Out and About around Casa Ferrobo

We’re fortunate at Casa Ferrobo to be beyond the fringe of town, at the edge of a string of hamlets and villages set at the foot of striking, sharp hills and ridges, deep-cut by gorges and shaley canyons, dappled by cork oak and eucalyptus woodlands, olive groves, citrus fruit and fig orchards and wispy forests of carob, evergreen oak and pine. It’s an area where the passage of time almost appears to have stood still. Rough roads, tracks, paths and a dense network of centuries-old carreteiros (donkey/mule tracks) wind past eye-catching noras (hand-wheel wells) and rusting, donkey-powered scoop wells to meander through a countryside drenched in spring wildflowers and vibrant with birdsong. In the hills, countless barragems (small reservoirs) glisten like jewels in the landscape.

This memorable landscape is also generously dotted by a surprisingly large number of ruins. Some of these are obvious to the eye – the countless circular windmill towers that seem to cap almost every hilltop; there are several close to Ferrobo. More disconcerting is the substantial number of secluded, ruinous buildings, all of which serve to add a melancholic but intriguing aspect to the deep country hereabouts. Many of these are abandoned farmhouses and smallholdings, declining amidst a backcloth of untilled fields, extraordinary crumbling terraces and unkempt hill-pasture, bordered by threadbare tumbled walls and, as likely as not, groups of ancient olive trees.

They’re largely the product of agricultural, economic and political change following the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 1974, which split-up huge estates and facilitated mass-migration to the coastal towns, where new industry and the ‘Tourist Pound’ promised a release from toil working the land. The younger generation left en-masse for ever, and as the older generation declined, so the quintas, farms and hamlets were abandoned. On many of the walks you can follow from Ferrobo you’ll pass ruins of elegant houses, tiny ghost-villages, abandoned wells, derelict mills and miles of the remarkably constructed field terraces which etch every valleyside and climb every hillside.

From Alportel’s wide, fertile vale the hills ripple upwards as a fantastically contorted landscape of pine and eucalyptus woods, hermes oak forest, strawberry trees and colourful maquis scrub. Seasonal streams etch deep, tortuous valleys into the limestones, shales and mudstones and everywhere there are fantastic views across these Barrocal hills and deep into the Serra da Caldeirão, rising to a modest 1962ft (598m) but with the punch of a miniature mountain range, which marks the border with the region of the Alentejo to the north.

Citrus groves, aubergine and pomegranate plantations dapple the vale. As you gain height, cultivation becomes haphazard. Thread along any of the myriad astonishingly steep tracks cut to allow harvesting of the cork oak every 11 years or so, or follow a disintegrating carreteiro undulating from nowhere to nowhere and you may encounter small vineyards, pocket sized cornfields and tiny market gardens in the middle of nowhere. Cast an eye around and you’ll spot a distant gleam of white marking a surviving smallholding or tucked-away hamlet. The hard, rural grind still continues, if at a much reduced scale. Much more is now made of the countless wild acreage of French lavender and cistus – thousands of beehives regularly moved around the hillsides evidence the Algarve’s renowned honey industry. Give these a wide berth for obvious reasons!

All of which means that rambling the countless old ways amidst a decayed rural landscape is utterly rewarding. Tranquillity and endless views; the serendipitous finding of an old windmill or a village bar; remote stream crossings marked by tall reeds echoing to the croak of bullfrogs; blood-red patches of field newly tilled for vines. And the usual gloriously clement weather, all blue sky with Walt Disney clouds floating around. The rural Algarve has it all – and Casa Ferrobo is at its heart!

THE NATURAL WORLD

lizardYou don’t even need to leave Casa Ferrobo to share in the superb variety of natural world denizens here in the Barrocal. Tiny gecko lizards may investigate the walls of your cottage and can certainly be seen hunting insects on the BBQ patio roof and beams – hypnotic to watch for a while. The lawns beside the pool host hoopoes (a beautiful crested bird the size of a jackdaw) whilst azure magpies do what magpies everywhere do! Countless smaller birds share the shaded gardens here, with unfamiliar songs perhaps drawing your ear –maybe a colourful bee-eater will perch and shimmer on the wires - whilst butterflies proliferate.

Along the shorter walks from the doorstep, the small ponds, streambeds and reedy hollows have bullfrogs, superb dragonflies and damsel flies. You may glimpse small viperine water snakes too. Spend a little time at the village wash-house, water tanks and nora (handwheel pump) just along from Ferrobo and you’ll likely spot these; there’s a handy bird-identification board here, too, detailing what may be seen. Walk 3 via Tareja and Vale de Estacas sneaks down a beautiful, deep valley thick with immense reeds, oaks and a brook; a nature reserve with a series of boards highlighting the wildlife here.

Slightly further into the hills and deeper countryside, the world is your oyster. A wealth of butterflies – including swallowtails, festoons and the showy two tailed pascha – proliferate, feeding on the thick lavenders, wild herbs and cistus flowers that smother the slopes. At Barranco do Velho, in the hills to the north, there’s a short marked trail with boards illustrating some of these magical insects to be seen here.

Spend a few minutes watching at the many and varied small barragem reservoirs and you may see spoonbills and egrets, whilst crested tits chitter in the fringing pine trees and common pratincoles feast on flies and midges. Watch for grey shrikes hunting the hill-tracks for lizards, as does the spectacular blue rock thrush. Commonly-seen bee-eaters, golden oriole and red-rumped swallows vie for attention with short-toed eagles, black-winged kites and eagle owls, whilst occasional sightings of Bonnelli’s and Imperial eagles are made. It’s all a matter of luck!

On any walk, you’ll certainly see – or more likely hear scuttling away – a range of lizards, including occasional specimens a foot or more long. And was that a cat padding along the pathside, or an Egyptian mongoose - which also make the life of lizards a misery?! These can be seen during the day almost anywhere. On a different scale entirely, you may encounter wild boar grubbing amidst the eucalyptus stands which are now ubiquitous, snouting beside stream beds or even wallowing by barragems.