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Portugal> Alluring Algarve


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Alluring Algarve

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This itinerary introduces you to one of Portugal's most alluring tourist areas: its southern strip called the Algarve. The name comes from the word Al-Gharb, the Arabic word for west, so-called because it was the most westerly European stronghold of the Islamic civilization that occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. Due to its somewhat isolated geographical situation-separated from the rest of the country by a chain of mountains-it was both the first area taken by the Moors in the 8th century and the last to be regained by the Christians, thus spending the longest time under Arab domination. As might be expected, it retains the greatest cultural influence of that civilization.

Recommended Pacing: The Algarve stretches between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, a total span of 160 kilometers. Because the distance is so short, we recommend that you do not move around from night to night-instead, choose one place to settle in the Algarve and use it as a hub to explore the whole region. A four-night stay will give you a day to explore alluring villages, a day for a trip to Sagres, and a day to relax on the beach.

There is a rich selection of places to stay and many are located on the coast or in a tiny hamlet in the countryside. You are sure to find one well suited to your personality and pocketbook. From your base you can venture out each day on a new adventure. We suggest places to include on your excursions. However, as you explore the coast, you are sure to discover your own favorite villages and secluded beaches.

Although the Algarve lies along Portugal's southern coast, it is easily accessible. One option is to fly to Faro, an airport with flights arriving from all over Europe-and, of course, from Lisbon. A suggestion is to either begin or end your holiday in the Algarve, either picking up your car rental when you arrive or dropping it off as you leave. Another option is to drive from Lisbon to the Algarve (or vice versa) via the IP1, a toll road.

A further option is to travel to the Algarve by bus. The bus system within Portugal is excellent. One of the main, countrywide bus companies is EVA, which has some of the fastest service to the Algarve. For example, from Lisbon it is about four and a half hours to Albufeira and five hours to Faro.

The Algarve's favorable geographic setting provides it with some of the best weather in Europe. Snuggled in a protected pocket that is bound to the north by mountains, to the west by the craggy cliffs of Cape Saint Vincent, and to the east by bucolic deltas of the Spanish border, the coast is blessed with a mild climate all year round. Because the weather is so favorable, a string of resort areas has sprouted up along the Atlantic beaches, which the Portuguese call the Costa do Sol (Sun Coast).

If possible, time your vacation in the spring or fall since the area is swarming with tourists in the summer. Because of so many travelers, the main road that parallels the coast is lined with souvenir shops, amusement parks, bright plastic water slides, and fast-food restaurants. Much of this is geared to appeal to families traveling with children. However, do not be discouraged-off the main road, if you know where to look, you will find everything from quaint fishing villages to swanky resorts and casinos, along with ample opportunities for all kinds of outdoor activities from sports to sunbathing. As might be expected, the Algarve's forte is its cornucopia of fresh seafood dishes. The ubiquitous caldeirada de peixe (bouillabaisse) comes in as many forms as there are chefs. Various mixtures of fish and shellfish are prepared a cataplana (a lidded, round-bottomed skillet) over an open flame. Versions of this concoction also include cured ham and/or pork along with the typical clams and other fish.


Albufeira is a bustling seaside fishing village-turned-resort. The architecture of its boxy, flat-roofed, whitewashed houses stepping up the cliffs from the beach harks back to its Moorish heritage. Its Moorish background also lingers in the name "Albufeira," which means "castle on the sea" in Arabic. The town boasts a large, busy beach, which is reached by a tunnel from the main square. The predominantly white buildings are colorfully decorated with bright awnings. Shops and restaurants abound here, as do street vendors with multihued umbrellas covering their wares. Brightly colored boats are still drawn up onto the sand at night. The town has the potential to be outstanding, but its quaintness has been sullied a bit by the fact that it is such a magnet for swarms of tourists. Nevertheless, it's an inviting place to stroll around the steep, narrow streets and inspect the shops and attractive cafés. Try to visit early in the morning before the mobs of tourists arrive.

Almancil is not worth a special visit on its own merits, but if you enjoy beautiful churches, you will find one of the loveliest in Portugal just outside the town. This 18th-century gem is the Igreja Matriz de São Lourenço, which was built in tribute to São Lourenço who answered the town's prayers for water. Its altar is an intricately painted, gilded masterpiece, but most impressive are the stunning azulejo panels depicting scenes from the saint's life.

