The one and only time we’d visited Sítio das Fontes was on a return walk from Silves several winters ago. On that occasion, we were just passing through on route to Estômbar to catch the train back to Albufeira.
I recalled a picturesque spot perched alongside the Arade river and teeming with history. When we sat down to eat, we’d been joined by several friendly cats.
This time around, we were heading to Estômbar and Sítio das Fontes after a rare shopping trip to Portimão, where the queuing traffic and impatient drivers made the experience something we’re unlikely to repeat in a hurry. There’s a lot to be said for our sleepy neck of the woods, where I’ve sometimes walked the two miles to Porches without a single car passing me.
Shopping isn’t something either of us much enjoys so we generally like to combine it with a hike and/or restaurant lunch (no trip to Algarve Shopping is now undertaken without chicken peri-peri afterwards!). Today it was just the hike, or rather a recce for a walk I was planning for Hiking Algarve. For those who don’t know, this Facebook page was set up around August last year by two amazing women, Katie and Rochelle, who recognised that there were a lot of people in this region who love walking but don’t necessarily want to do it alone.
The concept is simple: all members of Hiking Algarve (and there are now over 860 of us) are encouraged create a hiking event and invite others to join them. It means anyone who wants to walk on a particular day/week or in a specific area is able to check the events to see what’s going on. The group is open to everyone who likes hiking, residents and holidaymakers. It’s a great way to meet new friends too.
Which brings me back to our reason for heading from Portimão to Estômbar: I was planning to lead a circular walk in the vicinity, a bit of a challenge in an area which is flanked to the west by the Arade river and intersected by a railway line, motorway and the busy N125 road.
Since discovering and becoming enamoured with online mapping, I really enjoy devising my own routes. I do this from the comfort of the sofa. When I’m leading others, I generally try out those routes ‘on the ground’ first. Harri often helps with the process and, on this occasion, he’d worked out how we could stay close to the Arade for as long as possible while avoiding repeating the section of walking closest to Sítio das Fontes. It all sounded great in theory so it was time to actually walk our route.
Estômbar is a delightful, traditional town with a population of around 5,000, which is perhaps overlooked by tourists due to its proximity to the popular coastal resorts of Ferragudo and Carvoeira. When we returned to the Algarve in October 2019, I added a partially renovated property on the outskirts of Estômbar to my shortlist of properties to view. It wasn’t a perfect location, sandwiched between the railway line and the main road, but there was a sizeable garden and I felt it had potential. Harri was less keen and we ended up cancelling the viewing, because we viewed our current home first.
If you’re heading to Sítio das Fontes, you’ve no option but to leave Estômbar on a road but, within a short time, we were strolling through a pretty fertile valley with ruins dotted alongside the lane. While I try to keep the Bermuda buttercups at bay in my own garden, there’s no denying their bright yellow flowers transform the winter landscape.
We joined a waymarked path around the Fontes, following the water’s edge on the ‘wrong’ side of the inlet until we reached stone gateposts (but no gate) and turned back to the restored mill.
It’s a pretty area and one which was well-used before the pandemic. The drystone walls have been rebuilt and the wide terraces are dotted with olive trees. There is a small amphitheatre with seating, which Harri suggested provided the perfect backdrop for gladiatorial contests, around 18 large picnic tables with benches, and numerous brick barbecues. There’s a children’s playground and even a little wooden jetty.
A sign informs visitors of ‘unsupervised waters’; however, the jetty and a separate floating pontoon suggest that plenty of swimming goes on here during the summer months.
Though the toilets were open (and spotless), I was disappointed that the cat population had vanished. This time around I’d come prepared and packed an unopened bag of Aldi’s best dried food in my rucksack. Sadly, there simply wasn’t a single feline anywhere, presumably because their food source had dried up during the pandemic.
We crossed a wooden bridge, noting the dry riverbed to our left (there has been very little rain so far this year), and were momentarily flummoxed as our forward route appeared only to exist in the virtual world. Never one to be put off by obstacles (near-vertical slopes, crumbling coast paths, knee-deep mud, river crossings, bogs … you name it, we’ve done it!), Harri edged his way between a fence and vegetation. Moments later, he was jubilant: he’d found our footpath!
We meandered along the water’s edge, trying to determine how far downriver we might be from the confluence of the Arade and Odelouca rivers and agreeing we must be pretty close as the crow flies.
Leaving the river, we scaled a steep path and followed a track underneath the motorway. Then there was more climbing. As we came over the crest of the hill, Harri resisted the urge to clamber onto the trigpoint (he insists the Portuguese ones are too high, but I suspect he’s maybe not quite as agile as he used to be). We were rewarded with the most fantastic views of the Arade river bridge (which carries the N125 across the water to Portimão), the saltpans and the old railway bridge beyond.
The next twenty minutes proved just how important it is to recce a new route. What had looked grand online wasn’t quite so easy to navigate in person. The heavy rain before Christmas had left deep ruts in the track. Going uphill was bad enough, but the descent was treacherous and I was worried that some of my walkers might feel out of their comfort zone (as indeed I was).
Fortunately, eagle-eyed Harri had noted an alternative route earlier on, when the track had split in two. Having reached the bottom of the cliff via the original route, he now led me back through a lush valley to the base of a narrower footpath. We preceded to climb it to the top, agreed it provided a far safer descent and promptly did an about turn.
Back at water level, we followed a quiet lane adjacent to the saltpans, where a friendly local on a bicycle tried to tell us something about them (we think). We reached Mexilhoeira da Carregação where the standout local landmark is a traditional property which has been embellished with all manner of decorations, including a naked baby doll. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who makes such an effort to make their home instantly Instagrammable (yes, I did take a photograph).
Sadly, it’s not possible to follow the riverbank downstream from Mexilhoeira da Carregação though it’s well worthwhile approaching the water’s edge where you can admire the views (and at low tide, all that glistening – and faintly familiar – alluvium silt).
A tip-off from a local man saw us heading up steps towards the local church, where we were awarded with even more magnificent views across the estuary. I decided on the spot that I would include this detour in my final Hiking Algarve route.
It was at this point that my phone decided to jump routes and follow the ‘wrong’ one – in fact, the route I’d followed when I went to interview Raphael Much for Tomorrow magazine. For a while we pushed on, admiring the enormous stork nests spilling over the brickwork of the various towers, climbing through housing and eventually dropping back down to the main road from Estômbar. It felt like a pointless detour, added nothing to the enjoyment of the route and I had no qualms about deleting it from my eventual route.
Fortunately, the final stretch of walking in and around Calvário a O. de Estômbar was the opposite and quite delightful.
We passed the ruined Convento de São Francisco, built in early 17th century but, like so many buildings in the Algarve, seriously damaged in the 1755 earthquake. It was repaired but abandoned by the Franciscans around 1830. Incredibly around then, it was valued at just 160 escudos (equivalent to well under one euro when Portugal joined the euro in January 1 1999) and sold to the Gaivao family from Estômbar at public auction.
The convent has remained in private ownership ever since and by the early 20th century was in ruins. Thankfully, it now appears to be undergoing renovation work, though whether it will be opened to the public or become someone’s home remains to be seen.
Back at Estômbar, we made a final detour to visit the church and the water tower.
No, my original walk hadn’t been perfect, but surely that’s the whole point of doing a recce?