The Moors of North Africa – Muslims who for centuries occupied the region – called it Al-Garb (hence Algarve), and it was the gateway to their possessions in Portugal and Spain. Portugal’s southernmost region, an area of 1,929 sq miles, with 96 miles of coastline on the Atlantic and year-round mild climate, is also where some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe are found – in 2017 alone the Algarve attracted 7.1 million tourists, and it is now Portugal’s main tourist destination.
In the summer, its year-round population of 450.000 residents is multiplied by three, when seasonal residents from central and northern Europe arrive to open their villas. They come for days and days of bright sun – it doesn’t rain in the summer – and are never disappointed.
The region is also increasingly being sought after as a permanent place to settle, mostly by Germans, Brits and Scandinavians, who flock to this paradise for its raw beauty, low prices and the friendly ways of the Portuguese people. There’s no terrorism, political strife or crime, either, even Americans feel safe here.
Until some 30 years ago, the Algarve was mostly known as a region of sleepy fishermen villages with great seafood. The local cuisine is still based in seafood, and in the Algarve it comes at amazing low prices: a dinner for two with drinks – and all the shrimps, fish and lobster one can eat – costs around 30 Euros, as opposed to 70 or 80 Euros elsewhere in Europe. And that’s all fresh from the fishing boats, not frozen from the grocery store.
Fishing and agriculture are still important, but with tourism the number one source of income, some things have changed – where small farms and local businesses once were, now there are big hotels, apartment buildings and supermarkets. Parts of the Algarve have clearly suffered from over development, but fortunately some others are still authentic and retain the relaxed ways of the Portuguese. And if you know where to go and what to avoid, the Algarve is one of the best places in Europe to enjoy life.
The East Algarve
My uncle Ivar, now living in Portugal, invited me to explore the Algarve with him, and I was delighted – it had been in my bucket list for a long time. I flew from Miami to Lisbon, we got a car, and on a rainy day in March we drove 3 hours south, on the excellent A2 highway (it’s no longer true that the roads in Portugal are bad, by the way), and at the end of the day arrived in Faro, the capital of the Algarve.
Faro has had many lives: it was 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 in Spain and Portugal. The Moors ruled it until 1492, when Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain sent them back to Africa, but left their mark in the architecture, language, music and food of the region. In Faro, this legacy is very visible.
Faro is also one of the few towns with a year-round buzz in the Algarve, thanks in part to students of the local university. It has the major airport in the province as well, and in the summer international flights come and go all the time. Positioned around a small marina, it’s mostly a modern city, but its historic Cidade Velha (Old Town) – partly surrounded by ancient walls, with cobbled streets and whitewashed houses – is a pleasant place to explore by foot. Interestingly, the area is a favorite of storks – they nest permanently on top of old churches and buildings, quite a site!
In the Old Town, beautiful examples of medieval, Baroque and Rococo Portuguese architecture remind people of Portugal’s wealth during the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was a colonial power and one of the richest countries in Europe. A striking example of this era is the Igreja do Carmo (Carmo Church), started in 1713 and decorated inside with gold leafs from Brazil. Not to be missed either is a somber – yet striking – Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), on the back of the church, with walls made of 1,245 human skulls of monks moved there from a nearby cemetery!
Almost right in the 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 it’s necessary to cross the barrier islands by ferry boat, quite 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. A big treat is to drive to the nearby mountains, where picturesque old towns on the hills feel like places where time has stopped. One such place is São Bras de Alportel, once Algarve’s major cork-producing center (Portugal 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 Bras life seems to go on the same way it has for centuries. Even the air feels fresher here, and if I’ll ever need a place away from it all to write a book, this 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.
Just like São Brás, in the quaint-town-on-the- mountain category, are Loulé, Almancil and Estói. Relaxing, charming and with good restaurants, these villages get very crowded in the summer, specially Loulé, an attractive market town and crafts center with Moorish origins. In quiet Estói, one can hear the birds even in its ‘busiest’ central square, not far from a luxury pousada (hotel), the Palácio de Estoi (Estói Palace), built by a local nobleman and completed in 1909. In the same area is Almancil, less charming than 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 happened here, and the area around it looks like suburbs of any big city. There is a small and charming old town, and the storks seem to love it, but if the real flavor of the Algarve is what you are after, move on to Tavira. That’s what we did.
Tavira is a different town altogether. Charming, quaint, with authentic Moorish architecture and cuisine, it 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. Nearby was the luxury hotel Pousada Convento Tavira, lodged in a frestored former convent which managed to keep its original charm. 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 is a favorite destination of the Europeans: even in march hordes of Brits got out of buses everyday, to fill bars and restaurants at night. “Is there anyone left in England”?, I asked my uncle. I suspect it must be hard to find a hotel or a place to eat, in the summer, so planning ahead is a must. Or visit it some other time of year; it’s a known fact that September and October are good months in the Algarve, with days still warm and not so many people.
To end our travel on the East Algarve, we drove to the border of Spain and the towns of Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo Antônio, historic fishing and commercial centers rebuilt after the major earthquake of 1755. Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans made use of the commanding views of the Guadiana River the towns offer, and the area was also a sanctuary for fugitives of the Inquisition set up by the Catholic church in the 16th and 17th centuries. Mostly modern, both are now 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 their colonies around the world. We didn’t cross the bridge, Spain will have to wait. Time was short and we had to turn around towards the West Algarve, the best-known part of the province, the one with the postcard beaches famous around the world.