19 km. I’ve now arrived in the heart of the Algarve. To be journeying on foot also means to gain direct contact with the people and their environment. And isn’t that what we journalists need and want to know? What makes the people of this country tick? What are they thinking, and: how are they? In Alte, right at the beginning of the fifth day of my hike I meet an elderly lady collecting a little brushwood at the empty and dried-out Ribeira de Alte, a brook which used to be home to fish and many other wildlife, a biotope once, with a rich biodiversity. She’s 72 years old. It’s Friday, and it’s on this day that the fish man comes up from the coast to Alte. This lady buys fresh fish every Friday and goes on to barbecue it on a small charcoal grill. I stop to chat with her and we talk about the mackerel, a fish species that has made it into the kitchens of many Portuguese folks, also because sardine stocks in the sea are nearly depleted. The mackerel is a fish that this elderly lady particularly enjoys. A mackerel may be grilled, but also prepared in the shape of a marinaded „alimada“, steamed briefly before being filleted and skinned, marinaded in olive oil and lemon, salted well and seasoned to taste with a little pepper and garlic of course, plus a little fresh coriander. So it turns out that I start my hike with an early-morning chat that makes my tastebuds sing. As the day goes on I will keep thinking about that elderly lady who managed to influence my vegetarian palate with tales of a traditional Portuguese dish: „cavalas“ or „carapaus alimadas“. So what would she serve up to follow the main dish I ask? For pudding, she returns the question? Without having to think for long she tells me she’s already cooked something in advance, yesterday: „sweet rice“ (arroz doce), with plenty of cinnamon. The lemon tree gave her a present of its first ripe lemon for it.
I start another day with my eight-kilo backpack from Alte via Benafim to Salir. Add to that two kilos of water. On the way from Alte to Benafim I pass thousands of orange trees in plantations created on slopes. Citrus fruit as far as the eye can see. The trail leads through them, oranges to the left, oranges to the right, all of them artificially irrigated. They stop abruptly at the end of the lot while the trail carries on in uninhabited solitude. A wooden post without a sign that used to point to an access road to the Quinta do Freixo. Wild old holm oaks, carob trees and juniper grow along the path, and many species of wild-growing plants and shrubs turning a hike in the spring to a sensual experience, with diverse aromas and a feast for the eyes. I imagine this wilderness after the rain, with lavender in flower and many other wild herbs in all their different colours. In autumn this is more of a mirage. Before reaching Benafim, where I always visit the old oak and fill my pockets with acorns, I come across an uninhabited farmstead with servants’ houses. The roof has fallen in, all that remains of the windows is the glass-less frames. Once upon a time …
Two local farmers are driving their tractors across the fields cut in two by the hiking trail. One of them is fertilising his field with blue fertilizer, after the other has already ploughed it. At least a few farmers remain who care for their land. They presumably don’t know that you could also fetch natural fertiliser from local goat shepherd Idalio Martins. So far, communications, telecommunications between the generations and professional groups in particular, have not resulted in a real improvement in communications. Shepherd Idalio Martins from Salir is the only Algarve shepherd with a commercial qualification and a vision for the future. Next to his goat stables he has opened what is called a „leitaria“ – a small local dairy for the milk from his 150 goats. In doing so he has created three new jobs, and produces fresh cheese from his goat’s milk, selling it to local „minimercados“. While the ploughing tractors cloak the dry landscape in a fine spray of soil dust, the trail is lined by old abandoned orange trees, whose few dry leaves are clinging on to the tree with their last forces. Many of them have already fallen to the ground. The water for irrigation is becoming scarce. The harbingers of climate change hold the Algarve in their grip. Most people in their air-conditioned cars, offices and apartments don’t feel it yet. On a Friday afternoon in late October the 31 degree heat is hanging over a thinly populated hinterland landscape. The results are felt first and foremost by the trees and plants, the grazing animals and one lone walker on his way east. The tourists on the Algarve beaches, 30 km further south, are thrilled about the fine weather. The beaches of the Algarve are highly prized. In the first café he comes across in the village the walker orders a bica, a really good espresso and a mineral water. It’s 12 o’clock and he feels he’s kinda earned his second, his real breakfast …
I reach the oak estimated by botanists to be at least 600 years old. And again I have to cross the 124 national road, this time in Benafim. I’m aghast to see that a huge branch of the oak has broken off, and ask the neighbour on the opposite side of the road who is working in his garden, whether the tree was maybe hit by lightning, or what else might have caused this damage? Apart from the date and the time, it happened shortly after midnight, he can’t tell me any reasons. The sound of the branch hitting the ground reminded him of an earthquake. He remembers actually falling out of bed. As a consequence, the authorities of Loulé district have secured the other branches of the oak with wooden buttresses. From now on the tree will no longer stand straight. It’s the beginning of a long death, created in part by the dryness of the soil, and the conditions of standing along a rural road used by many hundreds of cars every day. The ground is strewn with thousands of acorns. I choose five of them and take a short break, to be on my way eastwards before one o’clock.
