Right, the first one hundred kilometres are behind me. It’s turning out to be easier than I’d envisaged; after all, I’m hiking without previous training. The advantage compensating this lack of training is that I know the trail well and that I’m walking slowly, building up my physical form. The entire stretch of the Via Algarviana runs to around 300 kilometres. You have the first, the eastern part, from Alcoutim to Barranco do Velho, the central section from Barranco do Velho to Monchique and the westerly part from Monchique to the southwestern cape.
I pack my backpack, take my hiking stick and hit the road early in the morning. It’s not even nine o’clock and I’m already thinking about my ascent up to the Serra do Caldeirão. Concentration and care are the name of the game here. The day will once again heat up to 31 degrees, according to the weather forecast. No rain, and it will remain dry. The paths are dusty, and the weather conditions are turning the route dangerous. If there was to be a forest fire, you couldn’t just run away. Today’s distance amounts to 15 km minus the 3.9 km that I hiked yesterday when I crossed Salir and walked out to Alagoas. At lunchtime I’ll be walking to Barranco do Velho, ascending from an altitude of 100 metres up to 515.
Breakfast was good at Casa Nova Alagoas and Dona Margarida is an excellent host. My morning meal has given me strength, and any hiker will surely rejoice when asked what they’d prefer to eat and drink for breakfast the following morning. I’ve got enough to drink with me too, two full bottles of water.
Nor did I have to tear open some plastic jam packaging or hand back glued ham. Also, the room makes overnight drinking water available to hikers. Dona Margarida remembered that I’d told her the previous evening that I was following a vegetarian diet and wouldn’t want ham nor sausages for breakfast. There are guesthouses where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, and information isn’t passed on from the late shift to the early shift. This way information such as that someone is following a vegetarian diet, or is intolerant to certain foods (gluten, for instance) simply falls by the wayside.
Once more I cross the EN 124, walking from Alagoas via Pedras Ruivas and Carrasqueiro all the way to Cortelha, which amounts to around eight kilometres. Before starting my ascent into the mountains I cross the dried-out bed of a brook where I usually take a dip in crystal-clear water. Instead I note a recently put-out forest fire. The trees and reeds on the shore of the Ribeira Seca are black. This one must have been extinguished relatively quickly. I find myself in the seventh section of the Via Algarviana. It was here that the major forest fire of 2013, on its way from Cachopo, was stopped by the united fire services of the Algarve from Loulé before the flames were able to consume more land. That particular fire only happened because the flexing of a wind generator wing had sent sparks flying. This was something the mechanic hadn’t thought about. Over half of forest fires are down to gross negligence, not premeditation, as you might think. I look closer at the mountain I’m now climbing step by step on this rural trail and observe dense bush. A fire could break out any time here. Every year Cortelha hosts motocross races, and in preparation for this, various, dirt bikes cut steep racing tracks into the mountain. The drivers have to tackle incredibly steep slopes here, where slaloming between the trees they have to ask everything of their machines and engines. Most forest fires are born from carelessness and negligence. There are hardly any fire breaks on the steep hills. Right here, flying sparks could once more make a lot of forest dissolve into fumes, massacring the trees. Pines and cork oaks are packed close together here. One spark and the entire bone-dry nature will erupt into flames several metres high. We’ll have to decide pretty soon whether we want to live in harmony and peace with nature or have great adventure experiences while subjugating nature. What does humanity gain from watching the forests of our earth burning?
