It was probably just as well we’d gone to bed at such a ridiculously early hour (8.30pm) because the clocks went forward last night and we might otherwise have overslept.
After a pleasant but unimaginative breakfast of warm bread rolls, croissants, sliced cheese and locally produced condiments, we set off for a stroll around Salir. This pretty mountain town just over 15 kilometres from Loulé has always been a place we could imagine ourselves living one day. As well as the obvious facilities, i.e. supermarket, health centre, police and fire stations, choice of bars and restaurants and an annual festival (Festa da Espiga), Salir also boasts an outdoor swimming pool and its very own running track (not that you’d want to spend much time on the track with such wonderful country lanes to explore).
Our plan was to wander around the traditional, narrow streets for a while before setting off on a circular walk to Covöes, a village Harri insisted I’d mentioned at some point during my online house-browsing (I have no recollection of this conversation). There isn’t an awful lot to see in Salir that we haven’t seen before. The panoramic views from the water tower usually take my breath away but even those beautiful hills seemed stripped of their colour and beauty under the grey skies.
Despite Harri’s grumbles that we’d walked around the ruined walls of Salir’s castle on previous occasions, I wanted to do it again. Salir grew up around two distinctive hills – one dominated by the twelfth century Moorish castle, built to protect local people from invading Christians, and the other where the main church and water tower are located. One theory regarding the town’s name is that it derives from the Arabic word for ‘escape’ and was called out by the town’s Muslim defenders as they fled in panic from the Christian King Dom Afonso III of Portugal when he seized Salir from the Moors.
The castle site was partially excavated in 1987, revealing a dense urban area with two streets and six individual houses. In and around the houses, the excavation team also discovered stone slab pavements, fireplaces and food storage areas hollowed in the limestone. The small, free, onsite museum now displays some of the kitchen utensils, pots and other items that were found on the site.
Unfortunately, the weather had again taken a turn for the worse and there was light drizzle in the air as we briefly rejoined the Via Algarviana and retraced our steps to Almarginho, a dear little hamlet where I’d quite happily hang up my boots.
We veered left, leaving the Via Algarviana and following a footpath leading immediately behind a traditional single-storey house which, despite appearances to the contrary, was clearly still inhabited as its owner stood nearby beckoning to us to carry on walking (we’d hesitated briefly when we saw the house, thinking we were trespassing onto private property).
The footpath took us straight to Covöes where there seemed to be a lot of property renovation going on. These tiny high-level hamlets are incredibly pretty, but I’m sure I’d die of boredom after a week or two of living in one of these ghost villages. The beauty of Almarginho is that it’s just a short, level(ish) stroll into Salir. I perked up when I realised we’d be walking back to Salir on a solid, tarmac road; however, my excitement was short-lived because we’d barely walked a few metres on a firm surface before we were veering off into the undergrowth. I tried hard to convince Harri that we should stick to the road (as per usual, there was no sign of any traffic) but he was having none of it, insisting the route would deliver us to the wrong side of Salir and add unnecessary miles.
So off we went, following the steep and frequently treacherous footpath until it eventually joined the road leading back to Almarginho. In the distance, Rocha da Pena stood high and imposing above the surrounding hills, its summit promisingly free of cloud. After yesterday’s mammoth hike, I’d rather hoped we’d be taking things easier today but, as always, Harri had other ideas and hazarded a guess that we’d be covering around 22-23 kilometres today (14 miles).
The sun’s long overdue appearance had instantly transformed the mountain landscape into a place of incredible beauty and there was a spring in our step as we wandered along a wide(ish) concrete track boasting fabulous views to our right. One of the things I love most about the Algarve countryside is how open everything is. Apart from the drystone walls which are often in a poor state of repair anyway, the majority of agricultural land is unfenced and the meadows completely accessible. In the UK, so much of the countryside is enclosed within fencing, hedging and walling. Too many British landowners (including farmers) seem to go out of their way to thwart the onward route of walkers following perfectly legal footpaths across their land by locking gates, blocking stiles and putting bulls in fields!
It was the same in Spain. Landowners just don’t want hikers to lay one foot on their land, even if it is an overgrown (or flooded) field or unusable scrubland. Here in Portugal, the mindset seems to be different; there doesn’t seem to be that same obsession with keeping an empty field or piece of land to oneself. It certainly makes hiking more enjoyable when you’re not constantly confronting obstacles.
We reached the hamlet of Calçada, crossed the N124 and meandered into Pena. With Rocha da Pena nearby and such fabulous views across the valley, we’d expected Pena to be a bustling little tourist village and were astonished to find it completely deserted. The sole bar appeared to be closed – though whether it was for good it was hard to tell – leaving the communal washroom as the only obvious place for residents to socialise (that this happened was evident by the line of towels hanging out to dry). As our path descended into the valley, Rocha de Pena loomed larger, its craggy limestone formation marking it out from the surrounding hills.
