After much deliberation over the constantly changing forecast, we finally decided to take a risk and head west for a few days’ hiking prior to my family visiting for the New Year. Harri had worked out a four-day circular route beginning and ending at Lagos railway station. The plan was to follow a Via Algarviana link route to Bensafrim and then continue along the waymarked trail to reach Barão de São João on day one. Day two would see us sticking to the Via Algarviana all the way to Vila do Bispo before heading to the coast and walking back to Lagos on days three and four.
Unfortunately, the weather – which we’d deemed relatively promising in Albufeira – was worsening the farther west we travelled. There was a moment of excitement when we spotted spotted a sparrow hawk (identified by Harri) sitting on a fence alongside the railway line in Lagos but other than that our collective mood had taken a nosedive along with the weather by the time we left train.
Since our last visit to Lagos, it seems the old railway station building has been sold, although the vendido sign on the facade seemed unnoticed by a local woman. Having clocked me taking photographs of the beautiful green flowered azulejos on the exterior walls and establishing I spoke English, she demanded to know why I didn’t buy the station? Perhaps her forthrightness should have surprised me more; however, we are fast realising that the minute we open our mouths many Portuguese people assume we are a) English, and b) extremely wealthy and c) potential purchasers of any ruin, property or land, whatever the price.
The familiar Via Algarviana waymarks were nowhere to be seen as we left town, but Harri had downloaded a map so had a rough idea of our route out of Lagos. One of the best things about Lagos is its apparent love affair with street art. We had just paused to admire and photograph a large murale painted on the side of an empty building when a young girl approached with a big smile and an enormous fungus. Please would one of us photograph her standing next to the painting, she asked? It was only then we realised the bearded man lazing on the floor in the picture was, in fact, inspecting a toadstool. We obliged, of course, amused by the girl’s desire for artistic symmetry.
Harri was still grumbling about the lack of waymarking when we finally spotted a wooden post bearing the familiar red and white lines, after which the waymarking improved dramatically. We soon left Lagos behind and joined a pleasant albeit puddle-filled track with great distant views of Foia and Picota. The highest peaks in the Serra de Monchique (and the Algarve) were basking in sunshine below some pretty wisps of white cloud. Our spirits instantly lifted … if the mountains were clear then surely it was a sign that the weather was improving?
Though the walking was pleasant and our rural surroundings very pretty, there was nowhere to stop to eat until we reached a tiny hamlet with a bus stop. We’d barely got going again when we encountered a very confusing waymark. It seemed to suggest that the Via Algarviana link route went straight across a field – and a fenced-off field at that. This was clearly wrong and it didn’t take me long to click that the wobbly wooden post bearing the waymark – and wedged between some rocks – must have fallen over at some point and been replaced the wrong way round. This clearly needed rectifying to prevent future walkers traipsing across that field.
In the vicinity of Colégio – a pretty, traditional village with many recently-renovated properties – barking dogs were the order of the day. After first avoiding the dubious attentions of a Labrador, we almost immediately found ourselves being chased along a quiet road by three large, fierce-looking dogs. Believing we were about to be savaged to death on a quiet Algarvian back road, I screamed ‘help’ at the top of my voice. Just in time, the dogs’ owner came rushing out of his house to call his hounds to heel. Phew, that was a close call. Have I mentioned before that Portugal is not the place to go hiking if you’re frightened of dogs? Okay, I may be guilty of repeating myself, but only because it’s true. When we first starting visiting Madeira, we were shocked by the number of dogs roaming the streets without collar or apparent owner. A decade later, we have become as nonchalant about free-range dogs as the Portuguese themselves .. except on the rare occasion (like today) when the mutts are likely to pose a danger to life and limb.
We had been deliberating about whether or not to stop for a beer at Bensafrim (cold beer is far less appealing in mid winter) but now it seemed we had little choice. We had been covering the kilometres so quickly that if we carried on to Barão de São João without stopping we’d be arriving at our accommodation mid-afternoon.
We were last in Bensafrim in May 2015 when the temperature was uncharacteristically hot for spring and the surrounding vegetation was parched. What a difference the seasons make; today, the hills were so verdant we might well have been walking in Wales.
After a quick beer and a free orange (I tried to pay but the cafe owner wouldn’t have any of it), we left Bensafrim on the main Via Algarviana route.
In my book The Via Algarviana: Walking 300km across the Algarve, I talk about the much-heralded High Performance Football Centre Algarve project which was given the go-ahead in 2015 and will provide world-class facilities for professional and serious athletes to learn, train and recover. Unsurprisingly, given Portugal’s national obsession with ‘the beautiful game’, the 610-hectare site will have a central football complex plus an additional eight football/rugby fields. Eight tennis courts, a swimming pool, off-road bike trails and an advanced-technology gym and spa were also planned, with water sports available at the nearby Bravura reservoir.
Perhaps we were wrong, but back in 2015, we understood a huge fenced-off area alongside the Via Algarviana route had been earmarked for this huge scheme. Two-and-a-half years later it was clear that nothing had happened on site … except now there were lines of trees (their diminutive and standard size confirmed they had been planted relatively recently). Had we been mistaken or has the ambitious project been postponed or cancelled? I decided to check. The website is still live (although it’s not being updated) and the project was being talked about in Portugal Resident as late as December 2015.
