I climb up the steep stone steps from a sunny, cobbled square to Café Ingles, a bistro style café high on the hill in the shadow of the old Moorish castle, overlooking the ancient town of Silves in the Algarve of Portugal. The café is a popular hangout for European expats and tourists who come for delicious Sunday lunch, live music and conversation in the laidback atmosphere and perfect weather. It is typical of the relaxed, inexpensive lifestyle that can still be found along the Mediterranean coastline of southern Portugal, one of the reasons for the huge surge in tourism in recent years. There's a mixture of English, American and local accents at the surrounding tables with a smattering of German and Russian, and I even spot a GO Newfoundland tee-shirt
The delicious lunch of a melon and prosciutto ham appetizer, roast pork with all the trimmings, and a massive bowl of strawberries and cream, followed by lively entertainment from the Paulo Bandeira Trio, a Brazilian group, is a fitting end to my two week holiday visiting the Algarve.
Bordering both the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans, the Portuguese Algarve, is rich in history, and reflects the many cultures that have arrived on its shores through the centuries. There's a distinctly North African atmosphere in this most southerly point of Europe, colourful, sunny and relaxed. Portugal was once the greatest maritime nation in the world, and Portuguese the most widely spoken language. Henry the Navigator led the Portuguese conquest of Morocco from the Algarve while Portugal itself was occupied by many nations from the Romans and Moors to the Spanish and English. Now, after years of obscurity and decline under a dictatorship government, with Portugal's entry into the EU, Europeans and North Americans are rushing to snap up holiday villas and condos while prices are still lower than in neighbouring Spain. Real estate is booming and urbanization is everywhere, but the charm of old Portugal with its North African influences is being eroded as it becomes one of the most popular tourist regions in Europe. The face of the country is rapidly changing. Come while you can and explore the towns and villages of a disappearing world. Some sights and sounds that will linger long after my return:
- Silves Castle, has dominated the skyline for centuries, a stronghold of Roman, Arab, Muslims and Spanish occupiers. Restored in 1940, you can walk around the ramparts for wonderful views of the surrounding countryside and archaeological digs have uncovered many structures in the inner courtyards, including a twelfth century dwelling and a granary
- The Gothic Cathedral, and interesting old streets in the town.
- The colourful centennial Carnival celebrations at Loule, one of the largest of many festivals taking place all over Portugal during Lent. Thirty thousand people throng the main thoroughfare as giant floats and lively music fill the air.
- Browsing in the tiny shops amidst a winding, pedestrian mall with its decorative "casada" walkway, paved with distinctive patterned inlaid tiling unique to Portugal, which enjoys a long tradition of ceramics - where I bought fine leather shoes for only 15 Euros. Leather and pottery are the best buys here, but explore the side streets for the best bargains, like the tiny shop in a cobbled back alley where an old fellow decorates and fires his wares in the back of his dark little shop and sells them for a song at the front. A hard way to make a living and customers were few but for 7.50 Euros, I purchased a unique hand-painted pottery cream and sugar set. A way of life you won't find elsewhere.
- The wonderful decorative tiling everywhere, in casada pavements, in the churches, on old cottages and new luxury villas, and the fascinating day I spent at a tile painting workshop with my cousin, even producing some painted tiles of my own.
- The drive up into the hills to the top of Monchique mountain, through peaceful rolling countryside untouched by time with lush orange groves, olive trees, palms, tropical vegetation and ancient white farm houses dotting the landscape, many now being restored as holiday villas. Wrinkled old women operate roadside orange stalls and tiny hamlets like Porca Preta, tucked away in the valley overlooking magnificent views host amazing art exhibitions of local talent. Already an ugly holiday development has sprung up in the hilltop town of Monchique, so come in spring before the tropical sun turns the lush landscape brown and the holiday crowds spoil the calm.
- Fishing villages along the coast like Ferragudo with its sheltered harbour and winding alleys with traditional two roomed fisherman's cottages, many painted blue or pink with fancy trim and wrought iron porches, now renovated as cosy holiday homes or Alvor, with its magnificent beach and tiny shopping street, the harbour a safe haven for modern yachts and colourful fishing boats. Fishermen lounge in the sun beside their boats and in a sunny spot on the harbour front in a tumbledown fishing hut, bright with flowers; Maria, a healthy looking weather tanned octogenarian and lifelong resident of the village, sits among the fishing nets and tackle threading 1500 fish hooks, to be boxed for the next fishing expedition. Each box takes her two days; it is how she makes a living, a glimpse of old Portuguese life and along with the herring industry, part of a vanishing culture.
- The Port of Lagos, with historic links to Henry the Navigator, its ancient city wall, built after a tsunami swamped the town; colourful fishing boats at anchor, locals clustered in the large central square, an interesting museum and richly ornamented church, and designer shopping boutiques. Portugal as I always imagined it.
- The lovely coastline between the towns and villages, with magnificent cliff walks, red sandstone headlands and secluded coves and beaches, where seabirds and swallows swoop overhead and wild freesias grow among the giant cacti and palm trees.
- Last but not least, the sparkling white million dollar villas and holiday homes, owned by the Portuguese nobility and the newly rich of Europe nestled on the cliff tops with magnificent views of the wide blue yonder, and a lifestyle to match.
That's not to say there isn't everything a fun loving vacationer looks for in the Algarve.
New villa, condo and shopping developments abound and with a casino at Portimao, water parks and lovely golf resorts like Villa Sol near Albufeira which has a tournament level golf course, elegant clubhouse and new state of the art spa on the 15 acre property - the Algarve has it all.
Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in southwestern Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers
If you go
Faro is the airport for the Algarve, and there are a few direct flights from Canada in season, or fly via New York, London, Lisbon, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Accommodation varies from luxury villas and apartments which start at about $1200 a week. Some resorts have long stay packages, or a small beachfront hotel can be had for about 100 Euros a night, depending on the season. Prices are generally a bit cheaper than other destinations in southern Europe but they change quickly so check websites for current rates. Shopping and eating is usually cheaper than other tourism destinations and English is widely spoken. Generally, a car is necessary and driving is on the right, but watch out for the Portuguese drivers!
For information: www.visitportugal.com
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