We’d heard it raining heavily overnight; however, the sun was shining as we squelched our way across Hotel Rural Terrablanca‘s lawn in search of breakfast. The lone duck that had been wandering around in the rain when we arrived was now fast asleep next to the swimming pool, its head tucked under a wing. The poor thing was clearly lost and mistaking the swimming pool for a pond.
We ate alone in a vast dining room (which Harri surmised was the original farm’s barn) and agreed we’d made the right choice in coming to Spain. Last night, we’d enjoyed some excellent tapas and beer in a lively bar/restaurant in Villablanca at very Spanish prices, i.e. considerably cheaper than in the Algarve, and judging from the sunshine, it seemed the weather was going to be kinder to us today.
It was sunny when we set off, but windy and not particularly warm. We headed uphill, passing small farms and orange groves but no people. Yesterday, we’d covered the last few kilometres into Villablanca by car, which meant our route was unfamiliar for the first half hour or so. The scrubby landscape was completely open, leaving walkers and cyclists horribly exposed to the elements. Had we not had the good fortune to be offered a lift into Villablanca yesterday, there’s no doubt we would have been soaked through in no time at all.
We soon found ourselves discussing borders again, which along with time travel and parallel universes constitute some of Harri’s favourite conversation topics. He reminded me how for centuries most of the Iberian Peninsula had formed part of the Moorish territory known as Al-Andalas (hence Andalusia) and it was only over time (and the subsequent conquering of the two lands by the Castilians and the Portuguese) that the countries (and cultures) diverged.
Having abandoned our original plan to walk up the Guadiana on the Portuguese side, cross by ferry from Alcoutim to Sanlúcar then head north through Spain back to Ayamonte due to Storm Emma, Harri had yesterday toyed with the idea of catching a bus or taxi to San Silvestre de Guzmán farther upriver so we could extend today’s walking. The only issue with that idea was whether or not the various streams on route would be passable (we’d walked a little out of our way yesterday in an attempt to gauge the situation, but the undulating nature of the track had obscured anything other than the immediate landscape). In the end, we decided it made more sense to walk straight to Ayamonte than to introduce the possibility of stream wading into today’s itinerary.
Harri pointed out Azinhal high in the Algarvian hills and we reminisced about last weekend’s lovely weather. While I’d liked Villablanca itself, our walking on the other side of the Guadiana in Portugal had been far more varied and enjoyable than this endlessly undulating track with no landmarks or communities to speak of.
Perhaps it was optimistic, but we were hoping yesterday’s puddle might have subsided a little, thus enabling us to continue without removing our trail shoes. From a distance, it seemed our wish had been granted; however, when we got near we saw there were still several inches of water spanning the track. Undeterred, we took off our shoes and socks and paddled through the water, which was far colder than I recalled. This time, we didn’t have the convenience of a stone bench on the far side so we trudged on for a while in flip flops (Harri) and Tevas (me), splashing mud up our legs but hoping our feet would dry off in the wind.
With the Guadiana in close proximity, it was getting colder and blustier. Worse, there was a monster of a grey cloud above the Algarve hills which looked to be heading our way. We hastened our step and were just wondering whether we should hop around in an attempt to put our socks and shoes back on when we spotted another flooded section of track ahead.
This time the water sloshed above our ankles, which made us wonder if this was, in fact, yesterday’s puddle made deeper by the overnight rain, and the one we’d walked through minutes earlier a brand new one. We barely had time to ponder the conundrum before the cloud reached us and we were being pummelled by icy hailstones. There was no shelter to be found along this exposed section of track. Having congratulated ourselves several times on our decision to go ahead with our hiking plans while Storm Emma lingered over the Atlantic, we now had no option but to continue walking while being pounded from all directions.
We trudged on, miserable and cold, until the track eventually wove its way behind a hill, on top of which stood a vast unfinished urbanisation. Though the access road ended abruptly in a huge puddle, there was at least a little shelter from the wind and rain behind what we took to be some kind of water station. Several minutes of hopping and balancing followed (we couldn’t lean against the wall because the white paint surface came off on our clothes) as we put our socks and shoes back on. Eventually, we emerged feeling moderately warmer and munching Twix bars. It’s amazing what a feeling of well-being having warm, dry feet gives you, even when the rest of your body is soaked through … and chocolate always helps, no matter how dire the situation.
Unfortunately, our presence in this bleak landscape had aroused some interest from the Guardia Civil who pulled up in their car to watch our antics with undisguised consternation. They might have thought us oddballs, out there in the rain in the middle of nowhere; however, they clearly decided we didn’t represent a risk because they were soon on their way, driving off along the empty road which led to those dismal, isolated urbanisations.
Twenty minutes later it was though we’d stepped through a door and arrived in a different climate … or as Harri quoted (from Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October … ‘and the weather turned around’. Above us, the sky was once again blue and the sunshine was warm on our legs, immediately lifting our mood.
It wasn’t essential that we caught the 3pm ferry back to Vila Real, but Harri had suggested we stop for lunch there before we caught the 3.30pm train back to Albufeira. The ferries ran hourly and if we missed this one, we’d be forced to catch the 4.30pm train or possibly – given that we’d only have 10 minutes to get from Vila Real’s ferry terminal to the train station – an even later one. Thus, with seven or eight kilometres to go, we started what I now refer to as ‘Roman marching’. For anyone who hasn’t walked with Harri, this means he strides ahead purposefully while I struggle to keep up. The gap between us inevitably gets bigger when we reach hills, forcing my little legs to work even faster on level sections just to catch up with him. It’s fair to say I’m not a great fan of Roman marching but I accept it is sometimes necessary.
I was just getting into my stride and enjoying a downhill stretch when Harri stopped suddenly and pointed to the track which ran across the flood plain near Ayamonte. Halfway across and taking up the full width of the track was a large herd of sheep and goats. Four dogs kept them moving forward, the ‘leader of the pack’ an enormous fierce-looking canine resembling a St Bernard. Unsure which way they would be heading on our side (there were two tracks), we stood right back on a grassy area at the foot of an inexplicably huge car park (of retail park proportions) only to discover this was their intended route. The St Bernard lookalike approached Harri with a menacing look as if to say ‘touch one of my sheep and you’re dead’ while the other dogs pretty much ignored us.
Eventually, the herd had passed and we were able to get going again. Maybe we were imagining it, but the flood plain looked even more flooded today than yesterday. Inland, it looked more like a lake than a river that had burst its banks. In this exposed place, we were again battered by winds gusting up the Guadiana river from the Atlantic. In these conditions, hiking becomes more of an endurance test than a pleasure, I’m afraid (this is when I start fantasising about cruises and balmy beach holidays).
Thanks to our determined effort to keep moving at pace, we were soon on the outskirts of Ayamonte. We made the ferry with twenty minutes to spare … in fact, we’d ‘marched’ those last few kilometres at such speed that we had to wait for the ticket office to open. The Romans would have been proud of us!
Despite the very worst the Atlantic’s weather systems had thrown at us, we’d survived our two-day hike along the Guadiana, although I’m not sure I’d be in any rush to repeat the experience.
More Algarve Hiking by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon in digital and print format.