We saw a van parked alongside the track and spotted a man working in the field. As we approached, he called out to Harri to give him a hand with the post he was trying to set in cement. Harri started to pull off his rucksack, but the man laughed and said he was only joking. It transpired he was South African and was just erecting gate posts on land he owned. We got chatting and he asked where we were from and what we were doing in the Algarve? When we said we were staying in Albufeira for the winter, he retorted ‘Why do you want to live in a British colony?’
Yet again we found ourselves defending Albufeira, a city we have found to be very cosmopolitan and welcoming. In Arte Bar, where we drink regularly, we have friends from Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Trinidad, England and yes, even one from South Africa. We talk to tourists from America, Australia, Canada and almost every European country. We talk about Portugal, travel, politics – even after 18 months, our European friends remain dumbfounded by the UK’s determination to leave the EU – history, property and request and receive advice on all manner of subjects. We haven’t for one minute regretted our decision to winter in Albufeira for a second time and just wish people would stop making assumptions about Albufeira without even visiting the place, e.g. the self-important know-it-all (man) at Cardiff airport last year who informed us Albufeira wasn’t the ‘proper’ Algarve while Anglicising the pronunciation of every Portuguese place name he mentioned … you know the type!
Last time we walked this route I didn’t realise how close it brought us to Lagos Zoo, but in fact we found ourselves walking immediately behind the high external walls. Perhaps because it was winter and much cooler, but this time around we could hear intriguing animal sounds and birdsong. As zoos go, it’s a relatively small enterprise which was established by animal lover and conservationist Paulo Figueiras in the late 1990s and opened its doors in November 2000. Unfortunately, the house on the opposite side of the road didn’t seem so concerned about animal welfare, or the sensitivities of those walking past who had to endure the stench emanating from the unkempt and filthy yard full of pigs (naturally very clean animals) and barking dogs.
In terms of walking, our route had been relatively easy and short; however, the day’s greyness deflated our spirits and we were relieved when we reached Barão de São João.
After our first visit I had written, ‘I didn’t fall in love with Casa de João instantly, in fact it was more of a gradual affair, but fourteen hours later when we were leaving the property, I knew that this was the sort of place I’d love one day to own and perhaps run myself. The furniture and fittings were dated and would certainly benefit from some investment, but its architectural merits and stunning views towards the Serra de Monchique more than made up for the old-fashioned bathrooms.’
I don’t know if my critical judgement was obscured by weariness and too much sun, but I do know that our 30 euro-accommodation failed to impress on this cold winter afternoon. In fact, my heart sank as I realised the place had gone downhill since our last visit. Still scrupulously clean, but lacking in any home comforts, I wondered what had induced us to return (no alternative?).
The beds – each with just one pillow –- had been pushed against one wall; there were no bedside cabinets, just the one built-in wardrobe. The elderly Portuguese owner clearly didn’t remember us which was fine (it was over two years ago after all) but this inevitably meant we were treated like newcomers and forced to wander from terrace to terrace expressing delight as she revealed the near and distant views.
The beautifully proportioned top floor room with its views of Foia and Picota seemed to be functioning as a laundry room for there were sheets and towels hanging everywhere and an ironing board set up at one end. As soon as we could, we bade our host adeus and returned miserably to our room where we shifted the few items of furniture around so we each had somewhere to rest our belongings at the side of the bed. Even our small terrace – shared with two other rooms – looked dank and dirty under the grey clouds.
To add insult to injury, the shower refused to run even warm and the heating didn’t seem to be working. Everything was scrupulously clean, it was just that Casa de João felt so rundown and unloved we couldn’t wait to get outside again.
There’s not a lot to do on a chilly winter evening in Barão de São João so we inevitably ended up in a bar/restaurant where the owner immediately recognised how cold we were (the blue lips and chattering teeth must have given the game away) and came across to light the large candle on our table. We reached out and warmed our hands, checked out the decor and decided we liked the look of this little place (the dining room is upstairs). The owner explained that a table for two was available; however, the only thing on the menu on this ‘special night’ was cataplana, a popular traditional dish which gets its name from the copper ‘pot’ it’s cooked in. Maddeningly, we didn’t make a note of the name of this tiny eaterie with just one table downstairs and four upstairs and nothing mentioned on Trip Advisor sounds quite right.
There were lots of nice little touches, like distressed tables and inaccessible wine bottles on the staircase; however, with the kitchen downstairs and the majority of diners upstairs I think a dumb waiter might have come in useful.
It was only after two other parties had left that we got chatting to a Dutch couple who were hiking in the area and staying at the same guesthouse as us. Their room, along the corridor from ours, was equally cold and depressing. Over coffee and tea, we chatted and the owner came upstairs to join us and the atmosphere was intimate and friendly.
Fortunately, the bottle and a half of Mateus Rose we sank had the effect of warming our icy limbs and so, against the odds, we managed to get a decent night’s sleep.