Harri spends a lot of time researching hiking opportunities here in the Algarve so when two new Via Algarviana link routes between Alferce and Monchique were introduced this year he was keen to investigate them.
And what better day to do tackle the two routes than our 16th anniversary? Hiking brought us together in 2007 and has been central to our life together, both here and in Wales.
Despite covering relatively short distances, these linear routes involved a fair amount of climbing. Doing both on the same day was going to be tough but it made sense to combine them to create one longer, circular walk.
We’d decided to park at Alferce and walk the GR13.11 (Via Algarviana connection 11) to Monchique, then stop for beers before returning to Alferce via the GR13.10 (Via Algarviana connection 10). Both walks are described as ‘somewhat difficult’ with our toughest walking of the day at the very beginning and very end of our all-day hike.
GR13.11 – connection 11 Alferce to Monchique – 11.5 km
Distance: 11.9 kilometres
Ascent: 529 metres
Speed: 4.2 kilometres per hour
It was cold and grey when we arrived in Alferce at 9 am and I wondered if we should have packed waterproofs.
Once we’d left the main road from the A22 to Monchique, the meandering, undulating drive was an absolute delight in the morning light (at least it was for me in the passenger seat). At this time of year, the hills are covered in white-flowering rock rose and the valley is lined with orange groves. It’s easy to understand why this area is so popular with road cyclists. We passed a farmer watching his cattle grazing at the roadside and, as our car struggled to conquer one of the steeper hills, a ‘road runner’ charged across the road in front of us. From the car, we spotted the new boardwalks leading to Alferce castle and agreed to check them out when we returned to walk two PR routes in the area later this year (PR 8 MCQ – Along the paths of Alferce and PR 9 MCQ – Between the valley and the castle).
The drive from Torre (just north of Armação de Pêra) took around 45 minutes; however, the vegetation and climate is so different up here in the Serra de Monchique that it felt like we’d travelled a much greater distance.
I was surprised to discover that Alferce is a sizeable village with a town hall, outdoor pool, sports stadium, minimercado and bars. The (immaculate) public toilets have shower cubicles and there is even a small municipal campsite for campervans.
The steep hill leading to the car park was a hint of what was to come. By now, the sky was looking decidedly grey and there was a real chill in the air. Time to get walking.
A group of local people – adults and children – had set off a few minutes earlier and we soon caught up with them. At this early stage of their walk, the primary-age children were positively skipping their way up the hill and I envied them their energy levels.
We soon entered a landscape of wide, drystone terraces and eucalyptus trees, quickly warming up as our route continued relentlessly uphill. As the ground underfoot became rougher, we passed a pile of cut wood and the pungent smell of eucalyptus oil filled the air. Eucalyptus trees are a huge threat to rural communities here in Portugal but there’s no denying their oil smells wonderful.
At around 2.5 km into the hike, we were still climbing, but now the ground was muddier and there was no evidence of vehicles continuing along the track. We were already stripping off the layers: there’s nothing like a long, steep climb to warm you up.
Harri mentioned that the Via Algarviana now forms part of the E9 Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic Sea Trail, a 9,880-kilometre route which passes through Spain, Portugal, France, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Perhaps another one for our ‘long-distance trails we’d love to walk’ list … though I suspect the E9 might be more of long-term project (for us and the organisers, as the entire route is not yet waymarked). Harri is surprised at the route choice for the Algarve section of the E9 as the Via Algarviana is almost entirely inland – the whole point was to lead hikers through landscapes and villages which were rarely visited by tourists. We think plotting these mammoth European routes probably comes down to following what’s already in place in terms of long-distance, waymarked trails rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel (with all the liaising with councils, landowners, etc, that it entails).
A short section of level walking gave me chance to catch my breath and gaze down at the rolling foothills, which formed an almost continuous line between here and the Algarve coast. Picota was still a fair way off but now the gradient was easier. We are realising that, by sticking mostly to shorter walks along the coastal strip, our hiking fitness has dwindled over the winter. We’re going to need to step up the training when I get back from Wales if we’re going to be able to cover the distances/terrain we have planned for our May/June hiking holiday.
As we continued to gain height, the landscape opened out and we could see Portimão and the Arade river. Eventually we got our first glimpse of Monchique. The fact it looked so far below us when it is actually much higher than Alferce only emphasized just how far we’d climbed in our first kilometres of the day. I glanced at my app. We’d been on the road for one hour and two minutes; in that time, we’d covered 4.7 kilometres and climbed 341 metres.
On the mountain, the ground underfoot was surprisingly dry – though that’s probably down to the number of ever-thirsty eucalyptus trees growing on the slopes. We joined the main Via Algarviana route and tackled an absolute killer of a tarmac track to emerge next to a glorious little homestead with grassed drystone terraces long and wide enough to host a school sports day. The smaller of the properties looked like it’s being renovated, while a second bigger ruin lay behind. I thought a third building might be some kind of propagation tunnel, until Harri suggested it was probably a fire shelter (one of the drawbacks of living in this area is the very real risk of forest fires). In the sunshine, the location was absolutely idyllic but it would surely take the full brunt of the elements during winter storms.
The Serra da Picota is the second highest summit in the Serra de Monchique at 774 metres. Unlike its neighbour Fóia (902 metres) – which has car parking, a restaurant, gift shop, etc – here on Picota the mountain landscape remains completely unspoilt. There are no shortcuts to the top and those determined to conquer the summit will be rewarded with a photograph next to the watchtower (which is actually a few metres downhill from the trigpoint but is an iconic landmark from Monchique).
The GR13.11 route doesn’t actually go to the top of Picota (the Via Algarviana proper does), but there was no way we were going to miss those magnificent panoramic views. Sadly, some visitors clearly pay no heed to the ‘leave only footsteps’ message as there was evidence of a recent picnic – empty drink cartons, crisp packets, plastic food trays – in the vegetation. It’s difficult to comprehend the mindset of anyone who thinks littering the mountain they’ve just climbed is acceptable.
It was too cold to stop on the top so, after taking a few photographs, we headed back down to where the interpretation boards stand and sat down for a wonderfully serendipitous elevenses stop at 11.11 am. At this point, we’d covered 7.3 kilometres, climbed 451 metres and been walking for one hour and forty-three minutes.
Thankfully, most of the remaining route was downhill. The GR route was less steep, hence gentler on the knees, than the Via Algarviana route and followed a wide, stony track strewn with eucalyptus leaves and branches. As we descended, the temperature soared and we began to look forward to those beers in Monchique.
One would imagine a route from a mountain top to the town far below would be all downhill but it was not to be. The final stretch was steep and uphill, first along a narrow cobbled footpath, then tackling the many steps of the municipal park and finally more uphill walking along a road. We stopped to allow a group of energetic young people to overtake us, only to overtake them again a few minutes’ later.
As we sat enjoying our beers (just one each), Harri assured me that this afternoon’s walk will be a lot easier albeit slightly longer in distance – just as well as I was already worn out!!
To find out how our afternoon’s hiking went, click here.