If there’s one thing that Harri does extremely well it’s choosing exquisite hotels. I was too exhausted to really appreciate our surroundings last night but this morning … wow! The panorama from the Hotel de Montanha’s breakfast room was breathtaking (the buffet was pretty good too) and, when we went for a quick stroll around the hotel grounds, it was easy to see how less energetic guests could while away their days around the large pool with its breathtaking mountain views without ever venturing outside the hotel.
We only have just over 21 kilometres to walk today so we spent a little time exploring the hilltop area immediately outside the hotel grounds. Despite being slightly out of the main village, this hilltop area seems to be where it all happens in Pedrógão Pequeno. Before car ownership became widespread villagers would have faced a steep walk to their local church – the Nossa Senhora da Confiança was built in 1902 on the site of a thirteenth-century church – but their efforts would have been rewarded with the most incredible views.
As well as the church, there was what appeared to be a bandstand plus an open-air stage. Presumably this is where the village holds its many festivals. Instead of retracing our steps down the road and back to the main village, we followed a gentle downhill track around the contours of the hilltop and eventually emerged above the vast Cabril dam. In the height of summer the reservoir is popular for sailing, rowing, windsurfing and water-skiing and we could see a small resort on the opposite shore, but on this hot, sunny day in the middle of May the waters were tranquil (the tourism season is surprisingly short here in Central Portugal and doesn’t get underway until June).
From our vantage point, we could also see Pedrógão Grande on the far side of the river. With a population more than five times its tiny neighbour, this was a place that very definitely featured on my original wish-list. A year or so ago, I was working for a small, local charity when my manager brought a stranger into my office to meet me. I’m terrible with names, but it transpired this man had bought a house in Pedrógão Grande for under £30,000 and had completely renovated it for a similar sum. He spoke enthusiastically about his life in Central Portugal and showed me photographs of his new home – a traditional, white-washed stone property. It was all rather exciting … and motivating. It was time to see Pedrógão Grande for ourselves.
We crossed the Cabril dam in warm sunshine and it was hard to remember how wet and cold we’d been just two days earlier. There was very little traffic around when we walked into Pedrógão Grande (presumably most vehicles now cross the river on the IS8 bridge) and our eyes were attracted to what looked like a large wall in the middle of a roundabout. On closer inspection, we realised it was actually a monument dedicated to the town’s bombeiros voluntarios, the voluntary fire-fighters who risk their lives to save others and who are held in high esteem throughout Portugal. The monument shows two fire-fighters – one climbing a ladder – saving a girl from the upstairs window of her burning home. Minutes later, we passed the local bombeiros station where a large banner advertised low-cost meals in the canteen. In Albufeira, it was quite usual to see fundraisers venturing into the traffic to offer to wash car windscreens for a small donation, but we hadn’t realised you can help to raise funds by eating at the fire stations too.
After a quick exploration of town and a trip to the local market, it was time for the first beer of the day. The custard-filled cakes on the counter looked so tempting that, despite having dined like kings at breakfast, we talked ourselves into sharing one. Pedrógão Grande, we decided as we sat there in the sunshine, was a nice little place with just the right amount of hustle and bustle.
Too soon it was time to get going. After a blissfully dog-free day yesterday, we left town and were almost immediately back in the land of canines. There are generally two kinds: the ones with growling jaws are (mostly) locked firmly behind large gates, while those roaming the streets freely are (generally) harmless. There is always an exception though, and when one particularly nasty little critter persisted in chasing after us, determined to grab its mouthful of ankle, Harri was forced to threaten it with a handful of stones.
We reached the village of Escalos do Meio around 2pm and were pleasantly surprised to discover a bar. We settled ourselves down on a bench next to the church with two bottles of beer, a large packet of crisps and some other nibbles and basked in the heat lizard-like for a good half hour. A local man approached us and asked, in excellent English, where it was we were headed? It transpired that he’d worked in Lisbon for years before returning to the village of his birth and renovating his parents’ old house. His attention seemed to ignite the curiosity of others, and as we were leaving the village, I had a somewhat stilted conversation (in that neither of us understood what the other was saying) with an elderly driver who was pulling into his garage.
After our prolonged rest, we struggled to get going again. Fortunately, most of the afternoon’s walking was along quiet, wooded roads so we at least had some shade. The downside was the undulating nature of the terrain. Harri estimated that the final hill before we descended to Castanheira de Pera was higher than the Sugar Loaf (and that’s 596 metres!).
