Destination: Algarve

Discover a different side of Portugal on the Algarve Way – with extraordinary landscapes, rich local culture and rarely-trodden paths that are a world away from the beach resorts

Words and photography by Paul Bernhardt

Often cited as the most picturesque town in the Algarve, Tavira is known for its many churches and elegant mansions, which lie along both banks of the Rio Gilão. A pedestrianised bridge, Roman in origin, links the two sides. From my hotel balcony I was able to gaze clearly over Tavira’s characteristic four-sided sloping rooftops – telhados de quatro águas – towards the church and castle on the opposite bank of the river. Absorbing all this culture and history fired my imagination as I readied myself for a walking tour of the Algarve, following the Via Algarviana long distance trail across some of the most beguiling countryside in Portugal.

The drive to Alcoutim provided us with pleasant views of the Rio Guadiana, a wide, meandering river that forms a natural frontier with Spain. Dotted along its low, broad banks were fruit and vegetable plots, vineyards, and ad hoc moorings. Pulling into the village, the coach disgorged a walking group full of expectation. Our guide, Mark, a resident of Portugal for many years, shepherded us over to an information panel set near the quay. ‘The Via Algarviana offers the best and most comprehensive overview of the Algarve,’ he declared. ‘Every day will give you a sufficiently different aspect of the interior.’

The trail starts north of the town centre and threads its way 300 km west to end at Cabo de São Vicente, on the coast. Our itinerary would take in six different sections of the ‘Algarve Way’, allowing us to experience an extraordinarily diverse and culturally rich landscape, an interior rarely trodden that offers a more authentic vision of the Algarve than the beaches and resorts more commonly associated with this sun-soaked province.

We headed upwards as behind us the Spanish village of Sanlúcar de Guadiana gleamed. The briny river kept us company for a while before sinking out of sight below rolling hills.  Crunching schist under our boots, the group weaved past dry fruit orchards of fig and almond trees. Swallowtail butterflies danced figure-of-eight patterns in the dry air and somewhere in the distance a cuckoo chimed its plaintive hollow-sounding call. Excellent signage kept us on track and we maintained a steady but leisurely pace all the way to the sleepy hamlet of Cortes Pereiras.

Exploring the interior

At 525m (1,722ft), Alcaria do Cume affords a grand panorama over a green, undulating patchwork of high, round-topped hills and deep ravines. The uplifting landscape provided a suitably inspiring introduction to our second day exploring the Via Algarviana. We were in the heart of the Serra do Caldeirão, a remote region where the way of life has changed little over the centuries. Here the path links tiny hamlets with small villages, smudges of whitewash that for the most part remain unknown names on dog-eared maps. Our destination was Cachopo, a leafy village with its roots firmly in the 16th century and proud of its tradition as a centre for weaving and the manufacture of hand-stitched mule collars and donkey saddles.

The rapid tap-tap-tap of an industrious woodpecker echoed through the valley as we paced forward over slate and shale. Embroidering the countryside was an abundance of cork oak under which lavender, tree heather and cistus congregated. Woodland bird species spotted included a tree creeper and nuthatch. Heavy rainfall the previous week had added considerable volume to a normally ankle-deep stream and there was a novel interlude as we gingerly negotiated a series of wobbly stepping-stones in order to traverse the swollen water. Laughter floated on the air and fortunately nobody got wet.

The long descent into Cachopo was easy on the legs but the mid-afternoon heat meant that everybody welcomed the small café Mark had chosen as a place for refreshments. As we relaxed and mused on the distance covered a stray cat with eyes like sapphires popped up from nowhere to successfully solicit a wedge of ham from one of the ladies in the group. 

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork and in São Brás de Alportel fortunes have been made harvesting this highly versatile natural material. Suitably, we began the third day’s hike with a visit to the town’s Museu Etnográfico do Trajo Algarvio, an engaging ethnographic museum housed in what was once the manor house residence of a local cork baron. We started walking out from Barranco do Velho, a rural community of just a few hundred souls known also for its cork industry. The group quickly began to disperse. Some took off at a cracking pace, seasoned legs making short thrift of the stony, uneven ascent. Others adopted a more leisurely amble. But we all ended up at the Eira de Agosto windmill, long bereft of its sails and a convenient way marker.  

