It’s a good job we’re accustomed to inclement weather and the need to change plans at the last moment because this weekend’s original hike was rained off by Storm Emma’s determination to ‘hang around’ southern Portugal (and in this instance, southern Spain too).
We’d been planning our four-day border walk for weeks; Harri had even taken two extra days off work to accommodate the extra miles. Our intention was to walk the 65 kilometres along the Portuguese side of the Guadiana river from Vila Real de Santo António to Alcoutim over two days, cross (by ferry) to Sanlúcar de Guadiana (home of the first cross-border zip wire in the world) before continuing to Ayamonte then back to Vila Real via a second ferry crossing. This four-day hike would have involved two very long days – one 30-miler and one 22-miler – on undulating terrain with little in the way of shelter.
After much deliberation – and several changes of heart – we eventually cancelled the first two nights’ accommodation (we just lost one deposit) and decided to limit our walk to two days on the Spanish side of the river (the hotel we’d booked charges in full for cancellations/no shows). It was a shame as Harri’s wanted to do this walk for ages; however, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we had at least managed to walk some of the Portuguese section last weekend with Jörg, we’d visited Alcoutim previously and there would be other opportunities to complete the hike.
Despite the forecast (not great), we set off in shorts (with our waterproofs packed) and walked the 6.5 kilometres to Ferreiras where we caught the train to Vila Real. At the station, we got chatting to a lovely English lady called Sue, who has been living in the Algarve for 44 years (her husband is the photographer Michael Howard … I only wish I could take photographs like his!). Anyway, Sue was cycling to Huelva with two friends who boarded the train at Boliqueime. Sue had asked Harri if he’d help her lift her bike onto the train (it’s an awful big step) and then help her secure it on a high hooking device, so he ended up helping the other ladies at their station too (and off again at Vila Real). For those who believe in karma, his gallantry was to be repaid in shiploads later in the day.
Two hours after boarding the train, we finally arrived in Vila Real just 80 kilometres away (I warn you, travellers need patience in bucketfuls on the Algarve railway). The weather forecast had been disappointing at best, so we were astounded to step out into a warm and sunny morning. Waving farewell to our new cycling friends, we walked the short distance to the river in time for the 11.30am ferry over to Ayamonte. Last week near Odeleite, the Guadiana had appeared deep blue; here at its turbulent estuary, the murky brown waters of fourth-longest river on the Iberian Peninsula didn’t look very different to Newport’s River Usk.
The ferry headed a little way upriver to reach Ayamonte (unlike Alcoutim and Sanlúcar, the towns of Vila Real and Ayamonte are not directly opposite one another) and fourteen minutes later we were docking again. In the distance, the cable-stayed design of the Guadiana International Bridge connecting Portugal and Spain looked like a smaller version of the Second Severn Crossing. This was our first visit to Spain since we walked a section of the GR11 from the French-Spanish border to Barcelona in April 2016 –unfortunately, our language skills hadn’t improved since then.
Having crossed an international border, we were keen to spot the differences between Portugal and Spain. The first thing we noticed was the price of petrol – about 30 cents a litre cheaper than across the border. Harri thought there was more traffic around too, perhaps a reflection of the high car and petrol prices in Portugal. This being Sunday lunchtime, there were plenty of people in a square packed with ornately tiled benches. We caught the tail end of a strange procession … a canopy tightly packed with shuffling people in everyday clothes was moving its way through the narrow streets. We guessed it must be linked to the fact it was Holy Week in Ayamonte.
We’d barely started walking before we arrived at a large interpretation board hailing the start of the Camino Natural del Guadiano (GR 114) which extends all the way from Ayamonte to Laguna Blanca (Albacete) in 44 stages. This being Spain and not Portugal, there wasn’t a word of any language on the board other than Spanish, but we later managed to glean online that stages 1-40 of the GR 114 are continuous. After that, the Guadiana passes back into Portugal so the trail doesn’t pick up again in Spain until Stage 41. We were walking stage 44 (20.6 kilometres), the first stage if walking south to north and one that would lead us to Villablanca and our overnight accommodation.
