Standing on the summit of Picota, second highest point in the Algarve, I can’t help thinking how many beach fans and golfers never get to enjoy this view. Turning slowly through 360°, I can see the white buildings of Lagos and Portimao gleaming in the morning sun along the distant coast. The historic village of Monchique lies below me in the valley and beyond it, the summit of Foia, 904 metres above sea level and my goal for the afternoon.
Best of all, I’m sharing this glorious panorama with 14 new friends, my walking companions on a two-centre week Along the Algarve Way with Ramblers Walking Holidays. Graded D – or’ moderate terrain’ – the itinerary involves six varied walks of around 5 miles each along the Via Algarviana. Part of the GR13 European hiking trail, this long-distance path winds through Portugal from the Spanish border in the east to the Atlantic Coast.
Each day we are driven to the start of our walk and collected at the end, enabling us to sample six contrasting sections, almost all of them along broad tracks. We undulate gently through hills scented with aromatic plants, past small flocks of sheep and goats, and with stops to absorb local village life and historic small towns. It’s the perfect combination for those who enjoy a good daily walk but some leisure time too, not to mention a comfortable bed and good evening meal.
Today has been our steepest walk, but it’s also a day with a choice – stop after Picota to explore Monchique and catch the coach up Foia, or head up the mountain on foot for that extra sense of achievement. By contrast, tomorrow will be our flattest walk, across the limestone headland to the steep cliffs and lighthouse of Cape St Vincent, Portugal’s most south-westerly point.
Slow travel is a great way to get under the skin of an area and slow travel in company is also a good way to make new friends. This is my first overseas trip with Ramblers Walking Holidays but as with the UK itineraries I have tried, the trip attracts a mix of walkers – couples, singles, siblings, friends … everyone is welcome and everybody mixes in. And, a rare bonus, there’s no single supplement on this particular break.
We spend the first three nights at the 4-star Vila Gale hotel in Tavira, a delightful and historic town which is about as authentic a coastal resort as you’ll find in the Brit-friendly Algarve. There’s a modest amount of holiday accommodation around the perimeter but the town centre, bisected by the river Gilao, is really atmospheric with its historic churches and flamboyant buildings, Roman bridge and pretty cafes around a riverside square. Ramblers Walking Holidays also run another popular itinerary that’s entirely based in the town.
The hotel is just minutes’ walk from the centre, making it perfect for a post-hike stroll or after-dinner amble. Accommodation is in large twin rooms on three sides of an outdoor pool (too cold in April but pretty to look at!). There is also an indoor pool and spa too, but none of us had time to use it.
Second base is further west on the outskirts of Albufeira, once a small fishing village – of which a few traces still remain – but now one of Algarve’s busiest resorts, packed with tourist accommodation and restaurants. But we’re a comfortable coach ride away in the quiet surroundings of the Balaia Atlantico apartment hotel, where we each have an apartment with bedroom, kitchen, and two large sofa-beds with pool view.
Lunches are taken on the trail where we feast at picturesque picnic spots on provisions bought locally. In the evening, our tour leader Mark takes us to tried-and-tested restaurants that are popular with the Portuguese. Every morning we choose from a dinner menu, Mark phones in the order, and come evening, there it all is – wine included. I did get a little tired of orange-coloured soup – apparently a local tradition and not up for debate – but the meals were all good quality and plentiful. If you’re a fish fan like me, you’ll love the fresh seabass and bream.
Every group holiday is as good as its leader and in Mark we found a gem. Together with his wife Tina, Mark runs the Ramblers Walking Holidays programme in Portugal, where he has lived for many years, and his knowledge is extraordinary. Mark also has the perfect attitude. ‘Walk at your own pace – this is your holiday!’ he insists every morning. So the striders can set out in front, stopping at the agreed landmark whilst the birdwatchers, botanists and photographers can stop to indulge themselves without pressure to keep up.
Whether you’re totting up your step count or simply enjoying exercise in the great outdoors, you could find this the most painless way to clock up 50-odd miles in a week. Every day we stop for some kind of low-key cultural visit – a cork museum here, a whitewashed village there. And on the days where there’s the option of an extra post-picnic walk, you can choose instead to explore a small town like historic Monchique or Silves with its Moorish castle.
Summer is too hot for serious walking in the Algarve so these itineraries only run in spring and autumn, but whilst spring brings the delight of new flowers, autumn too is spectacular, the hillsides splashed not just with changing colours but with swathes of evergreen shrubs. And whatever the season, you’re guaranteed to sleep well after so much clean air, fresh from the Atlantic. Highly recommended.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Walking Holidays