Despite this being our third Christmas in the Algarve, I still have to pinch myself when I gaze out of the window at blue skies and sunshine. Incredibly, the BBC weather was promising temperatures of around 17 degrees today.
And no, the weather doesn’t really make it feel ‘Christmassy’ (whatever that means) and I miss my girls dearly; however, there’s something rather special about setting off for a walk in shorts on Christmas Eve.
Not that it actually felt like shorts weather when we got out of the car in São Marcos da Serra. Our journey from Albufeira had taken just over half an hour but the drop in temperature was immediately noticeable, as was the abundance of dew on the equally abundant Bermuda buttercups.
The quintessential Algarvian village with whitewashed houses, a church and a delightful tiled square overlooking nearby hills, São Marcos appears to possess the perfect attributes for inclusion on the Via Algarviana; however, that 300-kilometre trail meanders through hills further south, with an overnight stop at the considerably larger São Bartolomeu de Messines.
After Saturday’s strenuous efforts on the coast, we’d be taking things easier today with a waymarked 10km loop around the village known as the Lagoão Trail. We parked on a dusty piece of land opposite the village football club (possibly the only flat land in the vicinity). I couldn’t resist a peep through the fencing and was taken aback to see how parched the pitch looked, even at this altitude.
Two hours earlier, we’d enjoyed breakfast on the terrace, but up here in the hills, the temperature was several degrees lower and we were glad we’d brought our fleeces.
Our route saw us heading away from São Marcos along a peaceful road lined with olive and cork trees, rock rose and a couple of displaced rhododendron bushes. Despite the proximity of the IC1 road, the only sounds we could hear were birdsong (Harri spotted a hoopoe in a nearby tree) and the crowing of a distant cockerel. Many of the fields here in the floodplain of the Ribeira de Odelouca had been freshly tilled and the rust-coloured soil provided a stark contrast with the greenery. The air we inhaled was clean and sweet smelling. As we’d realised when we walked the Via Algarviana, these inland areas might as well be a million miles from the noisy, ‘touristic’ coastal resorts.
We passed the pretty Fonte do Fontão (curiously its name translates as ‘font of font’), which has been recently renovated.
I generally leave the planning of our walks to Harri and he tends to keep quiet about anything along the route which might put me off, e.g. vertiginous sections or river crossings, until the very last minute. True to form, we were approaching a river crossing when he remembered to mention it to me. Oh, and, as it had rained heavily last month, we were likely to get our feet wet. Having only just warmed up, I was not overjoyed at the prospect of stripping off my shoes and socks and wading across the Ribeira de Odelouca, so I laughed with relief when we reached the river and saw it had been forded with a concrete road.
A hundred metres ahead, a fellow walker called back his dog when we saw us approaching … in English. Realising we weren’t locals, the man – Craig Rogers, a wildlife photographer who moved to São Marcos three years ago – stopped to talk to us. Glancing down, I noticed Wally (the dog) was wearing a small metal Welsh flag on his colour. It transpired that Craig was from Bedwas, a little village just 6.5 miles up the road from Rhiwderin. Life is full of coincidences. We were keen to know what had attracted Craig to this rural village. He told us he and his partner had looked at lots of houses in other areas, and the house they now owned on top of a nearby hill, was the wild card that they had fallen in love with immediately.
Craig now makes a living from his wildlife photography (he was carrying an enormous lens when we met him, which he explained was his smaller, walking lens) and from running photography workshops. If you’re interested in wildlife and/or photography, it’s definitely worth checking out Craig’s website. I love the recent photograph of Wally … his exuberance is clear for all to see in that water shot!
Sadly, there is a downside to living in the Algarve hills. Craig revealed how this summer’s terrible forest fires in and around Monchique had spread to within a few kilometres of São Marcos. Like everyone we meet, Craig was full of praise for the region’s brave bombeiros, many of whom are volunteers, who risked life and limb to protect people’s lives, homes and livelihoods.
While we chatted, the enthusiastic Wally – who was a Portuguese rescue dog and not a fellow Welshman – did his upmost to make Harri’s cream shorts, legs and shoes as muddy as possible. You’ve got to love a friendly dog!
We said our goodbyes and continued on our way, passing a series of small barragems (artificial lakes used for irrigation purposes). The bank of one provided just enough level ground for us to plonk our bottoms down for elevenses.
Thankfully there has been very little rain since we arrived in the Algarve on December 1 because we now found ourselves on a compacted clay track. In dry weather, this surface is ideal for hiking, but after heavy rain it becomes treacherous and almost impossible to walk on.
Now we were on the opposite side of the river, we could see our earlier route clearly and it wasn’t long before we were approaching São Marcos itself, with the main railway line to Lisbon on our right. The village is located on a hilltop which means there are fantastic views from the village square. We lingered a while, chuckling at Christmas traditions which persuade Algarve villagers to erect a fake snowman in their sun-kissed square.
Then it was time for a beer … it was Christmas Eve after all. There didn’t seem to be any bars with outside seating, so we bought two bottles for the bargain price of one euro each and took ourselves across the road to a bench outside the church. The low cost of beer here made us realise how pricey the Algarve resorts are (though to be fair, our local bar only charges 1.50 euros a bottle).
Could we live in São Marcos, or a rural village like it? I don’t think so. We’d enjoyed our stroll (10km can’t really be called a hike) in an idyllic, rural landscape, but this pretty little village was just a little bit too sleepy for us.