Another weekend, another Via Algarviana link route to tackle – this time the new GR13.9 – Silves to Parchal – 15.8 km.
Of course, never ones to take things easy, we decided to tackle the GR13.9 route in both directions on the same day. The route is described as ‘easy’ in the description so surely two hardy hikers like us could cover the entire 31.6 km without too much difficulty? We knew someone who’d done the out and back GR13.9 route recently and we’d only be carrying daypacks.
Our GR13.9 statistics
Distance: 32.2 kilometres
Moving time: 6 hours 23 minutes
Ascent: 343 metres
Speed: 4.7 kilometres per hour
Despite its name, the GR13.9 – Silves to Parchal actually starts at Silves Gare which is a couple of kilometres south of the town itself.
Having previously walked from Silves to Estômbar, we were curious to learn whether the new waymarked GR13.9 route would deviate much from the route we’d taken – it seemed unlikely. I’d also walked to Silves on my own two years ago when, after passing Silves Gare, I’d been delighted to discover a delightful route into town via a ‘secret’ valley – would the GR13.9 be directing hikers here?
It’s also interesting to note that this particular ‘link route’ doesn’t actually link to the main Via Algarviana trail, which remains north of the river and never ventures anywhere near Silves Gare. In fact, when we walked the trail back in 2015, the Via Algarviana didn’t even come into the city (thankfully, the revised route does).
At the railway station, the GR13.9 interpretation board had apparently come a cropper for it was propped up against the metal frame which had presumably once displayed it prominently.
The information on the board was reassuring. The walk was described as ‘easy’ with the highest point just 85 metres above sea level; we were confident we’d be able to walk to Parchal and back in well under the suggested timescale of ten hours, even allowing for stops for elevenses, a picnic lunch and beer.
Leaving Silves Gare
It was gloriously warm and sunny with a light breeze when we set off at 9.45 am.
The route down to Silves was moreorless the one I’d followed two years ago, except the GR13.9 avoids a steep footpath by following the gravel track for longer than I’d done and then taking a shorter, gentler route downhill to join the old valley road (now blocked at its end). The old white road markings are still visible despite the vegetation creeping in from both sides. We forked off right to join a footpath which I remember as being quite narrow and rutted towards the bottom but has now been widened and surfaced with gravel, providing a much easier hiking route down to Hotel Colina dos Mouros.
There were more surprises as we headed behind the hotel because the gravel track we recalled had been transformed into a single-lane tarmac lane. For us, the jury’s still out on all this recent tarmacing of lanes in the Silves and Lagoa municipalities: while it’s easier to walk on smooth surfaces (and less dusty), the resurfacing means these previously peaceful lanes are now being used by more and more car drivers.
In Silves, the tide was low as we passed the lovely youth hostel at the foot of the ‘Roman’ bridge, which isn’t Roman at all but dates from the mid-14th or 15th century. It’s been closed to traffic ever since we arrived in the Algarve in 2016 but is popular with cyclists and pedestrians. In fact, a large group of Sunday cyclists arrived to join the onward riverside track at exactly the same time as us.
From the Roman bridge, it is 6.4 km to Sitio das Fontes, a favourite picnic spot and environmental education centre where we planned to stop for elevenses.
We passed the historic – and intriguing from the other side of those towering white walls – Quinta de Mata Mouros. I was actually a little disappointed when I checked the website and realised that behind all that concealment and mystery was just another vineyard.
In this area, wine tasting is a popular pastime. While I really enjoyed my tour of the nearby Quinta do Francês two summers ago, the whole wine tasting experience is wasted on me: I don’t drink red at all and really prefer lighter wines like vinho verde or a bubbly rosé.
The perfect property
Having veered away from the Rio Arade for some time, our paths now converged again and we found ourselves curious about the fortunes of a property we spotted here during the winter of 2017–18 when we were wintering in Albufeira. The riverfront property, including a sizeable garden and the hillside behind, was on the market for just 199k. A single sheep watched us from the overgrown garden – maybe a sign this was the home for we Welshmen? We weren’t in a position to buy back then; however, we were curious to see if the house had been transformed in the intervening years.
In short, the answer was ‘no’. While there were signs of habitation – a parked van, (we think) some new windows – the garden was still untended. I wondered aloud if this was another house ‘that got away’, but Harri was resolute. I’d have hated living here on the river, he insisted. It was too far from Silves and would likely attract swarms of midges at twilight. He’s right, of course, but what I’d give for a traditional garden like that with its painted-tile steps and the seating built into walls. Intriguingly, that lone sheep has now been replaced by a dog, who came to say ‘hello’ but didn’t bark once (believe me quiet dogs are a rare species in this neck of the woods!).
Our peace and tranquility uninterrupted, we walked in silence, enjoying the sounds of the birds and the bees (and no, that’s not a euphemism). The wide track gave way to a footpath and once more we moved farther from the river. In the distance, I spotted Clube Nautico, a wonderful outdoor eaterie overlooking the Arade where many customers arrive by boat.
When you’re tackling a 30.6 km out-and-back route with temperatures reaching the mid-twenties who in their right mind would make it even harder for themselves by doubling back on themselves to look for a lost phone? Yep, that would be me. We’d just survived the descent of the worst kind of hill – steep track, loose stones – when I realised it had fallen out of my bra (having gone for shallow-pocketed shorts today, it seemed a good option). A frantic search of pockets and rucksack ensued (just in case I’d had a senior moment), but no, it was definitely missing.
The ever-patient Harri asked when I last remembered having it. That, at least, was easy(ish) as I remembered checking our distance at 7.2 km. We were now at 8.5 km so the worst case scenario meant retracing our steps for 1.3 km (scratch that, the worst case scenario was my poor Samsung being squished by a passing car on our recent road section).
