I couldn’t suppress my excitement as I opened the shutters of our Sanlúcar room and gazed across the Rio Guadiana to Alcoutim. Yesterday’s grey clouds had disappeared and the morning sky was clear and blue. It seemed strange that in an hour or two, we’d be setting off on our 300 km journey across the Algarve and yet we were waking up in Spain.
Harri had fretted all evening about our return ferry journey. Though the actual crossing had taken just minutes, our young navigator had shown scant regard for timekeeping (or pleasantries) and Harri was not convinced the 10am ferry from Alcoutim would arrive on time . . . if at all.
‘If we get stuck here in Spain, we could always head downriver on the Spanish side. There’s an established walk there,’ he attempted a joke, but couldn’t disguise the anxiety in his voice.
The apparent vagaries of the ferry service concerned him; we had a long day’s hiking ahead of us, needed to buy food before we left Alcoutim and had no accommodation booked in Balurcos.
With no breakfast to linger over – just one pre-packed slice of cake and a cup of tea each – we arrived at the quayside far too early. Harri stared glumly at Alcoutim, convinced his weeks of preparation had been in vain. Unless we swam back to Alcoutim, it looked as though we’d be walking in Andalusia and not completing the Via Algarviana as planned. The door of the ferry hut in Alcoutim was still firmly shut when we noticed some activity on a jetty slightly farther downstream. Within minutes, a small motorised launch was heading towards us. This was a different ferry operator, but one which put more importance on punctuality. We paid our €2,00 to a smiling boatman and were on our way!
Back in Alcoutim, we stocked up on supplies. Thanks to the time difference between Spain and Portugal, we’d gained an hour mid-river but with a tough 24.2 km hike ahead of us (the official grading of today’s section is ‘difficult’) we needed to get going.
We crossed the bridge of the Ribeira de Cadavais and followed an undulating track alongside the Guadiana through a landscape was dominated by almond, fig and olive orchards. As we climbed, we looked back at Alcoutim and Sanlucar far below and understood how the residents of the two little towns in neighbouring countries often at war had come to rely on each other through the centuries.
Today’s section of the Via Algarviana would first see us heading north along the Guadiana valley, before leaving the river and climbing steeply west to Corte Pereiras. After that, we’d turn south and cross the Cadavais river for the second time to eventually finish in Balurcos, just 7.3 km from our starting point by road.
We weren’t carrying maps – Harri had downloaded the official maps from Via Algarviana website and a German website onto his iPad – so we were relieved that the Via Algarviana appeared to be very well waymarked with the distinctive red and white stripes of all GR footpaths (Grande Rota in Portuguese).
By the time we reached the first village Cortes Perreira, the sun was high in the sky, it was considerably hotter than the average summer’s day in the UK and we were absolutely parched. We stopped at Café Tempero for bottled beer and crisps and were ‘persuaded’ by a local, who’d gone in search of the café owner on our behalf, to buy him tobacco (for just €2,40).
It was great to rest a while in the shade, but very hard to get going again. Further along the track, we paused to take a look at the Menires do Lavajo, a group of prehistoric standing stones discovered in 1998 and dating from the late Neolithic or Chalcolithic period (c. 3500-2800BC). Two of the three decoratively carved menhirs remain on site, and a third incomplete stone is exhibited at Alcoutim’s archaeological museum
We dawdled along the track until we reached the pretty white-washed village of Afonso Vicente, where the only inhabitants we encountered were a line of chickens crossing the road. We crossed the Ribeira de Cadavais again, this time on pebbles, trekked up a steep hill and arrived in Corte Tabelião where we made the most of a water fountain, sipping thirstily before refilling our water bottles. Again, the village appeared completely deserted, perhaps highlighting the serious depopulation of the inland Algarve over recent decades.
In between villages, we walked mostly on dusty, stony, undulating tracks through scrubland. The parched landscape could not be described as mountainous but those steep hills kept coming and coming and the soaring heat made our progress slow.
At Corte da Sede, an elderly man emerged from his home and insisted on filling our water bottles. It was a random act of kindness, the first in a journey filled with such gestures.
Eventually we stopped making encouraging remarks to one another and concentrating on covering the kilometres. Day one and we were already struggling, having underestimated the difficulty of the terrain and the impact of a hot sun and lack of shade.
Torneiro was our last rural hamlet of the day and was again perched on top of a hill. Harri was beginning to fret over tonight’s sleeping arrangements. The only place mentioned in the official guide was the Casa de Campo Vale das Hortas and if there were no rooms available, we’d be wild camping on stony ground.
Far from being turned away, we were the only overnight guests at the Casa and for just €40,00 we were offered a double room with en suite bathroom, small private terrace and continental breakfast. Ice-cold bottles of Sagres were available for €1,00 each and there was a decent-sized swimming pool at our disposal.
After more beer, a quick swim and showers, we headed into Balurcos in search of food. The restaurant mentioned in the guide was closed and for sale; however, we eventually found a small bar where the owner was kind enough to organise cheese sandwiches for us. It was hardly the feast we felt we deserved after such a tough first day, but we were nevertheless grateful to his lovely wife for returning to work to feed us and for attempting to teach two hapless British hikers some essential Portuguese words: pão (bread) and queijo (cheese).
We fell into bed soon after nine, exhausted but content. Day one of the Via Algarviana had proved more physically demanding than we’d imagined, and there were longer and tougher sections ahead. At least it couldn’t get any hotter . . . could it?
For more about Alcoutim visit the village website.
For more information about walking the Via Algarviana visit the official website. A printed guide with individual maps of each section, plus all the link routes are available free of charge (postage is payable).
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.
A ‘Made for iBooks’ version is also available from Apple’s iBookstore.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.
For more photographs of the Via Algarviana visit Pinterest.