The Western Algarve and the Alentejo Coast

It’s taken an age to write this blog up, what with my fledgling fiction career kicking off and planning my wedding (this September!). But here we are. It was late February. A late Carneval this year and it couldn’t come soon enough. As ever, we had a precious long weekend, and so we decided to make the best of it. The plan was a road trip to Sagres, in the Algarve, and then to drive back up the Alentejo coast, with a stopover in Vila Nova de Milfontes.

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Despite being the end of winter, we were lucky enough to wake up to a bright, sunny day and so we jumped into my girlfriend’s car and hit the highway. It being a holiday weekend, there was a fair amount of traffic, but nothing too drastic and, some hour or so after crossing the 25th April bridge, we were a little peckish, stopping off in a tiny place in the Alentejo for a bite to eat. We rolled into a tiny village called Castro Verde and walked in what was by then quite blazing sun, to the top of the village and a restaurant called, simply, Castro.

Inside was a wonderfully experience, huge portions of outstanding food, with decent wine to accompany it and very reasonable prices. How I love Alentejo. I ate Carne a Alentejana, a pork steak dish, served with razor clams and, in this restaurant, a huge king prawn. Ana had a steak which was, happily for her, cooked rare. Both were delicious. We finished up with a toucinho do ceu (a heavy egg-based cake, that was a bit too much for me) on the part of my partner and a petit gateau with red fruits and ice cream for me. With wine and coffee, we paid a little under forty euros in total.

There was very little else to see in the town, besides an old building with a particularly interesting wooden tower as part of the architecture. After looking at this, we were back on the road and it was a full two and a half hour slog down to Sagres.

When we arrived in Sagres, it was late afternoon and, at the end of winter, in a place that is so far south, the sun was already setting. Luckily, that meant a spectacular sunset out over the ocean. Sagres’ location, at the southwestern most point of the country means that there is only perhaps 75 kilometres between you and the northern tip of Africa. Too far to see, but the water rolls away, seemingly forever, from the horizon. The Pousada (a traditional hotel network from the early twentieth century) is wonderfully located, right on the rocky cliffs. They’ve also made an effort to keep artificial light to a minimum, making for spectacular sunsets and starlight. The pousada itself is the long, low, white building, featured in many of the photographs.

After freshening up and a bit of a walk on the cliffs, it was time to go and find dinner. The only problem with visiting Sagres – really a small town, relative to its Algarvian neighbours, Lagos, Faro, etc – in the winter, is that many restaurants were closed. We hunted down a few which came recommended, only to find the lights out. Eventually, we stopped at a place called Restaurant Carlos, where we had a really excellent seafood rice to share, packed with crab, lobster prawns, clams and muscles and a refreshing bottle of white wine to wash it down with. This place was a little more expensive, but food and service were both excellent. After the meal we were given a complimentary shot of local acorn liqueur. I’m not sure I’d try it again, but it was an experience!

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Breakfast in the morning, at the Pousada was excellent, with homemade jams, cakes and more alongside the usual variety of international hot food, pastries, cereals and fruit. The coffee was also good, graças a Deus. I have no pictures, though. After breakfast it was a quick shower and then quite the agenda for the day. First was to explore Sagres and, specifically, the old fortress (fortaleza). We walked through the small town for about twenty five minutes to find the fort and the facade is highly impressive the moment you arrive. There is a huge space out the back with a lighthouse, rocky outcrops here and there which are dominated by local fishermen trying their luck and a small chapel, dedicated to ‘our lady of the sea.’

The fort is very cheap to enter and I hugely recommend it. There’s one more interesting thing to be found inside, which is a musical instrument, played by the sea. There are porous caves underneath the peninsula on which the fort and its territory stands so, using the force with which the tide pushes air through the rock, a channel was made a and huge wind instrument was built. You walk inside via a maze like path and then stand over a grate, where a low pitched, thunderous tone blasts you from below. The wind, as well as the sound, is quite something. Take a look at the video, below.

From here, it was back in the car to visit Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape St Vincent). It is the westernmost point of continental Europe and was a place where the Romans once thought you could sail off the edge of the flat earth and into oblivion. There isn’t much there other than a lighthouse, but the views up the coast into the Alentejo – our next destination – were more than worth it.