Alte is an out-of-the-way, picturesque, whitewashed village tucked up in the hills about 20 kilometers northeast of Albufeira. Off the tourist path, small rural villages such as Alte offer a glimpse of the "real" Algarve as it used be-a far cry from the glitter and fast pace of the coast. recommended by Bill at Estói

Alvor is a delightful fishing village which was at one time a Roman port and later the Moorish town of Al-Bor. After the earthquake of 1755 it was rebuilt using stone from the Moorish castle so that little of the fortress remains. Tourism has had a distinct impact on the town but there are no high-rises and in an evening it is fun to wander the narrow cobbled streets filled with restaurants and little shops that lead up from the harbor.

Cacela Velha is one of the quaintest of the small villages between Tavira and the Spanish border and makes a fun stop if you are exploring the coast. Fishing used to be the main industry here and there are still fishing boats drawn up on the beach. The fishermen live in the whitewashed houses with bright-blue trim on the bluff above the sea. For added character, the town also has the picturesque remains of an old fortress.

Faro, the capital of the Algarve, was an important Moorish seaport. In 1249 Afonso III recaptured it from the Moors and promptly set about rebuilding the city walls. However, the walls could not protect the town from the British, who in 1596 sacked and burned it to the ground. One of the leaders of the expedition, the Earl of Essex, stayed in the Bishop's Palace and helped himself to 200 of its priceless, leather-bound, gilt-tooled books. He took these back to England and gave them to his good friend, Sir Thomas Bodley, at Oxford, who was delighted to receive them for his now world-renowned Bodleian Library. After the British destroyed Faro, it was rebuilt, but the 1755 earthquake leveled it again.

Today Faro is a sprawling commercial city. From a distance is appears as one skyscraper after another, but persevere and head straight to the historic old town adjacent to the harbor. At the north end of the harbor is the Maritime Museum with models of boats and ships. At the southern end of the harbor is the old walled town and at its heart is the Cathedral (Sé), beautifully decorated with 17th-century azulejos. Bordering one side of the square, the Bishop's Palace is still in use and officially closed to the public, but we were able to take a peek at the magnificent azulejo-lined staircase. Just around the corner, the Archaeological Museum is housed in the lovely 16th-century Convento de Nossa Senhora da Assunção with its impressive cloisters. Here you find both Moorish and Roman artifacts (all uncovered in nearby sites), plus lovely azulejos and a nice collection of paintings.

At the museum you can get a map to guide you through town and the enticing pedestrian shopping area around Rua de Sainte Antonio to the Teatro Lethes, a onetime church converted into an enchanting tiny opera house by an Italian family who made their fortune in Portugal after being shipwrecked en route to London. A short distance away is the impressive Igreja do Carmo church, which houses the Chapel of the Bones, an enticingly macabre chapel entirely faced with the bones of exhumed monks!

The beach at Faro-actually an offshore strip of sand-is about 9 kilometers away and can be reached by car or ferry (from June to September) from the Porta Nova pier at the harbor.

Lagos, now a bustling large city, has a delightful historic core centering around the harbor. The Avenida dos Descobrimentos separates Lagos from the sea. At the westerly edge of the Avenida, jutting out over the entrance to the harbor, is the 17th-century Forte Ponta da Bandeira, a sturdy, square, stone fortress with jaunty little watchtowers perched on each corner. A drawbridge leads into the inner courtyard. Inside are displays of the Great Discoveries and also a small 17th-century chapel.

Follow the remains of the town's ancient walls to Praça do Infante, presided over by Prince Henry the Navigator who called it home for a while. In 1441 Prince Henry's explorer, Nuno Tristão, brought back slaves from the Sahara. On one corner of the square you find the first slave market to appear in Europe, set up in Lagos under the arches of the Customs House. A cobbled lane leads you to the 18th-century Santo Igreja de António with its remarkable blue-and-white azulejos. In the church there is also a statue of Lago's patron saint, Santo António, which-according to tradition-was always carried into battle for good luck. Adjoining the church is a small archaeological museum.

