The Via Algarviana starts from the quay at Alcoutim, some distance from the coast on the left bank of the Rio Guadiana.
We hadn’t done ourselves any favours by arriving in Portugal on a Sunday, so Harri thought it best that we travel as far as Vila Real de Santo António by train on our first day, and wait until Monday when the buses were running to head to Alcoutim.
Harri was sorely tempted to change our plans and have us walk to Alcoutim when he realised it was possible to do so on a waymarked route. There was just one slight problem – Alcoutim was 64km away by foot (the distance is shorter by road) and we didn’t have two extra days to spare.
There was a little consternation when we were joined on the Vila Real – Alcoutim bus by a fit-looking couple (older even than me), who appeared to be seriously well-equipped, certainly over-dressed (for the warm Algarve weather) and carrying such enormous packs that one had to wonder what they had in there! Everything Harri had read about the Via Algarviana suggested that accommodation would be in short supply for the first few nights when we’d be stopping in small villages. It seemed his fears that we might find ourselves walking in tandem with other hikers – and needing our sleeping bags – might prove justified.
Meanwhile, I was on a downer about the weather. Early May, mid morning and it remained resolutely grey and overcast, just like back home. Whatever had happened to the promised Portuguese sunshine?
We passed through Castro Marim, Azinhal and Odeleite on our seventy-minute journey. Inbetween these settlements, the landscape looked scrubby and undulating. Not mountainous exactly, but with the unrelenting ups and downs which would prove tough going if the sun ever decided to put in an appearance.
At Alcoutim, the older couple disembarked ahead of us, and without glancing at a map or signpost, marched straight up the nearest narrow road. We breathed a sigh of relief; they’d be at least a day’s hiking ahead of us. And if they kept walking at that pace, they’d reach Cabo de São Vicente well within the two-week schedule.
Feeling slightly more relaxed, we set out to explore Alcoutim.
There is evidence of Greek, Roman and even Phoenician settlement in the area and ancient megaliths and tombs have been found here dating back to the end of the Neolithic period (around 4000BC). The region is rich in iron, copper and manganese, and these – and other cargoes like wheat, leather, olive oil and honey – were transported along the Guadiana, which is tidal as far as Alcoutim and navigable to Mértola.
For around 500 years, the region was controlled by the Moors, who built the castelo velho (old castle) just to the north of the town so they could keep an eye on the river below. Alcoutim’s other castle – the new castle – dates back to medieval times, although much of it has been recently rebuilt. The nearby Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Conceição church was locked; however, the views are superb and the spectacular stairs created by military engineers at the beginning of the eighteenth century to connect the church with the town below are definitely worth the climb.
With its cobbled lanes and narrow alleyways, Alcoutim reminded me of picturesque Cornish villages like St Ives, Polperro and Mevagissey. The hotchpotch of architectural styles, with random steps and vibrant flowers spilling over terraces and pots was a world apart from Vila Real’s straight streets and numerous crossroads.
Today was supposed to be an easy, relaxing day, so once we’d checked out the very pretty Praia Fluvial do Pego Fundo (river beach), tucked away in a pretty spot just around the first bend of the Ribeira de Cadavais – and completely deserted on this dull, gloomy Monday – it was beer time.
For more about Alcoutim visit the village website.
For more information about walking the Via Algarviana visit the official website. A printed guide with individual maps of each section, plus all the link routes are available free of charge (postage is payable).
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.
A ‘Made for iBooks’ version is also available from Apple’s iBookstore.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.
For more photographs of the Via Algarviana visit Pinterest.