Location: Fonte da Benémola (Querença parish); Loulé municipality; GPS Coordinates : 37º 11’ 55,360’’N, 8º 00’ 15,759’’ W (start); Grade: easy/moderate; Type: circular; dirt tracks (predominantly); this trail is signposted; Lenght: 4400 meters/ 2.73 miles; Average Completion Time: up to 2 hours; Best Time to Visit: spring; may not be advisable on very hot days; Activities: nature walks and hikes; birdwatching
What sets the Barrocal apart are the fertile limestone soils, the rainfed orchards, and the rocky, undulated terrain. The very porous rock substrate of this region prevents the formation of most surface watercourses – in fact, water usually only flows underground throughout the Barrocal. Fonte da Benémola is one of the few exceptions to this geologic rule since it flows – in part – over a schistose bedrock. Here, a few freshwater springs, watermills, dams, channels and ancient wells punctuate the leafy countryside. Located on the furthest stretch of the trail, the largest of these springs is called ‘O Olho’ (‘The Eye’, depicted on the main image above).
The Arabs were possibly the first settlers to build complex hydraulic structures across this valley, and several of such structures are still there to be appreciated by visitors; there are also some lime kilns, but almost all of them are now in ruins. In ancient times, lime was produced across this water-rich area by cooking the limestone that composes the area’s bedrock. Contrary to most other watercourses in the Barrocal, the stream that feeds this fertile terrain is not seasonal. Water flows throughout the year, supporting a vibrant ecosystem composed of many distinct animals and plants: the lush banks are covered by White Willow, Poplar, Tamarisk, and Ash trees; in turn, these large arboreal species are accompanied by fragrant shrubs that include Lavender, Mastic, Thyme, Rockroses, Laurestine, Oleander, Rosemary and Strawberry trees, among many other species. Further afield there are also Olive, Almond, Orange and Carob trees, as well as Kermes and Cork Oaks. Spring brings swathes of colour and perfume to the valley, a time when many of the abundant little orchids also start to flower. Fonte da Benémola is in fact a great place to ‘hunt’ for notable orchids.
The pristine waters of the tiny river are a haven for several species of fish, and for salamanders, frogs and toads; the two species of pond turtle living here – Mediterranean and European – are easy to observe, but visitors must keep very silent when approaching the banks. There are Otters (Lutra lutra) as well, but these intelligent mammals are notoriously hard to pin down. On the other hand, birds are easily seen and heard throughout the valley. Frequently seen bird species include Azure-winged Magpie, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Moorhen and Jay; dashes of colour are provided by smaller birds like the Iberian Green Woodpecker, the Serin, the Greenfinch, the Melodious Warbler, the Blue Tit and the Great Tit. Particularly flashy are the Hoopoe, the Kingfisher, the Golden Oriole and the Bee-eater; the latter pair are migratory birds best seen from early April to early September. The numerous caves along the valley also shelter two threatened species of bat, the Bent-wing Bat and the Lesser Mouse-eared Bat.
There are numerous boards (both in Portuguese and English) explaining the natural and cultural features of Fonte da Benémola. Visitors must walk on small square pylons to cross the shallow river and complete the walk; besides these ‘stepping stones’, there’s also a small ford close by. However, walkers shouldn’t attempt crossing the river in winter or when the water flows in abundance. As an alternative, there’s a longer and more difficult signposted route that takes you further inland; you’ll need stout footwear if you intend to follow this craggier route that provides good opportunities to observe raptors like the Buzzard or the Short-toed Eagle. Spring is the best season to visit Fonte da Benémola. Autumn and winter are also good times to walk, but you’ll miss many of the flowers and many of the birds. This is a very popular place among local families, mainly in summer and on weekends throughout the year. There are a couple of car parks here – one at the start of the trail (next to a derelict building) and another one along the trail, in Fica Bem proper. There’s also a picnic area. Enjoy!