Dona Rita was determined we were not going to starve today. Having been asked if we would like a packed lunch and using our patchy language skills to respond enthusiastically, we were presented with enormous cheese sandwiches and two oranges. I’d lost over half a stone when we walked through Wales; if our Portuguese hosts continued feeding us this well, I’d return from walking the Via Algarviana half a stone heavier!
It was cloudy when we left Vaqueiros; however, the warm air suggested we were in for another scorcher of a day. The guide described this short section (14.88 km) of the Via Algarviana as ‘somewhat difficult’ which was slightly discerning considering yesterday’s much longer section was given the same rating. If that wasn’t bad enough, there would be no facilities between here and Cachopo, i.e. no beer stops, just a water fountain at Casa Baixas.
Today’s scenery was dominated by large expanses of the white rock rose flower and attractive stone pine trees which, despite not being native to the Algarve, cope admirably with the arid conditions. So well, in fact, that you see rows and rows of the tree clinging to the steep dry slopes, cultivated for their pine kernels.
The first tiny hamlet we passed through was confusingly called Monchique, but should not be muddled with the larger town in the Serra de Monchique mountains – we wouldn’t be arriving there until day ten. In this little Monchique, we were immediately greeted by some friendly locals – a huge one-eyed hound and his little whippet friend who rushed towards us, gave us a perfunctory sniffing over before sloping languidly back to the agricultural buildings from whence they had come.
On previous hiking trips, day four is usually when it all comes together and our legs finally get into their stride. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t happening today and we were dragging our legs up each hill and down the other side.
Around midday, we settled down next to a shallow stream to enjoy our oranges and the sun finally emerged from the clouds, lifting our spirits considerably. It’s always nicer to be walking in sunshine.
After a confusing, premature signpost, we reached Casa Baixo, Depopulation is a serious issue in these inland regions and the number of present-day residents here is just twenty, all of them over 50. Gazing around at the peaceful landscape it was hard to imagine Casa Baixo has once been a thriving Algarve village, where the young and old lived and worked alongside each other. The only villagers we saw today were those tending crops in the fields, stooped and aged but raising a hand in friendly acknowledgement as we walked past.
The landscape was changing as we steadily headed south-west and there were now forests of cork oak all around us. The cork tree is native to the Mediterranean region and Portugal provides about 50% of the world’s cork supply from 720,000 hectares of cork forest. Harvesting of the bark does not start until a tree is at least 25 years old, after which point the bark is carefully stripped using a special axe just once every nine to twelve years.
Cork production is incredibly environmentally friendly and sustainable. The forests prevent the slopes from becoming arid landscapes and provide food (in the form of elongated acorns) and habitats for many indigenous and endangered mammals and birds, while the trees themselves continue to thrive after each de-barking (a cork oak can live for over 200 years).
Today’s scenery has been wonderful, particularly the pretty meadows, abundance of rock rose and neat rows of crops set out on the rust-coloured fields of Casa Baixo. The final delight was walking past high piles of freshly stripped bark as we sauntered into the metropolis that was Cachopo.
We couldn’t have timed our arrival better for a bread van was just pulling up. Employing my decidedly dodgy Portuguese, I managed to purchase two enormous meringues and a bag of fresh bread rolls from a smiling young lady for the princely sum of €1,70. There went the diet again!
It was barely 3pm, and we might have considering pushing ahead, had Dona Rita not phoned the Restaurante Retiro dos Caçadores this morning on our behalf and booked us a room. When we found the smiling Dona Maria Otilia waiting for us, we were so glad we hadn’t let her down.
The two letting rooms are above the bar and access involves climbing a steep, external staircase with several low-hanging plant pots overhead – not ideal after a few pints. Our €30 room was very dated, but clean and comfortable; the bathroom was shared with one other room, but as we were the only guests tonight it didn’t matter.
Abandoning our rucksacks, we set off to get our Via Algarviana passports stamped at the Quiosque O Moinho, but it was late in the day and it was already closed (Dona Maria later kindly stamped them for us).
Cachopo is an interesting mix of modern, well-maintained properties and dilapidated ruins with bricked-up doorways (to my amazement, some of the facades have nothing behind them!). By 2011, the population had dipped to just 716 and, despite its Moorish charm, there was little to see or do. Cachopo boasts two small museums, one celebrating the agricultural history and traditional crafts of the region and the other medronho making; however, both closed at 5pm.
After exhausting the possibilities of Cachopo sooner than anticipated, we retired onto our rooftop terrace with Pringles, books and beer. Later we dined in the restaurant below, where we enjoyed an enormous platter of steak, fried eggs and homemade chips, plus mixed salad. With two beers each, the bill came to just €36,00 and was worth every euro.
Our wonderful hosts then astounded us by offering us a lift to Feiteira tomorrow. Their daughter spoke a little English, and apologised on behalf of her parents because they couldn’t take us the whole way to Barranco do Velho.
We tried our best to thank them, explaining that we couldn’t take them up on their kind offer because we wanted to walk the whole of the Via Algarviana. We could see from their faces that they thought we were mad!
‘People just don’t understand long-distance walkers, do they?’ Harri said, when we were back in our room.
‘No’, I responded. ‘I don’t think they do.’
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).
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.