For the first time since we walked the Via Algarviana in May 2015, we were heading to the Portugal–Spain border – and this time we made the journey by car rather than the painfully slow Algarve train. A few days earlier Harri had sent our German friend Jörg a link to a website which featured details of various Algarve walking routes. Jörg was keen to walk a lower section of the Grande Rota de Guadiana, which starts at Vila Real de Santo António and (mostly) follows the Guadiana river to Alcoutim (where the Via Algarviana begins). It’s a route that Harri has been keen to walk since he learned of its existence (and one we would have hiked in its entirety a few days afterwards had our plans not been thwarted by Storm Emma).
Today, however, we were only walking a short section of the GR15 from Monte Francisco to Odeleite, before getting a taxi back to our starting point. It’s unusual for us to walk a linear route without using public transport to reach the beginning or end of our route, but in this easternmost region of the Algarve, local buses are few and far between (they don’t even run daily) so, unless we did a circular route, there was no alternative.
This was all new territory for us. When we walked the Via Algarviana we caught a bus to Alcoutim so we hadn’t had an opportunity to explore the lower reaches of the Guadiana. The landscape here was more reminiscent of the gentle, rolling hills of the far western Algarve around Vila do Bispo than our usual hiking territory around Albufeira. While there was evidence of new development, e.g. new roads, townhouses, etc there were also a lot of open, grassy spaces.
Alongside the track – dry and dusty after a prolonged dry spell – clusters of small white daisies were growing, not unlike the ones which cover our lawn in Wales during early summer. The familiar white cistus flowers were also beginning to bloom. In another month, the inland Algarve landscape would be blanketed with these pretty white flowers.
We hadn’t walked more than a mile or two when the ‘track’ we were following suddenly became seriously waterlogged. If we wanted to push on, it was either clamber up onto the loose soil banks either side of the route or paddle. We opted for the bank and, for several hundred metres, edged our way along the uneven surface, careful where we placed our feet so as not to end up sliding into the muddy water below. When we eventually reached solid ground, Harri checked the map on his iPad and realised we were actually walking along a riverbed which doubles as a track during the drier, summer months.
From here, we followed a lovely old cobbled lane into Junqueira, a pretty enough village but one which has nothing of specific note to interest visitors (although I did stumble upon this film about the village on YouTube). We followed a quiet road for a while before rejoining a stony track. Now the landscape was gently undulating and agricultural, with sizeable ruins dotted around the hills and many abandoned wells and water wheels. We passed a goat farm where a cockerel kept watch from its perch.
Soon we were confronted with the steepest climb of the day, and we fell into silence as we concentrated on getting to the top and to our next village, Azinhal (I discovered too late that this place is famous for its pastries and sweets!). Azinhal is typical of many inland villages in that its population is dropping and ageing rapidly (from 692 residents in 2001 to just 522 in 2011). That said, it’s a delightful place with lots of traditional single-storey houses, several bars, several market stalls (empty today) and a kind of square lined with orange groves (access on one side was via a shallow but very steep flight of steps).
We stopped for elevenses on a bench and I learned about ‘the Legend of Azinhal’ an interpretation board. It goes like this (and I have used the exact English wording from the board):
‘Between the fortified cities of Alcoutim and Castro Marim, lived a noble lord of fabulous wealth and vast lands, who had a daughter of rare beauty. One day, a young knight, travelling from the north, arrived in that land and fell in love with the beautiful princess. Before she would submit to such a great passion, the princess demanded that the knight stay forever on the land, giving up his knightly wanderings. Divided between his love and his need for freedom, he fled on his fiery steed to a holm oak plantation, where, next to one of the trees, he plunged his dagger into his heart. Since then, according to the legend, every night, in that same spot, the young knight would appear with his bleeding heart next to the beautiful Moorish princess, who interminably tried to staunch the flow of enchanted blood with fine lace.’
The Portuguese are great lovers of legends and I read elsewhere that bobbin lace became popular in Azinhal as a result of the princess’s efforts to stem the ghostly blood flow with two pieces of rock rose branch!
After Azinhal, we remained on high ground and enjoyed splendid distant views across the Guadiana river towards Spain. International borders have always fascinated me, not only because of their arbitrary nature (the landscape over there in Spain looked identical to the one here in Portugal) but the way they change and evolve over time (often with much bloodshed). Hunting for some differences, I noted there was more evidence of development – in the form of modern townhouses – on the Spanish side.
The Guadiana river revealed itself briefly before we descended rapidly across a stream to a wide flat area of land, which we guessed to be a flood plain. On the near hillside, there were several abandoned farmhouses, yet another reminder of the depopulation of these inland areas. One of those we passed had three separate buildings, suggesting several generations might once have lived and farmed here. Now there was no-one.
After another steep uphill section, we found ourselves gazing down on the Guadiana. Several miles inland and it was still far wider (and bluer) than our own River Usk; it also had remarkably little development along its shoreline, just the occasional property.
It was well past lunchtime,, so when we came across a bench in our next village it seemed a good time to stop. Though it’s a sleepy little village nowadays, Almada de Ouro was once an important gold mining spot (ouro is Portuguese for gold). Traditional houses lined the narrow, unevenly surfaced road (a tiled section, then older cobbled paving) running through the centre of the village. There was no pavement, and if this afternoon’s traffic was anything to go by, many of the villagers are taking their life in their hands each time they step out of their front door.
Now we were much closer to the shoreline of the Guadiana and the views were wonderful … when they weren’t obscured by the towering bamboo plants that grow in abundance along its shoreline.
The original plan was to reach Odeleite where we would catch a taxi back to Monte Francisco and Jörg’s car; however, we were all enjoying walking alongside the river so much (despite its constant disappearing act) that when Harri gave us the choice of leaving the GR15, bypassing Odeleite and carrying on to Foz de Odeleite along the riverbank it seemed a great idea (particularly as it meant cutting the distance and avoiding some steep climbing).
So we joined a narrow, grassy well-walked track not unlike the footpaths we walk in Wales in terms of its inaccessibility. There were a few Privado signs to our left, but Harri assured us we weren’t trespassing on anyone’s land and we figured they must refer to the higher land. We battled our way through a veritable tunnel of cane, made our way through an uneven wooded area, clambered over two wire fences (fortunately not barbed) and eventually emerged on a flood plain which would definitely have been a bog if it had rained recently.
From a distance Foz de Odeleite looked delightful … a smaller version of Alcoutim farther upriver and on the other side of the Odeleite stream. Unfortunately, the reality was another depopulated inland village full of dilapidated properties and with nothing much to recommend it other than a friendly restaurateur who served us three beers despite the bar being closed and his family in the middle of a meal.
With no sign of any life at all, let alone a taxi rank, we had no option but to phone for a taxi from Vaqueiros (Harri had been given the number from someone involved with the original Algarve Way). Needless to say, our journey back wasn’t cheap and after I’d got over the shock of handing over all those euros, I urged Harri to stick to our circular routes in future.
More Algarve Hiking by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon in digital and print format.