Jo’s Monday walk : Todos a Caminhar!

Something a bit different this week.  We’ve often remarked that we seldom see Portuguese people out walking, as we stride around the countryside.  Maybe they don’t regard it as a leisure pastime, or are simply too busy earning a living and looking after their families.  It obviously hasn’t gone unnoticed because, a few months ago, we came across an initiative called ‘Todos a caminhar’- walking for everyone!  Sponsored by local councils, it aims at promoting better health in the community.

Each Sunday morning, at 10.00, a different venue across the Algarve hosts the walk.  A couple of Sundays ago we turned up for the one at Castro Marim, a beautiful village right by the River Guadiana.  I had visions of tramping through the salt pans with flamingos wings beating the air all around me, but it was not to be.  Coaches had arrived from all across the Algarve and, there in front of the sports pavilion, a sea of people did variations on a ‘warm up’.  Unphased, we joined them, and off we all surged, on the road out of the village, but nowhere near the salt pans.

Almost immediately we were in open countryside, in an area unfamiliar to us, and surrounded by chattering groups of Portuguese.  Determined older ladies and their gents, who were keen to show they still had what it takes, groups of giggling teens, singles striding away, everyone using up those calories so they could enjoy a really good, late Sunday lunch.

A right turn took us up a hill, in the direction of Vista Real, and so it was, a royal vista.  Once we’d gained height, far across the fields I could just make out the outline of the mighty castle at Castro Marim, with the Guadiana beyond.  As the hill dipped again there was an option to collect a free orange and a bottle of water, and complete a shorter circuit of 3.5km.  Fitter individuals could tackle the longer 10km course.  Well, what do you think?  In for a penny…

It was a blustery day, with rain threatened, the scudding clouds encouraging us to pick up the pace.  The group was well spread by now and we were keen not to be last.  There were arrows marking every junction and cheerful helpers riding back and forth, ensuring no-one had come to grief.  After another steep climb, with views of the salt pans, there was a second opportunity for water and an orange.

A couple of horses, probably bored with the sparse grazing, took an interest in us motley passersby.  The route climbed through the village of Monte Francisco, a few characterful older properties and a sequence of mostly new villas.  Locals nodded a polite ‘Bom dia’.

The best views of all were afforded to the Castro Marim Country Golf Club, a swish establishment with as extensive and beautifully laid out golf links as any I’ve seen.  However, nothing surpassed my first sighting this year of a cistus in flower.

Smiling down the home strait, the blossom twirling in the breeze, I enjoyed the placid cows and the ruin.  Soon we’d come full circle, and finally I sighted my first flamingo.  And where there’s one, there’s often another, isn’t there?  Not quite as I’d hoped.

It took us about an hour and a half to complete the 10km.  We marvelled at the scale of the operation.  Not all are as big as this one.  There were ambulances on hand, in case anyone over exerted themselves, and everywhere, smiling, happy faces.  Best of all, the rain held off, the clouds blew away and afterwards we treated ourselves to delicious tapas on a lovely sunny corner in nearby Vila Real de S. Antonio.  Life could surely be worse!

So much variety, here in the Algarve!  I hope you enjoy sharing it with me.  Come back next week because I have something rather wonderful to share.  Meantime, thank you very much for your company, and if you have a walk you’d like to share with me, please feel free.  Details, as always, are on my Jo’s Monday walk page.  Please do visit as many of these walks as you can.


Mosaics, history and emerging Spring in Israel from Lisa this week :

Shoham Forest

Meg takes us time traveling through the twists and turns of her beloved Australian landscape :


Let Amanda take you back in time with the amazing Pergamon Museum in Berlin :

Finding Heine and Treasures in Berlin

Still shivering with Irene in the Midwest!

Chilly Reflections

And heavens, Janet almost disappears in the snow!

Monday walk… winter walk

How about some warming stew with Jackie?

El Guisado Stew

And you can usually rely on sunshine from Lady Lee :

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

My good Danish friend is giving us an easy option this week.  Thanks so much, Drake!

Walk the easy way

But Cathy doesn’t know the meaning of easy.  Go along with her and Mike, and just enjoy yourself!

Prague, Czech Republic : exploring Mala Strana

This one won’t take long.  You have to love Tobias’ sense of humour!

A tour of the Academy

Thanks again to you all for spending time with me.  I have another busy, but sometimes lazy, Algarve week ahead.  Take good care!

