I am privileged to have visited most of the Algarve when over the years I took my children on holidays to learn more about our region and since then by accompanying my musician husband to his various concerts.
Whilst my Portuguese heart remains in Lisbon, I have grown fond of the Algarve where I have lived for 22 years. It is so different to the atmosphere and vibrancy of Lisbon and the way of life here is still relatively peaceful despite, over the years, the increase in tourism having had a major cultural and environmental impact on the area.
Did you know that in 2020 Portugal once again won the award for Europe’s leading destination and the Algarve won the leading beach destination? Tourism is now the Algarve’s main economic activity boosting the usual residential population by more than 50% to over a million in the summer months. However, it still remains an agricultural and fishing community that relies on its figs, almonds, oranges, carobs, olives, cork and wine. Along the beautiful coastline fishermen continue to bring in their catch to be sold in the local markets or served fresh in the many restaurants. For an area of 4996 sq. metres, the Algarve produces an abundance of varied produce!
We first visited the Algarve when our family bought a little house in Carvoeiro in 1985 when it was still a small fishing village. There were no supermarkets, not even in Lagoa which only in the 2000s opened the first of its existing four large supermarkets. We did all our shopping in the small grocery stores, which were often in a room, in the front of someone’s house and everyone knew each other. The produce was fresh, there was no foreign foodstuff and finding soft toilet paper was a challenge as it just did not exist unless you were prepared to pay a fortune for it!
Every day we went to the ‘padaria’ to buy the fresh bread rolls that melted in the mouth but which by the next day were hard and stale. A few freshly cut slices of ham and cheese for lunch and something for dinner and that was our daily shop. Now in one trip to a supermarket I am stocked up for a month. Whilst it is convenient, it is just not the same now.
It has saddened me to see Carvoeiro change over the years, with the increase in bars, restaurants and gift shops and the building of apartment blocks and resorts on every hill. I will not comment further on the horrendous metal posts along the pavements!!
No matter where we visit, in the Algarve, every town is similar with the typical one door, two windows, one storey white cottages with a colourful decorative fascia. Villages have grown into towns and towns into cities, yet at the heart of each you can easily get lost in the little cobblestone streets that make up these wonderful places and where the history and charm of the Algarve remains.
We have holidayed in the cooler western town of Aljezur with its famous sweet potato crops, castle and vast beaches popular with fishermen and surfers. We have stayed in towns all along the coastline, up to Alcoutim with its view across the river Guadiana and of Spain. However, I am not brave enough to take the 720 metres long world’s first cross- border zip line between the two countries, especially when I read you travel at 70 to 80 kms an hour!!
Both Aljezur and Alcoutim have an interesting castle as does my favourite city Silves. In my mind the concept of a city is one of high-rise blocks with busy streets and nothing could be further from the truth with the city of Silves. I love the view when I drive down into the ‘city’ and see the imposing castle and cathedral on the hill, just like they were hundreds of years ago. Lit up at night it takes my breath away. I can imagine the battles that took place there against the Moors! However, the only battles seen there now are of female tourists who unknowingly wear high heels and then struggle to walk up and down treacherously steep and slippery cobblestone streets. In Silves a visit to Café Inglês is a must. This beautiful café restaurant used to be the governor’s home and retains all its original charm. With incredible views across the town, a ‘secret’ garden nestled up against the ancient castle walls and great food, relaxing on one of the terraces, listening to my husband play Jazz there, is about as good as it gets!
I also like staying in Caldas de Monchique with its cooler weather, green woodlands and microclimate so different to the very arid Algarve. The Monchique water springs have been used therapeutically since Roman times and it is one of the world’s most naturally alkaline waters with a healthy desirable ph of 9.5.
Personally, I find it a bit ‘oily’ to drink but I do like swimming in its ‘thickness’ at the Monchique spa. A winding, sometimes scary drive up to remote Fóia, the Algarve’s highest point at 902 metres, affords a view (on a clear day) all the way to Cabo de São Vicente, Europe’s southwesternmost point.
Tavira is one of the most attractive cities in the Algarve. I like sitting in the park next to the River Gião that divides the city in two. The Moorish influence is clearly evident in the historic centre and worth seeing are 17th and 18th century houses, the Roman bridge and the idyllic golden beaches accessed by ferryboat. There are also many ornate churches and beautifully tiled house facades although nearby Olhão is the best place for seeing amazing, tiled facades and there too you can chill in one of the bars along the seafront listening to Jazz and watching the sun set over the sea!
Friends have laughed at me when we have been to stay in places not far from home but as I explained, time away in another place is a holiday and it does not have to be abroad or miles away. The closest to home we have stayed is literally five minutes down the road at a Golf resort (after winning a competition) and it was wonderful to stay in such a ‘posh apartment’. Afterall, if all you want to do is relax in comfortable surroundings with someone else doing the cooking and cleaning, what does it matter that it is on your doorstep?
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.