Who in their right mind would continue to Burgau, adding an additional 6.8 kilometres of coast path walking to the toughest stage of the Fishermen’s Trail?
Yes, that would be us. To be fair, walking the final three stages of the Fishermen’s Trail over two days was kind of forced on us when Harri failed to find any reasonably priced accommodation in Salema for one night.
So instead of stopping at Salema, today we’ll be continuing to Burgau – a distance of around 26km. Then tomorrow we’ll walk to Lagos where the trail ends.
The coastline between Sagres and Praia do Barranco is virgin territory for us. A few winters ago, we walked from Vila do Bispo to the coast but skipped the area to the east of Sagres and followed the steep-sided valley to Praia do Barranco.
With a long day ahead of us, we set off at 7.30am, having warmed up pain au chocolate and tea/coffee in our room.
Outside, the morning was relatively bright, which was reassuring as the forecast had given a 54% chance of rain before 8am. There’s nothing worse than an early day soaking on a long hiking day (the soggy stretch between Bangor and the Carneddau on O Fôn i Fynwy immediately springs to mind).
Joining the coast
Sagres has several beaches. Praia do Martinhal is the most easterly and is relatively sheltered by the Sagres headland. It was wonderful to have the beach to ourselves as we wandered along the water’s edge. Just off the coast, are the Ilhotes do Martinhal, which at first appeared to be just one island, but turned out to be a group of smaller islands.
It was good to have a gentle start to what we suspected was going to be a demanding day’s hiking – the stage between Sagres and Salema is the only one described as ‘very difficult’ by the Rota Vicentina website. Much as I wasn’t looking forward to the 600 metres of cumulative ascent, I was absolutely dreading the 650 metres of descent. I’m just hoping none of them are quite as scary as the ones we encountered the day before yesterday.
After Praia do Martinhal, we started clocking up those metres, although thankfully our first climb of the day was relatively short and not too hairy.
Soon the landscape opened up and what a landscape it was: not dissimilar to some of the vast empty spaces of Wales, although far drier underfoot. This is the hiking terrain I love: pleasantly undulating with distant views. Unlike the hiking convoys we found ourselves joining during the stages between Porto Covo and Odeiceixe, there wasn’t another soul in sight. In fact, we realised we hadn’t seen another soul since we’d left the beach.
We approached a cluster of abandoned buildings with a central courtyard area. The main house looked like it might have been quite grand at one time and there was what looked like a little chapel at one end. We were curious to know more about the property, particularly why such a substantial home was abandoned?
The easy terrain meant we were able to cover several kilometres quickly. This was important because there’s a section of walking ahead where we can stay on the beach at low tide (thus avoiding several climbs and descents). Low tide today is 10.03am and Harri anticipated that we’d be fine for the beach walking if we got there before noon.
Back to the coast
All good things must come to an end, and eventually we left paradise plain to descend into the deep sided valley that runs down to Praia do Barranco. Fortunately, the gradient was relatively gentle and the ground underfoot was mostly rock slab and dried-out clay rather than loose stones. If only all our descents could be this easy.
This beach is popular with surfers so the area behind it was lined with campervans and vans as it was last time we were here (December 2017).
Almost immediately we were climbing again. The abundance of rock slab meant you frequently had to lift your leg high to reach the next ‘pavement’ but it’s a definite improvement on clambering up a scree track – and the walking poles were a great help.
Back on the clifftop, the footpath meandered on stony footpaths lined with scented rock rose and the occasionally hard-to-spot ground-level waymark painted on a rock. So far, so good.
It was around about now that my camera battery died; I’d forgotten to charge it last night. It was frustrating to be surrounded by such beautiful scenery, knowing I’d be unable to record our experiences (my phone is over three years old and the camera is useless).
The hiking had been so easy up to this point that I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. Thus, it was a bit of a shock to encounter to come face-to-face with a descent I really didn’t want to attempt. My rucksack felt awkward and cumbersome and continually snagged on vegetation, tugging me sideways and affecting my balance. Harri, bless him, offered to leave his rucksack on the beach and come back for mine.
I waited, mid-descent, only to be baffled when he eventually materialised from above. It turned out, we’d taken the wrong footpath; what had looked to be a really well-walked descent to the beach was actually the wrong way. Harri had only noticed the waymarked path when he was climbing back up to me and had come to a fork in the path. He decided to investigate the other route and discovered the waymark at the top.
Of course, what comes down must go up so, after crossing the beach, we were immediately clambering up a rocky footpath again. We paused for a breather and realised we could see the ruined property behind us, looking far closer to the clifftop than we’d realised when we were walking past.
