Via Algarviana: Barão de São João to Vila do Bispo

Looking back towards the Serra de Monchique
Looking back towards the Serra de Monchique

In the early morning sunlight, the view from the terrace towards the mountains was uninterrupted and perfect, and I experienced a sudden pang of nostalgia for our long days of walking in the tranquil inland regions of the Algarve. The peaks of the Serra de Monchique now looked impossibly distant and it was hard to believe that just two days earlier we’d been standing up there on Fóia’s summit.

Our penultimate day’s hiking would see us covering the 24km or so to Vila do Bispo, a town with a population of over 5,000. After that, we’d be hitting the coast. After two weeks in comparative wilderness, I now had reservations about heading into the madding crowds of the Algarve’s resorts.

There was plenty of public art on display in the village
There was plenty of public art on display in the village

Casa do João did not offer breakfast; however, good manners dictated that we bade our lady host farewell. This was easier said than done, because there was no sign of her anywhere. Motivated by a genuine concern for her welfare, we poked our head into the downstairs kitchen where she’d been stationed last night, checked the living rooms and ventured onto the various terraces but to no avail. She had vanished into thin air! It was only weeks later that we learned (from Google Maps) about the shop on the premises and guessed this sprightly lady was probably busy at work behind its counter.

I swear the real life version walked past and said 'bom dia' to me
I swear the real life version walked past and said ‘bom dia’ to me

The Via Algarviana guide describes today’s section to Vila do Bispo as ‘difficult’. Even in these flatter parts, it seems it is possible to face an accumulated climb of 538 metres. Fortunately, the additional miles we clocked up yesterday meant we had fewer to cover today.

After a final quick wander around Barão de São João to admire the various sculptures and street art, Harri insisted it was time to get going. After an initial climb, this morning’s walking was relatively level and it wasn’t too long before we reached the Perimetro Florestal do Barão de São João, a protected area of stone pine forest which covers more than 200 hectares and, unusually in these parts, offered some much welcomed shade. The abundance of trails and waymarked routes might have been confusing had Harri not been at my side; he has this instinctive sense of direction (I’m certain he was a homing pigeon in another life!).

 

Some welcome shade at last
Some welcome shade at last

The west of the Algarve is often referred to as Barlavento (the place where the wind blows from) and the propensity of wind turbines dotted across the landscape highlights the extent to which those Atlantic gusts are being harnessed by Portuguese energy companies.

Now the terrain had levelled off, we frequently had far-reaching views to our left with regular glimpses of the ocean. With the mountains behind us, we were now crossing the wide coastal plain that was once the farming heartland of the Algarve. Near Raposeira, we entered the 76-hectare Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentojano e Costa, the protected coastal strip which stretches from just below Sines in the north almost to Luz in the south.

Wind turbines are a familiar sight in the western Algarve
Wind turbines are a familiar sight in the western Algarve

After being pursued by a protective (and barking) bitch and her puppies, we were relieved to arrive at the bar in Raposeira bar in one piece (well strictly speaking, in two pieces). Here, we gazed out on a landscape of sun-dried grasses and gentle slopes that looked more coastal Cornwall than inland Algarve.

Local tradition has it that Raposeira was once home to the infamous Henry the Navigator, the man who is often credited with instigating the Great Age of Discovery when countries like Portugal were launching more nautical expeditions to distant lands than ever before. Despite his lifelong enthusiasm for discovery, Henry himself wasn’t terribly keen on partaking in the dangerous sea journeys he funded.

Raposeira has a second claim to fame. The area around the village and neighbouring Vila do Bispo is strewn with sacred menhirs dating back to the Early Neolithic period (5,000 to 3,000BC) when the first human settlements were established along the western Algarve coast. We vowed to keep our eyes peeled for the rest of the trail.

The landscape reminded us of Cornwall
The landscape reminded us of Cornwall

Despite the pleasantness of the spot, we couldn’t postpone the inevitable forever. Vila de Bispo was only a few kilometres to the west and we were confident of reaching our destination within an hour or so. Of course, we hadn’t anticipated such a meandering route. The trail was now gently sloping rather than hilly, with the occasional cactus exploding from the dusty soil.

Unfortunately, after nearly two weeks of wall-to-wall sunshine, the moment we were within sniffing distance of the ocean, the weather changed beyond all recognition. With grey clouds gathering overhead, the landscape was starting to look more temperate than tropical and the wind was growing colder.

Harri had booked us an en suite room for €30 at Casa Mestre, a sprawling property built in 1938 for Jose Mestre Revez, the largest grain producer in the region south of the Tagus River. The casa’s most impressive feature is a walled courtyard set out on different levels and crammed with lush vegetation, raised flower beds, planters, a hot tub and thoughtfully-positioned historic agricultural implements.

The lush tropical courtyard at Casa Mestre
The lush tropical courtyard at Casa Mestre

With the day’s hiking done and nowhere we needed to be, we settled down on two of the sunbeds and spent a relaxing hour writing up our notes, reading and finishing our very small bottle of medronho. We were just returning to our room, when we ran into Antonio. We greeted each another like old friends, but were surprised to see him as his original plan had been to cover the mammoth distance from Marmelete to Vilo do Bispo in one day.

The end of the Via Algarviana was going to be a bittersweet experience. For two weeks, I’d longed to reach the Algarve coast, but now I was within stone’s reach, the traditional villages of the serra and the barrocal were calling me back. Come tomorrow morning, if Harri proposed we turned around and headed back to Alcoutim, I knew I’d find it difficult to refuse.

 

For more information about walking the Via Algarviana visit the official website. A printed guide with individual maps of each section, plus all the link routes are available free of charge (postage is payable).

The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.

The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.

For more photographs of the Via Algarviana visit Pinterest. 

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