„Walking, Eating, Sleeping“ is the name of a book by a long-distance hiker from Germany who has walked this way before me. Christine Thürmer started walking in Sagres, heading first for Tarifa in Spain, and continuing her monster march on foot for six months across 4,500 km, to reach the North Cape in Norway – from the most southwesterly point in Europe to the southernmost and then to the most northerly point in Europe. Well, I’m not that ambitious. I’m happy with a bed and a pleasant night in Salir. Today, on the fifth day I’ve not found a place for lunch yet and don’t really have 50 euros spare for a single room. I ask for outside help, and Stefanie books me a bed for tired hikers costing 15 euros just past Salir, in a guesthouse by the name of Casa Nova in Alagoas.
There are people who need extreme sports. A few years ago someone ran the entire Via Algarviana, a stretch of 300 km, starting in Alcoutim on the Spanish border to the southwestern cape, in just under 75 hours. I needed 78 hours, divided across 14 days, in a rhythm I felt pleasant and adapted to my speed. Travelling needs the time to notice changes in life and in the landscape. I’ve walked the old St Vincent’s Way, the Via Algarviana, 12 times now, on my own and also once with a film team for my documentary „Heirs of the Revolution“. However, it’s never been as hot in October as it is now. Never did I see the first harbingers of climate change in such extreme shape right in front of me, yet at the same time there have never been so few clueless people wandering about.
Two couples coming towards me on the marked trail stop for a short chat and tell me they have each taken a week’s holiday. One is from Holland, the other from Germany. They’ve arrived by plane of course, landing in Faro to head off for a week’s hiking and a week of Portugal, how else? By train maybe! So they walk for five days from Loulé to Silves to then be chauffered by taxi to the airport and fly back home? The carbon footprint of a trip like that by plane is devastating. Instead, people could walk at home for a few days, or not? Why combine a climate-friendly hike with a climate-damaging flight? Travelling by train would mean only being responsible for five per cent of CO2 emissions compared to flying. Maybe something is wrong with humankind’s compass? What are people thinking about when they try and not think of global warming?
Just short of Salir
By the time it‘s afternoon I find myself stumbling along a trail littered with pointy stones sticking out of the hard soil. Leaving the only service station between the EN124 and the access road to the EN270 behind, I turn off left into a dirt road. I’m again heading east, always straight ahead and on loamy soil. Somebody has got to be hoarding water for their monocultures of orange trees. Hidden behind a tall fence and a stone wall I still manage to catch a glimpse of the wealth of trees and the artificial lake.
The loamy soil is so heavy that I can still feel it clinging to my shoes. But this feeling is an illusion. I am walking across soil that hasn’t seen rain in months, that is hard as rock. Yet ten years ago I once walked this trail and it rained solid for 12 days. I was wet as a drowned rat. Every few minutes I’d take out my pocket knife to slice the sticky clay off the sole of my hiking boots, otherwise I’d have simply slid down the hill again. What do you want, hikerboy, my alter ego chimes in: you’ve walked well up to now, and you know the way like the back of your hand. Now we have a left-hand turn and down the hill we go. As I am walking in the here and now, I feel as if I’m walking towards myself. I still remember walking steeply uphill, and now the way leads steeply downhill. The red-white marking whispers in my ear that I now have to turn off the dirt road to the right, and I end up in a small forest with felled trees that are blocking my way. The end? What leprechauns have changed the markings on the trail? Highwaymen, where are you hiding? Am I dreaming or am I not yet properly awake? I am extra careful not to fall here. If I step on one stone I’ll roll down the entire mountain with my backpack. No, I’m not going to stumble now, nor will I fall, and I’m not being lured into a trap by Robin Hood. I retrace my steps to the last waymark and again on to the felled trees and I know that as a walker I have to make my own decision, as the markings are leading me astray. I’ll be coming down from the Cerro and want to get to Pena and from there, ahead to my right via Calçada to Almarginho.
There it is, the beautiful old Algarve with centenary ancient trees and people whose free time has a deeper meaning. The red-white markings remain absent, othere appear out of the blue, pointing out the way back up to the Cerro, and from now on I am walking on a trail I define for myself as my own path and the right way. Cursing under my breath, I am wishing the Almargem association to hell, waymarking a trail like that is really inviting curses. Stop. I take a break, eat an orange and a banana and calm down. Maybe some leprechaun has played with the markings on wooden posts and rocks and uprighted them again, pointing the wrong way? Apparently these kind of leprechauns exist. Maybe they are filming me with a Candid Camera as we speak? In any case I want to get to Salir today still, and I will reach Salir, at any cost, even if someone should send me in the opposite direction. I will go my own way. From now on, for me, these red-white markers are no longer relevant. They are losing their importance bit by bit.