Soon we were climbing again, this time on a road leading to the car park at Rocha and the little hamlet of Penina beyond. As we walked, the sound of water cascading down the hillside made the landscape feel more like Wales than the Algarve.
The number of cars in the car park was slightly worrying, and we wondered if Rocha da Pena was the Central Algarve equivalent to South Wales’ honeypot mountain Pen y Fan.
We needn’t have worried. Although we passed several groups coming down, we saw only one other person on the summit (on a warm spring or summer’s day, hundreds are likely to amass on Pen y Fan). As we climbed, the views began to open up and eventually we were high enough to track much of yesterday’s route across near and distant hills. We could see the Atlantic Ocean glittering in the distance with the high-rise resorts of Armação de Pera and Portimão clearly visible. Then Harri pointed out a familiar sight … after covering 39 back-breaking kilometres yesterday, we were still able to see the water tower at Pateo, Albufeira on the horizon. I couldn’t believe it.
For a while we were silent, captivated by the beauty of the scenery, then there was a final push before we reached the two-kilometre long plateau. A waymark pointed to the Miradoura Norte so we walked a short distance to the viewpoint. With the mountain itself no longer providing shelter from the wind, it was very blustery but well worth the extra walking to see the slopes of the Serra de Caldeira stretching into the interior. It is these hills which form a natural border between the Algarve and the Alentejo, creating the region’s very different weather systems.
High as we were, we still hadn’t reached the true summit of Rocha da Pena so we set off along an undulating footpath to reach it. Having found the track to the plateau relatively easy walking, we now stumbled,skidded and splashed our way along a narrow and often muddy path embedded with boulders and rock, and occasionally overgrown with gorse.
We’d read about Rocha da Pena previously and knew about the defensive Iron Age wall constructed by the Celts. It is here the Moors are reputed to have hidden when they were hiding from the Christians after the seizure of Salir castle. Having expected a proper wall, I was amazed to find myself walking along a high-level shingle beach … well, that’s certainly what it looked like, although the rocks beneath our feet were surprisingly firm. It’s hard to imagine the time and effort that must have gone into building this vast structure.
We’d almost reached the end of the wall, when Harri stopped suddenly and pointed to a high point across the plateau. That was the summit, he told me, and from here there seemed to be no path across to it. In our enthusiasm for Celtic walls, we’d managed to miss a vital waymark. It seemed the Iron Age wall was there to look at and not to walk along! And if we didn’t want to battle through half a kilometre of scrub, we had no choice but to turn around and retrace our steps.
Eventually, we reached Rocha da Pena’s 479-metre summit by means of a short and well-walked detour off the main footpath. Once the obligatory conquering photographs were taken, we sat down and ate lunch in a relatively sheltered spot before beginning our descent. This being a circular route, we left the plateau on a different track, this one having a far steeper gradient than the one we’d arrived on.
We emerged from the mountain in Penina, a traditional village which boasts a tiny museum (it was closed), a chimney dating back to 1821 and an arched door of a design common to Northern Europe and not the Iberian peninsula. Despite being a place of obvious historic interest, a high proportion of Penina’s buildings were ruined and the village itself deserted apart from the obligatory stray dogs and an indolent cat.
We left Penina and were walking along a track through the beautiful Vale do Alamo with Rocha da Pena to our left when we heard a blood-curdling scream. Horrified, we searched our immediate surroundings for whomever it was who needed our assistance but there was no-one. It wasn’t until I spotted a bare-chested rock climber dangling from a rope on one of Rocha da Pena’s rock faces that I realised he must have called out as he’d lost his footing on the rock. Fortunately, the climber’s fall had been halted by the roping system and within a minute or two, he was climbing again.
We had planned to stop for a beer in Bar das Grutas at Rocha da Pena; however, time was ticking on and, with our supplies depleted, we were determined to go out to eat tonight. Now we were walking on the valley floor, it was really warm and the sky was clear. The valley, lush and green after weeks of rain, looked so beautiful in the late afternoon sunshine that, despite our tired legs, it was a delight just to be outside walking. The highlight of those final, weary kilometres was the moment when a bat flew over our heads … a rare sighting in broad daylight and a first for both of us.
Somehow, on our ‘rest’ day, we had managed to cover nearly 26 kilometres!
Here’s the route for our morning stroll around Salir and Covöes.
And if you want to follow our route to Rocha da Pena, here’s the online 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)