Harri was particularly interested in discovering if you could reach the sea from Mexilhoeira Grande primarily because we were told it wasn’t possible a few years ago (by a hotel receptionist in Lagos). It would seem she was wrong because a waymarked trail exists from the railway station at Mexilhoeira Grande to the coast.
Our first challenge was to find the railway station. Now that we have a car and can drive places, you’d think it would make life easier but it’s not always the case. The original turning to the railway had been blocked off (presumably for safety purposes) and the signposting for the new route was so unclear that we ended up bumping and bouncing our way along a compacted mud single track running parallel to the railway line.
Last time we were in Mexilhoeira Grande was in October 2015 when we were walking the Via Algarviana link route between the village and Monchique. That was a tough, mostly uphill walk; fortunately, there were no hills between here and the Ria de Alvor so today’s walking would be almost completely on the level.
We set off along a wide dusty track which directed us to the west of the peninsular separating the Alvor and Odiaxere estuaries. For the first few kilometres, there was nothing much to see, other than the extensive marshlands stretching into the distance. In some ways, the landscape reminded us of North Gower, near Swansea. Like the Ria de Alvor, North Gower’s three-mile wide Loughor Estuary comprises salt marsh and mudflats and provides a valuable habitat for numerous species of wading birds. The estuary is also home to Gower ponies, who graze there, retreating hastily with the incoming tide. Harri’s book Circular Walks on Gower Peninsula includes a six-mile walk in the area.
There had been a fair amount of traffic passing as we walked, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when, at the end of the track, we reached a small, busy car park. From here, we headed right onto a raised sea wall or dyke running across salt marshes which were apparently once cultivated for rice growing. Now the landscape became really interesting and varied, with a wide expanse of tidal water to our right and extensive salt flats to our left.
Eventually we reached the end of the salt marsh and found ourselves crossing an extensive sea wall running parallel to the coast but protected from the ocean by the breakwaters on either side of the lagoon entrance. It was almost low tide and already local people were walking across the emptied lagoon, jabbing at the wet sand as they searched for molluscs.
Harri’s theory that the sea walls were originally built for agricultural purposes was borne out when I stumbled upon a fascinating academic paper online which looked at the land-use changes of the Ria de Alvor and neighbouring Ria Arade. I was fascinated to read how Portugal’s devastating 1755 earthquake and resulting tsunami had transformed the landscape and enabled the previously heavily silted Alvor estuary to accommodate tall ships for the first time. The construction of the dyke and embankment system began in the aftermath of the tsunami to prevent future similar tidal attacks and enable the reclamation of the salt marshes.
Geography has never been my strongest subject (it was the only O level I failed), therefore I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say, this area is an intriguing patchwork of natural and man-made landscapes, which has been used variously throughout the centuries for salt production, fishing, mollusc gathering, agricultural, trading and, most recently, tourism.
We were soon back at the car park, having completed a triangular-shaped walk along the dykes. We ate elevenses on the beach (nearly losing our food to a boisterous labrador who came bounding over and filled our crisps bag with sand), and then left the main track to join a steep lane.
Though the peninsula now locates several seriously desirable properties – including Quinta da Rocha at the water’s edge – the evidence of its agricultural past is everywhere, from the drystone walls and ruined farm buildings, to the meandering, though currently dry, levada (a concrete irrigation channel).
Back at the railway station, we agreed it was far too early to declare an end to our day’s walking. Having demonstrated that we could reach the coast from Mexilhoeira Grande, Harri was now curious to discover if we could walk to Alvor itself.
Answering this question meant heading back to the coast, but this time walking on the other side of the peninsular. Everything was going well until we reached a fence which had been erected right across the path we wanted to follow. Thankfully, the Portuguese don’t care too much for obstructive fences and a workaround was already in place. In Wales, this type of estuarial landscape would be marshy and impassable in January (and probably most of the year); here, the ground underfoot was hard and dry.
There was a hairy moment when we had to climb onto and cross a railway bridge (and get down the other side) but we were reassured by the infrequency of the slow-moving Algarve trains. The dyke-top path heading towards Alvor was narrow, forcing us to walk in single file. Harri strode ahead purposefully, widening the gap between us significantly whenever I paused to take photographs.
Though we weren’t planning to walk all the way to Alvor, the resort was already looking much closer. With nowhere to sit along the dyke, it wasn’t until we reached the dam across the ria’s most easterly arm that we finally stopped for lunch.
We watched, fascinated, as fish leapt in and out of the water dolphin-like, presumably in pursuit of low-lying insects. Overhead, cormorants circled then dipped and dived into the estuarial waters. Though there was a warm breeze, the air was so clear we could see the restaurant located on top of Foia, the highest mountain in the Algarve.
Heading inland for the second time that day, we were reminded of our two-day jaunt up and down the River Parrett in Somerset (the town of Bridgwater is the first crossing place and it’s ten miles inland).
The dammed lagoon was now on our right, with the salt flats on our left. Having been disappointed with the lack of birds on this morning’s walk, I now found myself in a bird watcher’s paradise. There were more cormorants and a whole (small) island full of white birds, which we were unable to identify. I counted forty salmon-coloured flamingos wading and feeding in the lagoon and a large muster of storks had gathered on the salt flats. Just when I thought the visuals couldn’t get any better, the storks took to the air en masse.
The spectacle was so unexpected and incredible that I stopped to gaze upwards as their vast wing flew over our heads (and got left behind again).
We’d set out to follow a 10km waymarked walk and ended up walking twice the distance, but we had no regrets. We’d had a wonderful walk and, as a result, now had a far better understanding of the topography and the diverse habitats which form the Ria de Alvor.
There is more information about the various habitats which form the Ria de Alvor in the excellent Guide to Nature Tourism in the Algarve.