Cultural and environmental awareness
The weather appeared less capricious the following day
but hadn’t settled enough for the hotel to fully confirm my second day of
activity. So instead of canoeing and hill
walking, I again found myself in a four-by-four.
Our driver-guide this time was Mateus whose itinerary differed sufficiently from that of Vitor’s to allow a different perspective of the Algarve countryside.
Actually, the real difference was the dry conditions.
Just 30 minutes into the journey and we were counting off some splendid birdlife including plump red-legged partridge and the striking hoopoe, notable for its distinctive ‘crown’ of feathers.
Later Mateus pulled up alongside a collection of cavities burrowed into a rust-coloured sandstone bluff. "Those are the nests of bee-eaters,” he remarked. "These birds usually arrive here as wild lavender begins to flower.”
I recalled Vitor’s exaltation of Algarve honey and the proliferation of flora this time of year.
"Honey bee colonies can number up to 80,000 insects,” said Mateus, reading my mind. "The birds enjoy a feast but there are plenty of bees left, even for dessert,” he quipped.
The sun shone at intervals and the warmth began to nourish the countryside.
We were well off the beaten track and passing fields textured with fresh aromatic thyme and flowering fennel. A lengthy sunburst enticed a stop opposite a pocket of land that positively sang with colour, such was the abundance of flowering plants and shrubs.
Bouquets of ink-blue grape hyacinth, paperwhite narcissus and pink oxalis appeared to float on a sea of bright yellow Bermuda buttercup and delicate crown daisy. Dashes of flush-red field poppy gently swayed in the breeze while clumps of spotted rockrose congregated along the wayside. The scene made for an exuberant canvas and the perfume was intoxicating!
"Anyone fancy a fried egg?” shouted Mateus balancing on a low wall of broken granite.
Puzzled, we ambled over.
Back on the road we skirted the landmark Rocha da
Penina, an impressive limestone outcrop where the endangered Bonelli’s eagle
and near threatened Eurasian eagle owl are known to nest. By now though, the
sun was once again being held hostage by low, dense cloud.
As the Land Rover approached the apex of a long, sinewy road, Mateus suddenly hit the breaks.
"Naked man!” he exclaimed.
We all looked at each other, slightly bemused.
Our driver was already on the ground, stooping down and plucking something off the floor. "Let me show you what a naked man looks like.” The ladies in our group giggled.
He opened the passenger door and leaned in.
Cupped in his hand was a small flower with lilac-hued filigree petals.
"This is the naked man orchid, one of the prettiest and most common orchids found in the Algarve.”
One again our guide’s sense of humour had caught us out. There are close to 30 different species of wild orchid in the Algarve. Celebrated examples include the family of beguiling bee orchids that wow onlookers with the insect-imitating appearance of their flowers. Equally mesmerising is the fabulous sawfly orchid, the petals of which resemble Van Gough’s palette.
Mateus, like Vitor, had proved a knowledgeable and amiable host and after exploring the attractive village of Alte – the final stop on the itinerary – we reclined in our seats for the leisurely jaunt back to the coast.
In the hotel that evening I pondered the Algarve Nature Week programme. It made sense to launch the activities in April, when spring is in full bloom. The timing also helps to combat the region’s perennial problem of seasonality, attracting tourists who might otherwise have waited until the summer before travelling to southern Portugal.
But more than this, the initiative promotes a lesser-known Algarve, an incredibly beautiful region where an unhurried, customary way of life still prevails and the hospitality is warm and genuine.
In fact, it’s an exercise in cultural and environmental awareness, with all the trimmings.
I raised a glass of wine in salute, a hearty red from the Quinta do Barranco Longo estate right here in the Algarve. Wait a minute, wine from the Algarve?
Ah, that’s another story.