For a change from a beach holiday in the Algarve, try a walking tour in its hinterland
Portugal’s southernmost region is renowned for its golden sands and beautiful golf courses, but there’s another side to the Algarve that many holidaymakers miss. Head inland and in little more than an hour you can experience a dramatically different landscape and lifestyle.
It’s easy to sample the uplands and small towns on a day trip from the coast, but to really understand the region, set off on foot. Pick up information on local walks from tourist offices or, better still, have everything arranged for you on a group walking holiday.
I booked a seven-night itinerary (see box, right) with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays, which included six varied walks and sightseeing. Part of the E4 European long distance path, the GR13 Via Algarviana trail runs for 300km from the Spanish border to the Atlantic coast.
This two-centre holiday is one of three itineraries in the Algarve and begins with three nights at a four-star hotel in Tavira, a gem of a town in the east of the region. Its most important port in the Middle Ages, Tavira’s fortunes declined as the Gilão river silted up and trade moved along the coast.
But the town’s past glory is still visible in its many churches and grand buildings. Climb to the hilltop garden inside the castle ruins, relax at a cafe around the riverside square, or head out to the beach past lagoons and salt pans grazed by flamingos.
Our walking week starts with a drive inland beside the Guadiana river that marks the international border with Spain and at Alcoutim, we join the Via Algarviana.
With poor soil and little agriculture, this is one of the least populated areas of the region, but glorious countryside for walking. Spring and autumn are the best times to hit the trail and in spring, we find the rumple of rounded hills splashed with tall white rock roses – but evergreen plants ensure the landscape remains green for autumn walkers.
No question about local life seems too hard for Mark, our tour leader, who briefs us every night about the next day’s activities. Walks are four to six miles each and suitable for anyone of reasonable fitness, but Mark insists we all walk at our own pace. With regular catch-up and refreshment stops, nobody is held back or hurried along.
Our group includes couples, solo travellers, a brother and sister, and two friends, but new friends are soon made on the trail and over dinner in local restaurants.
Scent of eucalyptus
After two days in the quiet countryside of the east, our base moves west to an apartment hotel on the outskirts of Albufeira and with it, a noticeable change of scenery and prosperity. We see more whitewashed villages and smallholdings, the undulating trail now dotted with windmills and cork oaks.
Every day brings new experiences. We climb through eucalyptus plantations, visit a cork museum, and walk past orange and lemon trees heavily laden with fruit.
Picnics with a view are eaten to a soundtrack of birdsong and humming bees, and there’s the occasional village cafe stop too.
Some days our morning ramble is followed by a choice of independent sightseeing or an extra walk. I take the opportunity to explore Silves, capital of the Algarve before Faro took over the mantle.
For less than three euros, I tour its Moorish castle of red sandstone, relax in the landscaped garden inside the walls and enjoy looking down from the ramparts. Monchique is another favourite, nestled between the two highest peaks in the Algarve. First, however, we climb Picota, the lower twin, and take in the 360-degree view towards Lagos and the coast before dropping down into town.
Picnic eaten, the keenest walkers climb to the summit of Foia, top spot of the Algarve at 902m, while I opt to wander its old town and head uphill by coach.
End of the line
On our last day, we pick up the GR13 trail five miles from Cape St Vincent, Europe’s most south-westerly point. Here the walking is flat as we wind across the limestone headland to the red and white lighthouse.
But far from being dull, the low vegetation is a rainbow of colour and the calm sea beneath the cliffs a deep turquoise.
It’s a stunning final walk.
By the end of the week, I have walked some 50 miles through a surprising variety of landscapes and terrains. But there is one more revelation. Most people know Faro only for its airport but we have time to explore the old town.
Here we see storks nesting on historic buildings inside the old city walls, admire the architecture around the cathedral square, and stroll beside the marina – alternative Algarve to the very end!
To experience inland Algarve on a day trip, head for charming small towns like Silves, Monchique or Alte. A craft shop and café await drivers at the summit of Foia above Monchique – see visitalgarve.pt for ideas.
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 331 133) runs the seven-night, two-centre ‘Along the Algarve Way’, from £980, in spring and autumn (no single supplement), while ‘Pearl of the Algarve’, from £849, is based at Tavira and includes coastal and countryside walks (next departures September, October and December).
Lisbon, Oporto & the Douro Valley – eight days from £829 per person.
Departures up to October 2016. Price includes: Return flights, seven nights in four- and five-star hotels, with breakfast and four dinners. Escorted tours by our experienced tour manager. To book or for a free brochure, call 01283 742 396 or visit womansweekly.com/Lisbon