I Fell In Love With Portugal’s Algarve Region (And You Will Too)

Barbara’s New Life In The Algarve—“I’ve Never Been This Happy”

In all my years of travel, I had never been to Portugal until the Live and Invest Overseas conference in Carvoeiro in 2016.

For me and the Algarve, it was love at first sight.

The ocean has always been magic to this girl who grew up in Kansas, but the Algarve coast is the most magical I’ve seen anywhere. With its massive rock formations, it’s like something out of a science fiction movie… like something from beyond our world.

I have returned to the region for the third time, this time for the winter. I’m following Live and Invest Overseas’ advice and staying on through the least agreeable season. If I’m happy here in the Algarve through these winter months, I’ll be happy living here full-time.

For this visit, I have rented an apartment, again dutifully following Live and Invest Overseas’ recommendation that I should rent first before investing in a place of my own.

I’ve based myself in Lagos. This medieval town on the ocean has been a daily charmer with dazzling views of the ocean, dawn and dusk, as well as interesting city views, all of which I enjoy every day from my balcony.

Lagos is a small enough town that I can walk to everything I need and want, easily striking up conversations with others also out walking as well as with the shop keepers, who I have found mostly speak English. It is just so much fun for me to walk around this city. I never get tired of the cobblestoned streets and the old buildings with their decorative doors.

Saturday mornings are farmers’ market days. I load up on vegetables and then visit the bread lady, Virginia, before trolleying my goodies home.

I found my trolley at the Chinese store that has everything imaginable. This gets filled with produce at the farmers’ market, fish from the fish market, and wine and port.

With my trolley I’ve also brought home herb plants. My balcony herb garden has basil, mint, oregano, thyme, sage, Italian parsley, French tarragon, and dill plants. Every dedicated cook needs a little herb garden like this one.

When I was shopping for my herb plants the kindly gentleman watched when I was having trouble locating what I was looking for and then made a search for what he thought was the best plant to substitute. No words, just good will.

The smiling person behind the counter at the fish market or the grocery store will clean your just-caught-that-day fish completely, including the gills, if you but ask. They will also tell you how to prepare it and pack it in ice for the trip home.

The bread lady, Virginia, who speaks at least three languages, is solely responsible for my no weight loss despite all the exercise I am getting here. She wraps each loaf in plastic and ties it up with raffia, then inserts fresh-cut flowers or herbs into the package. Her breads and rolls are made with love and passion.

The woman ahead of me was buying a very long, thin loaf and explaining that she had lost 10 kg because as soon as she takes the bread home her two pre-school-aged children eat every bite of it.

Later a gentleman behind me jumped ahead in line to grab a loaf and then went back to his place. He explained he just could not bear to miss his favorite, bread with all manner of fruits in it.

The man was right. That bread sold out before I was able to get a loaf, and I had to wait until the next week to be able to try it. I wake up in the middle of the night yearning for Virginia’s olive and garlic loaf.

When I walk to the town square to sit and listen to the musician of the day, it has become my regular pleasure to buy a small bag of hot, roasted chestnuts. These come from the north of Portugal, and I buy them from a smiling, charming young man who will tell you all about them.

At one booth in the farmers’ market I counted 10 plastic buckets of olives—green, black, brined, in vinegar, in olive oil, with herbs, with garlic…

One has to but pause and a few are scooped into your hand to try.

The root vegetables look like they just came from the ground but are spotlessly clean. To show freshness, the leaves are left on, but then these are carefully cut off after you’ve purchased.

At the market recently I was tempted by an olive tree and an orange tree, both laden with fruit and shorter than me. What great additions they would be to my balcony garden, I thought. They would not fit in my trolley, though, so I just gazed longingly at them. Maybe I’ll figure a way to transport them next time.

At the market you can also shop for live chickens and rabbits. Unless I can find someone else to kill them, that option is out for me.

I’ve been living here now for a little more than two months, and, not counting the food carts and ice cream, I have yet to eat out. I am finding so much enjoyment in cooking the fresh food available and talking with the folks about new ways to prepare things.

This is such a healthy place—the air is healthy… the food is healthy… the people are healthy, happy, friendly, and peaceful.

My new friend Bruno manages a chain of wine and port stores here in the Algarve. It’s a family business that includes a vineyard. He and his staff are educating me, down to telling me what time of day the grapes are picked for each wine. They usually have about six different bottles of port to taste, including port from the turn of the century (that is, 1900).

I found a cheese I know as Bucheron but that is actually called something else I can neither spell nor pronounce. My trick for it, which I learned from a chef in Durham, North Carolina, is to marinate it in herbs, roasted garlic, and hot olive oil and then let it sit for days.

I took some in for Bruno’s staff as a thank you and an extra one for Bruno to take to his wife on her birthday. The vineyard has a guest house, so Bruno has invited me to come visit. He has even offered for a family member to drive me there. Their store in Tavira is run by a gentleman who has been there for 50 years, and he has offered a personal tasting while I’m there.

I told Natasha in the cork store that I needed sturdy, supportive walking shoes. She said she had none in my size but called another town and then told me to come back in two days. Sure enough, when I returned, Natasha had a pair of shoes waiting for me she that she called “orthopedic.” I call them cute in cork. They are making it easier to walk on the cobblestones.

There is an art gallery here in Lagos run by a Scottish woman who painstakingly pointed out the flaws in the bowl I bought from her on sale. This turned into an hour-long discussion that included a visit with her son’s fiancé.

When I was in Carvoeiro for the Live and Invest Overseas event in 2016, I met a young woman who was studying to be a naturopath with her mother, who also lives there. We met again in 2017, and I will go visit her later this month to see what Carvoeiro is like in winter. The app on my iPhone tells me that Lagos is 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Carvoeiro.

I’ve been here in Lagos since November. At Thanksgiving I received a surprise invitation to a traditional feast in a nearby town. I was delighted to go, of course, and there I met a couple from the United States living in Sintra.

Whoever would have imagined that at this stage of my life I would be eating turkey for Thanksgiving in Portugal, the meal catered by Germans, in the company of an ambassador stationed in Vienna, all of us seated al fresco alongside a heated swimming pool?

Not me, for sure. But this adventure is showing me that this is what life is all about.

And, honestly, it has all come together so much more easily than I even hoped.

I honestly cannot remember when I have been this happy.

Barbara Petrohan