One of the advantages of living and hiking with an outdoor writer is being able to stray from the well-trampled routes outlined in walking guidebooks. Over the past few years, the availability of online mapping software has enabled Harri to plan new routes more accurately, specifically our weekend walks in the Algarve last winter. So when I mentioned I wanted to go hiking in Central Portugal, Harri encouraged me to list the places I wanted to see and said he’d do his best to come up with a circular route which incorporated as many as possible.
Included on my original list were:
- Pedrógão Grande
- Castanheira de Pêra
- Miranda do Corvo
- Gois (highly recommended by a former colleague)
- Figueira da Foz
- Vieira de Leiria
When you consider that we were only going to be in the country for 15 nights – and two of those were of necessity being spent in Lisbon – the likelihood of visiting all 14 places on my wish list looked highly unlikely. It’s testament to Harri’s impressive planning skills that he managed to work out a walking route which involved us visiting all but two of the two of the towns listed above (we didn’t manage to visit Gois and Penela).
The first consideration was where to actually start our hike. Neither of us relished the prospect of spending days walking through Lisbon’s suburbs, no matter how pleasant they might be. Our initial plan was to catch a train to Santarém; however, it would be a good two days’ walking from there to Tomar with nowhere we particularly wanted to visit inbetween. After much debate, we agreed to start from Tomar, which seemed a much better idea … until Harri tried to book our accommodation there.
It seemed odd that a city with a population of over 40,000 had so little hotel accommodation available in early May – and that the few rooms that were free were so ridiculously expensive. Portugal is renowned for its festivals and we wondered if our visit to Tomar might be coinciding with local festivities. After much Googling I finally discovered why there was no room at the inn in Tomar … the Pope was in town!
Not actually in Tomar itself, but in nearby Fatima where he was canonising two children who had visions of the Virgin Mary 100 years ago. One UK newspaper reported that the Portuguese authorities were anticipating a crowd of one million people. No wonder we couldn’t find a hotel room nearly 40 kilometres away! (Later in our trip, we met some Australian pilgrims who’d had their own pre-booked self-catering accommodation in Fatima cancelled two weeks earlier … they saw it re-advertised for 900 euros a night!)
With nowhere to stay in Tomar, Harri’s solution was for us to travel to the city on an early train and spend a few hours looking around before walking about 22 kilometres north to Ferreira do Zêzere where there were rooms available.
Harri’s route saw us walking alongside the snaking Castelo de Bode reservoir, and making our way through Pedrógão Pequena and Pedrógão Grande to Castanheira de Pêra. Sadly, we had to skip Penela, but we stayed in a palace in Lousã, left a schist village via a steep historic trail and drank iced cider in hot sunshine in Miranda do Corvo.
We walked without using any form of public transport until we reached Coimbra, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited and somewhere we originally planned to bypass for reasons of time (I’m so glad we didn’t!). This change of plan necessarily involved abandoning our intended marathon-distance trudge to Ferreira da Foz and hopping onto another slow-moving Portuguese train.
There were more last-minute route changes when we reached the coast. While the beaches of the Silver Coast are spectacular and absolutely perfect for water sports, the steep camber and lack of any real tides (to make the sand wet and hard) meant we were struggling to walk barefoot in the soft, crumbling sands.
Having anticipated a week’s coastal walking, we were reluctant to leave the beach but we knew it would be impossible to cover the necessary distances on sand. Ultimately, we had little choice but to head inland slightly, where we followed cycle paths for hours and meandered along tracks through eucalyptus and pine plantations. We returned to the coast whenever the terrain permitted (there were sometimes boardwalks) and staying in resorts like Nazaré, Vieira de Leiria, Peniche and Porto Novo.
The medieval walled city of Obidos enchanted us – and it was even prettier in the evening when the coachloads of tourists were bussed out and we ‘overnighters’ had it all to ourselves.
It was with heavy hearts that we left the Silver Coast and made our way inland on our penultimate day. We stepped aboard our third train of the holiday, this time from Torres Vedras to the Lisbon suburbs where we were spending our final night.
We love the Algarve and will be returning there later this year; however, Central Portugal felt like a different country at times. The food is more traditional with lots of pork on the menu (and, unfortunately for me, no sign of chicken peri-peri). English is far less likely to be spoken in restaurants and by officials (although the larger hotels have English-speaking receptionists). One young man in Castanheira de Pêra told us (in perfect English) that when he visited the Algarve resorts he felt like he wasn’t in his own country because he so rarely heard Portuguese spoken. It’s different here – and we probably should have learned more Portuguese before we came. Fortunately the people are so patient and kind that they’ll wait while you struggle to express yourself with limited vocabulary, often switching effortlessly to French because they suspected it might be easier for us.
Central Portugal is a wonderful place to explore, particularly on foot. We will be back!
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.