Discover The History And Beauty Of Portugal’s Algarve

This Former End Of The World Could Be The Start Of Your Dream Retirement Overseas

I remember with nostalgia the first cleaning woman we employed in the Algarve, more than 30 years ago. She arrived for work carrying a black umbrella against the sun, riding a donkey side-saddle.

Modes of transport have changed quite a bit since then, of course, with new roads and bridges sprouting up everywhere, so that today you are seldom much more than an hour’s drive from anywhere in this region of Portugal.

Heading westward, a four-lane highway now whisks visitors past the busy port town of Portimâo, with its excellent dockside restaurants serving freshly grilled sardines, to the old African slave market at Lagos, which gave its name to Nigeria’s principal city. Then on to the cape that runs out into the Atlantic at Sagres, Europe’s most southwesterly point. For the ancient Greeks it was the end of the known world, for the Romans the Sacred Promontory where the gods came down to earth.

Here Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator founded his famous sailing school, sending explorers westward to the New World and south round Africa to bring back spices from the east. Today tourists roam these perilous cliffs, listening to the ocean roaring through subterranean caves beneath their feet.

Travelling eastward, the same road skirts the Foia mountain, which, by shielding the Algarve from Northern Europe’s cold and rain, explains its warm and sunny climate.

Turn off and drive up to the summit, with its NATO radar station and spectacular views along the coast as far as Spain or north to Lisbon on a clear day. En route, you pass the delicious fresh-water springs at Caldas de Monchique and then the village of Monchique itself where Portuguese missionaries once came for rest and recuperation after years in the humid climes of India, China, and Africa.

Descending, the road runs through Silves where a mighty red stone Moorish castle dominates its surroundings before reaching the potteries at Porches, which offers a different taste of authentic Algarvian culture. Albufeira is the town the Beatles ruined when they invaded in the 1970s, bringing the waterslides and other tourist gimmickry that still damage this area today.

Farther east are the ruins of the often overlooked Roman villa at Milreu with its spectacular heated bathrooms, decorated with mosaics of wide-eyed fish frolicking in the foam. Then, at Estoi, a few minutes’ drive away, stands a remarkable Italianate Renaissance Bishop’s Palace, quite unlike any other Algarve building, now transformed into a Pousada, part of a recently privatized historic hotel chain.

Faro, the last big city before the Spanish border and the Algarve’s administrative center, has a bustling commercial exterior. But at its heart is a small, quiet medieval town, entered through imposing gates and with twisting cobbled streets surrounding a gothic cathedral. Raided by English privateers in the 16th century, the cathedral’s important library was hauled back to become a cornerstone of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

At Faro, the Algarve’s coastline changes. The rugged shoreline that began at Sagres with its combination of steep cliffs and secret, sandy coves gives way here to a flatter landscape marked by broad beaches protected by small offshore islets. The steady Atlantic winds, known as the barlavento, that blow over the Algarve’s west, often so strong they keep the land barren and treeless, give way here to gentler, warmer winds called the sotavento.

Along the Algarvian back roads, you may still stumble upon a gaily painted gypsy cart drawn by a donkey. But they are fewer and fewer. The gypsies used to be dealers in hand-made embroidered tablecloths and the local firewater, called Medronho. But these days they mostly sell pirated music and film CDs.

Paul Lewis


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