Rocha da Pena and Penina

Harri conquers the summit of Rocha da Pena

I thought we last hiked Rocha da Pena two years, but it was in fact three years ago that we walked from Albufeira to Salir and, the next day, tackled this beauty of a mountain.

This was our first real jaunt since lockdown lifted (it’s referred to as ‘confinement’ here in Portugal). For four months we were not allowed to leave our municipality of Silves at weekends, not even to stroll the mile or so across the border to Porches. One of the reasons I haven’t blogged for an age is I’ve had nothing new to say. We continued walking regularly obviously, but in every increasing circles from our front door. Fair play to Harri, he scoured online mapping for hours to introduce variations of the same old walks. 

A man and his donkey in Pena (and I did ask permission to photograph him)

Thus, heading off to Rocha da Pena felt like a huge adventure, and one we celebrated by putting petrol in our car for the first time since the end of December. In fact, we were grinning like Cheshire cats as set off on our 92-kilometre round trip, as excited as if we were going off on some exotic holiday. One of the only good things to come out of lockdowns across the globe is the huge reduction in road traffic. Eighteen months in our home and we have yet to witness the feared influx of car-driving tourists, although the situation could obviously change this summer. For now, the majority of holiday homes stand empty and our local roads are remain quiet.

Aside from loving Rocha da Pena the first time around, we were heading there again so I could research an article for the June edition of Tomorrow, the fabulous English-language magazine I’ve been working with for well over a year now. In that time, I’ve interviewed some fascinating people and writing my articles is a joy compared to the tedium of much of my work.

There was no-one to interview today, just a wonderful limestone landscape and traditional village to reacquaint ourselves with. As a committed multi-tasker, I also planned to write up our route for Walkingworld and produce my first blog for months.

We could see the Via Algarvian route in the distance

One of the great mysteries of life is why the Via Algarviana route from Salir to Alte doesn’t follow the waymarked route across the summit of Rocha da Pena before continuing to Penina and then on to Benafim (which is on the route). There’s not even a link route from Salir to Rocha da Pena, which is baffling. The Rocha da Pena landscape is far prettier than the official trail, which meanders past industrial-scale orange groves (frequently hidden by walls made from huge boulders). The only explanation must be land-ownership and permission issues (we saw several vandalised waymarks on the Loulé to Salir section back in 2015).

Rocha da Pena from across the valley

We parked in Pena, where there appear to be no facilities, just great views of the craggy Rocha da Pena rising majestically from the valley floor. This was our first hot-weather walk in a long time and with temperatures promised to rise to 23 degrees it probably wasn’t the best day to tackle this limestone hill.

Our first ascent wasn’t even part of the waymarked trail but a neighbouring summit with two stone mills on the top. The steep, stony track brought back memories of walking in Andalucia, when we once took an hour to cover one particularly arduous uphill mile. And, as we discovered six years ago, there is very little shade in the Algarve hills.

The better preserved of the stone mills

As we climbed through the scrubby vegetation – yellow gorse, rock rose, cork trees, olives and purple thistles – I found myself turning around frequently to admire the views, first of the valley, then of Salir to the east and eventually the coast, as it become visible over the line of wooded hilltops to the south. And this was just our first hill …

We finally reached the mills, but frustratingly the wind had picked up and the perspiration on our backs meant it suddenly felt quite nippy. We decided not to stop.

It was too windy at the miradouro to stop

Harri and I love reading the translations on Portuguese information boards. We are impressed that most signs are translated into English; however, sometimes the translations can be quite amusing. The one at the mills didn’t disappoint and explained to visitors that the purpose of picnic park was ‘primarily to provide graceful moments of distraction, entertainment and a rest place to citizens of the town and visitors’. There was a list of duties for visitors, including one stating ‘Do not put publicity’. I hope I’m not going to get into trouble for writing this blog!

Harri enjoying a banana in the stone mill

One of the mills was better preserved than the other, so we left our rucksacks on the ground and climbed the steep unprotected stone staircase to the top. With a big drop to our right and nothing to hold onto it summed up what seems to be Portugal’s approach to heritage – and health and safety generally – i.e. we’ll make our ancient monuments accessible, but if you break your neck while exploring them then on your head be it.

While the views from the arched window were magnificent, the descent was a little hairy to say the least – and the large hole in the upper floor didn’t exactly help my vertigo.

Photographing Harri from the top of the mill

Skipping elevenses, we rejoined the main trail and returned to the valley floor. On route, we passed a beautiful house for sale. Situated there on the mountainside, it looked idyllic in the sunshine, its overgrown garden full of potential. Harri laughingly remarked that it would be out of our price range but when I checked later it was just 160k euros. Tellingly, there were no photographs of the interior on the estate agent’s website. The property has electricity but gets its water from a neighbour’s borehole. It’s easy to see why foreigners fall in love with properties like this – as well as the main two-bedroom house there were lots of outbuildings in various states of repair, all of them shouting ‘I have so much potential if you could only see through the negatives’. 

A rural idyll or an isolated money pit?

The vegetation here was lush, another reminder of the beautiful Alpujarras, where we were bowled over by the gorgeous displays of colour everywhere.

Back at ‘ground level’, we walked a little way along the deserted road to the bar at Rocha da Pena, next to which the official LLE-PR18 circular trail begins. There’s a car park and a fonte here so the majority of people stick to the shorter waymarked route.

