At some point around one in the morning – though it might have been nearer two – I decided I couldn’t live in this lovely studio apartment in Peniche if you paid me. The reason for my change of heart? It was impossible to get to sleep. Whether it’s the warmer climate or a more convivial national personality, but the locals seemed intent on having loud conversations on the landing outside our room and in the street below. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was traffic whizzing past well into the early hours (where on earth is all that traffic heading on a headland?), added to which, I’d developed an incredibly itchy heat rash on my hands and legs.
The lack of sleep – and possibly the wine I’d consumed with our home-cooked meal last night – meant I wasn’t in the best of moods this morning. My irritability wasn’t helped when we reached Praia de Consolaçã to find all the public toilets were closed. Then when we did find an unlocked beachfront toilet block, two cleaners sitting outside – and clearly on their break – refused point blank to let us use the public facilities. I suppose you get officious types everywhere, but this really was the first time we’ve encountered meanness of any kind in Portugal, in fact it’s generally the exact opposite.
The landscape today couldn’t have been more different to yesterday’s eucalyptus forests. In fact, for much of the morning we were walking across very flat agricultural areas, where potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage and sweetcorn were growing. I gazed at the lines of men working in the fields, marvelling at their fortitude … if we thought it was too hot for walking, how much tougher must it be doing all that bending and lifting in the heat?
Since Peniche we had been following waymarks for the GR11. Now, however, they had suddenly disappeared leaving Harri with no choice but to use his instincts to ease us southwards. Fortunately, the low-level vegetation meant we could see a fair distance ahead, making the guesswork easier if not infallible.
Whether the theft of crops is less of a problem here in Portugal, I don’t know, but most of the fields we walked through and around were unfenced, giving us ample opportunity to view the huge number of decaying cabbages. We weren’t sure if they were surplus to requirements, lacked labourers to lift them, or were grown simply to put nutrients back in the soil. Whatever the reason they lay there rotting, it was hard to see so much good food going to waste (and I’m not even a cabbage lover). We had just emerged from a large swathe of undulating, agricultural land when Harri happened to turn around. A large sign (in English) said the land was private and that no-one was to enter the property. It was a bit late to turn around!
In São Bernardino, we spotted several GR11 waymarks but it was often more by chance than design. Some of the familiar red and white stripes had been painted on lamp posts and had become so faded in the bright sunshine that it was easy to miss them. Others were so badly-positioned they were rendered useless, i.e. they weren’t placed at junctions but several yards up a track or road, which is great if you happen to have gone the right way, but not so good if you had strayed off route before you reached them.
Cabbages were still the order of the day. While the rural landscape here wasn’t very different from the UK (the lack of hedging was the biggest difference), there were lines of rotting cabbages everywhere. They, in turn, were attracting vast numbers of white cabbage butterflies. I hesitated when I spotted an oddly-dressed man standing at the far end of one cabbage-strewn field. There was something about his stance that I found disconcerting … surely that couldn’t be a gun he was holding?
My heart suddenly hammering, I tugged at Harri’s arm, fearful of what might lie ahead. Rather than erect fencing, maybe the Portuguese farmer had employed a security guard? Hang on, Harri said, after we’d edged forward a few more metres, the man didn’t seem to be moving an inch. As we got nearer, we realised my gun-touting ‘man’ was a scarecrow holding, of all things, a fishing net. I crept up to take a closer look, wondering why I found the choice of clothing – khaki jacket and trousers – and very small head with red wig plonked on top so unnerving. And what use was a scarecrow positioned on the edge of a large, muddy pool anyway? The incident put me in mind of the window dummies (autons) in a 1970s episode of ‘Dr Who’ and I felt spooked for quite some time afterwards.
But the scary scarecrow was eventually forgotten as our onward route continued to be problematic for Harri. The GR11 waymarks had now vanished completely, and after much deliberation about whether we should head to the coast or veer inland again, we set off in the direction of an inlet which might, or might not, prove our undoing.
Glad to be leaving the cabbages, we followed a narrow, undulating footpath along the cliffs for a while, passing above what must be one of the emptiest beaches on the Silver Coast. The only occupants were gulls, they being able to reach the beach without having to descend a metal ladder like everyone else. For a while, the ground under our feet took on a strange, lunar appearance, like tightly-packed sand that had been vigorously polished. As always, we kept well away from the edge, mindful of the crumbling nature of the cliffs along this coastline.
