“I was already an old man when I saw the sea for the first time. It is a thirty-minute drive, but there was nothing there for me, no reason to make the trip down south”. He bent down and took a handful of parched dirt. “We spent our days on these hills, trying to make a living off tiny plots of barren land. It was never enough, so we would often go up north, seeking a few months’ worth of work on the large Alentejo estates.”
We continued to chat as the sun went over the horizon. Manuel is one of the 60 or so residents of Furnazinhas, the small village where I spent my first night on the Via Algarviana, a hiking route that crosses the Algarve, from the eastern border with Spain, to the western tip of Sagres.
This 10-day, 300 km (190 miles) hike shows a side of Algarve very different from the one you and I likely know. Instead of trekking alongside crowded coastlines, the Via Algarviana goes through deserted hills and valleys. The sea is never very far away, and can often be seen from the top of the hills, but it feels like part of a different planet. This is indeed another Algarve.
Click on map to enlarge
Flipping through a travel guide book may give the impression that the Algarve is nothing but a long procession of beaches and seaside resorts, but the coast is just a narrow sliver of a much taller region. A mere 15 minutes up north lies the Barrocal (loosely translated to the Valley), a strip of fertile land that concentrates most of Algarve’s orchards and vineyards. Further up north stand the Serra (the Hills), a succession of rugged hilltops with little or no water. The Via Algarviana starts on the eastern tip of those hills, on a border town called Alcoutim.
I arrived to Alcoutim at dusk, on the same bus that brought back students from the coastal schools. As the kids scattered away, I was left alone on the town’s cobblestoned square. All around me there were neat little whitewashed houses with bright purple bougainvillea dropping from the balconies. Not far away, I could see the moon’s light reflecting off the surface of river Guadiana, which sets the border with Spain.
I got up at sunrise, eager to make the most out of the autumn dwindling daylight. For breakfast, at the local coffee place, I sat down next to a road works crew. Noticing the hiking backpack, they warned me to pack enough water, as I wouldn’t find any more along the way.
Pedro was the chattiest of the group. “Once you get a few miles away from the river, you’ll be alone amidst crags and the occasional goat”. Pedro was right. In less than an hour, I was walking through the deserted hills that make up a big part of the Via Algarviana. On my first day, I crossed paths with precisely two persons and three goats.
What Pedro didn’t mention however, was how beautiful the landscapes would be. The low-lying November sun cast long shadows across the warm golden fields, set against a deep blue backdrop. Despite the lack of water, small bright green pines sprouted everywhere. These young trees intrigued me. Who would plant them across all the different plots? And why?
At my first chance (which would take several hours), I asked about them. Maria was sitting by the door of her house, taking the pits out of olives. “Ah, those trees. They are not young at all. Twenty years ago, the government paid a subsidy to everyone who would plant pines in their lands. The plan was to produce pine nuts, but these lands are so dry that the trees never bore fruits.”
For several days I roamed Algarve’s hills, admiring their rugged beauty and the tenacity of those who live there. I valued the rare and fleeting encounters, from the passing shepherds to the trailside olive pickers. At night, I often stayed in villages too slight to harbour even the smallest of guest houses, so I stayed instead in old schools and fire stations caringly reconverted into accommodation by the village residents.
Occasionally the Via Algarviana dips down to the Valley, the lower altitude portion of Algarve where there is enough water to plant orchards and vineyards. While the soil is fertile, it is much too cragged to sustain large-scale farming, so the lands are split up into small family plots.
Instead of the broad open trails of the hills, I was now hiking on narrow paths that went over small courses of water and ducked beneath large orange trees. To the left and to the right, low limestone walls, marked with the initials of the owner, fenced each plot.
Distracted by the scenery, I ventured very close to a large dog standing on the middle of the path, staring into my eyes. The trail was much too narrow to contour the menacing looking mongrel, and turning back would mean a large detour.
Wondering if the corollary of “barking dogs seldom bite” is “silent dogs often do”, I took a step forward. The dog took a step backward. My second step was hesitantly met with a smaller step backwards, leaving me closer to a sharp pair of canine teeth. Fortunately, the dog owners, a family tending to their orchard, saw the standoff and intervened.
After the dog was convinced I was neither food nor menace, I was offered an orange. I plucked it from the tree and, between bites, asked if they lived here. “Oh no”, answered the eldest of the Rodrigues family. “My parents did. When they died, we continued to tend to their plot. These oranges are delicious”. They were indeed.
Only at its very end does the Via Algarviana reach the coast, at Sagres. These are familiar grounds, as the Fishermen’s Trail, which I hiked last year, also ends here. I went down to the beach, took my boots off, and wiggled my toes in the water. In front of me, the calm sea stretched into the horizon.
The ancients thought Sagres was the end of the habitable world, and it too represented the end of my journey. I would surely long for these ten days hiking the unknown side of Algarve, but for now my sore feet would welcome the sedentary bus ride back to Lisbon.
A big thank you to Via Algarviana, the group that maintains these trails. They also run a website with everything you need to know to plan your journey. And some planning is indeed in order, as portions of the route offer little in the way of accommodation, and no places to eat or drink.