From  here, the 479-metre Rocha da Pena looms high above, its craggy outcrops and sheer cliffs appearing almost impenetrable to anyone but rock climbers. With the sun hotter and higher than ever, we set off along our second steep, stony track of the day.

Pausing for another breather

Like Pen y Fan in South Wales, Rocha da Pena is popular with families because there are refreshments at the bottom and a proper trail all the way to the top. As the majority of our walks are pretty solitary, it felt a little strange to be greeting groups of descending walkers as we edged towards the summit. There was even a group of young rock climbers congregated near the cliff edge halfway up.

The plateau

After a lot of puffing and panting (me) and great patience (Harri), we finally reached the point where the ground levels off. Rocha da Pena is a table mountain so this isn’t actually the summit – you’ll find the trigpoint marking that about 1.5 kilometres to the west – but it’s near as dammit and the relatively level walking from this point came as a big relief.

Harri enjoying the views at the miradouro norte

From here, we followed the signposted detour to the miradouro norte, where it was sufficiently clear for us to see the Malhão Buddhist Centre – founded by Tibetan monks – in the distant Serra do Caldeirão, the hills bordering the Algarve and the Alentejo.

As we’d walked past my dream property earlier, I’d spotted what I thought were giant poppies. Now, as I read one of the information boards, I learnt they were actually peonies (though nothing like the peonies my dad grew in our terraced garden in the 1960s and 1970s).

Not big poppies but peonies

Having skipped elevenses earlier, we decided to stop for an early lunch and settled on some large boulders close to the cliff edge (not too close), where we benefited from the thermals wafting up the cliff face. I amused myself by feeding sunflower seeds to ants and watching their silent co-ordinated efforts to carry them back to their nest. Humans could learn a lot from ants.

The distant views were complemented by streaking cirrus clouds which looked like vast contrails crisscrossing the sky. Though visually impressive, they are the first sign of an approaching depression, one of the reasons we’d opted to go hiking on a Saturday rather than Sunday.

Human beings could learn a lot from ants’ spirit of co-operation

This high plateau is actually home to a lot of wildlife – including the Egyptian mongoose that Harri was so lucky to see in the Serra de Monchique a few years ago when a mother and her young crossed the trail we were walking. There were loads of huge butterflies too, both yellow and white species. 

The dense vegetation makes it difficult to wander freely up here, but the footpath is distinct, well waymarked and easy to follow. Beware though, as those magnificent views are distracting and the rocky terrain means it’s easy to stumble. For once, I managed to stay upright, but not without several near misses.

The Iron Age defensives stretch for 400 metres

We continued westwards, dropping down slightly at the 400-metre Iron Age ‘wall’ (which looks more like a high-level pebble beach than an actual wall) to climb again to the miradoura sul and the summit. The large cave where the Moors tried unsuccessfully to hide from their Christian pursuers (‘Algar dos Mouros’) in the mid-thirteenth century is near here but overgrown and now home to two endangered bat species.

We stayed with the waymarked footpath

Penina

And then we were heading downhill again, to the sleepy whitewashed village of Penina, which has not yet learned how to sell itself to tourists in the manner of the Alpujarras villages. There is one bar/shop and a tiny museum with a font and picnic area outside. Slightly farther down the hill, there are immaculate toilets with traditional washbasins outside (of the kind once used for laundry). Next to them, a pretty picnic area boasts a shrine to Our Lady of Fátima, a restored waterwheel and lines of pristine white benches interspersed with planters, a barbecue and a bread oven.

After much hunting, I finally spotted the arched doorway

Having missing the arched doorway at number 12 and the 1821 chimney on our first visit, we were determined to locate both this time around. At first, it seemed the prominently numbered houses were missing a 12, until we realised that even in this tiny place there were several street names and several number 12s.

Just as we were about to give up, I happened to glance up some steps to my left and spotted the famed doorway along a narrow street of traditional housing (and ruins). It looked like a small church archway, though its overall appeal was rather ruined by the ugly metal door. I looked up to spy the historic chimney a few doors down. In this silent cobbled lane brimming with flowers, I had a sense of being transported back in time. Right on cue, an old man shuffled past, followed along the cobbles by – all of things – a dove.

It’s not often you see a dove going for a walk

We spotted a bar and decided to stop. I don’t drink anymore but I quite fancied an ice lolly. I’m not sure if strangers are a scarcity in these parts but when a small girl spotted us standing at the bar and disappeared to get someone to serve us, she was followed back out by her two brothers, father and (presumably) grandmother. Unfortunately, despite the warm weather, the large refrigerator was empty and I had to make do with a bottle of water. Sitting on a bench outside the bar, we were greeted several times with ‘boa tarde’ by friendly local people.

The beauty of the landscape continued as we retraced our steps to the end of the waymarked trail and beyond to Pena. 

Harri grew up on a farm and loves spotting old tractors like this one.

Eighteen months ago, we chose to live as close to the coast as we could afford; however, when we’re walking in these beautiful mountain areas I sometimes feel a pang of regret and wonder what our lives might have been like if we’d be braver and bought somewhere off the beaten track. We’d been greeted by more locals in Penina than ever happens on a walk along the promenade in Armação de Pêra. I’m certain we’d have made more effort to learn and speak Portuguese had we moved to Salir too (as was originally our plan). 

Wherever else we go hiking this summer, one thing’s for certain: Rocha da Pena is going to be a hard act to follow.

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