When Harri and I began walking the Central Camino de Santiago back in October, we had no inkling that eight whole months would pass before we returned to tackle section two from Loulé to Salir.
Such is the nature of pandemics. For several months, we weren’t allowed to venture outside our municipality of Silves at weekends. Before that, work got in the way … and then the Algarve experienced its worst winter in ten years (evidenced by us using every last log in the enormous pile we envisaged would last at least three years).
Now we are allowed to roam freely again, we decided to celebrate my 60th birthday (which was effectively ruined by Boris Johnson’s middle-of-the-day announcement that Portugal was being taken off the green list) with two weekends away.
One of the cardinal rules of hiking a long-distance trail is you must always set off from the precise location where you finished the previous day, week or, in our case, year. Skipping a few hundred metres here or there – or even a metre or two – is not an option for us. Thus, on Saturday morning we found ourselves heading through Loulé’s narrow streets in the direction of the Igreja de São Clemente.
At 9.15am, the sun was already burning down on my bare shoulders, promising a tough day’s hiking ahead. Harri had scoured the route and located a bar at around the midway point, just 500 metres off route. There was little doubt we’d be doing that detour.
One of the hardest things about hiking in the heat is being able to carry sufficient water. As we learned to our peril when we walked from Messines to Silves on the Via Algarviana in May 2015, it’s easy to badly underestimate the amount of liquids you will consume. Of course, Loulé isn’t actually on the Via Algarviana, but there is a link route to/from Salir, most of which we’d be walking tomorrow.
The photo opportunity at Loulé cathedral was a bit of a non-event. The transformation of the church into a plastic-covered building site, was complete; however, I duly posed and Harri snapped a pic of me standing in the middle of parked cars looking pretty idiotic.
Even more frustratingly, I forgot to start my Viewranger app when we left the car and didn’t remember it until we’d left the town behind and were heading up our first steep hill. Considering I spend most weekdays sitting on my posterior working, I’m pretty proud of the progress I’m making towards my 1,500 kilometre hiking challenge and hoped to reach the 900 km point this weekend. As you have to ‘officially’ log all your tracks there wasn’t much I could do about my lost kilometres.
One of the delights of the Algarve is its endless historic tracks and footpaths. And unlike footpaths in Wales they are never overgrown or muddy. I could happily wander along the Algarve’s footpaths forever, enjoying the occasional dappled shade while I watched lizards scuttering across drystone walls.
The area north of Loulé is a million miles from the ‘touristic’ Algarve. Despite the rather grand villas dotted on various hilltops, it’s pretty rare to see another person, and very few vehicles pass by. Of course, there’s always the odd property owner who … actually I’ll leave that sentence at ‘odd property owner’. Suffice to say, as we passed a ruin we were bemused to see the lengths someone had gone to make sure no walker strayed off the footpath and anywhere near the dilapidated pile of stones. There were privado signs everywhere … painted in red all over the property itself and the boundary walls. I was just musing the brain workings of someone who’d feel this was necessary when Harri shouted out ‘snake ahead’. If there’s a snake in the vicinity, you can be sure Harri will find it. Thankfully, it had slithered into the vegetation by the time I caught up.
As we climbed the views opened up … and it got hotter. Beyond the rolling scrub-covered hills soared Foia and Picota, the highest peaks in the Algarve. We’ll be climbing the 774 metres to the summit of Picota next weekend.
We crossed the Ribeiro de Algibre (which eventually joins the Quarteira river) where I spotted some delightful large yellow butterflies but failed to capture one on camera. It was an idyllic spot and I happily waded through all two centimetres of water without getting my feet wet.
At this point our pilgrim route joined the LLE PR14, one of Loulé municipality’s promoted walks. There was another steep climb and then we were in Tôr, a delightful blossom-filled village with a wide cobbled square. Unlike the whitewashed Andalusian villages it reminded us of, there wasn’t a soul to be seen (really, this never happened in Spain where there were always lots of people around at weekends).
The church bell rang twelve times and we set off to find the bar, passing through Caliços before arriving in Funchais. We sat outside, Harri with a beer (or two), and me with my Coca Cola Zero and Calippo. Our three-item bill came to around 3,50 euros, a far cry from the prices at the Irish Bar in Albufeira marina where I paid 7,50 euros for three cans of Coca Cola last week. (UPDATE: the bar has just put the price up to 3,00 euros per can.)
