The past two days have seen me hiking in the Serra dos Candeeiros, the mountains we could see from Alcobaça. This towering limestone massif is part of the Natural Park of the Sierras de Aire Candeeiros.
While we’ve been living here in São Martinho do Porto, I’ve been walking with a group called Silver Coast Walks, led by the wonderful John Miller. John organises a short, easy walk every Wednesday, plus a longer, tougher walk on alternative Fridays. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, Harri has been unable to join me; however, it’s given me an opportunity to meet some very nice people of different nationalities.
This week, the intrepid Friday hikers tackled an 11.5 km walk starting at Olho de Água, just outside Alcobertas, where the Alviela spring rises at the foot of an escarpment. Lisbon has been taking its main public water from here since 1880.
The walk began with a 350 metre climb along an often narrow and precarious footpath. On the ridge we were greeted with rows of wind turbines … the height and proximity to winds coming off the Atlantic makes this an idea location to harness green energy.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before we were heading downhill again on a steep, rocky track which slowed (most of) us down to a crawl. Witnessing the ease with which the pole-users were descending the path made me wonder once again if I should perhaps start using them? Then again, a little part of me feels that in doing so I’d be giving in to old age!
This being limestone territory, there were several caves along our route. I declined to enter the first when I heard someone mention spiders and the second had its entry barred by an iron gate. Nonetheless, a few of us peered into the darkness and were delighted to see bats flying around inside. There are apparently around 1,500 caves in the natural park which provide habitats to ten species of bat.
At Chãos, we piled into the local cafe. Two friends, Denise and Mike, have been transporting me to the starting point of the Silver Coast walks, so I insisted on paying for their coffees as a way of thanking them. Having paid £6.50 for a black tea, an espresso and a small brownie in Newport’s Coffee #1 a few weeks ago, I was again left gasping at the bill. My green tea, plus two large coffees came to just 1,40 euros.
Back at Olho de Água, John suggested those of us with a little time to spare might do a small detour to visit the chapel of St Mary Magdalene at Alcobertas. I’m so pleased we did … and so frustrated I didn’t have my camera with me. From the outside, the church looks as though a large rock is sticking out of its side but it’s actually a dolmen, a late Neolithic single-chamber megalithic tomb. This one at Alcobertas comprises seven pillars and is actually one of the ten largest on the Iberian Peninsular. At some point, the dolmen was incorporated into the fifteenth-century church and now functions as a side chapel, separated from the main church by a short corridor.
Coincidentally, the following day saw me heading back to the Serra dos Candeeiros, albeit to a different area. With few free days left on the Silver Coast, I’d suggested Harri and I chose one place each to visit or revisit. My choice was Baleal Island last weekend, and he wanted to visit the national park.
The final few kilometres of our route were a bit hairy as Harri skilfully navigated one hairpin bend after another on the Porto de Mós to Mira de Aire road. For a while, the wooded landscape looked alpine, before gradually morphing into something that did not look hugely different from our very own Brecon Beacons, but without the bogs. We parked at Alvados in a wide fertile valley where haymaking was in full swing around the abundant olive trees. It looked to be a fairly traditional method with plenty of man power, smallish rectangular hay bales and no sign of the ubiquitous plastic wrapping you see everywhere in the UK.
Astonishingly, the parish of Alvados (which was founded sometime between 1555 and 1559) was producing 200,000 litres of olive oil a year until just 50 years ago. And to think, until relatively recently, the British were mostly using this product to clean their ears!
The waymarked route involved climbing to the top of the escarpment of the Costa de Alvados; however, Harri promised it would be a fairly steady incline on reasonable terrain. The air was unusually still and the sun felt hot on our heads. We passed a large group of Portuguese hikers, mostly young women using walking sticks. It did not bode well that they were coming off the mountain just as we were heading up it. I sensed that the Portuguese have a lot more respect for the sun than we foolish Welsh.
We passed through a tiny hamlet where a large sign proudly proclaimed that a newish wooden-clad building was mostly funded by the EU (only saying). Now the valley narrowed and the heat was becoming oppressive. We started worrying about things that had never before concerned us on the Silver Coast: dehydration, sunburn, heat exhaustion.
We joined a narrow path between drystone walls and enjoyed a brief interlude in the shade as we steadily climbed. Eventually we emerged onto a wider track and were catapulted into such bright sunshine that it took a few moments for our eyes to adjust. Alongside us, the meadows were full of butterflies and yellow and lilac flowers, with the occasional cluster of poppies.
The scree track gradually meandered up the hillside. Every few minutes, I’d stop to admire the views and wipe my brow. As we climbed, the wind gradually picked up a bit making the ascent a bit easier.
As the ground levelled out, I was surprised to see the hill mountain landscape covered with a myriad of drystone walls, creating a patchwork of fields and walkways between them. Despite the fact we were following a waymarked route (with the now-familiar red and yellow lines marking the way ahead), the positioning of some waymarks wasn’t always logical and often we’d find ourselves at a junction with no waymark at all.
We skipped elevenses and sat on a boulder to enjoy an early lunch. Harri spotted a large bird in the sky and thought it might be a vulture. Unfortunately, now we’d reached the plateau, the sun did a disappearing act and I found myself reaching for my fleece.
We’d reached about 500 metres but there was still more climbing to do. Now the vista opened all around us and we could see little clusters of houses dotted across the plateau. In the UK, we tend to build mostly in valleys; here in Portugal, hilltop villages and towns abound. I was fascinated by the occasional inclusion of full height slabs in the construction of the drystone walls. Whether this was to speed up construction or to strengthen the walls I have no idea.
Sadly, the change in weather meant the landscape now looked rather bleak and even more like the Brecon Beacons on a grey and blustery day. We reached the highest point of the walk – 588 metres –and got stupidly excited when we spotted a signpost saying Praia Jurassica.
Did we do the detour or not? Yes, we agreed … and we were very pleased we did because the extensive rock platforms gently cascading down the hillside that constitute the ‘beach’ were very impressive indeed. Back on route, we finally encountered some cattle in four or five of the fields. How life in these mountains must have changed over recent decades; all that painstaking work to create so many fields and yet most now lay empty.
Eventually we began our descent, first along a wide path between drystone walls and then along a zigzagging footpath that clung to the side of the escarpment and offered vertiginous drops to the valley below. Now we walked in single file concentrating hard on where – and where not – to place our feet. I don’t like heights and so was thankful for the continuous line of boulders which jutted out and provided a form of low-level barrier. Halfway down, Harri pointed out our car in the distance. Not too much farther to walk..
I’ll admit I hadn’t been delighted at the prospect of doing back-to-back walks in the Serra dos Candeeiros when there were so many places we hadn’t got around to visiting in our three months on the Silver Coast. Fortunately, the two routes I’d walked had introduced me to very different landscapes in this beautiful protected area. With hindsight, I believe Harri chose well.
Now all that remains to decide is where to go next weekend for our final Silver Coast adventure!!