There are a lot of station stops along the regional railway line that links Coimbra and Figueira da Foz, with the result that the forty-ish kilometres to the Silver Coast took well over an hour. Still, after several days of hard hiking, it was enjoyable just to put our feet up, eat the cakes we’d bought in Coimbra and watch the scenery passing by rather more quickly than usual. The railway mostly followed the Rio Mondego to its mouth at Figueira da Foz, passing first through small villages and agricultural land, and as we got closer to the estuary, past rice fields, salt marshes and lagoons.
Figueira da Foz dazzled us from the moment we stepped off the train … chiefly because the sunshine was so bright. The busy dock area and pedestrianised promenade alongside the Mondego instantly reminded us of Vila Real in the Eastern Algarve. Our experience there had taught us that prettiest part of town tends not to be next to the railway station.
We were feeling hot and sticky after our train journey so we headed straight to our hotel. The Central Guesthouse lived up to its name and was easy to find. Our room was wonderfully light and airy with high ceilings and tall windows flanked by billowing curtains. Interestingly, the couple who run it hail from Vila Real, so I guess they recognised the similarity between the two estuary towns too.
When we walked the Via Algarviana in May 2015, I’d been desperate to reach the coast and then decidedly underwhelmed with Sagres, where we spent our first night after finishing the 300-kilometre route. What had really exasperated us was the sudden downturn in the previously hot weather. Now it seemed the downturn in weather was happening again. It had been glorious when we arrived but by the time we’d showered and changed, a cold wind was blowing in off the sea and dark grey clouds were amassing on the horizon. I was concerned that my scant wardrobe comprising mostly thin, summery clothes might not be sufficient if the weather suddenly changed for the worse.
We walked the full length of the resort, venturing onto Figueira’s extraordinarily wide beach via boardwalks and returning to the promenade along a cycle path busy with runners as well as cyclists. I was delighted to note that the sun sets over the ocean along this coast, although it was too cloudy for a decent sunset tonight. It was easy to see why Figueira da Foz became so popular with Portuguese holidaymakers in the 1920s and 1930s when it was known as Rainha das Praias (Queen of the Beaches).
Eventually, Harri decided he’d had enough of walking (flip flops aren’t really the ideal footwear for long walks) so we headed back to the Bairro Novo area of town, where we treated ourselves to a Chinese.
Our hotel was situated very close to the Casina Figueira, the oldest casino on the Iberian Peninsula (it’s had a gambling licence since 1927). As the nearest I’ve ever come to gambling is playing on fruit machines in Las Vegas and Harri has never stepped foot on a gambling floor, we thought we’d best give it a miss.
After another excellent breakfast (the Portuguese certainly know how to feed their guests), we left Figueira da Foz and crossed the Rio Mondego high above the docks on a towering road bridge which swayed alarmingly as lorry after lorry sped past. The geology of the river mouth is unusual in that the Mondego forks into two immediately before it reaches the ocean forming a river island which is given over to a shipyard and salt flats (the more southerly ‘arm’ of the river is very narrow when it leaves the larger, more northerly arm but has widened significantly by the time it reaches the confluence with the other arm). The ‘technical’ term is apparently river bifurcation and, in the case of the Mondego, it meant that there were two distinct bridges spanning the estuary.
While the distant views were interesting, it’s never particularly pleasant walking alongside a busy road so we were relieved when we finally reached the south bank of the Mondego. The traffic remained heavy as we walked past a fisherman sculpture announcing we had arrived in Vila de São Pedro, but quietened down when we turned right to head back to the ocean.
We joined the beach at Praia da Cova Gala, enthusiastic at the prospect of strolling along white-sand beaches for the rest of the day. Like the village, the beach seemed surprisingly deserted with just one other couple wandering along the shore. I quickly changed into my beach-combing outfit, i.e. running shorts and bikini top, and we bounded down to the sea.