After a quick stop to look at some hand crafts, it was back on the coastal road, up to Vila Nova de Milfontes. There were no stops on the way, besides one to allow a farmer to march his cattle across the road. An hour and a bit later we were rolling into Vila Nova de Milfontes where we would stay for the night. We decided to explore the town a little, before dinner. The town is situated on the banks of the river Mira, immediately before it washes out into the Atlantic. The result is that there are beautiful river beaches, as well as a dramatic ocean beach, where the freshwater meets the ocean, sometimes violently. We stayed at the hotel Mil Reis, a small but immaculately kept town house B&B, right in the heart of the town. Our room was one of the smaller ones, but we didn’t plan to spend too much time indoors, so it was fine. We stopped in another local restaurant, where we ordered fresh seafood. In my case, fried monkfish and for Ana a seafood açorda, a dish with old bread, mashed up with vinegar, coriander and seafood. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.

The next morning, with better light, we decided to drive around the to headland you can see in the dark photo, to take a look at the beach. The tide was coming in as we strolled along, the speed of it nearly catching us out, so we had to dash back across and climb back to the cliffs. The force of the ocean coming in to the beach was really something to behold.

After our little beach trip, it was time to head home, but on the way, we had decided to stop at two places, the first of which was Ilha do Pessegueiro (Peach tree island). This is a place with great views, a lovely beach and the island itself, facing another, smaller sandstone fort. It’s a place so famous that there was even a song written about it. When we arrived though, a storm was brewing and seemed to have stationed itself directly over the island. It made for quite a dramatic effect. On the shore, next to the fortress, there are great slabs of volcanic rock from a time long ago in the past, with trenches carved into them. Whether these are man made or natural, I have no idea, but they certainly added to the impression the place made on me.

After a short time walking here, we were back in the car and up to our last stop before heading home to Lisbon – Porto Covo. I’d heard it was a beautiful place but I wasn’t prepared for the dramatic ocean that we would find there. We arrived some twenty minutes after leaving peach tree island and decided the first priority was lunch. We passed a few restaurants and decided to opt for Restaurante Zé Inácio. We were not disappointed.

We started off with some razor clams ‘à Bulhão Pato’ – it literally means quarrelsom duck, but that has nothing to do with it. They are served in a sauce of olive oil, garlic and coriander and, when they’re fresh like these were, it just works. For main courses we had some really outstanding steak, with excellent side dishes. As Ana was driving, she drank a coke, while I had a half carafe of local red wine (which was delicious). We both had dessert and coffee and the total cost was a measly forty-five euros, all included. We left the restaurant very happy.

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After lunch, it was time to go down to the sea. And what a sight it was. The town of Porto Covo itself is typical of its seaside location. There are the white and blue buildings, the wide, sea facing streets and the cafés, restaurants and boat hire places you’d expect. But the cliffs and the rushing ocean you see when you reach the seafront, you don’t expect. I’ll let the pictures and video speak for themselves.

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Can you find me in the picture?

After watching the ocean for half an hour, with the sun almost down, it was time to hit the motorway and head home.

This is a trip that comes highly recommended from me. It took us three days, but you could probably relax a little more, if you had a bit more time.

If you are interested in exploring Portugal or specifically the Algarve or Alentejo regions, I heartily recommend the guide books linked below. Any purchases made here will kick back a few cents to me for my next trip. Thanks in advance and happy travelling!

 

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Tavira – The ‘Other’ Algarve

My first weekend off work in almost four months, so what on Earth was I doing not just out of bed, but in a train station at 8:00 on a Friday morning. Of course, it was time for another adventure. I don’t know how it happens with my readers, but whenever I go to a train station and need to buy my ticket from a human being, I invariably have to wait for my 50 second transaction by people who take so unfeasibly long to get through their business, that I imagine them asking questions like: “so this train, what’s that?” or “which is quicker..?” and then producing a list of 40 or 50 different options for their journey. But anyway, with a couple of minutes to spare, I made my way to the front of the line, submitted my simple request – to the salesman’s relief – and headed up to platform four or Entrecampos station to wait for my train.

More or less bang on time, the Alfa Pendular to Faro rolled in. It was to be my first time on this, the flagship train of the Portuguese network. Even at that ungodly hour and with limited coffee propping my eyelids open, I was fairly excited to jump on board. I pretty swiftly found my seat, got settled with my magazine and we were off. The train took off, speedily charging through Alcantara and sweeping out across the 25th April bridge. I gave Lisbon a wave goodbye and by a quarter to nine, we were speeding through Setubal and onward to the south.

