To say we were a little bit excited about our first weekend away this winter would be an understatement. And while we enjoy exploring new places, we were delighted to be returning to two of our favourite Algarve resorts – Ferragudo and Carvoeiro.
Anyone who knows Albufeira well will know that the railway station is roughly seven kilometres out of town in Ferreiras . When we’re travelling by train we always walk there and mostly follow the main road, which is not a particularly scenic route but it gets us there. But not this time.
The people behind the Via Algarviana have unexpectedly unveiled a new link route from Albufeira to Alte. Harri spotted the information board outside the (closed for winter) tourist information centre a few days ago and has been eager to investigate. As the waymarked routes runs through Ferreiras, today seemed the perfect opportunity to follow it. The good news is that it’s a really pretty route following mostly quiet tracks and historic lanes; the no-so-good discovery was that it’s over a kilometre longer than our usual route, with the result that it took us about an hour and 20 minutes to reach the station (ten minutes longer than usual). The Algarve’s coast train only runs every two hours, which meant we were marching like a Roman soldiers towards the end, terrified we’d miss it!
Another ‘first’ was being able to see out of the train windows. We’ve grown to expect them to be almost entirely covered with brightly-coloured graffiti so it was a pleasant change to be able to gaze out of the window for our 40-minute journey.
We’ve never caught a train to Ferragudo before (last winter we walked through it on our way to Portimão) and I was surprised to see how much retail development there is on the outskirts of this pretty little fishing village (including a Lidl!). We followed a busy road towards an open area lined with fishy-smelling warehouses, numerous lorries and boats before joining a sandy footpath through towering grasses along the Arade river. We’d timed our arrival perfectly because the Santa Bernada – a replica of an old sailing boat which takes tourists to look at the Algarve’s spectacular caves – was just motoring past.
It was 10.30am and already very hot and still. The tide was out and several local anglers perched motionless along the sandy shoreline; from a distance, the high-rise apartment blocks of Portimão created an impressive skyline and looked less like an example of bad town planning. What I like most about Portimão (apart from the stunning Praia da Rocha) is that the mountains feel so near; from here Fóia and Picota look deceptively close (and the distance is deceptive because, as we discovered, there are an awful lot of hills to climb before you reach the highest peaks in the Algarve).
Since arriving back in Albufeira, I’ve called into the local cat charity shop most Tuesdays and, when I mentioned we were heading to Ferrugado this weekend, the always-helpful Caroline and Vicky suggested I paid the donkey charity shop here a visit. Fortunately, we located it easily and I was able to buy two small items (one brand new) for the Christmas shoe box I’m filling.
We joined our first beach of the day where, despite it being a warm and sunny Saturday morning, there were just three other people besides us (we really can’t fathom out why the season is so short here when the weather continues to be fantastic well into the autumn and even winter months). Harri had been hoping we could avoid a steep climb around the privately-owned Fort of São João do Arade but the tide was just that little bit too high for wading around the base of the cliff so up the hill we trudged.
Back on the coast, we wandered along Praia Grande, an even bigger stretch of white sand than the previous one but equally devoid of people. At least some of the beach bars were still open. Lined up at the back of the beach, their tropical gardens designed to put a safe distance between the outdoor seating areas and the crumbling sandstone cliffs, they presented an idyllic scene. It was a shame it was a little too early to stop for a beer!
By now, Harri was desperate to get into the sea so we settled ourselves down for a while on the warm sand. I read while he went off for his dip, reporting back that the sea was warmer than it is at home in the summer. It would have been nice to linger there on the white sand, enjoying the shallow turquoise waters and the views across the estuary, but we had a hotel booked the far side of Carvoeira.
The walking had been mostly level until now, but as we climbed the steep steps from the beach the memories came flooding back to me. We’d hiked this section of coast between Christmas and New Year last winter, only in the opposite direction. Too late, I remembered how tough the walking had been at times, to the point that we’d skipped one particularly hairy section and done a lengthy detour around numerous hotels and villas.
As we climbed, the views just got better and better. The sea was so clear that we could see fish swimming far below. Every time I stopped to gaze at the scenery, Harri would disappear into the scrubby vegetation and I’d struggle to catch him up again. It was seriously hot now, which made us wonder what on earth the heat must be like in July and August.
Sea erosion – the only topic I ever liked in O level geography lessons – is a very real problem in the West Algarve and the same sandstone cliffs that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year are crumbling at a terrifying rate (the cliffs above beaches have to be checked regularly to ensure the safety of visitors). We’d passed some beautiful clifftop villas and it was frightening to see the huge caves below them gradually undermining the cliffs. Sinkholes too are ever-present here, some so deep that you can be walking metres from the cliff-edge and yet still hear the waves lashing rocks below your feet. You get the sense that any moment the ground beneath your feet might just fall away, sending you tumbling into the waves.
Portugal has experienced one of its driest summers in decades and it hasn’t rained properly here in the Algarve since the spring. The lack of rain means the ground is incredibly dry with many loose stones, making some of our descents quite hairy. That said, the clay-like nature of the soil in these parts means that when it gets wet the ground gets very cloying and slippery. Dry or wet conditions, this is a coastline you must treat with respect – and plenty of care.
While it might be impossible to get completely lost on a coastal hike, it is very easy to veer off onto a headland or follow a footpath that clings precariously close to the cliff-edge, or even descend needlessly into a valley (with the steep climb out). With that in mind – and the huge number of meandering paths along these clifftops – we’d been following a man walking purposefully ahead of us for some time. His pace, and lack of hesitation when there was a fork in the path, suggested he knew exactly where he was going. Unfortunately, our strategy was foiled when, halfway up a clamber from another steep valley, he chose a narrow path clinging to the crumbling cliff-edge. We looked at the sheer drop, then glanced down at the crashing waves and shook our heads. His route was far too precarious for us.
I remarked casually to Harri that I couldn’t remember the hiking being quite this tough last time around. There was a pause before he admitted we hadn’t actually walked this section of coastline previously. This was the bit we would have walked had we not abandoned our coastal walking and headed slightly inland to find firmer ground. Minutes later, as we clambered up a very steep, rocky footpath next to a green plastic fence (useful for hanging onto), it all came flooding back to me. In December, we’d struggled halfway down these rocks, glanced up at the uneven, steep ground ahead and turned back. Harri had cunningly got me to walk the bit of coastline we’d missed out last time by suggesting we do it in the opposite direction.
Weary now, we stopped for a drink on the seafront in Carvoeira where we encountered what must be the most vicious cat in Portugal. This enormous leonine creature looked friendly enough as it wandered under my seat, but when I reached out to stroke it, it snarled angrily and attacked my hand drawing blood with its claws. While Harri was scolding me for attempting to touch a strange cat too near its nether regions, a young woman on another table did the same thing – with exactly the same result. Next a man was attacked, leading to a small girl at the same table bringing her legs up onto her chair because she was so terrified of this wild animal!
Thankfully the last mile or so was easy walking, most of it along extensive boardwalks which run above the rock formations of the Algar Seco. If we hadn’t been reaching the end of a demanding walk, it would have been fun to leave the boardwalks and explore the network of caves, tunnels and sculptures below but it would have involved a lot more steps and we simply didn’t have the energy.
We reached the Hotel Baia Crystal above Praia de Vale Centeanes at around 4.30pm. Once again, Harri had found us a bargain and we were paying just 45 euros for an overnight stop with breakfast. The icing on the cake was being allocated a room with a balcony overlooking the sea, where we sat for a blissful half an hour sipping our complementary water, reading and watching the sun setting over the sea.
What’s not to love about the Algarve, eh?