With our last weekend of Algarve hiking looming, we were undecided where we should head. We love coastal walking, especially when the sun is shining; however, over the past few months we have walked the Algarve coastline from Tavira to Lagos, albeit spitting the walking over several trips and allowing for the impassable lagoon entrance between Alvor and Meia Praia beach (we caught a bus to Lagos and backtracked). It was time to head elsewhere … to the unspoilt hills of inland Algarve.
Earlier in the week, the BBC weather website had promised wall-to-wall sunshine – and on Friday it felt more like a summer day than late February – so, after much deliberation, we eventually decided upon Loulé. We have visited this traditional market town on two previous occasions (in 2015) and liked it very much. Another draw for me – though less so for Harri – was the Loulé Carnival, a three-day event which is one of the biggest in the Algarve. We’d watched the huge fireworks display in Albufeira on New Year’s Eve; this carnival was another must-see!
With no nine o’clock train to catch on Saturday morning, we rose later than usual (we’re going to miss those Friday nights at Arte Bar) and didn’t start walking until nearly half past nine. It didn’t matter, the days are already getting longer and we had plenty of time to walk the 15 miles to Loulé.
Our walks usually include as much rural walking as possible, so I was a little surprised when Harri steered me towards Old Town and then up the hill past Albufeira Shopping. It transpired we’d be following the old main road out of Albufeira and along the coastal strip before heading inland to the hills as we neared Loulé. While this sounded like a great idea in theory, we hadn’t reckoned on their being so much traffic around on an out-of-season Saturday morning. Believe me, when you’re walking single file along a narrow strip of designated cycle/pedestrian path, every car can feel as though it’s thundering past at a hundred miles an hour.
Every second property seemed to be selling bags of oranges and the low prices – sometimes just 1.5 euros for 5kg – realised just how pricey ‘turistic’ Albufeira is compared to the outlying towns and villages. We paid more than twice that amount when we stopped to buy oranges at the roadside in Ferreiras last weekend and still thought we were getting a bargain compared to supermarket prices.
Eventually – and after shuddering at the frequent tragic victims of the traffic (two cats, a snake and a bird) – we decided enough was enough. Harri checked his online mapping and said if I didn’t mind walking a little further, we could cross the railway just after Boliqueime and follow a twisting B road. I didn’t mind … I’d have walked another ten miles to escape the endless, thundering traffic and more bodies.
It was the best decision we could have made. Within minutes the scenery had improved one-hundred fold and we found ourselves meandering along pretty, peaceful lanes past dry orchards, abandoned stone terraces and blossoming almond trees. The few locals we saw were friendly and smiling, and the traffic had all but disappeared.
Sadly, the promised sunshine hadn’t materialised but it was definitely warming up, so when we spotted a bar in Pedra de Água we decided to stop for a beer. We sat outside next to a group of men we assumed to be locals; we soon discovered how assumptions can be wrong. They were all builders and two hailed from Romania, one from Angola and one from Pakistan. Only one of the Romanians spoke any English but between glasses of medronho he managed to enlighten us about his friends … and his marital problems. He also seemed concerned that we’d somehow confused this sleepy little village with nearby bustling Loulé!
The rest of the afternoon’s walking was along dusty, undulating tracks, reminiscent of many sections of the Via Algarviana. The main Via Algarviana doesn’t run through Loulé, of course, but there is a link route (which we’ve walked) from Loulé railway station in the south to Salir in the north. The scrubby landscape in these parts is not to everyone’s liking, but we adore the sense of solitude and space in the Algarve’s hillier regions. We sat on boulders near the Cerro de Cabeço de Cãmara, entertained (and impressed) by the paragliders soaring above the 159-metre hilltop. Now I’m older, I can hardly believe I was ever brave enough to go micro-lighting … not once but several times.
Last time we’d approached Loulé from below, but now we had a bird’s eye view of the entire city, including the landmark Shrine of Nossa Senhora da Piedade. With its wonderful hilltop location, the dome-shaped shrine is visible for miles around. We crossed below the motorway and finally left rough track to join a long, straight road into town. The first indication that anything out of the ordinary might be taking place was when we reached Loulé’s historic centre and started spotting excited children wearing fancy dress.
We had no idea of the carnival itinerary, other than knowing the event took place over several days, Saturday being the first. As we neared the main street, we could hear loud music and singing. Harri started to question the wisdom of booking a central hotel room on carnival night. Having walked nearly 16 miles in the heat, he chose this moment to tell me that he’d never actually liked carnivals, even as a child.
He needn’t have worried, because with no idea where or when any of the key carnivals events were happening, we managed to miss the carnival procession and most of Saturday’s entertainment. There were some entertainers performing on a stage in the street, several large figures and some dancing in the street, but we got the impression the best was yet to come … or we’d already missed it! Curiously, we witnessed more of the merriment and partying in Loulé while we rested in our hotel room watching RPT1 than we actually saw with our own eyes. The moral here, of course, is to check out what’s happening and when before you set off!