Portugal: The Algarve


Picture this: We are stuck in a traffic snarl on a narrow little road in the Algarve region of Portugal.  Several cars — and one horse-drawn cart carrying a family of gypsies — have come to a full stop while a shepherd crosses the road with his flock.  The shepherd carries a tiny, newborn goat under one arm; the other hand holds a cell phone to his ear.  The baby goat is bleating loudly and the shepherd appears to be having trouble hearing the person he is talking to.  Meanwhile, a group of surfers in board shorts and flip flops take advantage of the stopped cars to cross the road in the other direction, weaving their way through the goats toward the beach.  As traffic begins moving again, I watch the goats grazing in their new spot, atop what appears to be rubble, but on closer inspection turns out to be yet another ancient ruin (probably the remains of a prehistoric Casa Circulares, or roundhouse).  The cars creep forward patiently behind the horse and cart.  The surfers continue toward the sea.  The shepherd puts the baby goat down in the ruins to make another call.  And no one seems to find any of this in the least bit remarkable.

This is the Algarve, a place where the modern day life of both locals and tourists regularly bumps up against centuries of history, much of it unprotected and unmarked.  But hey, I guess if you are the country of 1000 castles, you can’t preserve them all.

The Algarve is a big area, covering 2000+ miles along the southernmost tip of Portugal and roughly divided into regions of east, central and west by the friendly folks who do travel bookings.  If you come here for the beaches (and most people do), these distinctions are important.  In the east Algarve, you’ll find flat, wide and endless expanses of protected ocean front that can only be reached by ferry boat.  In the west, you get craggy cliffs, awe-inspiring rock formation and sea caves, and a stiff wind that delights kite-surfers.  Slightly west of center lies posh and picturesque Albufeira, with some of the most popular (and crowded) beaches in Portugal.

But turn your gaze inward anywhere along the Algarve and you’ll find castles, fortresses and remains of settlements that are thousands of years old.  Even the high-rise filled resort towns have astonishing remnants of ancient history hidden deep within narrow little streets that are a mere stone’s throw from the beach.

Here are some of my favorite spots, from east to west:

Tavira: We’ve been staying in Tavira, which is the jewel of the eastern Algarve, dating back to 2000 b.c.  A sleepy little fishing village that has retained its old world charm, Tavira still fascinates me even after a month of walking through its every nook, corner and alleyway.  The old Roman bridge (not actually Roman, built in the 12th century), the remains of the castle (which likely dates back to the 8th century B.C.) and the Gothic Santa Maria cathedral with its clock tower are my favorites.  But I also love standing in front of the ongoing excavation near the church, which shows the living quarters of people from 5 different periods in history since the Phoenicians.

There isn’t much night-life in Tavira, but many outdoor cafes along the Ria Formosa and a busy plaza during season make it a lovely place to simply hang out, sip wine, watch people and soak up the history.  The food at my favorite restaurant, Brisa do Rio, is so good that makes me feel like I’m in a major metropolitan city instead of a tiny town in Portugal (although the prices are far too low to be anywhere near Manhattan).  An added bonus:  Owner and chef Luis will gladly give you an education in Portuguese wines if you ask.

There is much more to see nearby:

  • The old fortress just outside of Tavira that has been turned into a guesthouse
  • The tiny little town of Castro Marim, a walled city that has been home to Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Moors, with a castle built by the Portuguese King Afonso III in 1249 (The castle walls still stand and Castro Marim is now home to the Very Important Goat Festival — Terra de Maio — in May).
  • Cacela Velha, a “lost in time” village set in the cliffs high above the sea, complete with 18th century fortress and cathedral
  • The little town of Cachopo, set high in the hills above Tavira (Cycling up to the town is a bear, but the route is filled with wildflowers, spectacular sea views, and ruins of pre-historic roundhouses whose origins are too old to decipher.)

I know, I know, but what about the beaches?

If you are looking for quiet beaches with few people and no high-rises, the beaches near Tavira are perfect. Barril, Tavira Island and the nude beach (Praia do Homem Nu) are pristine and unspoiled.  This area is under strict environmental protection (no hotels, no boardwalks and designated walking paths through the dunes to protect the environment).  The downside is that you have to take a ferry (or the tourist train) to get to the beach, but the payoff is truly unspoiled and almost deserted beaches.

The Faro areaFaro is the true center of Algarve (and its largest town), but is often missed by beach goers in a rush to reach Albufeira, the region’s best-known beach town.  Faro was a trading post for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and like much of the Algarve, it went back and forth between Moorish and Christian control through the ages.  The historic part of the town shows evidence of both.

My favorite site in Faro is the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) which is hidden in the back of the baroque Igreja do Carmo cathedral.  The Chapel of Bones was built around 1816 (long after the cathedral it is part of).  Its walls are completely covered with more than 1000 human bones and skulls – a practical solution to overcrowded cemeteries and an object lesson in the transitory nature of life (brought to you by thoughtful Franciscan monks).

My favorite spots near Faro:

  • The market in Loule, where you can buy fresh fish, local cheeses, and fresh piri-piri peppers
  • In the little town of Estoi, the Palacio dos Condes Carvalha, a former castle which has been turned into a guesthouse (The beautiful gardens are almost as unforgettable as drinks in the “bar” — once the main parlour of the palace overlooking the hills and coastline below).
  • Silves, a town that has been around since the 4th century B.C., and still has the well-preserved remains of its fabulous castle (built by the Moors) and the 13th century Gothic cathedral next door  (Silves was once the capital of the Algarve under the Moors and was home to some of the greatest Arab poets.  It is a haunting little place.)

The beach towns in this area (Albuefeira and Portimau) are high-rise monsters, although Albuefeira has pretty streets and a historic quarter that is worth a walk through.  As noted above, these beaches are probably the most famous in the Algarve, which means that they are also very busy and crowded. (You can have my share.)

Lagos and Sagres: Lagos is a bustling, pretty town of narrow little streets, cafes and plazas that are always filled with people during season.  About 45 minutes further to the west is Sagres, a much quieter fishing village that is inhabited by as many surfers and kite-boarders as fisherman.

The cliffs and rock formations around the beaches of Lagos and Sagres are not to be missed.  My personal favorite, Praia do Beliche, requires a perilous descent down the side of a cliff on rickety wooden steps — but the beach below is worth it.  If you head to Sagres and turn right, you will find the wild Western coast, which is reminiscent of California’s Route 1.  This is also a protected area, with many tiny coves and beaches that are almost always empty.

It has taken me more than a month to cover the ground I’ve written about in this post — and the crazy thing is, I experienced only the tip of the iceberg here.  The Algarve is a magical place, if you just take a moment to look beyond the beach and steer your car inland.




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