As we descended towards Salir, the landscape took on an exuberant, Mediterranean veneer. Carpets of wild flowers in bright vivid colours glowed as if celebrating the advent of warmer weather. We spotted bouquets of ink-blue grape hyacinth, paperwhite narcissus and pink oxtails. Sprays of dainty sawfly orchids dazzled with their incandescence. Bees, laden with pollen, thrummed rhythmically, hovering slowly from bloom to bloom. With over 500 different species of flora recorded in this part of the world it’s no wonder some of the best honey in Portugal comes from the Algarve.

The following morning saw us gather in Benafrim, an attractive town of narrow streets paved with large hewn limestone slabs. Today’s was a short jaunt of a little under 7km but the route was wonderfully scenic, embellished with olive, carob and strawberry trees, the fruit of which is distilled to produce potent medronho, the local firewater. All the way, insects buzzed and the breeze carried with it with the tangy scent of orange blossom.

Alte has been described as the prettiest village in the Algarve. It’s certainly a destination noted for delicious artisan foodstuffs and liqueurs. During a break I nipped into a café-store and purchased a box of homemade almond tarts and a bottle of aguardente do figo – a smooth but fiery fig brandy.

The second half of the afternoon was spent sightseeing in Silves, the Moorish capital of Al-Gharb that was renowned in the 12th century as a hub of culture and learning. The town’s mighty red sandstone castle dates back mainly to this period, but was also used by Christian forces after the city fell in 1242. From its heavy, crenellated walls I peered skywards. Gliding effortlessly above me were lazy formations of white storks, soaring with outstretched wings on unseen thermals. These graceful birds are synonymous with southern Portugal during the summer months. They communicate by rapidly opening and closing their bills, a clattering sound reminiscent of distant machine-gun fire. Nesting high above the ground on tall chimney stacks and other choice penthouse real estate, they speak as much about the personality of Silves as do the locals, and were a joy to observe.  

Coast and countryside

The Serra de Monchique is a verdant mantle of chestnut, pine and aromatic eucalyptus. Oranges, lemons, peaches and cherries grow on fertile terraced hillsides. In spring fields of rhododendron and mimosa brighten the landscape. It was into this bucolic environment that we walked on our penultimate day on the Via Algarviana.

A mountainous, densely wooded region of impressive grandeur, the Monchique massif is the loftiest landmass in the region. At 902 m Fóia marks its highest point. A second peak, Picota, levels out at 773 m. Scaling both presents a compelling challenge. Beyond the tree line Picota rolls out as an outcrop of granite boulders scattered over tracts of tangled heath. Its rounded summit is textured with patches of gum cistus and clumps of purple heather. It proved an ideal picnic spot, with a spectacular view as nourishing as any packed lunch.

The climb up to Fóia tested even the stoutest legs. Along the way we passed the Nossa Senhora do Desterro, an abandoned 17th-century Franciscan monastery. Our elevated trek eventually took us out from under the shade of dappled woodland to meet an expanse of barren moorland. Before long we spied the summit. Reaching the top of the Algarve was a real achievement. Rewarded with a jaw-dropping panorama of the entire central and western regions, we all agreed that this was, quite literally, the highlight of the trip.

Our final day took us to the end of the world. At least, that’s how the Romans described Cabo de São Vicente, their Promontorium Sacrum (Sacred Promontory). This precipitous windblown cape fronting the Atlantic Ocean is steeped in myth and legend. Prince Henry the Navigator is reputed to have lived here, a short distance from the fortress he built at Sagres and where he founded a school of navigation in the 15th century. From here he looked beyond the old world and mapped the way for Portugal’s remarkable Age of Discovery.

In that same spirit of exploration we had charted the Algarve from east to west, discovering for ourselves a destination that the locally born 19th-century poet Augusto Emiliano da Costa once described as ‘a source of waves and sap, blue and green in colour, always resounding your senses.’



WALK IT! 

  • TIME/DISTANCE Most days involve around 10 km of walking, much of it through open countryside. Bring binoculars for bird watching. Sightseeing opportunities take in Tavira, Vila Real de Santo António, Albufeira, Silves and Lagos.
  • FURTHER INFO Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 331 133, www.ramblersholidays.co.uk) offer the 7-night ‘Along the Algarve Way’ journey from £1,225 per person based on 21 October 2017 departure, including flights, airport transfers, half board accommodation, the services of a dedicated leader and all local transport costs.  See www.visitalgarve.pt and ramblersholidays.co.uk/along-the-algarve-way