A GENTLE few words of advice… ‘go’ before you go.
That sounds like the kind of thing us parents would tell a child but it’s worth bearing in mind if you tackle southern Portugal’s delightful rural trails.
On the one hand you’ll need the fluids if the sun is playing. On the other there aren’t many toilets about and our chatty guide Anabela Santos isn’t one for letting trees get extra moisture.
Perhaps better advice is to stay away from the coffee refills, although it is advisable to be up with the Algarve’s equivalent of larks to make the most of arguably one of the region’s best-kept tourism secrets.
Anabela works with Almargem, an association responsible for the Via Algarviana, a 185-mile pedestrian trail that starts in Alcoutim, by the Guadiana River in north-east Algarve, and ends at the Cape of S.Vicente, in Vila do Bispo, near wonderful Sagres, passing through the mountains of Serra do Caldeirão and Serra de Monchique.
Her enthusiasm for this unobtrusive route through the region’s mountainous interior is contagious and the nag of waking bones is soon forgotten.
Halfway through a trail from Vaqueiros to Cachopo we pass through a nest of farm buildings where we are quizzed and kept chatting by an impossibly old woman and a farmer tending their smallholdings at an age when most would be putting their feet up.
We are given an abridged history of lives isolated and simple before being handed oranges plucked from nearby trees.
Onwards and colourful wings punctuate the rolling greenery ahead. Bird watchers worth their bins will confirm more than 300 species live or pass through the Algarve each year, be it the lush mountains or protected coastal marshes.
While Anabela would love more people to base a holiday on the Via Algarviana, plenty should definitely make it part of a more varied spell in this wonderful bit of Portugal (more at www.viaalgarviana.org).
The drive in from the coast is spectacularly promising, and the relative tranquillity offered by these winding paths is a welcome contrast to the Factor 15 furore that can accompany Algarve’s sandier side high season.
The contrast continues at both Tavira, which comes in two halves – beach and lens-hogging market town – and Faro, entry point for visitors to the region and nowadays a tourism hotspot itself.
For the former, neat and spacious apartments at Cabanas Park Resort overlook unspoiled marshes, within easy reach of an unpretentious commercial waterfront. Bobbing boats can be viewed from the promenade, across from which a low level street is filled with a mix of bars and restaurants serving the Portugese paella-style dish cataplana, such as the friendly Sabores Da Ria, at prices gentle to your Euro.
The resort is swiftly covered on foot, the early evening chatter from homes further in carrying on warm air.
A frequent boat takes Cabanas guests across the short stretch of barrier waterway to narrow boardwalks that, in turn, lead across dunes and marshes to one of the most pristine yet natural beaches in the region.
Pick the right time of year – just before or towards the end of the season – and you’ll be spoiled for choice where to lay your picnic.
A short drive inland the main town of Tavira demands a visit. This smart modern-meets-old town is divided by the River Gilao but united in typical Portugese architecture.
In parts it is busy with daily life, but there are plenty of side streets warranting exploration, with bars and cafes never far.
Continue around the coast and regional capital Faro is anything but a conduit to the rest of the Algarve.
It has a beach – the Ilha Deserta takes some getting to but the six-mile stretch is worth the effort – and it’s marina, swanky shopping streets and lovely old town provide plenty of distraction. And then there are the storks…
The huge white birds swoop across the Ria Formosa Natural Park and pristine yachts to feed their young on nests perched precariously above buildings, the Arco da Vila gateway to the old town and even a streetlight pole in the centre of the roundabout outside the Hotel Faro.
In fact, the restaurant of this stylish, modern hotel is the perfect vantage point from which to get your bearings in a town many merely know from their boarding pass as a gateway to resorts further west.
Head behind Hotel Faro and you are into pedestrian streets lined with boutiques and cafes bristling with conversation.
Turn left out front and the walled old section of Faro tenders its own charm. Handsome, white-walls rise up from cobbled streets of the Cidade Velha.
The main square is lined with orange trees and surrounded by elegant buildings including the Bishops Palace, the 16th century Convent of Nossa Senhora Assuncao, museums, and beautiful churches.
It is dominated by the central cathedral which, for three Euros, you can visit and climb steps to the bell tower for the best vantage point.
At night the quarter takes on a different character, making the handful of restaurants romantic destinations.
With a chill in the air we enjoyed tapas-style dining amid the intimacy of one of the more discreet eateries before finding lively cocktail-fuelled contrast at the Columbus bar close by the hotel as planes overhead made their final approach.
Portugal may have its economic issues but the welcome is still generously served.
And with temperatures now healthily in the 20s there’s rarely been a better time to go.