This Christmas – our fifth in the Algarve and the second in Armação de Pêra – followed much the same pattern as in previous years with hiking assuming the focal point in our holiday plans.
We’re not currently in lockdown here in Armação de Pêra; in fact, our municipality (Silves) has been one of the lowest risk areas in Portugal throughout the pandemic, perhaps because it’s relatively rural and attracts fewer foreign tourists than places like Albufeira, Lagos and Tavira. That doesn’t mean we’ve been unaffected by the various lockdowns. For two months at the start of the pandemic, we were denied all access to local beaches and only allowed to exercise from the house. During bank holiday weekends (and there are far more here than in the UK), we are not permitted to cross the border into adjacent municipalities at all and on January 1, 2 and 3 we must stay at home from 1pm each day. Masks were introduced early on and social distancing is taken seriously here.
Last Christmas, our friends Denise and Geoff came a-visiting from Tavira and the four of us enjoyed two excellent walks on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We also had a fifth, less welcome, house guest … a friend’s badly behaved podengo (a Portuguese breed of dog used for hunting) which we’d agreed to mind for a week before we rescued Moses. Despite us now having a kitten, the friend held us to our promise and added an extra week to her pooch’s stay for good measure. Poor Moses had a few close calls over the holiday period, I can tell you. That he survived to see another Christmas was entirely down to our continued vigilance and Moses’ own impressive ferocity on the few occasions we briefly dropped our guard and he was cornered by said dog.
This year, as with so many families worldwide, it was just our little household for Christmas so we decided to do what we’ve done for four out of the past five years: go hiking and eat our main meal in the evening. I’d already prepared bacalhau com natas the previous day and there were prawns defrosting in the fridge to accompany it, plus the obligatory bottle of prosecco. The aim was to build up an appetite with a 15 km hike from the house.
Christmas Day 2020 was definitely the coldest one we’ve experienced in the Algarve so far and I set off in long trousers and two layers. As well as our picnic lunch, Harri was carrying a large barbecue skewer in his rucksack. I should explain. We’ve had a few dog incidents in the past week: my leg was bitten in an unprovoked attack by someone’s pet dog on Saturday, my friend Caroline was walking her own dog when she encountered large dogs running loose on Monday and Harri ‘literally ran for my life’ (his words) when he was chased by the leaders of a pack of around 20 dogs near Intermarché on Tuesday morning. Both the bite and the prowling pack were reported to the relevant authorities so we very much hope something will be done about this growing problem. In the mean time, we are not taking any risks and are going out ‘armed’ when crossing the valley where the pack roams. Hence Harri’s ‘weapon’ and the can of green spray paint I took out with me on Wednesday!
We were just emerging from the valley when we bumped into Caroline, Steve and Pingo (their lovely and very well-behaved dog) who’d already been to Porches for a coffee and Christmas tipple and were now on their way back to Armação de Pêra to support a friend’s Christmas morning swim. In previous years, there’s been an organised Santa dash into the waves, but COVID-19 means nothing official is taking place this year. It sounded like a few enthusiasts had decided to go ahead regardless.
Our route was familiar, but stunningly beautiful nonetheless. We made our way to Praia da Marinha through the valley above Praia da Barranco (an unspoilt landscape boasting such a myriad of tracks and footpaths that I’m almost guaranteed to get lost when I venture here alone). Even a homing pigeon like Harri has been known to refer to his online mapping in these parts (as he did today).
All morning the sun had been trying to come out and, while I’m definitely a sun-lover (albeit without any passion for sunbathing), I had mixed feelings about the steadily rising temperature. I was wearing far too much clothing for the warm winter’s day it was turning out to be.
We passed a traditional property we long ago flagged as our dream home. It appeared to be empty so I crept up to the garden gate and peered inside the pretty gardens for the first time. I wasn’t disappointed. Everything about the property is understated … and perfect. Given its location (close to Praia da Marinha), I doubt you’d get much change from a million, but if you can’t dream at Christmas it’s a sad world.
Moments later, our hearts dropped when we spotted a new wooden gate blocking the footpath ahead. This is a path we’ve walked many times and it emerges onto a quiet road. On this occasion, the gate was unlocked so we very much hope it remains that way. One development we don’t much care for here is the increasing fencing off of open land or sometimes the appearance of a large ‘privado’ sign where there was previously none. This stretch of coastline has remained mostly undeveloped until now; it would be unfortunate and forever change the nature of the area, if people were no longer able to roam freely along the cliff tops.