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Owing to the raft of people who didn’t know how to interface with a ticket office, I’d been unable to buy any refreshments for my journey before boarding and my experience of such disasters on British trains had taught me that I was in store for an unpleasant and expensive pseudo coffee and water which cost more per millilitre than molten gold. Thankfully, this is Portugal and for only 3 Euros, I returned to my seat equipped with a decent cup of coffee, an orange juice and a bottle of water for later. I got comfy and read my magazine, occasionally glancing out at the countryside roaring past my window or left, up to the LED speedometer, informing me of our rapid rate of advance – often around 235kph. In what seemed like a very short time, we rolled in to Albufeira and, finally, Faro.

The last time I’d been here, I was 9 years old. On my first family holiday abroad, landing at the then still quite new Faro airport and staying in the British micro colony of Praia da Rocha. It had been lovely as a 9 year old boy, sunshine, scorpions (which I cruelly poked with sticks at every opportunity) and warm(ish) sea. But in retrospect, it was something of a hellish vision. For all the beauty of the beach, with it’s starkly cut rock-grandeur and the mildness of the climate, it was exactly the kind of Brits-abroad chicken burger fest I was hoping to avoid. So this time, I jumped off the train and took my extra 26 years of wisdom on to a train east. To Tavira.

Inifinitely less finessed and filled to bursting with (mainly) Portuguese tourists, our ageing little train pulled out of Faro station within a matter of minutes and started the gentle stroll along the coast, hugging the water as it went. As if a metaphor for the slower pace at which every element of life chugs along here, in the heart of the Algarve region, no-one – myself included – seemed to mind the trains slow and steady progression through Olhao, and other places, finally stopping off at Tavira. A large handful of us jumped off and, with a quick consultation of my map, I was off down a street named after a doctor, towards the heart of town. A leisurely 10 minute stroll, and a couple of beautifully flowered squares later, and I was buzzing my way in to the Tavira B&B.

A quick chat with the owner, a quicker change out of my jeans – it was a full 10 degrees hotter than Lisbon – and I was out and off to a recommended local restaurant to try some fish. I was, after all, on the Mediterranean/Atlantic coast. I found myself in the Avenida restaurant. Described to me as being just like it was 30 years ago, it seemed like it was a restaurant from 30 years ago, whcih was just fine with me. I ordered some bread and olives to start and my travelling companion ordered a plate of mixed grilled fish, while I had octopus and vegetable stuffed pancakes, simply because I’d never even heard of such a combination before. The olives were obviously local, the main courses excellent and the bill, considering we were now well and truly in tourist country, during the Easter weekend no less, was more than acceptable.

With lunch done, it was time to wander a bit. Tavira is a really tiny place and consists of just a small few streets on one side of the river, with a further few across the other side. With much of the old town on the side nearest the station, I decided that was the best place to explore first. At the bottom of the main road into town, you are abruptly stopped by a pedestrian zone, which backs on to the river. In the middle is a column, with a water feature to one side with cafés and restaurants dotted around. It’s from here that, if you bear left, you can walk up one of the oldest streets and find the old castle.

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Beyond the stairs, you end up at a community culture centre, where an enthusiastic woman came out to tell me, in beautiful English, about the programme of culture and music they had for the weekend. I thanked her for the information and walked on up a narrow street of near identical whitewashed buildings, but for one with a door with a cute piece of street art on it. Every now and then a glorious view would peek at you from between the buildings on the left, as you got higher up over the city.

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Reaching the top of the hill, I saw that there was a camera obscura here. While unable to take any photos inside, for obvious reasons, it was a really nice thing to do, especially as I’d never been in one before. I found myself regularly forgetting it was a live picture of the city, projected onto the lens in front of me and then, as a person moved, the realisation hit me squarely in the face again. The lady giving the tour also a slightly vicious way with the cane she was using to point to different landmarks, so I made sure not to make too much eye contact. The other really nice thing about it was that it was set up inside the old water tower. A great way of utilising architectural heritage in an effective way.

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From here, I wandered the streets at the upper end of the city, looking for the way in to the castle. When I eventually found it, I was quite amazed to see that the entire centre coutryard had been turned into a beautiful flower garden. There were several men at work even as I walked around, keeping everything pristine, and I’m really not sure that any of my photos do any of the flower beds justice. I was also able to climb up various sections of the battlements – no British-style health and safety here, folks – and the rugged nature of the ruined parts, destroyed like so much in Portugal in the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755, was quite a sight.

