Via Algarviana? What on earth’s that? A new motorway? No!
Uwe Heitkamp (52, journalist). Has lived in Monchique since 1990. He is the founder of the multi-language weekly newspaper Algarve123. www.algarve123.com
The footpath begins in the Portuguese village of Alcoutim, a place with a population of just 971 in the northern Algarve on the border with Spain. On one side stands the Spanish town of Sanlucar de Guadiana with its ruined castle high up on the hilltop, and on the other Alcoutim, with its castle in the village centre. In between them flows the Guadiana. Already in the early Middle Ages, no one trusted one another. And even today there is no bridge to link the two banks. If you want to get from one side to the other, you have to call the river fishermen's little ferry. For many centuries, the Guadiana offered smugglers good business opportunities. And for the first time from about the 6th century onwards, Alcoutim also offered pilgrims board and lodging on the Way of Saint Vincent, which leads from the Spanish city of Valencia as far as the south-western cape of Europe. But since the period of Moorish settlement in the south between the 8th and the 12th centuries, the old pilgims' route was effectively forgotten.
It was not until the final years of the 20th century that the so-called Wednesday ramblers (The Algarve Walkers, northern Europeans) first hiked the whole length, followed by some Portuguese nature-lovers from the Almargem association from Loulé. Since 2008, the association (which had the brand Via Algarviana legally registered) has been trying its hand at leading walks and way-marking. Unfortunately, both attempts have been only partly successful. But that doesn't stop me from doing the walk. The official footpath leads along barren, ugly tarred roads for kilometres on end and the way-marking with wooden boards (GR 13) is often incomplete or misleading, and that in a region which is frequent devastated by disastrous forest fires. But in looking for alternative routes to the official Via Algarviana one's creativity is boundless.
My Via Algarviana moves away from the official route, from which some genuine sights were omitted, and avoids tar roads wherever possible. I looked for wooded areas in places where they have not yet been completely consumed by fire, as well as in places where they don't only consist of industrial plantations: I try to avoid eucalyptus and acacia plantations precisely where it's most necessary…
Where did I get the idea from?
I am a journalist through and through. The old pilgrims' way just made me curious and fascinated me – not only because it leads right past my home in the uplands of Monchique. Where are they coming from these people who are hiking past my house with staff and rucksack, and where are they heading? I also enjoy walking, especially because it keeps you healthy and because I love woods. And then, when I walked the route alone for the first time in 2007, when it was still not signposted, I came across people who had something that some of us today can only dream of: plenty of time, and plenty of old knowledge. Time for a chat and a good meal, time to use as you please and an enormous amount of knowledge about nature and surviving in nature.
What sort of people were they whom I came across on my walks? I often met old farmers in the heat of the wilderness who still till their fields as in the past; people who lived from the hard work of sowing on mostly stony ground, and crops harvested by hand, people who got around by donkey, distilled medronho brandy, pressed cold olive oil, herded sheep and goats across the land, produced cheese and made their own wine. They gathered mushrooms and herbs, and knew exactly which plants would help them with which illness.
Flight from the Land.
However, with every year that I rambled from east to west with the sun, there were fewer of these old people. But the young people had left their own village without this knowledge and had forgotten their traditional roots. Almost all of them live today along the coast or in the population centres of Faro and Lisbon – or they've emigrated, lured away by money and progress…
During the first day of my walk in the interior, I come across no supermarkets, no hotels, no car rental companies, and no tourists. I walk over land in a region where there are only three inhabitants per square kilometre. But, during a walk, I can often still find what I am actually looking for, peace and quiet and the possibility of being completely alone and at one with myself and with nature. Some people call it meditation. Others are afraid of getting involved with nature on their own. So people who are looking for this power and are prepared to walk the 328 km in 15 days with this in mind, should spend at least one day in Alcoutim on the banks of the Guadiana to ready themselves mentally for their Via Algarviana.
In Alcoutim you can either stay at the Youth Hostel (+351 281546004, Email
) or just next door at the Estalagem do Guadiana
hotel (+351 281540120, Email
). In the village itself, there are several pretty good restaurants; my favourite is the Ti Afonso
restaurant in the Praça da República.
If you want to try out some Spanish cuisine, you can catch the little ferry on the hour and eat on the other side in Sanlucar.
Don't forget, that it's already one hour later there than in Portugal.
Every walk begins with the first step. But walkers should be well prepared. When is the best time of year?
I prefer the spring for a long walk in the south of Europe (April/May) and warn all nature-lovers from the north about the summers in the south of Portugal. Climate change means that we are getting summers with more and more frequent strong winds from the south-east (Levant) with temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius in the shade, humidity of less than 30% and a high risk of forest fires. Many forests also blaze fiercely because the fire brigades are not well enough equipped, there is a lack of coordination and, on top of that, eucalyptus plantations over many kilometres provide favourable conditions for forest fires.
Health risks like sun burn (skin cancer) and heat stroke are not to be underestimated. Only people who really pursue risky extreme walking for masochistic purposes rather than pulling on their walking boots for the sake of nature and its beauty, should choose to walk in the heat of the summer: lightning during a storm has about as much to recommend it as a long-distance walk through the dry, bare and sometimes burnt-out wilderness. I have met people who have walked the 328 km in five days, or organise a 120 km extreme hike in 24 hours. Again and again I get e-mails from tourists who want to do a walk through temperatures of 45 degrees in the shade in the middle of August. I can only advise against it.
I am more of a slow type of person myself. The hiking trail from Alcoutim to the south-west cape has treated me to unexpected impressions in April and May: glowing colours and intense smells of rosemary, lavender and wild orchids. The pastures are often still green and shepherds move along with their sheep and goats over the hilly grasslands. Only nature and the few places to stay guide me on each day of the walk. I manage to cover between 15 and 42 kilometres per day.
What do I take with me on such a hike?
You can actually leave your tent and sleeping-bag at home because there are places to stay along the old pilgrims' way but unfortunately no campsites yet. But I must add that only a very limited number of small hotels and places offering legal private accommodation are available. That could ensure that tourism has no chance of developing here, but only hiking by nature-lovers. In the Algarve hinterland there are hardly any hotels; exceptions are the villages of Alte, Caldas de Monchique and Vila do Bispo (more on this elsewhere). People who have to sleep under canvas should know that wild camping is strictly forbidden in Portugal. Permission from a private individual is needed to be able to erect a tent on their land for a night. And one should at the very least know something of the people's habits and their language. Because we have to leave our rubbish somewhere and answer the call of nature.
For my hikes, I have managed to get the weight of my rucksack down to under 10 kilos and take care to avoid carrying a lot of useless stuff around with me. Important things are: long and short trousers, good socks and even better footwear, (also rain gear), a water bottle, headgear, hiking staff, compass, first-aid kit and plasters for blisters, sewing kit, sun and foot ointment, a working mobile phone, writing material and a good book, towel and swimwear, whistle, sandals, penknife, sunglasses, magnesium tablets and a bag containing nuts, almonds, dried figs, raisins etc.
As a rule, walkers on the Via Algarviana (Route of São Vicente) will always find somewhere to have a bite during a break (and a bed), although there are unfortunately still no tables and benches. In a country where there is no culture of walking, it is not always easy to see the wood for the trees. But this website will give you the relevant information so that you can find your way around, free of charge of course.