Central Algarve: looping São Bartolomeu de Messines

Penedo Grande, São Bartolomeu de Messines, Algarve
A cork tree ‘forest’ on Penedo Grande

With Depression Bárbara bringing the first real rains this autumn (not to mention bougainvillea-battering winds), I’m staying at home. Instead of going out walking, I thought I’d write about a waymarked route we did back in September for Walkingworld: a circular walk in the hills around São Bartolomeu de Messines.

It seemed an age since we were last in Messines, in fact I can’t recall being in the town since we opened our bank account here in January 2019. Far prettier from a distance and above than within its streets, Messines is very much a working town. Like Grandola in the Alentejo (where we spent five weeks last summer), it serves a wide and mostly rural population.

Penedo Grande, São Bartolomeu de Messines, Algarve
The historic path leading to Penedo Grande

The 12.7km route we were tackling is one of the various ‘complementary’ walks intersecting or passing close to the long-distance Via Algarviana. We actually spent the night here in São Bartolomeu de Messines before the fateful day when we ran out of water and nearly died.

The waymarked route begins with a climb to the summit of Penedo Grande, a distinctive hill rising from Messines. Back in February 2018, we’d talked ourselves out of including this hill on our long walk home to Albufeira because it looked too high.

Preparing ourselves for a hard uphill slog, we joined a pretty historic lane lined with drystone walls, dry orchards and towering cacti. The moment we set off, the dogs in a neighbouring property started howling … and I mean howling. What a racket! The constant barking dogs are probably the only thing we dislike about Portugal. And we’re not the only ones. Recent conversations with other estrangeiros have made us realise that everyone finds it a real nuisance. The Portuguese themselves seem quite oblivious to the noise.

Penedo Grande, São Bartolomeu de Messines, Algarve
Harri pausing for a breather on the way up Penedo Grande

Once we were on the open slopes, the gradient softened and we meandered along between cork pines and pine trees with relative ease.

The 248-metre summit – a short detour from the trail – was something of a disappointment. In fact, we struggled to determine where the summit actually was because the views are obstructed by vegetation. Fortunately, if you continue along the ridge a hundred metres or so, it’s easy enough to clamber onto one of several vast rock slabs. From these, you’ll enjoy panoramic vistas of the Algarve’s rolling hills and a slither of the distant Arade reservoir (Barragem do Arade). Harri noticed someone had carved two dates in one of the slabs, i.e. 1911-1937 and we lapsed into silence, saddened by the abrupt reminder of how a life can be cut short.

View from Penedo Grande, São Bartolomeu de Messines, Algarve
The view from Penedo Grande

These are the views that make hill walking worthwhile. No matter how much I might complain on the way up (and I do), the reward is almost always worth the pain. I’m pleased to report Penedo Grande is no exception.

Our waymarked route remained high for a little longer before heading downhill towards  Messines. We had completed the first loop; now we had the longer second loop to tackle. The route followed the Via Algarviana trail for a short distance before leaving town on a track running parallel to the Algarve-Lisbon railway line. And if walking next to train lines doesn’t sound particularly enticing, remember this is the Algarve where trains – even those travelling to the country’s capital city – are few and far between.

Clouds over the Algarve-Lisbon railway line

We passed a gorgeous single-storey property with its own pond, where I was enchanted with a floating duck house. There was also a small dinghy moored against a wooden quay. When we stumble upon rural idylls like this, I sometimes feel a little tug of my heart for all the outdoor space we might have had if we’d chosen to live inland (or bought in May 2000, when the sterling to euro exchange rate was an eye-watering 1,75 euros!). Except, of course, if we lived somewhere like this, we wouldn’t be able to stroll to the beach on summer evenings to meet friends for a beer and watch dolphins swimming in the bay (as we did on Saturday). I’m certain we made the right decision for us, even if it does rule out any hope of a future duck pond.

Imagine having your own floating home

We crossed the dry riverbed of the Gavião and followed the perimeter of a flood plain. Then there was another steep climb, this time past the dilapidated Ermita de Sant’Ana. On April 24 1834, this elevated position was the site of a bloody battle between the Miguelists (supporters of King Miguel I) and the Constitutionalists, whose many demands included a constitutional monarchy. There is a tiled commemoration plaque to mark the site where so many lost their lives. Efforts have been made to keep the church from further dilapidation; however, the front of the building is looking unsafe and the roof is collapsing. I wonder how long it will remain standing.

A commemoration plaque marks the site of the Battle of Sant’Ana

Much of the second half of our route was familiar; we’d walked it in the opposite direction in February 2018. The track we were following now ran adjacent to one of the outer ‘arms’ of the Barragem do Arade, albeit an arm that was completely devoid of water.

Although the humidity was rapidly draining our energy levels, I ‘persuaded’ Harri to do a detour to the picnic area overlooking the far end of the reservoir. It was quite scary to see how low the water looked, although Harri did point out that the main reservoir was deeper and out of sight.

We don’t recall water levels being this low in February 2018

The interpretation board at the start of the route had warned the walk was ‘somewhat difficult’; however, we didn’t expect to be quite as jaded as we approached the final climb of the day and the prettiest stretch of walking since Penedo Grande.

Twenty minutes later, we were deposited into an agricultural landscape as we rejoined the Via Algarviana heading back to São Bartolomeu de Messines.

Messines has such pretty cobbled streets

The last kilometre or so of the route passes through the historic part of town, passing the striking Igreja Matrix de São Bartolomeu de Messines. Further along the narrow, cobbled streets, there’s a signpost (‘capela’) directing people to the Ermida de São Sebastião, which dates back to the 16th century.

Back in Messines, we grabbed some beers outside a local bar and listened in amazement as a woman on a neighbouring table played Christmas hits on her phone. Talk about starting early!


Here’s a link to the Walkingworld route (with GPX mapping). There is a small charge for non-members (or, of course, you can become a member and have access to thousands of walks, most of which are in the UK).







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