“A gift from the sea”

A salt mountain, carefully harvested.

A salt mountain, carefully harvested.

One of the best things about visiting the Algarve off season is being able to take long walks.  The 12km circular of the salt pans at Castro Marim Nature Reserve was one of the highlights of my recent stay.

The sapal or salt marshes are a special feature of the Algarve.  It is one of the few areas where harvesting sea salt, begun in Roman, or even Phoenician times, continues today.  There is an art to skimming the salt crystals off before they grow big and heavy enough to sink to the bottom.  The end product is mineral rich, though needing hours of toil in the heat of Summer.  The distinctive sight of the salt pans, evaporating in the sun, always fascinates me.

I loved this landscape

The wide, flat landscape of the reserve

And suddenly, taking off across the water...

Then suddenly, a white stork takes off across the water…

Maybe to visit this nest?

Maybe, to visit this nearby nest?

The walk starts off, without too much promise, along an unsigned dirt track which doesn’t appear to lead anywhere. Olive and carob trees line the neighbouring field. In the distance, across the salt marsh, you can see the towering piles of salt and the refinery.  As you head towards them a river appears on your right.  Beyond it, in the distance, hovers the sleepy town of Castro Marim, its mighty castelo perched high on the hill.   The twin peaks of the road bridge, which crosses the River Guadiana into Spain, are barely visible.

The salt mountains beckon across the lagoon

The salt mountains beckon across the lagoon

Can you see the flamingoes in the foreground?

Can you see the flamingos in the foreground?

They were everywhere on the salt marshes

They were everywhere on the salt marshes

And seem very content to be there

Seeming to be busy, and happy to be there.

In the distance, across the river, the hilltop fortress of Castro Marim

In the distance, across the river, the hilltop fortress of Castro Marim

And just faintly you can see the bridge to Spain, across the Guadiana

And just faintly you can see the bridge to Spain, crossing the Guadiana

I’m not very knowledgeable about birds, but you can’t fail to be impressed by the quantity of them, indulging in this salt spa.  Heron, white storks, spoonbills and egrets are common sights.  The landscape seems vast, but it is not until you reach “the gate”- the entry to the saltworks- that you begin to realise just how far you are from your start point.  And to wonder how you will get back there.

The infamous "gate".

The infamous “gate”.

It's not only the flamingos that flourish here

It’s not only the flamingos that flourish here
This family of horses

This family of horses seem quite at home.

The horses are wearing bells round their necks, as were some cows we passed earlier.  Maybe, because they have young?  In 2000 hectares of salt pans, there’s a lot of wandering to be done!

According to the guide book, the next landmark is a pumping station, a far off speck on the horizon.  Arriving here is when the adventure really begins!  You turn left, into the salt pans themselves.  The book warns that you must never deviate from the track to attempt a shortcut, as many are dead ends.  If you tire and despair of making the end, you should turn around and retrace your steps.

This last section is a bit of a leap of faith, as it crosses the pans on an overgrown, narrow ridge, and does not appear to have an ending on dry land. It does, though, of course.  It feels quite surreal being out there, surrounded by water and sky.  It’s a little tricky underfoot- a mix of smooth, hardened mud and shrubs- but well worth the effort.  Nor did I want to contemplate retracing my steps, by this stage!

All seems peaceful and calm

All is peaceful and calm

And then, that magical moment when the flamingos take flight!

And then, that magical moment when the flamingos take flight!

The ultimate magic, as you pick your way around the reserve, is that moment when you approach a flock of birds.  Seemingly minding their own business in the salt pans, they obviously have one eye cocked for nare-do-wells.  Panic, or simple good sense, sends one of them into the air, and in seconds the sky is full of beating wings.  Those pallid-looking flamingos have the most glorious crimson underside to their wings, and the sight of them above me, at full stretch, is one I will never forget.

In a world where sky and water are as one.

In a world where sky and water are one

And the horizon seems far away.

And the horizon seems far away.

The book I was using was “Algarve Walks” by Julie Statham, walk no. 22.  It has been revised and reprinted a number of times and I have quite an old copy, so there may be some variation.  It’s not a difficult walk, but if you don’t fancy the last part you should retrace your steps from “the gate”.  Don’t even think about doing it in Summer- there is no cover whatsoever.  And don’t forget the bottled water!

I’ll be taking you to Castro Marim another day.  You’ll like it there!