I reach the tarred road with ease, and all of a sudden the markings are correct again. I’m back in civilisation, in the hamlet of Calçada, and not 50 metres later I’m already in Cerro de Cima, continuing on to Cerro de Baixo, and then suddenly I’ve reached Almarginho. People are resting on benches in front of the houses, the day’s work done. Stress hasn’t found this place yet. I’m overwhelmed by my friends, the trees, to the right and left of the trail. And all of a sudden nearly every house has a person living in it. Here and there you see a tractor, over there a farm machine and chickens that also use the hiking trail, as well as curious dogs behind fences and walls that announce my arrival, barking. These old trees must have been standing here for hundreds of years. In any case that’s how they smell, musty, humid. They have no legs, and you can’t really push them from one side of the street to the other. They act like they’ve only been waiting for me. Walnuts are falling onto the ground. If beauty hurt, here it would be worth our while to scream, for pain, and happiness, as I don’t trust my eyes, the bark is so wizened, elephant skin that is greeting me. I leave, turning around, go backwards and forwards again to collect my acorns and nuts off the ground. If only the whole trail was like this! If only people could live in peace and harmony with all the other creatures of nature! Here nobody would think of taking a motor saw to one of these trees.
Reaching the Fonte Figueira I am treated to the prettiest pomegranates I’ve seen and sampled on this walking trail. A fruit is lying at my feet, fallen onto the path. I take a picture as proof that I’m still travelling in reality, and it’s different from the one where only money counts, dominating life and subjugating nature. The Fountain at the Fig Tree, which is the name the muslims once gave to this old Moorish enclave, also provides me with the sight of the first intact Moorish fountain. In this living museum for agriculture, which over a thousand years ago already had importance, that was sacred to the people, we find earth with good black top soil, and plenty of water in autumn still, which is relative of course, but enough to fill the open tanks to the brim. I feel like throwing off the backpack and take a bath, jumping into one of the many water-filled basins. This is the truly magical moment of a hike. For these days, water is only available where it’s treated carefully and mindfully…
Thank God at this very moment a car with two nuns drives past, and I forego the dip. Turning around, I diligently tramp up the hill to Salir. My mission is to find lunch at four o’clock in the afternoon, a seemingly hopeless task, until I encounter Senhor Igor in a restaurant. I had no idea what surprise this day was holding in store for me.
Afterwards you can always say that Igor, who I happen to run into, placed a cabbage soup on my table, plus a bottle of fruit juice, and, something meat-free. Here I am also treated to fresh goat’s milk cheese from Idalio Martin’s dairy, of great ecological value. If somebody had told me in the morning that I’d meet a kind soul that I hadn’t seen for years, I’d have thought all day about who that could possibly be.
Igor is my former long-time colleague at the weekly paper that I headed for 15 years, and now he’s here and cooks and serves, turning into the hero of my fifth walking day. Nothing can go wrong now. The surprise is perfect. The red and white markers can stand whichever way they want. They can lead me to the moon or to Venus, or to Mars for all I care. I sit down at a free table. It’s four in the afternoon and I am treated to a lunch that I’m not even allowed to pay for. I’m sitting there, my mouth hanging open. I am speechless. I take off my hat and place it on the free chair next to mine. And there will even be a sweet rice with cinnamon for pudding. Actually, Igor has had a place in my heart for many years. Born in the Cape Verde islands, on the island of Santo Antão to be exact, Igor studied the German language in Lisbon, and started out as a translator at our newspaper. Once he brought me from Africa, from his island, three coffee beans, pressed them into my hand, asking me whether I could turn them into three coffee trees to be planted in Monchique. Now he is serving me his coffee from a coffee machine. So I find myself in Salir, in the „A Vila“ restaurant. I’m not the only hiker passing through. Everything is just a question of time, Igor tells me, grinning. He’d been expecting me for a long time.
Just past Salir
Those looking for accommodation in Salir either choose the Casa da Mãe or walk on for nearly four kilometres into the Vale das Alagoas to reach the Casa Nova, owned and run by Dona Margarita and Senhor João, lying exactly on the route. Walking up to Cortelha and Barranco do Velho you’ll automatically pass these two. Those hiking with a tent will find the only legal camping spot on the entire trail here. But there’s also a wooden house and a guesthouse. Given the choice, I leave Salir through the wild front gardens of the village. The trail leads out of the village along narrow gullies. Pretty lanes, the prettiest trails along the entire Via Algarviana, narrow and wild, promising a new surprise behind every bend. Again I encounter centenary tree cultures, gnarly carob trees, olive groves, holm oaks with roots as thick as my arm, and I pick up acorns and seeds from these plentiful trees until I’ve collected five kilos, to eventually put them into the soil in Caldas de Monchique in our new Botanical Garden. I have arrived and am discovering the forgotten botanical variety reigning in and around Salir, the old Moorish heritage of the Algarve. By now my pockets are filled to bursting point and I can hardly find space. I ring the bell at the green Casa Nova entrance gate and receive an affectionate greeting. This particular gate is wide open to the hiker.