It was a shame we were having so many problems, because the weather today was perfect for walking, being a bit breezier than yesterday but still warm and sunny. As Harri kept his eyes firmly peeled for waymarks, I noticed a distinctive mountainous ridge beyond Lourinhã and wondered if this might, in fact, be the same lone mountain we could see in the distance when we were walking from Tomar to Ferreira do Zêzere. It had fascinated me then, and it continued to fascinate me, rising as it did from an otherwise flattish landscape.
The GR11 signs had directed us inland again and we were now walking along what felt like one very long street traditional whitewashed properties along an endless ridge. It just went on and on, with villages apparently running into one another like they do in the Rhondda valley. Every so often, there would be a gap in the housing to our left and we’d be treated to spectacular views towards Lourinhã and that mountain. (I later checked Google maps and the mountain I could see was Serra de Montejunto, a protected landscape.) Everywhere, local people greeted us in a genuinely friendly manner, no doubt wondering why two rucksack-carrying hikers were walking through their village and not following the GR11 (which we would have, if only we could find it!).
Thirsty and hungry, we decided to follow a track leading out of the village and in the direction of the ocean. We hoped it would be a short cut to the coast, but alas, it came to an abrupt end amid chest-high vegetation and we no option but to retrace our steps uphill. Yet again, we found ourselves working our way around a maze of agricultural fields and, purely by chance, we stumbled upon another GR11 waymark. It was now nearly 4pm and about time we sat down and had something to eat. All day Harri had been moaning his rucksack felt heavy … now we discovered he’d been carrying all the food (including mine!). He’d been so eager to pack away all the carrier bags this morning, he hadn’t noticed that he was taking my fair share of the food too!
We had roughly seven kilometres left of a 31-kilometre day and we were tiring rapidly. It’s a lot harder on the legs to walk through uneven fields than along cycle paths I can tell you! Unfortunately, our delight at finding the GR11 waymark was short-lived. Immediately after ‘lunch’, we started walking only to find the route ahead was fenced off By now, the GR11 was becoming a dirty word. It’s supposed to be an international route, but how anyone manages to follow it in this part of Portugal was beyond us. Rather than turn around again, we decided to scale the padlocked gate, each of us holding it still for the other to clamber over. I hadn’t seen Harri so infuriated for a long time.
The rest of the afternoon’s walking was tough, with a roller-coaster quality about the route … up, up, up before plunging back down to sea level. The earlier breeze had died down and it was too hot for so much uphill walking. Now the GR11 clung steadfastly to the busy road, apart from the places where the way-marking was so ambiguous you might have turned off in error. We were so weary that we could barely outrun a gaggle of geese and were grateful when their ‘owner’ – a local man – called them off!
As we approached Porto Novo along a busy, bend-ridden, pavement-less road, Harri turned to me and said, ‘This is the worst signed long-distance path we’ve ever walked and also one of the most convoluted, pointless routes we have ever attempted.’ Harsh words indeed from an exhausted, but generally very patient, Dr Roberts.
Maybe it was because it was the end of a long and frustrating day, but I struggled to hide my disappointment with Porto Novo, especially as this was our last night on the Silver Coast. The resort is located at the mouth of the Alcabrichel river and while the beach was pretty, there was next to nothing on our side of the river except our hotel, its adjoining restaurant and another bar/cafe. After a 31-kilometre hike and all those cabbages, I wanted entertainment … a lively, promenade at the very least.
Our hotel room was gorgeous and overlooked the sea, but it was our bathroom that most fascinated me. For reasons known only to the designers, the bath was shunted into a narrow ‘corridor’ and surrounded by three walls. It was hard work climbing into it from the raised platform at the bottom and reminded me of a very funny ‘Property Ladder’ episode where Sarah Beeney tried to talk a property developer out of a very similar layout.
Too exhausted to dine in the hotel restaurant, we made do with beefburgers and beer in the cafe, and then we decided to call time on what had been a very long and frustrating day.
If you want to follow in our footsteps, download our route from Peniche to Porto Novo (31.26km).
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.