It seems ages since Harri was able to take a two-day weekend so we were determined to make the most of it. Yesterday, we headed east to Albufeira following the often demanding coast path. Today, we decided to go in the opposite direction and further explore a wonderful wooded valley we first stumbled upon earlier this year.
If he’d been born in the sixteenth century, I’m sure Harri would have been an explorer setting off to discover new lands. As it is, he loves nothing more than studying a map and working out new routes to hike.
The plan today was to walk to Porches before heading towards the coast through the valley. Though we’ve crossed this way on two previous occasions – on route to the popular Praia da Marinha – we’ve never before followed the dry riverbed all the way to the coast.
Harri generally does his on-the-ground exploring when he’s out running so, with our house move imminent, he’s been busy checking out every track or intriguing footpath in the vicinity. Soon, we were leaving the quiet roads which have become so familiar over the past month or so to join a new stony track.
To anyone who doesn’t know the Algarve, I’ll explain: this is a very quirky place where you must always expect the unexpected. Last week, I stopped to talk to a local lady who was taking a lamb for a walk on a dog lead. We’ve seen goats grazing on the main road and a solitary sheep tied up outside a pub. Something you see a lot here is people walking in the street in their dressing gowns or even their pyjamas. Thus, when we passed a man who appeared to be digging his garden in a Victorian nightgown we just waved a cheery ‘bom dia’ and proceeded on our way.
One of the things I love most about walking in the Algarve countryside is there is very little fencing, apart from around private residences. A teacher we met in Grandola explained to me how the traditional Portuguese way is not to erect fences and gates unless you are farming cattle or sheep, or keep horses. Even vineyards and orange groves are rarely fenced off – with the exception of those owned by massive commercial enterprises. The Portuguese seem to trust others not to steal the efforts of their toil, which is really refreshing.
This lack of boundary marking means you mostly have complete freedom to wander down any track or footpath which takes your fancy. As I discovered on Friday, this is not always a good thing as it can mean you end up taking a hugely roundabout route to some place which is actually very close. On the plus side, the absence of high hedges means you’re treated to some fantastic views towards the coast and the mountains as you’re meandering, lost among the vineyards.
Another thing to love about the Algarve is the lack of cars on almost all the region’s minor roads (and the motorway). Yes, this is likely down to the high cost of cars and petrol/diesel (far higher than in neighbouring Spain); however, it does make walking along country roads far more pleasurable than in the UK.
An hour and a half after setting off and we were climbing the wide cobbled street leading to Porches where there is a museum of chimneys (closed on Sunday). A sign outside proclaimed Porches has the most beautiful chimneys in the Algarve and the most extravagant of them all – the Rua da Chaminé which dates from 1793 – was most conveniently located on the museum’s own roof. I’m sure they’d prefer the tall, angular modern chimney next door was demolished!
Outside the main church, I was so busy admiring the long stone benches which must surely seat hundreds that I almost managed to lose my dictaphone. Fortunately, after a frantic search of my rucksack, Harri spotted it lying on the aforementioned bench.
Onwards we walked, straying onto the Ecovia do Litoral, the long-distance cycle route my mate Denise and her hubby are planning to undertake. Like the Via Algarviana, the route crosses the Algarve, in this case connecting Vila Real de Santo António with Sagres. We joined it at the 84km waymark, prompting me to stop and take a picture to send to Denise (also providing a great excuse for me to rest briefly at the bottom of a steep hill).
As we approached the valley, Harri admitted he’d been a little bit worried about access. Despite the general lack of fencing, there are a lot of rather nice villas in this area and some of these residents do like their privacy. In the event, it seemed someone had attempted to block the way forward, but as is the Portuguese way, the offending tape had already been torn down.
What came next illustrates perfectly why visitors to the Algarve should venture inland from the big resorts (in this instance Armação de Pêra) to discover some of the most beautiful and unspoilt landscapes imaginable. Our route followed the riverbed, where the lack of water – not even a trickle – served to remind us how desperately this region needs rain. Had it not been for the moss-covered boulders and the wide channels created in the clay soil, it would be difficult to believe a river even existed.
Above us were abandoned agricultural terraces. It’s sad to think all the back-breaking labour needed to tame this wild landscape has ultimately gone to waste. We headed towards the ocean, pausing every now and then to ponder which footpath to follow, whether to take the high road or the low. Fortunately, most of the footpaths convened again eventually.
Praia do Barranco is an unusually shaped beach. Instead of the sand running lengthwise along the coastline, a narrow strip of sand juts inland. Neither is it the most popular beach in the area, most likely because there is no vehicle access and the beach can only be accessed by foot or boat. Today it was deserted, with not even a gull resting on the sands below.
You can certainly tell the holiday season is drawing to a close because just around the headland even the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Rocha – the most photographed church in the Algarve – was devoid of its usual hustle and bustle. Only a month ago, the car park was full, the restaurant open and there were people everywhere. Not anymore.
We had more exciting things on our mind than deserted churches, however. When he was working out our route on Viewranger, Harri had noticed someone else’s route seemed to pass directly across the headland between Praia Nova and Praia da Senhora da Rocha. This made him question if there might, in fact, be a tunnel linking the two beaches. If that was the case, we couldn’t understand how we’ve previously missed it.
On the beach, we almost sprinted to the far end of Praia Nova, so curious were we to know whether he was right or not. At first it looked unlikely, but then I spotted an archway at the bottom of the cliff. We’d found our tunnel! Inside, we marvelled at the perfectly symmetrical construction and the ease at which we could walk along the sandy path. It was all looking promising until the last few metres when the sand gave way to rock slab and we could see waves lashing against boulders at the tunnel’s end.
Disappointed, we had no option but to turn back. At low tide, it would have been possible to clamber down onto the beach; however, the tide had only just turned and those waves were just too powerful. Nonetheless, Harri felt quite triumphant at having his suspicions confirmed ‘on the ground’.
Back on the coast path, we skirted around the grounds of a swanky resort and were horrified to realise how close its perimeter fence was to a huge sinkhole. A few more years and some of those swaying palm trees looked likely to come crashing into the ocean. There’s something to be said for not being able to afford a cliff-top villa!
Back in Armação de Pêra, we popped into Continente to buy (yet more) cat food for Moses before trying another exploratory route, this time across a field. By now we were starting to flag, so we were delighted to discover the cut-through had saved us a few twists and bends in our homeward journey.
After two days of some steep coastal walking and lots of steps, I know I’ll pay the price tomorrow with aching legs but it’s worth it just to be able to eat our sandwiches sitting on an empty beach staring out at the ocean.
If you love hiking and haven’t yet walked in the Algarve, maybe you should start thinking about it?