Who could have guessed that the Algarve weather would have gone downhill so rapidly just as we were anticipating the warm sunshine of spring? With one storm swiftly followed by the next, it was beginning to look as though our long-planned hiking trip to Salir might never happen. In fact, looking out at the Algarve’s unaccustomed grey skies, we’d held off booking our accommodation at the wonderful Casa de Mãe until the very last minute. With flights back to Cardiff booked for the following Wednesday, it was now or never.
Of course, once we had booked the constantly-changing forecast went downhill yet again, hence why the contents of my rucksack looked more like we were setting off for a cold and rainy weekend in Wales rather than a three-day spring break in the (usually) sunny Algarve.
It was impossible to ignore the dark, grey clouds gathering overhead and we set off with hearts as heavy as our rucksacks. We’d barely reached Albufeira’s new fitness park when we felt the first spots of rain on our arms. Well-versed in presenting only the positives where the weather is concerned, Harri assured me that this was likely to be the only shower of the day. In fact, there was a zero chance of rain after 10am if the BBC’s forecasters were to be believed.
We were heading to Paderne along the newest Via Algarviana link route (the one we use regularly to reach Albufeira’s distant railway station which is actually located in nearby Ferreiras). (Though promoted on the ground with an interpretation board and excellent waymarking, this route does not yet appear on the Via Algarviana website. We are guessing that’s because there has been a lot of pipe-lying along the track near Ferreiras. We’ve always been able to get past at weekends but it’s probably not ideal having too many hikers using the route on weekdays when the construction workers are digging and laying pipes.)
The sun made a brief appearance as we approached Ferreiras, but half an hour later it was raining heavily. It was half past ten. Zero chance of rain, huh? As I shivered in my thin waterproof jacket wishing I’d packed my gloves, Harri tried to cheer me up by pointing towards the mountains where the sky was blue and fluffy white clouds floated above the horizon. Things could only get better … surely?
We set off knowing the ford crossing of the Ribeira de Quarteira might be … well, impassable. We’ve attempted to cross on two previous occasions, the first time without success and the second time with no problem. Fortunately, our second crossing (when the river’s water levels were very low) revealed a big drop next to the ‘stepping stones’ … one slip and you’d be tumbling down the weir and into much deeper water. On this occasion, the fast-flowing river was relatively low – and possibly even passable in a four-wheel drive – but we didn’t want to risk ruining our entire weekend with a nasty fall. Our proposed 22-mile hike was about to get even longer as we opted to follow a detour to the Roman bridge and back.
Our alternative route followed an occasionally muddy footpath alongside the Quarteira. We passed the beautifully renovated Azenha water mill which overlooks a shallow weir, disappeared into towering vegetation along the riverbank and chuckled at a board which explained that the Portuguese commonly refer to dragonflies as ‘eye removers’ while confirming they are absolutely harmless. All around us, spring was evident from the deep pink cistus to the ground-level periwinkle flowers.
A little aside here: we never cease to be impressed at the number of bilingual interpretation boards here in the Algarve, including in inland and mountain areas. It makes our hiking trips so much more enjoyable when we are able to read about the places we visit. Our recent trip to Spain demonstrated this is not always the case.
From the Roman bridge we could see Paderne castle with its now familiar scaffolding. On previous trips, our route has seen us walking around its high outer walls, but this time we stuck to the riverbank footpath, passing the remains of another water mill (though as it was situated directly opposite the first one, we weren’t sure if they were part and parcel of the same operation).
Leaving the river, we followed a track through some of the prettiest dry orchards imaginable keeping a look out for Fernando, our bonsai-growing Portuguese friend who lives on these slopes. We’ve walked in this area several times before but each time I fall in love with the landscape all over again.
For once, we resisted the urge to stop for a beer in Paderne. We might have 12 miles under our belts but there was still a long way to go. The next stage of our route was almost entirely flat as we crossed the Quarteira for a second time and followed a wide vehicle track through a flat fertile plain populated by few humans but an awful lot of orange and olive trees. While we’ve walked this route several times before, we’d never seen the landscape look so green and lush, or the rust-coloured soil so bright. While we were stuck inside grumbling about the rain, the Algarve’s often arid landscape had been transformed. As someone who hates food waste, I found it hard to see how many olives had dropped from the trees and lay rotting on the ground.
