At some point in the early hours of the morning I was awoken by a distant beeping noise. Groaning, I rolled over and eventually managed to get back to sleep. It was only when I awoke again hours later that it occurred to me that the noise sounded just like the digital clock on our oven at home … when the fuse box has tripped.
Harri clambered out of bed and confirmed our worst fears. We had accepted our lack of hot water and heating – now seemed we had no electric either. (We later learned from the Dutch hikers that all Barão de São João was without power, although whether this was true or not we had no way of knowing.) Having decided one cold shower in 24 hours was quite enough, Harri and I ‘washed’ with wet wipes and did our best to get ready in semi-darkness. By this point, I was thinking that someone should be paying us to stay at Casa do João.
The electric came back on not long before we left so the Dutch man was probably right about the whole village being hit (they hadn’t wasted any time in ‘escaping’ and were long gone by this time). Of course, having harboured evil thoughts since our arrival, I experienced a pang of remorse when the elderly owner insisted on pushing several homemade, flower-shaped, fig biscuits into our hands as we were leaving. They tasted awful but that wasn’t the point.
Today’s plan was to follow the main Via Algarviana route all the way to Vila do Bispo where we had booked a room at the excellent Casa Mestre. We headed out of Barão de São João, noting that the plaques on the bridge we’d admired last time we were here had disappeared (they depicted the men who had built the bridge in 1973, with one of the wives arriving with food for them), as had the sculpture of a square-jawed man seated with a cat on his lap. We were just lamenting the loss of this second sculpture when Harri spotted it on the verandah of a nearby house, with a real moggy sitting on the man’s head.
The Via Algarviana guide describes today’s section to Vila do Bispo as ‘difficult’. Even in these flatter parts, it seems it is possible to face an accumulated climb of 538 metres. We’d barely starting walking up the forested track out of the village when we noticed some long-limbed figures through the trees. A little research revealed that these are the sculptures of a man called Deodato Inácio Santos, who was born in 1939 and lives in the village. The sculptures we could see were ones he displays in his garden. We realised he must have sculpted the man/cat too and that the veranda we’d just passed was probably his home.
A distant roaring sound had us baffled for a while, until we reached the crest top of the hill. How idiotic could we be? After all the hiking we’ve done in these parts, you’d have thought we’d have recognised the sound of the Algarve’s ubiquitous wind turbines.
For a while we wandered happily along a wide stony track that positively dazzled against the slate-grey clouds above, eventually dropping into a wide valley where Vinha Velho (old vineyard) is situated. The website describes the inspiring story of two brothers, Hubert and Michael, who forty years ago bought the 140-acre site with an inheritance from their father and proceeded to transform it into a wonderful permaculture community at one with nature. Here chickens wander freely all day, cows are not separated from their calves and children are encouraged to help in the vegetable garden. So self-sufficient is this little quinta that it has even created its own reservoirs to collect the winter rains in readiness for the hot, dry summer months.
What has been created from a barren landscape is awe-inspiring and proves how anything is possible providing you have vision and are prepared to put in the physical toil. If I was a few decades younger I would be sorely tempted to join this small ethical community, even if just for a few weeks (there are properties available for rental).
After the delights of the valley floor, we were faced with a steep climb out of it along a rough, stony track. The low-level vegetation allowed us distant views towards the Atlantic Ocean. Rain was forecast again. Slate-coloured clouds gathered threateningly above us and we felt the occasional raindrop splashing onto our bare skin.
Eventually, the sun re-emerged and we seized the sudden change in weather to stop for food. We settled ourselves outside what remained of a ruined farmhouse with two eucalyptus trees growing in one of the roofless rooms. A butterfly skittered over the decaying taipa walls (essentially mud and stone) and we lingered far longer than was wise (given the forecast) in this peaceful spot.
We had reached the Perimetro Floreste de São João (a two-hundred hectare forest with lots of waymarked walks and picnic sites) and were walking through along a wide forestry track when we became aware of a car stopping a few hundred metres behind us. A few seconds later, it sped past us. We glanced behind and saw a dog wandering along the track. Our hearts sank for it seemed obvious that someone was dumping their unwanted pet and, from past experience, we guessed the dog would attach itself to us. We’d got it all wrong though, for the car was soon drawing to a standstill again. Someone opened a window and whistled to the dog. In response, the hound went sprinting off into the distance while the car simply resumed on its journey. We’d seen it all now, we agreed. Hadn’t we just witnessed the laziest dog owner in the world? A moment later, we were berating ourselves, realising it was more likely the person was elderly or disabled. Perhaps this was a way of ensuring their pet had plenty of exercise. I guess we’ll never know – the last we saw of the animal it was racing along the track ahead of us in hot pursuit of a moving vehicle.
Unfortunately, the weather was fast deteriorating and there was light rain in the air. On the relatively flat terrain it was easy to up our pace and we soon caught up with the Dutch couple who confirmed that the power cut at Casa do João was the last straw and they’d left as soon as possible this morning, a good three-quarters of hour ahead of us.
We bade our farewells and agreed to catch up later in Vila do Bispo. On the far side of the N125, we joined a track which took us across some rather pleasant hilly pastures. In May 2015, this stretch of walking had been one of the section highlights; however it was now raining heavily and track’s cloying clay surface was making progress difficult. My size 6 trail shoes were carrying at least a kilo of clay on each foot, which was impossible to dislodge no matter how much foot shaking and stamping I did.
Our spirits raised briefly when the rain eased and the sun made a brief reappearance; however, our plans to stop for a cold beer in Raposeira were thwarted when it started lashing down again. The lack of any hedging or fencing meant there was no protection from the winds ripping across the landscape. The Western Algarve has always reminded us of Cornwall and the weather only added to the feeling that we were back in the UK.
By the time we limped into Raposeira we were wet and miserable, and stopping for a cold anything was the last thing we wanted to do. Vila do Bispo was just a five-kilometre walk away, albeit on the far side of another hill but we agreed to forsake the beer and lunch and just put our heads down and carry on to Vila do Bispo. In fine weather, the five-kilometre route between the two towns has such beautiful views; however, today we walked as fast as the track surface would allow, barely acknowledging our surroundings.
I was soaked through and shivering by the time we reached Casa Mestre, a charming guesthouse where we have stayed on two previous occasions. Unfortunately, like all Algarve accommodation, it is furnished with the hot summer months in mind and there was no heating in our room. We wasted no time in having hot showers and changing into dry clothing. When she spotted Harri pegging our coats and wet outer clothing to the external clothes line (it had briefly stopped raining), the young woman who showed us to our room kindly offered to hang them in her laundry room where they would dry out overnight. Unfortunately, our shoes – filthy and sodden – remained in our room.
Eventually, we managed to warm up and headed out to buy food for tonight’s meal (there is a well-fitted kitchen at Casa Mestre with a large table – and plenty of outdoor seating for those warmer/drier evenings). Vila do Bispo’s streets were empty and the bars closed; the rain had started again, albeit not so heavily. It was all rather depressing, like visiting a UK seaside resort in mid-winter. Our four-day Western Algarve hike wasn’t going to plan, but we still had two days ahead of us when the promised sunshine must surely arrive.
As Scarlett O’Hara once said, ‘After all, tomorrow is another day’.