Which meant I was rather pleased when Harri decided he’d like to walk the first section of the Caminho Nascente between the two towns, stay overnight in Vila Real and walk the return route to Tavira along the coast and Ria Formosa the following day.
Since the pandemic arrived to disrupt everyone’s travel plans, we have been celebrating our respective birthdays closer to home with two overnight hiking trips each. In June, I chose routes to Salir and Monchique, while Harri has opted for a couple of coastal walks (we have yet to walk his second route from Faro to Albufeira).
Vila Real was, in fact, our first ever overnight stop in the Algarve back in May 2015. We were there just one night before setting off by bus to Alcoutim the following morning to walk the Via Algarviana. A few years later, in March 2018, we returned to catch the ferry across the Guadiana river to Ayamonte in Spain and follow the Caminho Natural del Guadiana to Villablanca. The weather was awful, the route was so flooded we had to wade through knee-deep water more than once and we were eventually picked up and driven to our accommodation by a very kind Spanish lady.
Fortunately, the early November weather was perfect for hiking and, though the air was a bit chilly when we set off from Tavira at 9.15am, the sky was clear.
I’m not entirely up to speed on the many caminhos in Portugal; however, I understand the Caminho Nascente is a relatively new route starting in Tavira (outside the Church of Santiago) and continuing over 600 km to the medieval town of Trancoso in the Beira region. I’d love to think we’d complete the entire caminho one day; however, first we have another one to finish (the Caminho de Santiago).
We’d be covering around 31 km today, but the terrain here in coastal eastern Algarve is much flatter than in the central region (which was just as well as my feet were still aching from my various end-of-week running and hiking pursuits).
Apart from the excitement of visiting pastures new, I was trying out my new Technicals rucksack for the first time, which technically speaking is actually a large daypack. I bought it two months ago in Cardiff because my much-loved and well-used GoLite rucksack was literally disintegrating (something which probably had more to do with the umpteen times I stuffed it with supermarket shopping rather than carrying too much on hiking trips. My plan to buy a women’s rucksack was quickly abandoned when a) I clocked the shockingly high prices, and b) I noted they all had frames (something I hate). So an oversized daypack it was and, to be fair, it fits my little shoulders far better than my old one ever did.
Tavira’s a pretty place and I might have considered living here had Harri not ruled it out because it’s located few kilometres up the Gilão river with the closest beaches being on the Rio Formosa. He enjoys his undulating clifftop runs too much to live somewhere as flat as the Netherlands.
The caminho leaves Tavira on the Ecovia Litoral, a long-distance bike route (214 km) which links Vila Real de Santo António on the Spanish border with Cabo de São Vincente in the far west of the Algarve. We’ve had mixed experiences when walking sections of the Ecovia in the past. The section between Olhão to Faro should come with a health warning as it involves walking along the edge of the fast-moving N125 road. On the other hand, the route is a delight to walk in and around Porches and Lagoa.
So far so good in Tavira, I thought, as we meandered around a labyrinth of salt pans, captivated first by wading birds and then by a black cat which had somehow managed to position itself on the top of a large polytunnel. The landscape here is so completely different to the undulating countryside around Armação de Pêra and goodness does it attract cyclists. Within minutes of leaving Tavira, Harri was worrying he’d soon be scooping me off the ground following an altercation with a bike (I don’t have a good track record of avoiding them!!).
Not that cycling isn’t a wonderful hobby … it’s just not much fun if you happen to be hiking on a bike route. “I feel like the only person wearing clothes on a nudest beach,” Harri confided, as the thousandth bike of the morning whizzed past.
We reached Cabanas unscathed and were able to relax slightly as we joined the raised boardwalk along the promenade, pausing to take in the view at low tide. Harri assured me it would look prettier on our return walk tomorrow when the tide would be in.
Despite my lukewarm reaction, Cabanas turned out to be far more appealing than other sections of the route. In fact, we’d barely left town when we stumbled upon a road surfacing operation which continued for several kilometres and involved us leaping off the track every few minutes to avoid a steam roller or a gravel truck … or cars … or more cyclists. In the background, someone was having fun with a chainsaw. There were no walkers … anywhere.
Unfortunately, the caminho seemed to be sticking to the busy Ecovia like glue so we dug deep and kept forging ahead. Eventually, the road widened and we breathed a sigh of relief. A lone walker passed us, head down. We knew how he felt.
The caminho/Ecovia passes Cacela Velha, a tourist hotspot which had always intrigued me. We did a short detour and wandered around, taking in the cashpoint machine, the tourist stalls, the numerous AL signs (accommodation) and the busy restaurant. There is a 17th century fortress, but it was closed. In truth, the best thing about the place was the sweeping views across the Ria Formosa below and towards Spain.
We rejoined the road, understanding now why the road was so busy: everyone was heading to Cacela Velha for lunch.
At Manta Rota, we found a bench and ate our lunch in a deserted street. I have to admit my spirits were plummeting. I’m not sure what I’d expected but it wasn’t dullness of this magnitude. Moreover, the constant pounding on flat surfaces meant our feet were already aching.
Things picked up briefly as we left Manta Rota on a pleasant carless track, but too soon we arrived in Altura, a soulless, purpose-built resort which, in early November, was as dead as a California ghost town. By now I was definitely dragging my feet. I’d eagerly anticipated this trip, but it certainly wasn’t living up to its promise.
After what felt like an interminable walk around the outskirts of Altura, we joined the N125. Yep, the Ecovia to the east of Altura directs people onto the hard shoulder of the busiest road in the Algarve. To our right, the undulating landscape covered in stone pines was enticing but securely fenced.
When we eventually turned off the EN125 it was to follow a wide, rough-surfaced road through another deserted development a stone’s throw away from Praia do Cabaço. Retur – as we believe it’s called – had rows of what appeared to be abandoned townhouses on one side (overgrown trees and shrubs, shutters in much need of painting, rubble piled up in one front garden, etc) and beautiful stone pine forestry on the other. We overtook a slow-moving man, the only other person we saw in this second sad, deserted resort.
We came to the end of the housing and joined the most perfect sandy footpath running below stone pines interspersed with large numbers of prickly pears. To our left – and fenced off – was a reed-lined lagoon. After the trials and tribulations of the earlier route, we felt our spirits lift.
Monte Gordo was a pleasant surprise. Our Albufeira lettings agent Vicente hates the place – and there are a lot of hotels – but we rather liked the wide beach, with its grassy sand close to the promenade, fishermen’s huts and boardwalks closer to the ocean. We stopped for a beer at a bar overlooking the beach and nearly fell off our chairs when the bill came … one euro for a bottle of beer. Monte Gordo felt like a proper town rather than just a resort. It was also nice to be looking out on the open sea again.
While we were drinking our beers, I checked Outdoor Active and realised I’d done it … I’d achieved my 1,500 kilometre hiking challenge for 2021. I must admit I’m pretty pleased about this, especially as I’ve not walked as much this year due to more work commitments. I frequently forget to log shorter walks too. It’ll be interesting to see how many kilometres I can now clock up before the end of the year when the challenge officially ends.
Harri suggested we avoid the final section of road walking into Vila Real de Santo António and instead walk through Mata Nacional das Dunas Litorais, a coastal forest which was planted in 1902, in part to stabilise the sand dunes. The sandy ground gave our aching feet a much-needed reprieve from hard surfaces.
In all we covered 31.2 kilometres today. We thought we’d find it easier because the terrain was so much flatter than we’re used to, but we actually found the endless flat walking made our feet ache more!
Would I recommend walking the Ecovia from Tavira to Vila Real – not a chance!!