The Praça Giltines has an interesting statue of Dom Sebastião, King of Portugal from 1557 to 1578. Dom Sebastião died in Morocco in 1578 during the Battle of Alcácer Quibir. During this ill-advised expedition, 8,000 of his soldiers were slain and 15,000 more captured and sold into slavery. The handsome king, who was only 24, became a legend. Since nobody actually witnessed his death, a cult called "Sebastianism" evolved, which proclaimed that the popular monarch was not killed and would someday return to rule Portugal. The belief gave rise to numerous imposters pretending to be Sebastião and offering themselves as king. Sebastião's demise paved the way for Spain's Phillip II to take over the throne, forcing Portugal to become part of the hated Spanish Empire.

Lagos is also famous for a naval battle fought just off shore in 1693 when the celebrated French admiral, Tourville, sank 80 Dutch and English ships in an awesome engagement.

Just before town is a sign for the beautiful cove at Praia de Dona Ana, a beach uniquely situated beneath giant red cliffs eroded into impressive shapes by ceaseless waves. A bit farther west is another lovely beach at Porto De Mós.

Monchique nestles in the wooded hills above the coast with wonderful views to the sea. The town is popular for those who want to escape the heat and fast pace of the coast. Also, Monchique is known for its wooden handicrafts, particularly folding chairs reminiscent of Roman times. Six kilometers before Monchique, turn into Caldas de Monchique, a tiny spa town in a wooded valley, whose tree-shaded main square has a handicraft center and a restaurant. Monchique itself has a decidedly plain look to it, but press on and follow signs for the Igleja (church), which brings you into the old part of town with its narrow cobbled streets, cafés, and the Igreja Matriz, whose doorway is embellished with intricate knotted columns that end in unusual spikes. A walk up to the ruined monastery gives a good view of the roofs of the town but to get an excellent view of the ocean, follow signs for Fóia, a 5-kilometer drive around the mountain that ends in a viewpoint/picnic area with fabulous 180-degree views of the distant coast.

Olhão is a sardine and tuna fishing port about 8 kilometers east of Faro, with beaches much less crowded than those at Faro. You can take a ferry from Olhão out to either Armona or Culatra, islands just off the coast where you can enjoy peaceful beaches. Olhão gained great fame when in 1808 some brave local fishermen sailed all the way to Rio de Janeiro in their small boat to tell King Dom João VI the joyful news that Napoleon's troops had been defeated and forced out of Portugal.

Portimão, one of the largest towns along the Algarve, is a bustling port with a long history situated at the mouth of the River Arade. As you approach the town, it seems to hold little promise, but ignore the hodgepodge of its surroundings and head straight for the heart of the old town with its bustling shopping street, the Rua de Commercio, which leads you to the delightful church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição. Although rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755, this church actually dates back to the 14th century. Though Portimão is worth a brief stop, its nearby beaches make this destination truly special. The most celebrated of these, made famous by a group of English writers in the early 1900s, is Praia da Rocha, one of the coast's original beach resorts, as evidenced by the old mansions and villas along the shore dwarfed by high-rises. It has an exceptionally high number of sunny days and is pleasant even in winter.

The vast Praia da Rocha, with the Fortaleza de Santa Catarina at one end guarding the entrance to the harbor, is one of the most dramatic beaches we have ever visited. Buff-colored soft sand, towering ochre and red cliffs, and rock formations in the beach and offshore make Praia da Rocha truly unforgettable. On the western part of the beach there is a tunnel through the red cliffs to an eastern section with a few hotels and restaurants. The eastern part of the beach has an abundance of shells, replenished with each tide. Be sure to stroll along the beach at dusk-the sunsets are unforgettable. As the sun slips toward the horizon, the sand and the rock formations turn stunning shades of mellow gold and red. When the tide is low, you can walk for a great distance, ducking through natural tunnels and exploring caves.  Praia da Rocha blends into an equally lovely beach, Praia do Vau.

If you want to explore off the beaten path, you will enjoy Querença, a pretty village snuggled in the hills about 10 kilometers north of Loulé.

Sagres has the distinction of sitting on the most southwesterly point in Europe and is one of the most historically important places in Portugal. Located on this windswept, barren tip of the continent was an incredibly advanced school of seafaring-the scene of exciting advances in navigation that changed the world forever. The Sagres School of Navigation was founded by Prince Henry the Navigator, a man of incredible genius and foresight who surrounded himself with the most gifted men of the times-astronomers, geographers, cartographers, ship designers, and seamen. The advances in technology made here during the 15th century made possible the great voyages of discovery to the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeo Dias in 1488 and, ultimately, to India by Vasco da Gama in 1498. The Portuguese thus accomplished what Columbus failed to do and opened a sea route from Europe to the spice-rich Orient. It was also here that the caravel (a fast, wide-hulled boat with a large number of masts) was designed and built in secret. With its increased speed, stability, and ability to carry a large crew, the caravel set the style for ships for the next century.

