Dan MacCarthy goes to the Algarve on the southern end of Portugal to discover a more energetic side of the perennially popular holiday region.
Guide par excellence, Joao, says Portugal was once known as the kingdom of Portugal and the Algarve. This Lusitanian duality gives the region a distinct identity, a feeling of being a place in its own right, and one proud of its Moorish heritage. Most Portuguese names starting with ‘al’, are Moorish in origin — Algarve, Albufeira. Alvor and Moorish castles feature on the national flag.
The Algarve of course has been a magnet for sunseekers and latterly the stag and hen party clientele. But there is a lot more going on.
The airport at Faro is part of a nature reserve known as Parque da Ria Formosa. A magnificent wetland where flamingos glide by to their nests. A lengthy sand spit protects the lagoon network from the Atlantic.
A great base for the western Algarve is the town of Alvor, once much more important as a port than its now bigger neighbour Portimao. and it has another stunning area of wetland which is now a protected area.
It can be accessed from the town by an excellent boardwalk which extends for several kilometres above the marshland and beach, (see far right). The beach, Praia de Alvor, has peculiar sea stacks that provide a surreal backdrop for swimmers and walkers.
With Islam getting a bad press lately it is easy to forget its magnificent heritage in astronomy, mathematics and art. A rich seam of architecture (decaying castles, chimneys, doorways, ironwork) is a monument to secular islam.
It is a heritage Portugal proudly displays. On the architectural theme, the rustic area of Mexilhoeria Grande, north of Portimao has a lovely old world charm: brightly coloured traditional houses, Roman ruins and intricate mosaic tile patterns. Given a month, you couldn’t avail of all the Algarve has to offer.
And in the extreme south-west of Portugal, and Europe, is Sagres — a very popular spot with divers for the huge waves. Quality whale-watching is also available.
What to do
Cristina from Megasport meets me at the airport with her accomplice Joao. She has devised new tracks and routes for cyclists in the entire Algarve. You can hire a guide or they can be self-guided where you get a pack with details of your accommodation. Included is a GPS device for exact references on your trip.
The company will pick your bags up at the airport and bring them to your hotel. All you have to do is change at the airport and you can cycle straight away if you wish. They have a large variety of bikes including electric. You can hire a good quality touring bike for €12 per day for the week or €20 for the day.
So with planes booming overhead we cycle the perimeter fence of the airport on a specially designed clay track. Soon we arrive at the salt flats where a digger is scooping up the last of the season’s salt destined for the dinner tables of Tipperary and Toulouse.
Huge heaps of the white stuff resemble snow from afar. We push on and soon arrive at the fishing area of Ilha de Faro where old men and women forage for clams.
A bockety wooden track leads through the sand-dunes past people’s front doors where some washing is left to dry on a bush or a barrel gathers rainwater drop by drop. This is part of the Ecovia which runs 214km from the extreme south-west of Portugal (and Europe) to the Spanish border.
It is a birdwatcher’s nirvana: several species of eagle, black-shouldered kite, the Eurasian spoonbill and woodpeckers.
There is a huge variety of mini trips or larger trips that can be arranged on various sections of the Ecovia, including a seven-night tour of the Algarve coast; the sweet water tour; Barril’s beach tour; salty tour and valley tour.
The jewel in the crown of the Algarve’s adventure appeal is the 310km Via Algarviana (GR13). A twisting track that meanders through some stunning countryside.
We pick up the trail in the village of Alte where an information board lays out the route and what we might expect to see along the way. We amble down a lane through small farms.
Along the way we pass orange trees laden with the fruit; lemons; olives; figs; pomegranates; and the carob tree from which is produced a very tasty liqueur.
We are walking this section but it is just as suitable for mountainbiking. It is very quiet which is surprising considering the quality of the track. A leisurely, undulating walk with moderate elevation brings us through the hills to the town of Salir— a beautiful whitewashed mountain town.
Of course the entire section of the Via Algarviana can be attempted, or just smaller sections of it. A network of trains and buses links the towns.
It’s not everyday you get a chance to kayak to a Roman town but the Clube Naval de Portimao, based at the quays in Portimao, (also the site of an awardwinning maritime museum), run kayak tours up the river Arade to the town of Silves.
For this dodgy kayaker my guide Eduardo was very reassuring and soon we crossed the choppy waters of the estuary into the Algarve interior.
You cross under four main bridges carrying east-west traffic on the Algarve. Along the riverbank there are remnants of Portimao’s once thriving shrimp industry, now sadly in decline. The river meanders up to a narrowing point where the waters are much calmer.
As we approach Silves with its 5-arched Roman bridge, cattle egrets and grey herons gracefully land and take off. We take a motor boat back to base - kinda cheating but a 12km kayak isn’t bad going for a beginner!
How to get there
Ryanair from Cork to Faro. Direct flights from €40 one way depending on the season. Direct flights also from Dublin, Shannon and Kerry airports.
Where to stay
Four-star hotel: www.aquapedradosbicos.com
Apartments: Apartamentos Mónica Isabel Beach Club
Three-star holiday village: email@example.com
Four-star hotel/ apartments: www.hotelalvorbaia.com
Where to eat
The city has as many restaurants as Faro has clams but the packed Tres Palmeiras presided over by genial host Joao (our third Joao) stands out. A plate of cataplana de mexilhao goes down well with a bottle of the local white wine.
The Algarvian region had played second fiddle to the Alentejo region up the road and Dao near Lisbon but its reputation is growing.
Olhos de Agua— adjacent to town. For a great homely meal with the Atlantic practically lapping at your feet, try O Caixote on the seafront. For an evening meal in the heart of the action try Cais Velho in Albufeira.
Bar O Arco Da Velha on the seafront of Alvor is really charming. Huge varieties of fish are served as boats bob up and down on the tide outside the window. The waiters with sleeves rolled up and sailors’ caps, look like they’ve stepped straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel. In the corner, an old dude on an accordion raps out some melodies.
Taberna Ze d’Anica is a great old world restaurant in the heart of Alvor. A display of the owner’s family portraits gives you an idea of Portugal’s genteel past. The food, predominantly fish, is cooked with such care, it’s as if it was specially caught for you.
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