The Moors of North Africa – Muslims who for centuries occupied Portugal and Spain – called it Al-Garb; it was the gateway to their possessions in Southern Europe. Portugal’s southernmost tip, the Algarve has 96 miles of coastline on the Atlantic, with some of the prettiest beaches in Europe. With a year-round mild climate, it’s no surprise that in 2017 alone it attracted 7.1 million tourists, becoming the country’s main tourist destination.
In the summer, the year-round population of 450.000 residents is multiplied by three. That’s when the seasonal residents from central and northern Europe arrive, to open their villas and to enjoy days of bright sun with no rain. They are never disappointed.
The Algarve is also, more and more, the place that Germans, Brits and Scandinavians choose to settle or retire. They come for the raw beauty, the low prices and the friendly ways of the Portuguese, but also because t’s safe: there’s no terrorism, political strife or crime in the Algarve.
This ‘discovery’ of the Algarve is relatively new. Until some 30 years ago, the region was just a long stretch of sleepy fishermen villages and great seafood. The seafood is still the base of the cuisine there: a dinner for two, with drinks and all the shrimp, fish or lobster one can eat, costs around 30 Euros – as opposed to 70 or 80 Euros elsewhere in Europe. And that’s fresh seafood from the fishing boats, not from the freezer.
Fishing and agriculture still exist, but more and more they have been replaced by tourism. Where small farms and local businesses once existed, now there are big hotels, apartment buildings and supermarkets. As a result, parts of the Algarve have suffered from over development, and some areas have become too crowded. Fortunately, others still retain the charms and the relaxed ways of the Portuguese. And if you know where to go, the Algarve can be one of the best places in Europe to enjoy life.
Faro and the mountain villages
A few months ago, my uncle Ivar, now living in Portugal, invited me to explore the Algarve with him. It had long been on my bucket list, and I was delighted to accept. I flew from Miami to Lisbon, where we got a rental car at the airport, and on a rainy day in March we drove 3 hours south, on the excellent A2 highway, towards Faro, the main town in the Algarve. By the way, it’s no longer true that roads in Portugal are bad, we had a very smooth drive.
Faro has had many lives: it started as a prehistoric fishing village, later an important port and administrative center – under the Romans – and in the year 711 it became part of the territory controlled by the Moors. They ruled it until 1492, when Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain sent them back to Africa, but their mark is still visible in the architecture, language, music and food of the Algarve.
Faro is also one of the few towns with a year-round buzz in the province, thanks in part to students of the local university. It has the major airport, and in the summer international flights come and go all the time. Positioned around a small marina, the city is modern but for its historic Cidade Velha (Old Town) – partly surrounded by ancient walls, with cobbled streets and whitewashed houses. Interestingly, the area is a favorite of storks; they nest permanently on top of old churches and buildings, quite a site!
We stayed at Stay Hotel Faro Centro, located downtown and at a walking distance to good seafood restaurants, small shops and the Old Town, the historic area with beautiful examples of medieval, Baroque and Rococo Portuguese architecture. The historic area takes us back to the Portugal of the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was a colonial power and one of the richest countries in Europe. A striking example of that time is the Igreja do Carmo (Carmo Church), started in 1713 and decorated with gold leafs from Brazil, Portugal’s main colony in the New World. Not to be missed is a somber – yet striking – Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), with walls made of 1,245 human skulls, moved there from a nearby monks’ cemetery!
Almost right in the geographical middle of the Algarve, Faro is a great base from where to reach both ends of the province. The town is surrounded by the Natural Park of Ria Formosa, a nature reserve of marshes and inlets that follows 37 miles of the Atlantic coastline, created to protect the ecosystem from over development. To go to the Atlantic beaches one has to cross barrier islands by ferry, an interesting adventure. But if being right on the beach is your priority, perhaps your ideal destination is elsewhere in the Algarve.
The area around Faro is not only about beaches, though. A big treat is to drive to the picturesque old towns on the mountains, places where time seems to have stopped. One of them is São Brás de Alportel, once Algarve’s major cork-producing center (the country is the world’s biggest producer of cork) and now a town where peace and tranquility rule. Sitting pretty on top of a hill, in São Brás the air is fresher than down at the coast, and if I ever need a place away from it all, that would be it. An attraction in town is the walking tour of the Cork Route, which covers everything from the bark of the Cork Oak to the many ways cork is still used today.
Like São Brás, there are Loulé, Almancil and Estói, all pretty towns, relaxing and with good hotels and restaurants. The villages get very crowded in the summer, specially Loulé, an attractive market town and crafts center with Moorish origins. In quiet Estói, life is so peaceful that one can hear the birds in the central square. At a walking distance is a luxury pousada (hotel), the Palácio de Estoi (Estói Palace), built by a local nobleman in 1909. In the same area is Almancil, not as quaint as the other two, but home to one of Algarve’s gems: the 18th-century Igreja Matriz de São Lourenço, a Baroque masterpiece church decorated with the blue and white tiles the Portuguese call azulejos. The effect is stunning.
Driving east towards the Spanish border, we entered Olhão, still an important fishing center. Unfortunately, too much development took place there, and the area around it looks like the suburbs of any big city. There is a small and charming downtown area the storks seem to love, but if the real flavor of the Algarve is what you are after, move on to Tavira. That’s what we did.
Charming, with authentic Moorish architecture and cuisine, Tavira was everything we were looking for. We stayed in a beautifully restored bed and breakfast owned by an English couple (the Brits are all over the Algarve, it’s their second home) called Calçada Guesthouse. Near it was the luxury hotel Pousada Convento Tavira, a restored former convent that managed to keep its original character. It was already fully booked in March.
It rained for two days, but we explored Tavira on both sides of the Gilão river linked by a bridge of Roman origin. The Moors came right after the Romans – Tavira was one of their major settlements in the Algarve – and transformed the town in an important commercial route. Today it’s a favorite vacation spot of the Europeans. Even in March, still far from the summer, hordes of Brits would get out of buses everyday, filling bars and restaurants. “Is there anyone left in England?”, I joked with my uncle. Tavira is so popular that in the summer it must be hard to find a hotel or a place to eat, planning ahead is a must. Or else visit it some other time of year- September and October are good months in the Algarve, with days still warm and fewer tourists.
We ended our exploration of the East Algarve driving to the border of Spain, to Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo Antônio. The two historic fishing and commercial towns – rebuilt after the major earthquake of 1755 – were already known by Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, who made use of the commanding views of the Guadiana River the towns offer. The area was also a sanctuary for fugitives of the Inquisition set up by the Catholic church in the 16th and 17th centuries, and stories about that dark time are plenty. Now mostly modern, they are market towns geared towards customers coming from Spain, across the river. A huge and modern bridge connects the two countries, once bitter rivals for the control of colonies around the world. We didn’t cross it, Spain will have to wait. Instead, we turned around towards the West Algarve, the best-known part of the province, the one with the postcard beaches famous around the world.