Following signs through the town following directions to Cape Saint Vincent, you will see a low-lying whitewashed fortress on the headland standing on the site of the school's original buildings, which were destroyed by Francis Drake in 1597. In the courtyard is an immense stone rosa dos ventos, or compass rose, supposedly used for instruction during Prince Henry's time.

A few kilometers west of Sagres is the little 17th-century fort of Beliche and a bit further beyond Sagres is Cape Saint Vincent. This rocky promontory has been the scene of numerous sea battles throughout the history of Portugal, guarding as it does the entrance to the narrow channel into the Mediterranean. Giant fingers of rock jut out into the ocean where they are battered by crashing waves. The view is breathtaking and, considering the wild setting, it's easy to see how earlier Europeans might have equated this desolate spot with the end of the earth. You can climb the lighthouse installed in an old convent for an even more panoramic view of the Atlantic. The cape's name stems from the legend that the remains of Saint Vincent, Portugal's patron saint, washed ashore here before later reappearing in Lisbon. Along with fishing and diving, a popular pastime in this area is renting bicycles to tour the area out to the cape. The secluded beaches in this area, punctuated with the craggy rock outcroppings so strongly associated with the Algarve, make attractive destinations, especially at sunset. The beaches here are far less congested than farther east.

Silves-dramatically positioned high over the river with brooding, 12th-century battlements-was once the capital of the Moorish Al-Gharb, rivaling Granada in splendor and culture. Now it's a small town with some handsome burghers' houses in the shadow of its castle. This red sandstone castle was built during the Moorish occupation, but after they were ousted, it was used as a Christian fortress.

Tavira is one of the most appealing towns in the Algarve. In its heyday Tavira was an important tuna center. Fishing is still important, but now the town is no longer directly on the sea since the earthquake of 1755 silted up the estuary. The town hugs the banks of the Sequa and Gilão rivers, which merge in Tavira and form an estuary that spreads out to the sea. Quaint houses line the river, which also has a picturesque Roman bridge spanning it. Although there are some sleazy-looking housing developments on the outskirts, the historic center of town still exudes an appealing charm. There are 21 old churches, colorful houses, narrow winding streets, and remains of the old town walls.

If you are addicted to golf, the place to be is Vilamoura, which is surrounded by golf courses. The whole area has boomed, with new high-rise hotels springing up in every available niche of space. In this modern development are nightclubs, elegant shops, restaurants, and even a casino. Vilamoura is about 6 kilometers inland from the sea-the closest beach is at Quarteira, a once-quaint town that is now a jungle of high-rises. However, it still has a marvelous long stretch of sandy beach sheltered by red cliffs. Just to the east of Quarteira is Val do Lobo, another commercial coastal development that exudes more quality and refinement, with many deluxe, whitewashed, low-rise hotels and condominium complexes-usually with a Moorish flavor.

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A Few Nearby Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts:   List Them All

A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Quinta do Barranco da Estrada
Santa Clara a Velha, Beja, Portugal
€ 80-135
A Karen Brown Recommended Hotel / Inn Casa Três Palmeiras
Praia do Vau, Faro, Portugal
€ 169-209
A Karen Brown Recommended Hotel / Inn Albergaria Vila Lido
Praia da Rocha, Faro, Portugal
€ 60-125
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Rio Arade
Estômbar, Algarve, Portugal
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Quinta Bonita
Lagos, Faro, Portugal
€ 100-199

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[ icon ] Alte
Algarve, Faro, Portugal
[ icon ] Salema Fishing Village
Algarve, Faro, Portugal
[ icon ] Quarteira
Algarve, Faro, Portugal
[ icon ] Vilamoura
Algarve, Faro, Portugal
[ icon ] Alvor
Algarve, Faro, Portugal

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[ icon ] Paradise in Portugal
Santa Clara a Velha, Beja, Portugal
Eclectic & International Cuisine
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