Now we were able to see Salema in the distance – a little too distant for my liking – and beyond that the Algarve coast gradually merging with the horizon. The Fishermen’s Trail has been tough but, day after day, we’ve been rewarded with magnificent views and stunning rock formations and today was no different.
Not low enough
It was 11.10am – just over an hour after low tide – and from our vantage point, it didn’t look like we’d be able to get around the nearest headland to Salema on the beach; however, skirting around the others certainly looked a possibility.
There was another steep descent and then we were hurrying across the soft sand in a race against the rising tide. I’m always loath to take this kind of risk – we’ve been cut off on ‘beaches’ in Madeira and Wales in the past – but Harri was confident we could do this. And we did – by anticipating when the smaller waves would come and clambering over mussel-infested boulders.
Our hopes of continuing to Salema at sea level dashed, we had no option but to return to the clifftop via a steep ravine at the far of the second beach.
Dangerous footpaths seem to be par for the course on the Fishermen’s Trail. Harri mostly insists that it’s my fear and hesitation which poses the problem rather than the terrain/route itself (I beg to differ). Not this time. He agrees wholeheartedly with me that the footpath down to Praia do Figueira is just not fit for purpose.
In fact, the surefooted Harri had already skidded a few times himself when I took a tumble.
Harri said the problem is erosion – the Rota Vicentina organisers could easily do something about the condition of this dangerous footpath so hikers are not left floundering around, waving their poles in the air and ending up on their backsides (okay, maybe that’s just me but still …).
Later, I looked up what the Rota Vicentina website had to say about this stretch of the route and this is it: ‘When the ground is wet, you must take special care when descending to the beaches.’
Well, the ground wasn’t wet and I did take extra special care, but I still ended up on my bottom covered in mud, with a large scratch at the top of my left arm and three tears to my rucksack pockets.
When I realised my camera battery was flat, I’d jokingly said to Harri, ‘We’ll have to come back and re-walk this stage so I can get some photos.’ No. Not ever.
Why are we doing this?
I’m not sure if twelve days counts as long-distance hiking, but Harri said a phenomenon exists where everyone who embarks on a long-distance trail gets to a point where they are just absolutely sick of the hiking and ask themselves ‘why am I doing this?’
Fortunately, it’s our penultimate day today because that’s the point I’ve reached today.
Salema and finally beer
We arrived in Salema hot and sticky and with just one thought in our minds: where to get a beer.
In early season, Salema made Armaçao feel like a thriving metropolis. Away from the seafront, it was mostly deserted. After a false start when we found ourselves heading uphill to find a local bar, we headed to the line of fish restaurants behind Salema’s gorgeous beach to enjoy the most expensive beer of our holiday, i.e. 3,75 euros for 40cl (0.7 of a pint). It shows how thirsty we were that we ordered a second, resulting in a total bill of 15 euros!! I’m just relieved we weren’t hungry.
And to Burgau
It was nearly 2pm before we dragged ourselves upright again.
It was hot and even after two beers I was flagging. I was half-serious when I suggested to Harri that we take a taxi to Burgau but he refused. That’s not who we are, he reminded me.
The climb from Salema was tough, but we enjoyed walking along a narrow cobbled street with houses one side and a stone wall overlooking the sea on the other.
Last time we walked to Burgau from Salema, we opted for an inland route and crossed Budens Marsh, which was quite a revelation and very pretty despite the rather grim weather. This time, of course, we were sticking with the Fishermen’s Trail so were again walking a hitherto unknown coastal path.
One disappointment was the dilapidated state of many the interpretation boards we passed. We have some very good ones on the nearby Hanging Valleys and Headlands trails close to us and they seem to attract a lot of attention from walkers. We finally came across a biodiversity board which was actually readable.
It may have been the beer – or the heat – but I found myself really struggling with the climbing this afternoon. During the steep ascent to Forte de Almádena, I failed to propel myself upwards and staggered backwards into a bush. I’m beginning to think that our decision to continue to Burgau was not a wise one. This section between Salema and Burgau is tougher than I anticipated with very little level walking; consequently, I managed to fall for a second time today.
I’m frequently amazed at the ugliness of many of the modern houses being built in Algarve – whatever is wrong with traditional terracotta tiled roofs – but really some of the cuboid properties we passed this afternoon were what Prince Charles would surely describe as ‘monstrous carbuncles’. This section of coastline is in the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejo e Costa Vicentina, a status which, among other things, is supposed to protect coastal landscape. Mind boggling.