As the day progressed, the weather had improved and we were now enjoying warm sunshine. There were few places to stop and rest our weary bodies, which meant we’d covered over 15 miles by the time we finally spotted some bottom-sized boulders and were able to stop and eat. Harri dutifully checked them over for snake holes first … after a near-miss in the Costa Brava when he nearly sat on a snake, he’s now extremely cautious!
We left the Via Algarviana link route at roughly 16 miles, feeling that at last we were getting somewhere. After several miles of easy, fast walking we were now heading into the hilly barrocal region. Things were about to get a lot tougher. There was a surreal moment when Harri and I were trudging up a steep dirt track and two off-road vehicles laden with shrieking, waving tourists came trundling past us. Hot and sticky, we smiled and waved back, wondering how our presence out here in the middle of nowhere was being explained by the guides.
I’ll never be a natural hill walker (or runner); the reason I persevere is because the views from the top of a mountain are simply unbeatable. After struggling up a horrendously steep track with my heavier-than-usual rucksack (all those wet weather clothes), I wasn’t disappointed. It wasn’t the clearest of days, but the views towards the high peaks of Foia and Picota were simply stunning.
There was more climbing and then we got our first glimpse of the magnificent Rocha da Pena, a craggy limestone outcrop close to Salir. Despite the height we’d reached, this natural tourist attraction still looked immense, a tad worrying as we’re planning to walk it tomorrow afternoon and will be starting out from valley level.
We joined a meandering traffic-free road and passed through a pretty village called Espargal which boasted some lovely properties, a water wheel dated November 8, 1935 and very little else except barking dogs. More villages followed, each boasting some lovely renovated properties and fantastic panoramic views, but very little in the way of facilities, not even a local bar.
The evidence of agriculture is everywhere on these valley slopes, from the drystone walls to tilled fields and the abundance of dry orchards. Whether or not the land is still actively farmed is hard to determine as most of the fields are open but there’s little evidence of anything going on, i.e. no workers or farm machinery.
We briefly got confused when the track we were meant to be following down into the final valley before Salir was blocked by several large boulders. With no obvious alternative route, we decided to continue regardless. At first, there was no obvious route ahead, but eventually the path became clearer and we walked through more abandoned rust-soiled fields before eventually emerging on the road that would take us through Montes de Cima and then over the final ridge (300 metres) through Portela da Nave and down into Salir.
Harri kept assuring me that we were nearly there but it wasn’t until my TomTom was showing 23 miles that we glimpsed Salir far below in the valley. This little town of just 2,775 residents (2011) won our hearts when we were walking the Via Algarviana in May 2015. Back then, it felt like a metropolis compared to the depopulated eastern Algarve villages we’d passed through on previous days. With its water tower, castle ruins, two churches, choice of restaurants, decent-sized supermarket and pastel-coloured villas, Salir seemed bustling and lively. It’s all relative, of course, and compared to Albufeira this small town in the Serra do Caldeirão now seems tiny and sleepy.
We joined the Via Algarviana proper for the final leg of our journey. The valley basked in late afternoon sunshine and despite my weariness, the beauty of the mountain landscape struck me afresh. We passed lines of water wells and irrigation tanks and were reminded of our debut on Portuguese television when, for one of the scenes, we’d been asked to gaze into one of the disused wells and ‘pretend’ we were talking about it (for the visuals only). The water well was brought to the Algarve by the Arabs in the eighth century, probably one of the most important ‘imports’ ever as it made made the irrigation and subsequent farmer of arid and soil-poor regions possible. The orange and almond trees we see growing everywhere almost certainly wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Arabs either.
I was so captivated by my surroundings, I kept stopping to gaze around me, on several occasions almost losing Harri who was striding ahead in his bid to reach Salir and Casa de Mãe as soon as possible (he later admitted he was just too exhausted to appreciate anything by that point).
For exhausted we were. After our undulating 24-mile hike with most of the climbing late in the day, we simply couldn’t muster sufficient energy to walk the half-mile or so back into Salir for dinner. Instead, happily settled into the delightful one-bedroom house that would be our home for the next two nights, we scavenged around in our rucksacks and found French toast, feta cheese, crisps and apples. We ate while watching the Portuguese news in Portuguese as you do.
By 8.30pm we were finding it impossible to keep our eyes open … it was time for bed.
If you wish to follow Harri’s route from Albufeira to Salir here’s the link to Viewranger.
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)