Hiking the Via Algarviana means not only geographically reaching the end of Europe. In the low-developed backcountry of the Algarve, time has stood still for centuries, it seems. Tiny old women in black never seem to leave their villages. They grow olives and almonds and use communal water pumps.
Those who are too far off to get meals on wheels spend their days in the village bar with a simple pre-ordered lunch service and friendly greetings by the few customers. Apart from bread, alcohol and black coffee, hikers have to bring everything they need.
In the Algarve back-country
A frail old woman in black with a straw hat on top of her black headscarf walks down the road, and then up again with a bag in her hand. She enters a house, and moments later another door opens. The woman crosses the street and turns a corner. Seconds later she returns with a dog leashed by a cord around his leg. Only when we see two women at the same time do we realize that this deserted-looking village is populated by at least four frail old women in black.
The southern coast of Portugal, a steep but relatively sheltered coast compared to the storm-swept cliffs in the west of Europe, have seen many traders and settlers over the centuries: From Celtic nomads to Phoenician and Greek merchants. the Romans called the Province Lusitania, the Arabs just Al-Gharb, “the West”.
Later, the great explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries started their journeys into the unknown from the small coastal town of Sagres. Today, tourists from every corner of Europe flock to the beaches of the Algarve. Yet few of the international comings and goings at the coast have affected the interior of the Algarve.
The young people leave and only the old remain, growing cabbage and oranges for their own consumption. Many farmers don’t bother any more to pick the olives, wine and almonds, and most of the bare hills are being reforested with pine trees or fast growing Eucalyptus for the paper industry.
Hiking the Via Algarviana
In Silves, one of the larger villages in the backcountry, restaurant owners put out tables. They are hoping for a few day trippers from the holiday apartments along the coast. The souvenir shop half-heartedly displays some cork hats, cork note books and cork coasters.
From Silves we walk again over lonely hills between gorse and Eucalyptus. Eventually the winds indicate that we are nearing the Cabo da Sao Vicente. The cape marks the south-western tip of Europe, with a powerful lighthouse and a steady trickle of visitors.
This is the end of our hiking trip. We follow the day-trippers into the coastal resorts, which are deserted at this time of the year. Sagres, Lagos, Guia, Albufeira – they all consist mainly of shuttered windows and empty hotels. A few restaurants and tour operators try to keep up a holiday atmosphere.
We leave the steep cliffs and empty streets to the seagulls who seem to enjoy the November storms, and head north for a few days of sightseeing in Évora and Lisbon.