before sunset if possible so we headed into the dunes and joined the stony track along the edge of Lagoa dos Salgados. Before long, we were joining more extensive boardwalks, this time not to keep us clear of eroding cliffs but to keep the wildlife below safe from human footfall.
Our timing was perfect. Despite chatting for a quick chat with new friends in the marina, we rolled into Albufeira just as the sun was setting. It had been a tough two days walking, but the incredible coastal scenery had made up for it.
After seven days solid of running and hiking, I’m looking forward to a day of rest tomorrow!