It was obvious within minutes that our plan to follow the Silver Coast’s pristine white sands as we headed south would need rethinking. Waves crashed onto the beach with such ferocity that if we strayed too close to the edge, we risked a soaking. Then there was the steep camber, which made it near impossible to stroll along the harder, wet sand. We tried walking higher up the beach, but it was still hard work dragging our bare feet through the rough-textured sand. We battled forward for over an hour and covered just four kilometres. At this speed, we’d be exhausted by lunchtime.
We left the beach reluctantly at the small fishing village of Costa de Lavos, knowing that we had no chance of covering today’s kilometres on sand. Harri generally plans all our routes beforehand, and on this trip we’d booked our accommodation in advance. We might be abandoning our original route but we still needed to reach Praia da Vieira today; Harri had to find an alternative way for us to cover the miles … and fast.
Of course, this is when technology – and the iPad – come to the fore. Had this kind of problem occurred in the old days, Harri would have had little choice but to pore over a map for ages; now he was able to look at online mapping and identify a long-distance cycle path which we could join on the far side of the village.
Costa de Lavos looked as though it might be a bit lively in the summer; however, in the middle of May, the holiday season hadn’t really kicked off; the cafés and gift shops we strolled past were open but empty. Not wishing to waste more time, we bought two ‘takeaway’ bottles of ice-cold Super Bock and continued on our way. Little did we know that with beach walking effectively ruled out, from now on we would be spending a lot of time walking on cycle paths … correction, on this cycle path.
When we’d been trudging along the beach, it had been cloudy and grey; now, the clouds disappeared and, away from the sea breeze, we found ourselves sweltering under the hot sun. The cycle path ran parallel to a busy main road, but eventually we joined a quieter track, then minor roads where we were able to stop for lunch in a bus shelter. Today certainly wasn’t going as planned. Instead of the coastal walking we’d been looking forward to, we were walking mostly through eucalyptus groves, broken only by the odd scattering of new-build villas.
We hadn’t long left the bus shelter when a taxi drove past and pulled up at the side of the road ahead of us. Touting for a fare and perhaps sensing our weariness, the driver reeled off several nearby place names (the only one I recognised was Peniche). He could drop us off anywhere we liked, he said in Portuguese. I shook my head instinctively, knowing Harri too well to accede to the offer of a lift, paid or otherwise. If only Harri had spoken out there and then, we might have spent a leisurely afternoon on the coast instead of spending hour after hour trudging through those vast eucalyptus plantations. As we watched the taxi speed off into the distance, he berated me for being so emphatic in my dismissal of the taxi driver. Apparently, one of the places the man had mentioned was Pedrogão, the resort immediately north of our destination. But I hadn’t known that and it was too late now.
Eventually, we rejoined the cycle path and later linked up with another track, this time through pine trees. While it was all very pretty, there were no distant views and we spent the remainder of the afternoon regretting not jumping into that taxi when we had the chance. Unsurprisingly given the temperature, we had seen no other hikers all afternoon, not even a cyclist!
Pedrógão appeared to be another sleepy place. There were a few locals on the sand-covered promenade but nothing to suggest it would soon be transformed into a bustling seaside resort. The strong gusts coming off the ocean had created some interesting sand formations, but was definitely putting people off going onto the beach.
If I’d hoped our cycle path walking was over for the day, I was disappointed and we covered the entire journey between Pedrógão and our end destination of Praia da Vieira on that now-familiar terrain.
We’d walked an epic 42 kilometres today, mostly in hot sunshine, and we were exhausted when we finally hobbled into Praia de Vieira. Too exhausted, even, to go out for dinner. After a few beers in one of the numerous (covered) beach bars, we bought a bottle a bottle of sparkling rosé in a little store with mostly empty shelves (there was no beer). Back at the hotel, we feasted on bread and cheese and watched the sun setting over the ocean from the veranda.
If you want to follow in our footsteps, download our route from Figueira da Foz to Praia da Vieira (42 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.