For the uninitiated, levadas are water channels built to irrigate large areas of land which would otherwise be too dry for agriculture. The Portuguese started building levadas in the sixteenth century (the idea was introduced by the Moors). Madeira’s levadas – often cut into the side of mountains – have become a huge draw for overseas walkers, who seize the opportunity to explore the island’s mountainous interior on relatively easy terrain.
Hikers don’t generally walk inside the levada itself, but follow the maintenance paths running alongside them. These can vary in width, accessibility and condition … many are as unchallenging as a stroll in a park, others have sections in a poor state of repair, with unprotected drops and waterfalls to negotiate. Vertigo goes with the territory. More than once, we have encountered a couple or walking group where one person was so terrified they were refusing to move. Yes, the idea is to walk along the maintenance path but when the risk of catastrophe outweighed our concerns about wet hiking boots, we have been extremely happy to leap into the adjacent levada.
Of course, the Algarve’s interior landscape is nothing like Madeira. Here, the hills are gentle and undulating, with few steep drops. Levadas here are generally less grand affairs – there’s one running across agricultural land near Lagoa – and do not require maintenance paths.
We’d never anticipated being able to go levada walking in Silves. Then Harri bought a Cicerone book called Walking in the Algarve (by Nike Werstroh and Jacint Mig) and we discovered there was a levada just west of the city. This levada was easily accessible and had a nice, wide path running alongside it.
We first walked the route on Christmas Eve with our Tavira-based friends Denise and Geoff. Harri and I were still recovering from a nasty bout of flu, which I’d picked up on a trip home to Wales and generously shared with him upon my return. We’d enjoyed the route, but my chest was still really tight and I’d struggled with the climb, I didn’t blog about the walk, but mentioned it briefly in a round-up of what we’d been doing recently.
Then our friend Jörg suggested meeting him for lunch at Clube Nautica Silves and Harri realised ‘the shack’ (as the owners Ivan and Ana refer to it) was midway along Route 8. A cunning plan was forming!
Never let it be said that Harri and I force any of our friends to go hiking in soaring temperatures when they’d prefer to be lounging around with a beer. Jörg is a fellow long-distance hiker and he was more than happy to join us for the full walk.
The ‘outward’ route never strays from the levada, with fantastic panoramic views across the Ribeira de Odelouca. We plucked a few fresh figs from branches overhanging our path and savoured the shade provided by various fruit trees and bamboo.
At the confluence of the Odelouca and Arade rivers, there is a little path crossing the levada and leading to a viewpoint. Here, Harri and Jörg speculated at length about the purpose of a three-sided milestone perched above the water. It seemed an odd place for a milestone because proceeding in any direction would send you plunging into the water below. Eventually, Harri advanced his theory that the stone was, in fact, a boundary stone, marking not only the place where the municipalities of Silves, Portimão and Lagoa converged, but the individual freguesias. This theory explained why Silves and Portimão were mentioned twice on their ‘sides’, while Estombar was carved under Lagoa (in Portugal, a municipality is usually named after its biggest town or city).
Clube Nautica Silves is located just below the levada and, though it was barely lunchtime there was already quite a bit of a buzz about the place. How to describe it? Well, shack does kind of sum it up. There’s a lot of wood, a lot of blue paint and a fair amount of crazy signage. There’s a real sense of relaxed fun about the place … Harri said it looked how he’d imagine a Caribbean beach bar to look except there was no glittering turquoise ocean to gaze out upon, just the Arade River at low tide and views of Silves and its Moorish castle a little way upriver.
Ivan cooks much of the food outside on a barbecue; however, our waitress suggested we might prefer to eat under cover to avoid the heat of the sun (most of the tables are under a large canopy).
We chose beer rather than wine and, by the time the main course, we’d nibbled our way through olives, bread and sardine pâté and were definitely ready for a second. I opted for bacalhau de bras, Harri chose robalo (seabass) and Jörg decided on black pork. All meals were delicious and we managed to clear our plates.
Clube Nautica Silves was closed when we walked past on Christmas Eve so we didn’t realise there is a swimming pool adjacent to the decked area. There is a small charge, although this might only apply to those who aren’t eating there.
Eventually it was time to leave this idyllic spot where white storks fly past with incredible frequency. We paid our bill and, once I’d asked Ivan to agree to do an interview for Tomorrow magazine, we reluctantly left to join a dirt track past the (closed) caravan site.
This was the only climb of the entire 8km walk. I’m a lot fitter than I was in December, but it was now 2.30pm and extremely hot (around 30 degrees). Harri and I used to tackle the steepest of Madeiran hills by singing ‘walk like a Madeiran’ to the tune of Walk Like an Egyptian and adapting the style of the locals, i.e. widen your legs and take things very, very slowly.
The water in our bottles was tepid and vile, but when you’re thirsty you have no option but to reach for it (or do an about-turn and grab some more ice-cold beers!).
The views, of course, made the climbing worthwhile and soon we were looking downriver towards Portimão. We joined the levada for the final stretch of walking. By now, we were all so hot and sweaty, it wouldn’t have taken much persuasion for us to leap into the water. Except there were suddenly snakes swimming in the levada alongside us … harmless water snakes, I’m sure, but seeing them rather dampened our enthusiasm for a dip.
When you’ve spent most of your life walking in cold and damp Wales, the notion it could ever be too hot and sunny for hiking seems inconceivable. An eight-kilometre walk is thr equivalent of a few laps around Tredegar House lake (not even two whole parkruns), or a stroll from Rhiwderin to the city centre. Not really a hike, just a stroll. Yet when the mercury is hitting 30 degrees, every kilometre takes on a new dimension. And today, levada walking in Silves and an eight-kilometre walk was ample.