The new extended car park at Praia da Marinha was open for business, despite there being few enough cars in the original one. We settled down at one of the picnic tables to enjoy our picnic with a bottle of cold Sagres bought from the food van (muito obrigada to the vendor for opening on Christmas Day). Today, only two of the resident tabbies made an appearance … they really are the most affectionate animals and more than happy to bask in the sun while having their chins tickled. If a certain little ginger boy with a proclivity for ankle nibbling is reading this, take note. You can be replaced!!
We stayed closer to the coast on the way back, frequently straying off the ‘main’ paint-daubed route and pursuing narrower paths which would end abruptly at a headland … or lead you into a bush. At Praia da Barranco, I persuaded Harri to walk down to the ocean’s edge where previous visitors had created a line of cairns from pebbles. Despite being so close to Armação de Pêra, the lack of easy access makes this unusually shaped beach one of the quietest along this stretch of coast; today we had it all to ourselves. Harri spotted some old brick steps leading from the beach up to the cliffs so we clambered up, congratulating ourselves for managing to avoid the walk back to the top of the beach and the longer route around the cliffs.
As we approached Capela da Nossa Senhora da Rocha (the iconic white chapel perched on a headland), I glanced down to the beach below and gasped. It was mid-afternoon on a glorious sunny day and yet there was not a single person down there: no couples were strolling along the water’s edge, no children were playing ball;no-one was lazing around with a book or walking their dog. It was quite eerie and really brought home the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the Algarve’s tourist industry.
Harri was disappointed when he decided to surprise me with a new route through Alporchinhos only to learn that it’s one I’ve walked several times on my own. He sometimes forgets he’s no longer the sole outdoor writer in this relationship!!
Thankfully, the promenade at Armação was slightly busier than the completely deserted Alporchinhos, though there was no need to dodge anyone to maintain a safe two-metre distance. And then it was back home to enjoy that much-earned glass of prosecco and catch up with the rest of our family on Facebook Messenger.
After our 17.5 km Christmas Day walk, we took a break on Boxing Day and focussed instead on dismantling and removing our garden shed. It’s never been much use, being tiny and lacking doors and shelving; in fact, the only items we were ‘storing’ in it were four large bottles of water inherited from the property’s previous owners, some old paint and a pile of various sized plastic flower pots. The plan is the remove the flower bed in front of the shed and eventually site a proper brick barbecue along this wall. Living in the Algarve is a bit like being an Aussie: whether you actually enjoy toasting your sausages on a ‘barbie’ or not, it is absolutely imperative that you demonstrate a willingness to do so.
December 27 dawned bright and clear, so we decided to stay local and do a long loop around Salgados, joining the beach briefly at Praia dos Pescadores before heading inland. There have been occasions when we’ve met not a single other person here, but today it was quite busy with lots of cyclists and walkers. And who could blame people for wanting to be outside on this cloudless day?
Most people stick to the main tracks closer to the beach, but our route encompassed the entire landscape, from the muddy track alongside the lagoon to what Harri determined must be the highest point of this low-lying, flood-prone area, i.e. the top of a ruined mill. The previous morning, while out running, he’d witnessed a friendly cricket match taking place here (on a relatively level area of grass, not the mill!). Today, that same landscape was being grazed by a large flock of sheep with several lambs.
Back at Praia Grande de Pêra, the boardwalks were filling up, so we decided to give them a miss and head back to Armação along the beach, pausing for a meander around the fishermen’s huts* where cats and seagulls live peacefully side by side.
Heads up: there is a great article about Armação’s fishermen in the January issue of Tomorrow, researched and written by Helen Daniel (the best thing about proofing the magazine is I get to read all the articles ahead of everyone else!).
We were home in time for a late lunch in the front garden, having completed our 12.5 km route (complete with twenty minutes lazing on the beach) in about three-and-a-half hours. Our Christmas walks combined amounted to a nice round 30 km … leaving us plenty of time at home to enjoy chocolate and port.
Happy New Year to everyone. 2021 just has to be an improvement on its predecessor.