Ten days hiking the unknown side of Algarve

“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

The Hills

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.

 

The Valley

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.

 

The Coast

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.

 

Verne*

49 thoughts on “Ten days hiking the unknown side of Algarve

  1. Very nice. Just minutes ago I read another article on the Algarve (which I visited last about 35 years ago) and the advice was to avoid it because of way too much tourism. But I guess it is as it is almost everywhere else: Move a little bit inland, away from the beaches, and suddenly one can experience the land much more undisturbed. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading! That’s indeed the case with the Algarve: one only needs to travel 10 minutes to be alone in beautiful landscapes. I guess tourism is one of those things where the wisdom of the crowds doesn’t work 🙂 -Verne

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely done, Verne. 🙂 🙂 Though I’ve never walked the total length of the Algarviana I’ve walked parts of it, and I know just how beautiful these hills are. It quite surprises me that more people don’t know it, but maybe it’s as well that way. One Camino is enough, I reckon. The heights around Rocha da Pena are stunning with orchids in Spring.
    I’ll pop you in Monday’s walk. Wishing you and Jules a healthy, happy 2018!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brilliant walk, thanks a lot Verne! This is indeed very different from the Algarve I heard about and, if I may, it feels a lot more enticing than the coastline. I love your Giro d’Italia-styled map, but what can I say, I did a quick scroll through the page, said “Yay, map!” and then went back to read through the whole post.

    Happy New Year!

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That was such a lovely walk, Verne! I miss being out in nature and breathe air that is not polluted — where I live it can be quite challenging to find a place where the air is pure. Love the crisp blue skies of your photos, as always, and that orange you had must have tasted even sweeter as you managed to keep that dog at bay. Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. oh wow discovered you thanks to Jo’s Monday Walks – this is just glorious. We have walked lots in the Algarvian hills, but have not yet been brave enough to walk to Via Algarviana. Almost tempted reading your superb post!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So many hikes, so little time … This is a nice trek that I would normally add to my list, but it seems difficult for a solo woman (yes?), and my husband has about one good trek a year in him at this point, and I’ve already got a mile-long list for us! I love the solitude this affords, and the views are both beautiful and calming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand your conundrum, my list of hikes is also too big for any pair of feet!

      I don’t think you would have any issue doing the Via Algarviana alone, though. The trails are safe (no cliffs, no slippery stuff) and folks are exceedingly nice.

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Have always wanted to explore the Algarve through hiking, the region seems to have such divergent landscapes held in contemplative beauty. As usual you capture them so well. I especially like your perspectives of the river Guadiana.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Magnificent, the hike, the story, the images. I do wonder how you altered that door. It’s my favourite.

    And I notice much of the same landscape that we have right here, pines and olives and oranges, down to those little orange balls, Strawberry Tree, you say it is called.

    Here is not south enough for oranges to be any good though. Hm… actually… so they say, I never really tried any. Maybe they only say this so that they could have all for themselves! 😀

    And sad about no pine nuts, even though the trees themselves are pretty already.

    All in all, well done indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, MMM!

      I know doors are an important subject for you, I would never do tremendous changes to one 🙂 In this case, the original photo had a sliver of the sidewalk showing on the right side. It bugged me how it was breaking symmetry, so I took it out!

      The name in English – Strawberry Tree – is very odd, isn’t it? We call them “medronhos”, and make some mean hard liquour out of them.

      – Verne

      Liked by 1 person

  9. How wonderful to reach a place considered “the end of the habitable world.” I suppose I can stand at the end of Western Avenue a couple of miles from here and look out into the Pacific but it’s not exactly the same. No Europeans even got here ’til the mid-1500s, and they’d obviously wised up about that “habitable world” stuff some time before, having already crossed the Atlantic. This is a marvelous piece from you. I hope you’re both well, and will resume the blog as 2018 progresses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Brad! That was indeed a fascinating period. The 16th century discoveries put to rest many myths that had lingered throughout Europe.

      Some of them were inherited/misinterpreted from the Ancient Greeks (e.g. the end of the habitable world, the landlocked Indian Ocean), while others seem to have been completely made up internally (e.g. the legend of Prester John).

      – Verne

      Like

  10. Olá Romeu!
    Duas questões sobre o mapa.
    – O que são os números por debaixo das distâncias percorridas: as altitudes máximas dos trajectos ou os desníveis?
    – A média diária de distância percorrida anda à volta de 35 km. Excepto em dois dias, onde baixou para metade. Porquê?
    P.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. São a elevação acumulada. Usa-se muito em corrida e ciclismo para ter uma ideia da quantidade de subidas em cada etapa.

      O percurso passa por poucas vilas, e são ainda menos as que têm sítios para passar a noite. Tive que fazer essas etapas mais curtas para que não acabassem no meio do nada. Mas acabou por saber bem, já me doíam os pés!

      V.

      Like

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