We lingered longer than strictly necessary, enjoying the ambiance outside the relatively busy bar. On this hot June lunchtime, one explanation for Tôr being a ghost town was that all its residents had decamped here.
We trudged back up to Tôr as the bells were chiming one o’clock, then climbed a bit more until we left the road and carried on ascending on another footpath edged with a drystone wall. There’s no denying that you get the absolute best views when you’re walking on high ground, but the downside is getting there!
Eventually the route ahead levelled out and we started to enjoy the rolling landscape. We reached Nave as Mealhas, where all but one of the traditional stone houses were dilapidated and abandoned. We wondered what the village’s story might be? For what reason had all its residents left? Was its depopulation gradual or had all these various homesteads and barns belonged to one family?
After Nave as Mealhas, the landscape really opened out and we enjoyed panoramic views across the hills. On our left, the land dropped away to the flat-bottomed valley where we could see what looked like a bird hide. We later learned this area floods from time to time and is known as Lagoa da Nave.
My spirits soar whenever we walk in these beautiful hills. As we neared the final climb of the day, I stopped briefly to listen … there was no wind and no traffic, not even birdsong to shatter the silence.
You know you’re pretty high up when you find yourself looking down at a water tower and we could now see Salir’s familiar landmark. We skirted around Covões and continued enthusiastically uphill (I was beginning to imagine us splashing around in Casa da Mãe’s pool. Covões is a delightful little hamlet with lots of renovated houses and it was here we bumped into two former Cardiff University students who were lazing around on the terrace of the house they were renting and immediately recognised our Welsh accents.
It was when I asked how long they planned to stay in the area that the lunacy of Brexit again raised its ugly head. How had I so easily forgotten? With the UK no longer part of the EU, these young men can stay no longer than 90 days. I will never forgive those who voted for Brexit … NEVER.
The walk through the dry orchards and into Salir is never less than stunning. We had no idea what was making the air so fragrant, but delighted in the sweet scent nonetheless. Despite it being early June, the hay had already been cut and baled, making it feel more like late summer. We glanced into the concrete water storage tanks lining the route and our mind whizzed ahead to the pool awaiting us at Casa de Mãe. Only a few more kilometres to walk. There was just the short climb into Salir, a quick detour to Jaffers supermarket to pick up food for supper and then we’d be heading straight for the Igreja Matriz de Salir, the end point of this section.
The pilgrim’s route took us past Salir’s castle; there’s nothing much left to see but there is an interpretation centre and the views from its hilltop position are breathtaking.
We arrived at Casa de Mãe at 4.25pm, a little earlier than the 5.00pm we’d advised the owners when asked, and reception was closed. No worries, after previous stays we knew the place well enough to head straight to the seating area around the pool, figuring we’d wait here until we could check in at 5pm. At 5.15pm there was still no sign of anyone at reception and we might have waited a good deal longer had I not strolled around the back to the car park and inadvertently started a dog inside barking.
It’s a long saga, but basically, Graciete (who was interviewed on RPT 1 with us) is no longer running the place herself. Her grandson Filipe deals with guests and another lady cleans the rooms and does breakfast. It was Filipe who put the establishment on booking.com and to whom Harri had responded. But where was Filipe now? Well … a phone call from Graciete established he was at the beach with his boat and had no intention of returning to welcome the new arrivals.
Poor Graciete. She didn’t have any keys so she couldn’t even open reception. Thankfully, she is a determined woman. A quick phone call and within ten minutes the smiling cleaner/breakfast chef had materialised. We gratefully accepted Graciete’s offer of a cold beer/coca cola and finally got into our room at about 5.45pm. Within minutes we’d abandoned our dusty hiking clothes and were in the pool, our frustration forgotten as we remembered why we love this slice of Algarvian paradise so much.
Later, we settled down outside our room to enjoy tortillas, spicy chicken and taco salad with grated cheese for dinner and made friends with a friendly if rather battered-looking tabby cat. So friendly, in fact, that I had to keep scooping him out of our room.