We had just passed a small group of traditional houses in the woods when a local man approached us and asked in Portuguese if we were English. Assuming he’d heard us talking, we said ‘Sim’ (we prefer to tell people we are Welsh, but they frequently look baffled). Smiling encouragingly, he indicated we should retrace our steps for a short distance. It transpired that he had an English neighbour, a woman we judged to be in her early 60s, and was concerned about her wellbeing. Despite living in the hamlet for four years, she spoke no Portuguese; her health wasn’t great and she didn’t drive. This sweet and caring man had heard us speaking to each other in English and thought she’d appreciate some conversation in her native language.
I could see Harri was reluctant to stop again, but the whole situation seemed so tragic that we found ourselves sitting on her garden wall listening to her woes, while she sat drinking (what looked like) red wine from a mug. The woman (I’m not revealing her name for obvious reasons) had done what many of us do – she’d dreamed of a better life (her place in the sun) and had searched online for a house she could afford. Unlike most of us, she then proceeded to purchase the two-bedroom house for 55,000 euros without having ever set eyes on it. In fact, the house itself was very nice (except for some problems with the roof) and her impetuous decision might not have been such a disaster had she bothered learn even a smattering of Portuguese, been able to drive, or been inclined to integrate with local people. She did none of these things, preferring to wallow in her own misery. She complained loudly to us about her Portuguese neighbours and insisted everyone from local builders to taxi drivers was out to rip her off. She had never even bothered to find out the name of the caring, widowed neighbour who stood smiling at her garden gate.
After half an hour of this one-way conversation, I could see Harri was getting fed up but it was difficult to escape without being rude. Before we left, I tried to persuade her to at least learn some Portuguese but I’m holding my breath that she’s willing to do anything to help herself.
Hers was a cautionary tale, I felt. The lure of cheap housing attracted her to rural Portugal, but she clearly hadn’t considered how she would live here without speaking the language or having transport. This woman was fortunate in having such kind, concerned neighbours (we also met the lady who lived next door) but instead of welcoming their friendship and learning some basic Portuguese phrases, she seemed intent on isolating herself. Harri insisted she had no-one to blame but herself for her predicament and he’s probably right.
The final few kilometres to Castanheira de Pera were mostly downhill and we passed some lovely rural properties with plenty of surrounding land but instead of coveting them for myself, I found myself wondering if we too might end up isolated and miserable like the Englishwoman.
Everything in Castenheira de Pera revolves around the Praia das Roches resort – a man-made beach formed by the seasonal damming of the Pera river. A local man told us that between June and September over 120,000 visitors flock here to splash around in waves that are 80 kilometres from the ocean and enjoy water sports like canoeing. On this warm afternoon in May, however, there was no water in the pools, just rows of workmen touching up blue, painted waves on the periphery walls. Like a British seaside resort out of season, it all looked very sad and forlorn.
The lack of visitors meant we had trouble finding someone to let us into our overnight accommodation … one of the resort’s purpose-built chalets. In fact, everywhere seemed deserted and we were starting to panic a little when two women passed us in a car. They pointed to a small wooden shed some way away which served as an unlikely reception area.
Our chalet, when we finally got inside, was really nice with a veranda overlooking the river where we could listen to the sounds of frogs and watch dragonflies, ducks and even a heron passing by. The downside of being so close to stagnant water was the number of flies.
Later, we ventured into a local bar and had what was probably the worst meal of our entire holiday. In fact, the steak was so tough and chewy I was tempted just to leave it there on my plate. Fortunately, two bottles of vinho verde helped and I eventually managed to eat most of my meal.
Our verdict on Castanheira de Pera? There were many things we liked about this place – the feeling of space in the wide valley, the surrounding mountains, the opportunity (in summer) to go swimming outdoors and even the traditional architecture and sense of history here. There were several bars, a small supermarket, lots of banks … we’d even spied buses coming into town. Yet despite the many positives, Castanheira de Pera felt too sleepy for me, more like a holiday resort in winter than somewhere to live the whole year round (we later discovered there was a big football match on that night and you know how the Portuguese love their football!).
If you want to follow in our footsteps, download our route from Pedrogão Pequeno to Castanheira de Pera (21.3 km).
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.