Foz de Alge might be a sleepy backwater nowadays but back in the seventeenth century this little village was at the forefront of industrial innovation. Long before the reservoir existed, a forge was built at the water’s edge to take advantage of the fast-flowing Ribeira de Alge. Bullets and artillery produced here were used against the French when they invaded Portugal. The forge closed in 1834 but the stonework of the old ironworks is still visible on the shoreline.
The mist remained low over the mountains as we set off, damp clothes attached to our rucksacks (when we were walking the Via Algarviana two years ago – also in May – it was so hot we had no problem drying our clothes overnight). We crossed a bridge and passed the bar we’d argued about last night (I remembered the owner pointing it out to us, Harri didn’t). A black Labrador rushed out to greet us and walked happily alongside Harri as we hit our first climb of the day.
It was perfect hiking weather – warm and windless but not too hot. We followed the meandering Zêzere, through pine and eucalyptus, billowing ferns and foxgloves. Now we were following the waymarked GRZ there were regular information boards detailing our progress. With a 30-kilometre day ahead of us, our plan was to cover the first 9.8 km then stop at Bouçã where we hoped there might be a bar and/or somewhere to buy fruit. Unfortunately, someone else had plans to visit Bouçã; our doggy companion was clearly more energetic than we’d realised and was still trotting along beside us, pausing only occasionally to lollop in a muddy puddle. In the end, Harri had to act aggressive towards the dog to force it turn back; we were becoming concerned that the poor animal might struggle with the return journey if we allowed it to carry on walking with us indefinitely.
The highlight of the morning was walking through a gorge. Here, the river narrowed, cliffs grew taller and large boulders were exposed. The ‘beaches’ were pebbly, or sometimes grassy, and to our inexperienced eyes it appeared water levels were low.
Our hopes for a cold beer were cruelly dashed when we reached Bouçã. Rather than the bustling village we’d anticipated, there was little there apart from a road bridge, the concrete dam and a scattering of hillside properties. The GRZ took us tantalising close to the dam, then forked left up a steep road and then right onto one of the steepest tracks of our entire two-week hike. I kept glancing back, expecting to see the 63-metre high dam in all its glory but there were just too many trees obscuring the view.
When we spotted a sign directing us to a miradoura, we thought ‘at last’ but, twenty minutes later, we were sitting on the covered picnic table with a view of trees, trees and more trees. Though on this occasion we hadn’t really come off route (we were now following the GRZ rather than Harri’s original tracked route), I get so frustrated by these miradoura signs, which are left in place long after any views are obscured by towering trees. If public bodies are determined to drag tired hikers up steep tracks with the promise of a panorama, then they could at least clear a few of the trees so we can actually see something!
The afternoon’s walking was more of the same and, while the scenery was pretty enough, the constantly undulating track meant we were tiring rapidly. We always say it takes us four days to get properly into our stride … tomorrow we’d be bounding along!
We stopped briefly at the Cabaça Mourisco ‘rest area’, feeling worn out and demoralised. Our progress this afternoon had been slow – not least because of the many inlets and steep sections of track, plus the sudden appearance of brambles across it. WIth another seven kilometres to cover, not to mention a steep ascent to Pedrogão Pequeno, Harri estimated we’d be lucky to reach the hotel by 6.30pm. Not for the first time, I wondered why I do this? I could be lying on a beach somewhere, sipping icy-cold lager and reading a book, but no, I’d chosen to hike through Central Portugal for my holiday. Heck, I’d even drawn up the itinerary!!
Then, just as we reached our lowest ebb, the landscape changed dramatically. The final stretch provided the most spectacular and uplifting scenery we’d seen all day (albeit with some of the toughest walking). Now, as the Zêzere narrowed, there were high cliffs and boulders, even a waterfall, and the track became wider and grassy. We passed a group of people dining al fresco in front of their motor home and marvelled at their determination to reach such an isolated but stunning spot.
Ahead of us now was the IC8 bridge – an amazing feat of engineering and the highest bridge in Portugal when it was built in the early nineties – that links Pedrógão Pequeno on one side of the Zêzere and Pedrógão Grande on the other. From our vantage point, it looked to be level with the track so it seemed fair to assume we’d be walking across it, but no. The bridge was built for vehicles only; our own river crossing was a tiny stone bridge down there in the valley … a long, long way down.
It was on tired legs that we descended a steep, boulder-strewn path to reach the Rio Pera, cross it and clamber straight up the hill on other side. If this wasn’t bad enough, we were soon following a cobbled road downhill to cross the Zêzere on the so-called Philippine Bridge. There has been a bridge at this spot for nearly two thousand years. The original wooden bridge was built by the Romans who founded the village above in 150 BC. The present stone bridge with its three arches is believed to have been constructed between 1607 and 1610, although there was no road access to it until 1860. Thankfully, the completion of the nearby Cabril dam in 1954 meant the Philippine Bridge was no longer the only route across the river and it is now a traffic-free zone.
After another steep ascent, we finally reached Pedrogão Pequeno. Over six decades, the population has decreased by a staggering two-thirds and in 2011 there were just 753 people living in this pretty, traditional village. There are encouraging signs that the village is on ‘the up’ though, with many of the older townhouses spruced up and some gorgeous villas on the hillside.
We enjoyed a quick drink in a local bar when Harri suddenly announced it was already gone seven o’clock and we still hadn’t reached our hilltop hotel. We decided it might be easier to eat in our room so I dashed into the minimercado next door to purchase some nibbles and a bottle of our favourite vinho verde. It was only when I got back to the bar that Harri reminded me we didn’t have a cork screw (unlike the UK, all the bottled wine in Portugal is corked). When I tried to change the wine for a screw-capped bottle of beer, the friendly lady behind the till produced a cork screw and proceeded to uncork the wine for me.
Another day in Central Portugal, another act of genuine kindness.
If you want to follow in our footsteps, download our route from Foz de Alge to Pedrogão Pequeno (30.37 km).
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.