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Love the sentiment, but that grammar... yuck!
Love the sentiment, but that grammar… yuck!

With the castle fully inspected, it was time to cross the Roman Bridge over the river and to take in the views from the tallest building in the city, the only high rise hotel, which had been recommended to me by the cane wielding woman in the camera obscura. As the only multi storey building in a city of duplexes and bungalows, you might fear that the Porta Nova hotel would be something of a monstrosity, but happily enough, it’s quite elegantly put together and sits behing much of the riverfront property, on a little plateau, so it doesn’t look too bad at all. I walked in and sat at the pool garden bar out the back and had a beer before the cocktail bar on the roof opened. When it did, I jumped in the lift and made my way to the 10th floor, for a quite breathtaking view over the city.

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After a few minutes of staring out over the horizon, I went back down and walked through the town, past the Roman bridge and the huge Irish bar opposite, past some really interesting architecture, including one huge, arched building, of which all but the facade has completely caved in.

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After the walk, I was beaten. So, suffering with a cold – always during the holidays!!! – and having woken up stupidly early, I retired for a nap. In the evening, I went to a Portuguese Goan restaurant, ordered the firiest thing on the menu to chase away my running nose and beat a hasty retreat back to bed.

Friday started with two pieces of excellent news. The forecast cloud cover existed only in my weather app’s imagination and my cold had indeed been beaten into submission by the brute force of chilli and ginger. I went out onto the B&B’s lovely terrace for breakfast with a smile on my face and tucked into my melée of cheeses, hams and breads, washed down with Algarve orange juice and powerful coffee. After a quick shower and remembering to put my swimming shorts under my regular shorts, it was off to the town and the trip to the beach. A quick covering of sunblock, making sure my book was in my bag and I was off.

Tavira is a city where the beach is actually somewhat disconnected from the city itself. The river flows all the way down to a small inlet of water that sits behind a small ‘island’ which separates it from the sea. The easiest way to get there is to board a ferryboat at a pier, just along from the Roman bridge, next to the old fish market, now a food hall for artisan local cuisine. But as I arrived, there was some commotion. The boat, it seemed, was not running, other than every 2 to 3 hours, as it was not yet high season. So it was a 2km walk down to the jetty, where boats still left every 15 minutes or so, even at this time of the year. At first it seemed like a hardship, but the pleasant weather, sea breeze and the chance to get a closer look at the thing that Tavira was originally founded for – salt mines – made it quite an enjoyable walk.

Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years
Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years

Arriving at the jetty, after a 30 minute walk, I bought my ticket for the unbelievably low price of 1.50 Euros and boarded the waiting boat. I watched a crab acrobatically climb along a wooden pillar belonging to the pier at water level while the boat filled up with other tourists and then we were off. The short glide across the still water to the island was quick and before long we were at the huge beach island, dotted with huts and small houses which people from far away evidently used as holiday homes.

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Jumping off the boat and wandering through scrubby pathways among the trees, I saw a huge number of these little holidays homes and, after a few minutes, passed by a row of restaurants and cafés, before coming to a huge stretch of beach. Way down to the right was the beginning of the national park – the Ria Formosa – home to a huge number of northern Europe’s migratory birds during the cold season – but before that was an enormous stretch of beautiful sand. I put down my towel, read my book and relaxed, just what was needed. I also afforded myself a wander, a very brief splash in the freezing cold Atlantic water and a lunch at one of the grill restaurants – at less than 20 Euros, including a huge caneca (mug) of beer, not bad for a resort town. There are also a couple of attractively painted lighthouses, dotted along the coastline. Despite the fabulous weather, there were surprisingly few people on the beaches. The lady who owns my B&B told me that the resort has become really choked during July and August in recent years, but in April, it’s just perfect for a relaxing break.

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After catching the boat back and finding something for dinner, I had a few drinks in a couple of different bars, mostly half full and not holding any tourists, due to the season. Eventually, I found a hugely lively place, full of locals, playing Pink Floyd loudly and filling glasses with whatever you wanted for very little money. It was a great, friendly atmosphere, in spite of my limited Portuguese. I sadly can’t recall seeing any sign for the name of the place, but it was just along from the bridge, on the castle side and was certainly the night life highlight. Before I knew where I was, it was 3am and I was just 7 hours away from my bus to Faro, to connect with my train home and it was time for bed. But for Tavira and I, it was definitely not good bye, but more “See you later”.