It’s incredible the speed I can charge up a gravel track when my phone’s survival is at stake. Harri trailed behind, ringing my number constantly. We reached the road and, moments later, I heard that most wonderful of sounds … a ringtone. And there it was: my phone lying at the edge of the road, completely undamaged.
It was only afterwards that Harri remembered that we’re buddies on the Outdoor Active app we both use. If, instead of charging off, we’d stopped to think for a moment, he could have located me, aka my Samsung, immediately by using the Buddy Beacon feature. The technology wouldn’t have prevented us adding an additional two kilometres to an already-long day, but it would certainly have kept my anxiety in check.
Unfortunately, my propensity for losing things on hikes is a bit of a recurring theme. Over the years, I’ve managed to lose my camera twice – once on a sweltering day in the Brecon Beacons and, a few months later, after climbing one of Madeira’s killer hills from sea level. Last year, I lost (and later found) my hiking poles on two occasions – in Carrapeteira and on another hike near Alcantarilha Gare.
Holiday vibes at Sitio das Fontes
Sitio das Fontes was buzzing when we arrived. There were families everywhere, music playing and people paddleboarding. We sat at a picnic table, debated whether it was time for elevenses or lunch and agreed to eat half our supplies.
We left the popular picnic area at 1pm, having only covered 9.3 km. This linear walk was taking longer than we’d anticipated. From here, the onward route to Parchal was familiar to us, as it moreorless forms the return to Estômbar on one of my Hiking Algarve walks.
Easy or hard – it all depends
As we climbed from river level, Harri and I talked about how difficult it is to grade a walk as easy, moderate, challenging, etc. The Via Algarviana has graded the undulating GR13.9 route as ‘easy’ despite there being a fair amount of climbing and some rough terrain. Harri’s theory is that the Via Algarviana uses a rating system that pertains only to the 300-km waymarked trail and its associated trails, i.e. this link route is easy compared with many of the sections and link routes which comprise the whole Via Algarviana. I recalled the demanding ‘downhill’ section from Monchique to Silves we tackled two summers ago. Harri was right: today’s walk was a stroll in the park in comparison.
After the toughest climb of the walk, we were rewarded with stunning panoramic views across the Arade and the partially covered mudflats. As we guessed, the waymarked route stays with the wide clay track rather than veering right (and over boulders) to join a narrow, rocky footpath (our preferred route).
When I walked this way with Hiking Algarve (in mid-February), we were treated to the incredible sight of perhaps 200 flamingos feeding on the salt pans. Today, there was not a single one.
Reaching Parchal and the halfway point
We reached Mexilhoeira da Carregação, a really pretty little place with a nice park and cafes but only a short section of river frontage. Sadly, we both felt that this last section of the route when we followed the back streets between Mexilhoeira and Parchal left much to be desired. Fenced off, dilapidated warehouses line the riverbanks, obscuring the view of the Arade and we kept having to step aside for cars to pass. The only highlight was the numerous storks nesting on top of the old brick chimneys. Hopefully, this entire area will one day be revitalised with a riverfront promenade.
We reached Parchal railway station and the end of the GR13.9 at 2.05 pm, a sobering four hours and 20 minutes after leaving Silves Gare and not far off the five hours the interpretation board mentioned. I’d been having problems with my left leg for days, which had undoubtedly slowed me down (particularly as I was walking in Sketcher running shoes which lacked proper grip on the stony descents). I popped a few painkillers, wondering how I was going to survive the return hike but I’m stoic if nothing else.
I perked up after a cold cola drink and half an hour resting in the shade at Restaurante o Alentejano (where the proprietor cheered up enormously at my purseful of coins).
Football frustration at Sitio das Fontes
We arrived back at Sitio das Fontes to the vibes of the BeeGees’ ‘Staying Alive’. By now, there wasn’t a free picnic table to be seen so we settled down on the top level of wooden seating in the amphitheatre. Unfortunately, if we’d wanted a peaceful lunch it wasn’t to be. Two 11–12-year-old boys were determined to kick a football at the tiered seating around us and it came hair-raisingly close on several occasions. To be fair, the majority of young people in Portugal are extremely polite and well-mannered so we were a little taken aback at these boys’ apparent disregard for our presence (and nerves). If they were trying to get us to move they were unsuccessful.
We left Sitio with 21.1 km to go. The painkillers had kicked in and I was feeling far livelier than on the approach to Parchal. We decided to power ahead. I’m not a great lover of linear walks – we rarely do them – but the glorious landscape across the valley and towards the mountains was worth seeing a second time and certainly lifted our spirits.
What do you do when you find a little terrapin crossing a gravel track used by vehicles and cyclists and is nowhere near water? You rescue it. With no hesitation, I scooped the little fellow/lady up and carried it for well over half an hour until we reached a waterlogged area with reed-lined pools. Then I set it free, hopeful it would have a better chance of survival there.
Back at Silves Gare
We finished the walk at 6.26pm – eight hours and 41 minutes after setting off (and not hugely under the recommended five hours for each way). To be fair, our moving time was only six hours and 23 minutes. I’d recorded 30.2 km on my Outdoor Active app, while Harri had recorded 32.2 km (the additional 2 km recorded when we retraced our steps to find my phone).
If we’d stuck rigidly to the waymarked route we would have covered 31.6 km. Our ‘shorter’ distance reflected our decision to do downhill to the saltpans via the footpath route and a slightly shorter return route through Parchal to avoid the gloomy section (and find a bar).
While it’s great to see new Via Algarviana link routes being created, I think a far better option for the GR13.9 would have been to link Silves Gare and Estômbar, where there’s also a railway station. That way, the route would have ended/started in the far prettier countryside surroundings of Estômbar instead of the rather uninspiring Parchal.