Four days ago, we’d glimpsed the twin peaks of Fóia (902 metres) and Picota (774 metres) in the Serra de Monchique for the first time. Later this afternoon – towards the end of a very long day’s hiking – we would at last be climbing the lower of the Algarve’s two highest mountains.
As excited as we were to be heading to the big mountains, we were under no illusion that today’s walking was going to be anything other than demanding. The Via Algarviana guide describes the section as ‘muito difícil’ and after yesterday’s close call we weren’t taking any chances. There would be no villages or water fountains on the trail today so we needed to carry even more liquid than on previous days.
It was a huge relief to step outside into a warm breeze this morning, even if the downside was being continually bombarded with tiny flying stones. It’s never easy retracing your tracks on a long-distance hike, even when it’s unavoidable. Eventually, we reached the point we’d left the Via Algarviana yesterday and we were finally on our way.
For the next few hours, we weaved our way up hill and down, following a dusty, rocky track and enjoying open vistas in all directions. From the outset there was plenty of scrambling up loose stone tracks, followed in quick succession by some pretty hairy downhill sections.
The cooler weather meant less stressing about water and more time spent enjoying the gorgeous landscape. We passed several abandoned and dilapidated farmhouses – of no interest to overseas buyers because they lacked road access – and even spotted a deer scrambling up an incline. Every step was taking up closer to the soaring Monchique massif and we were now able to make out the whitewashed farms and villas dotted over all its slopes.
These mountains were created millions of years ago when igneous rocks deep below the surface erupted creating a syenite laccolith (intrusion). This magma did not reach the surface but the laccolith pushed the schist layers upwards creating a permanent ridge and the Algarve’s highest peaks. The result, as any visitors to the Algarve will agree, is a pretty spectacular landscape.
Fortunately, I’m no longer scared of river crossings because there were several this afternoon, including three crossings of the Ribeira de Monchique. For once, I chose to wade across, enjoying the cooling effect of the waters on my aching feet.
Being seasoned hikers but completely useless tourists, we ambled straight past the famous Fonte Santa da Fornalha (hot springs) not realising the ruin on our right was a significant historic site. The medicinal benefits of the water seem doubtful though … King João died in nearby Alvor in 1495, the same year he is alleged to have bathed in the springs.
Finally it was time to climb the most beautiful mountain in the Algarve. The sky was cloudless and the air deliciously scented with eucalyptus and pine as we trekked up the stony, rutted track lined with huge rocky outcrops. Far below, we could see the Atlantic Ocean glittering in the sunshine, but for now we were content to enjoy the stunning mountain scenery. Unlike neighbouring Fóia, Picota has no buildings on its summit, although its slopes are scattered with lived-in and dilapidated homesteads.
Forest fires are a continual concern in Portugal and the propensity of the non-indigenous and highly-flammable eucalyptus tree has only exacerbated the risk. After two terrible years in the early 2000s, when tens of thousands of hectares were devastated by fire, the forest landscape was re-designed to make it more resistant to fire in the future. Now there are naturally fire-resistant cork oak trees creating natural fire barriers within the eucalyptus plantations.
Our first thought when the trail started to descend was that we’d somehow missed Picota’s 774-metre summit. After hours of tough climbing, we felt somewhat cheated … until we started heading uphill again. After another long, upwards haul, we finally emerged onto an open, rocky area with a further steep clamber to the faded red, black and white trig point and a rickety-looking watch tower.
By now the wind had picked up again and it was too blustery to linger on the summit for more than a few minutes (Harri was scared I’d be blown away, though I felt this was unlikely). We ambled through cork woods and more eucalyptus groves, passing ever-grander villas with enviably landscaped gardens as our route meandered pleasingly down the hillside. Eventually, we emerged in Monchique where my poor befuddled brain mistook a life-size model of a donkey pulling a cart for the real thing.
In all, we had walked 31 kilometres today. We were tired, our feet ached and it would be another two hours before we tasted our first beers of the day. Such is the life of a long-distance walker!
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.