I climb uphill for two hours until I reach the EN2, which connects Faro in the south and Chaves in the north of Portugal. To the left you’d be heading for the Sotavento landfill, to the right towards São Brás de Alportel and Faro, the capital of the Algarve, as well as Loulé. Below the road lies Cortelha and the Casa do Presunto restaurant, which is visited by many passing through. The Casa doubles up as a guesthouse with an AL (Alojamento Local) licence and offers hiking groups nine double rooms with shower or bathtub, and a restaurant famous beyond the district borders for its local typical cuisine. This marks the start of my last three kilometres. The trail now leads from north to south. Today I’ve not yet found a single acorn. The trees are sporting few leaves at the end of the summer at the supposed start of the rainy season that is refusing to begin. The cork oaks cannot talk to us humans. However, if we observe the signs of the season closely, if we take time for a tree we’ll discover that many trees living in the Algarve hinterland are “on their last legs“. They have thrown off over half of their leaves around the end of October, early November and are running on survival mode, using their emergency power unit. If their roots are no longer able to find water, if at the end of the summer the water table has sunk to such a low level that they are left standing high and dry, the slow process of turning off vital functions begins: pines throw off their needles, the leaves of the cork trees first turn brown, before dropping off too. Anything that’s not essential for survival, that is mere ballast, is thrown out. In most cases you’ll see a lone small branch way below at the foot of the tree sprouting out of the bark. This is how the tree ensures that it maintains a minimal chance for survival despite an existential lack of water. A tree you see doesn’t know about man-made climate change, it doesn’t know why it’s not raining. Because usually it always rained extensively in October in the Algarve. You can prove that looking at the growth rings on a dead and felled tree, and even a layperson can recognise this. Some growth rings are broader (lots of rain), others more narrow (little rain). A tree is humankind’s dearest friend, transforming CO2 into oxygen, the stuff our life is made of. A tree has to be in a state of absolute emergency if it starts shedding its leaves or needles.
And the trees in the Serra do Caldeirão (and in the Serra de Monchique, for that matter) are caught up in just such an emergency, as the cork oaks left over in 2013 between Cortelha and Barranco do Velho are already beyond saving. Like bones they are poking out of the soil alongside the trail, greeting Via Algarviana walkers. If they’re still standing and haven’t been blown over by the wind that is. In Barranco do Velho, after just under 120 kilometres I end my research trip on foot through the heart of the Algarve on the sixth day. My starting point was Monchique, following a trail eastwards that used to be an old pilgrimage route once and the main artery of the Kingdom of the Algarve, where you could journey on foot from village to village, from house to house, from river to river, a path which connected people.
They’d visit each other and would walk overland together for a few days, taking the donkey or the horse to transport food, or presents. You’d reach springs where walkers and pilgrims, travellers between different worlds, filled their water reserves, in the evening you’d meet in some country dive to eat and drink, and slept outside or found a guesthouse: in Monchique as well as in Silves, Messines, Alte or Salir, in Cortelha, Barranco do Velho and in Cachopo, Vaqueiros, Furnazinhas and in Alcoutim, and over there on the other side, in Marmelete, in Aljezur and Bensafrim or Barão São João, Vila do Bispo and on the Cape. Those who began their journey on foot at the Spanish border, would, after ten to 15 days, reach the southwestern cape, the end of the ancient world. Many stories and myths surrounded this end of the known world at the time. This ancient pilgrimage trail existed for over 1,000 years, until an earthquake on 1 November 1755 made it sink into oblivion. It’s only thanks to the Wednesday Walkers, foreigners living in the Algarve all year round that this trail was lifted out of oblivion between 1990 and 2005 and handed over to the Almargem association based in Loulé which went on to waymark it once more, with 119 wooden panels, other waymarkers and many subsidies. It bears the name GR 13, which means something like the Great Route 13. It’s the magical trail that everybody should have walked once in their lives.
So, how does this story end? In Barranco do Velho a dog called Max and a lady called Stefanie are waiting for me and pick me up. Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong… Monchique. The distance I’ve travelled on foot in one week we now cover by car in not even two hours. How boring driving can be… am I wrong?
P.S.: I will tackle the Via Algarviana on foot once more on Saturday 30 April, this time from the start to the end. This will take 14 days and I do hope we will receive plenty of rain in the meantime, for the sake of the trees and all creatures. I will take a few more long-distance hikers on this unique walk. If you want to take part, drop me a personal email at firstname.lastname@example.org.