Our first port of call was a bar and we were lucky to moreorless stumble upon Bar-Restaurante Aires, which occupies a peaceful spot just off the main thoroughfare.
As we ordered drinks, our grubby, weary appearance attracted the attention from the two couples sitting at outside tables, one German and the other Irish. Soon we were all chatting like old friends, while Harri drank beer and I re-hydrated with coca cola zero.
Feeling somewhat rejuvenated, I could now appreciate just how pretty Burgau was with its cobbled streets, winding steps and whitewashed properties.
I fell in love with Casa Grande the moment I set eyes on it (as I suspect its long-time owner Sally Vincent did). The quirky property dates back to 1912 and ‘faded grandeur’ inside and out with its ornate ceilings and tall windows, candelabras, large rooms and huge carriage doors to the left of the main entrance. Several unruly bougainvillea plants stealthily creeping across the front façade and several kittens are exploring the garden under their mother’s watchful eye.
Sally said we could use her kitchen and even offered to make some space for me to cook but, in the end, we decided it might be easier to eat out.
Clearly walking 26 hilly kilometres wasn’t enough for Harri because once we’d showered and had a cup of tea and headed out on the town. It’s strange but once we’ve shed our rucksacks, we rarely mind walking again in the evening.
Under Harri’s direction, we covered the first part of tomorrow’s route around hilly Burgau before heading to A Matias for dinner (highly recommended for excellent food and great service for incredibly good prices). Two main courses, plus olives, a half litre of rosé wine and coffee came to 28 euros (under £25).
Our Danish hiking friend turned up just as we were finishing our meal, which was a shame because we’d have enjoyed catching up with him properly. Like us, he’d added the additional six kilometres from Salema and was staying in Burgau tonight; like us, he was thoroughly relieved the day’s hiking was over!!
We’d expected to fall into bed and sleep solidly for at least eight hours but it wasn’t to be.
No sooner had we settled down for the night than the shouting and yelling began – first women’s voices and then men’s. Someone tried to enter our room (fortunately we’d locked it) and it sounded like a group of hooligans were running around the garden. I could hear someone talking outside our window so I peered through the gap in the wooden shutters and could see a GNR officer just feet away on his radio.
A police car was parked in front of the house and I could see people searching the grounds with torches. Before long, a second police car pulled up alongside the first. My heart was hammering. What was on earth was going on out there.
Things eventually quietened down, but it was impossible to settle down until the police had left, which was well after 12.30am.
Harri and I were baffled. A drugs raid seemed unlikely. Perhaps one of the other guests had been assaulted? We’d probably never know.
We paid 45 euros for a twin room at Casa Grande (with an interesting L-shaped layout of said beds) with breakfast included. We had a kettle in our room, together with a small carton of milk, teabags, cappuccino and even some biscuits. The few negatives were the lack of any surface space and a shortage of electric sockets, which meant we had to plan our recharging schedule.
Our room was a little cramped but certainly adequate for one night – and we had an en suite bathroom. We suspect our cheaper, ground floor room was reserved for one and two-night stays – other rooms look much bigger and grander.
Casa Grande is within a short distance of restaurants, bars and the beach.
No competition. For me, the absolute highlight of today’s walking was the beautiful open landscape between Praia do Martinhal and Praia do Barranco. Most of all, I loved the open vistas, but it was also nice to be able to focus on my surroundings rather than worry about slipping and sliding on loose rock.
Now I just need to work out a circular walk which takes in a little more of that fantastic scenery. Next time, I might venture into the abandoned property for a closer look too.
Without doubt, several of today’s descents were just plain dangerous due to the steep nature of the footpath and the erosion of the ground underfoot.
It seems to us that when the Fishermen’s Trail was extended to Lagos, little if nothing was done to improve the footpaths or waymarking along the south coast. Far more effort has been made in the Alentejo to improve the condition of the trail, e.g. the diversion after Zambujeira do Mar directed hikers from a stretch of coast deemed ‘dangerous’ despite those who walked the original route telling us it was perfectly safe. In the western Algarve, ‘dangerous’ doesn’t seem to be a concept – so what if people are left clinging to rock rose and stone pine branches as they attempt to get from clifftop to beach?
Would it be so difficult to install the occasional rope or steps, or create some zigzagging up/down the steepest sections of trail? Would it really be too costly, given the growing popularity of hiking in the Algarve?
As things stand, I won’t be recommending this stage of the Fishermen’s Trail to anyone.
If you’re interested in finding out more visit rotavicentina.com