This winter, we spent a few days exploring the Algarve. We chose to do so in the off season intentionally so we could explore the area sans traffic and with relatively few tourists accompanying our sight seeing. We were not disappointed.
The Algarve of Portugal is not just the place you may have seen in pictures. It has varied landscapes and different vibes as you travel across it. The eastern end of the region hosts many flat sandy beaches, marshes and tidal pools while the western end hosts the cliffs promoted in postcards, tour books and websites. Think Cape Cod vs. Oregon coast.
We began our tour in Vila Real de Santo Antonio. We chose the Grand House and it was, as billed, grand. We arrived early evening and were hosted in the bar, restored to its original state from 1926 and then were served our dinner with literal white gloves on hands, as we overlooked the marina and because it was offseason, this entire experience was afforded us at a reasonable rate. Vila Real de Santo Antonio sits on the Guidiana river on the border of Spain. For a few Euro you can take the short passenger ferry across and wander around Ayamonte, which we did. The church in Ayamonte is quite something and they were playing beautiful symphonic music while we were there.
Back to Vila Real de Santo Antonio, the city was built from scratch to replace a settlement across the river which was destroyed after the 1755 earthquake by the Marques de Pombal who also led the rebuilding efforts in Lisbon after that same earthquake. This type of town is known as Pombaline because of its central square from which the city spreads on a grid (and a tip of the hat to its designer, the Marques).
Not far to the west sits Cacela Velha. This tiny village overlooks some small barrier islands, has a church and a few restaurants and is a trip back in time to the days of the 1283 (of course it is believed to have been a stop along the trade routes of the Phoenicians and Greeks and Roman ruins have been found here from before its more recent upgrade in the 13th century). The population, according to Lonely Planet, is a booming 127, but the government has committed funds to improvements to attract more Portuguese to move to the area, so that could grow. Grab a bite or just wander around, its worth a quick stop on your way west. No dramatic cliffs here, the long windswept beach is surrounded by marshes and at low tide the fishing boats rest on the beach awaiting the high tide’s return.
We stopped in Albufeira for lunch. Melissa was interested in this place because she’d read its the resort town where the Portuguese visit on vacation. The old town is kind of cool and the beach is dramatic, but it did feel a bit “gold coast of Spain” to us, which isn’t exactly our thing. If its yours, you’ll love it.
We spent a couple of nights in Lagos, about which we wrote here, so we won’t repeat ourselves in this post.
We completed our journey west with a brief stop for breakfast in Sagres, almost to the very southwestern tip of Portugal. It was rainy, foggy and misty but we loved it. It felt very very off season and very sleepy. Granted, we were there around 10am. We will definitely be back for a full visit to explore it. It felt a little like a Portuguese version of a coastal New England town in Maine during December.
We plodded north on back roads through some of the most lush, green landscape we’ve seen in Portugal so far. Winding our way over hills and small mountains, hugging the coastline, we ended our Algarve tour at its northern border with the Alentejo region in the small town of Odeceix. A small windmill (the moinho), which was built in 1868, looks down upon this village supervising its daily life. There’s a hike to the windmill through the village and a 15k trail from the village to the beach both of which we will definitely be back to check out when we have more time and come to stay for a few days on our next trip to the Algarve.
To sum up, the Algarve has vastly different landscape from end to end, some large bustling vacation towns, some smaller villages, stunning cliff enshrouded beaches or long windswept ones and in its inner areas small farms and villages, winding trails through mountains and green hills, pastures and fields reminiscent of Ireland (at least in December). There was a lot to take in over just a few short days but we’ll be back.