For the first few kilometres we followed a level path that stayed close to the river, the mudflats and the gusting wind. While the distant views to Castro Marim and the Algarve hills were impressive, for me the lower reaches of the Guadiana compared unfavourably with the delightful scenes higher upriver at Foz de Odeleite and Alcoutim. We passed a young man playing a trumpet-like instrument alongside a picnic bench and we wondered if he’d been sent outside to practise so his family could enjoy a peaceful Sunday afternoon!
Soon we were heading inland, passing some light industrial units on the outskirts of Ayamonte before crossing a large, waterlogged plain to the motorway beyond. We crossed below the road and the landscape immediately improved dramatically in terms of its scenic quality and deteriorated in terms of level walking (there was very little!).
At this time of year, Spain is an hour ahead of Portugal, and Harri’s iPad added the hour automatically. Not antipating this, Harri added another hour in his head and was then concerned that it was getting on for 3pm and we hadn’t made as much progress as he’d expected. Fortunately, one of us is on the ball!
Our route took us uphill and through a deliciously-scented pine forest (with a gorgeous steep-sided ravine to one side) before plunging us down to a wide flood plain that was … flooded. The river Dique had all but disappeared as a distinct entity in this wet and marshy terrain. Fortunately, apart from a few puddles, the track across the plain was fine and we were soon trudging up the steep hill on the far side and past our first urbanisation of the day La Guerrela. Maybe it’s me, but I can’t understand why anyone would prefer to live in a purpose-built complex boasting block after block of identical properties than in an established town or village with a centre and a sense of history.
The track levelled off briefly before plunging downhill again. It was now marked as a camino rural which in layman’s terms meant the road surface had deteriorated so badly that its outer edges were collapsing into deep gullies on either side of the track. From here on, the track’s surface and surrounding scrubland landscape changed very little, other than frequent downhill plunges followed by steep uphill sections. The wind was increasing too and the morning sunshine began to feel like a distant memory.
Despite its name, the trail didn’t stick particularly close to the Guadiana and for several kilometres we barely had a glimpse of the great river. Eventually, we dropped back to river level, where our progress was hampered by an ankle-deep puddle stretching the width of the track and right up to the fencing (another difference between Spain and Portugal is that much of the scrubland here is fenced off as in the UK; in Portugal, most of the countryside is open and unfenced). There was no option but to take off our shoes and socks and wade across.
Now the flooded river running alongside us and across most of the adjacent land was the Arroyo Grande, which looked just as mucky as the Guadiana. Our luck had held for most of the afternoon, but now the storm clouds were gathering overhead. A little while back we’d got our first glimpse of the sprawling Villablanca yet we didn’t seem to be getting much closer.
Apart from a few spots of rain throughout the afternoon, we’d been lucky with the weather. Frustratingly, with Villablanca just a couple of kilometres away, it started to pour down. We looked at one other in despair. We were walking across a high-level plateau with distant views in all directions – there was absolutely nowhere to shelter from the elements up here. We were resigned to getting soaked when everything changed … it seemed Harri’s earlier kindness to strangers was about to pay off. A four-wheel drive vehicle had passed us a few minutes earlier and the woman driver had waved a friendly hola. It seems she had been driving to Villablanca with her mother (we’re guessing their relationship as neither spoke English) and, not wishing to leave us to our watery fate, had decided to turn back and rescue us. These lovely people not only drove us into town but insisted on taking us to our hotel, a kilometre outside in another direction. Had they not stopped, we’d have been drenched through in no time at all. What a lovely gesture from complete strangers.
Though we didn’t see it at its best, the Terrablanca turned out to be a delightful rural hotel, which we guessed had originally been a farm. Its slightly-out-of-town location might have been an issue if the rain had continued all evening; however, thankfully we managed to get back to town between showers and enjoyed some excellent tapas and a decent amount of lager in a lively Spanish bar for a fraction of the price we’d have paid in the Algarve.
More Algarve Hiking by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon in digital and print format.