Always great to be back in Paradise!

I haven’t posted in ages . . .and that does not mean that the Algarve, aka Paradise, has not constantly been on my mind. It has been a busy year for me with many projects. And now I’m back in glorious Algarve for several months and am anxious to continue my explorations, to renew acquaintances, to discover anew as well as refresh & renew myself. Oh yes, and to write …write more restaurant reviews, finish my second Portugal food scenery book ‘Deciphering the Portuguese Menu’ and to finally get posting more on this blog.

Let’s start with a quick overview of my busy first week back. It has entailed several lovely meals, drives into the countryside, getting my kitchen stocked with essentials and treats, visits with local friends and spending time with some Canadian folks whom I’m meeting for the first time here in the Algarve, although we’ve been in correspondence for a long time via e-mail back in Canada. Funny how life works, sometimes, eh? You need to travel half-way round the world to connect in ‘real time’ with folks who live, quite literally, just around the corner.

Last Sunday I drove back into the hills near the village of Alte. The almond trees are in full bloom and I found one that had its trunk split, its branches fallen to earth, ladened with blossoms as the tree tries a last ditch effort to save itself. I was blessed to have captured this short video of the bees busy taking advantage of a bountiful source of nectar for honey making. I get there were nearby hives driven to madness with such a rich harvest of sweet almond nectar from which to create even sweeter honey!

My grilled swordfish steak, accompanied by freshly chopped garlic and boiled potatoes

My grilled swordfish steak, accompanied by freshly chopped garlic and boiled potatoes

A couple of days later I met up with some fellow Canadians for lunch in Fuzeta. Randy, Diane and Gwen are visiting to know the Algarve for the first time and are all thrilled with what they are discovering. The purposely chose an off the beaten track village in which to stay and can’t say enough good things about the folks they are renting from, the beauty of the landscape they’ve seen, the warmth of the people they’ve met, the quality of the food they’ve eaten and their overall experience here. These are 3 very seasoned world travellers and they can’t believe how great a time they’re having.

We lunched on fish. Swordfish steak for me, mackerel for the other Gwen and a white fish similar to sea bass for Diane. We were too busy yakking to remember to write down the name of the fish she selected! Ah, the joys of meeting friends on the road. Randy chose pork for his lunch and was very happy with his selection too.

It isn't often that you get two Gwens in the same photo!

It isn’t often that you get two Gwens in the same photo!

Next day these hearty explorers headed to Lagos for an overnight stay and were keen to get out to Cape St. Vincent. So I drove West and surprised them as they walked into town from the train station. I packed us a picnic lunch and after they found their small guest hotel we headed west, stopping en route at my favourite beach – a small, little known spot down a bumpy dirt track. I don’t provide directions, so don’t ask! It is mine, mine, mine – except for the campers who surf there. Surf was up, tide was in and we have a fabulous meal of cheese, bread, wine, strawberries and a bean spread I make.

Then it was off to the wild headlands that is Cape St. Vincent. Once again, it did not disappoint with its vast vistas of thundering sea against steep, wild cliffs, and miles of low growing scrubby vegetation. We were too early for the spring flowers and wild herbs that in a few short weeks will enliven the scenery with colour and fragrance. But we did see a few of the bright white, rose-like Cistus shrubs already in bloom. A promise of glories to come.

Diane jumps for joy as she explores this small but perfectly formed beach

Diane jumps for joy as she explores this small but perfectly formed beach

Tomorrow I am off on my weekly pilgrimage to Loulé farmer’s market. Can’t wait to see what’s for sale. It looks like early asparagus is available, plus broad beans and fresh winter peas. I’ll also likely buy myself a stash of farmhouse piri-piri sauce, a simple mixture of oil, ground chili peppers with a touch of lemon juice, plus a big bag each of local oregano and bay leaves. I plan on many tasty home cooked meals next week.

Stay tuned for more explorations and adventures. I’ve got a long list of people to visit on this trip, interviews to carry out, new places to explore, foods to talk about and activities to partake in.

Old men yakking it up - the act of 'geezering' is popular worldwide!

Old men yakking it up – the act of ‘geezering’ is popular worldwide!

My Algarve Insider Tips

Ten Reasons You Must Visit The Algarve

I’m always talking about the Algarve as a great travel experience everyone must have. Having traveled the world, it is the place that keeps calling me back. I especially love off-the-beaten track Algarve where I regularly get to experience a way of life and a landscape that is fast disappearing from our urbanized existence. It isn’t that I have anything against the golf, night clubs and shopping that most people associate with the Algarve. It is that I know it offers so very much more.

A few weeks ago I began to pay attention to what I highlight when I’m describing the Algarve to people. Here’s a summary of the top 10 reasons for visiting the Algarve that I repeatedly offer to folks who are looking for a great place to spend some quality time! You could also say that these are my tips for tourists visiting the Algarve.

10.  Variety/sq kilometre: landscape, architecture, food, culture, people

Vila Real’s grid plan central square was the design benchmark back in the 1760’s when it was re-built after the earthquake & tsunami

Wait til you taste the chourico stuffed rolls that come out of this wood fired oven in Caldas de Monchique

Each area of the Algarve offers different landscapes, different types of beaches, different activities, food specialties and cultural distinction. In the east, beaches are broader and backed by sand dunes, whereas as you move west you experience more small bays & coves backed by cliffs and grottos carved into the sandstone. And then there are the rugged, wild stretches along the west coast that have a completely different look and feel than their cousins along the south coast, whether east or west.

Move inland to the mountainous Monchique area and you are in rugged hill country where chouriço sausage and presento hams as well as the fiery local medronho brandy are food specialties, compared to the seafood and wine of the coastal areas. In a wet year you’ll find waterfalls pouring down hillsides and small streams that become rushing torrents. Cork forests are still very common back in the hill country, all across the region. Terraced farms are another interesting feature of the hills and contrast nicely with the open, gently rolling pastures of the coastal plains.

Tools traditional used in baking on display at Alcoutim’s Easter Sweets Fair

In eastern Algarve the Moorish chimneys are much more frequently topped with cockerels and wind vanes than you’ll find further west. You’ll also discover the river culture of Alcoutim and see how Vila Real de Santo Antonio adapts to living right next door to Spain. You’ll also find that the flatness, grid layout of Vila Real and its style of architecture is very distinct from other Algarvean towns.

Get out an explore the secondary roads to discover the diversity of this tiny region.

 

 9.     Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine

 

Watching sunshine sparkle on waves can take hours

In bright sunshine, colours pop, patterns emerge, people feel great

Grab a cuppa joe in one of the many cafes that dot the landscape

Sun sparkles on yet another gorgeous beach

 

The Algarve boasts 300+ days of sunshine each year. Even in the rainy season it is not unusual for the sun to shine much of the day with rain concentrated into a 2-3 hour period.

8.     Churches, castles, forts & monuments: 3,000+ years of history

 

One of the region’s more impressive standing stones

Remnants of a 3rd C Roman bath house near Estoi

Walk the ramparts at Silves Castle

Neolithic people settled in the Algarve way back in pre-history and you can still see evidence of their presence at various ‘megalithicos’ sprinkled around the region. Long before the Romans, the Phoenicians and even the Greeks visited the Algarve, leaving historical evidence.

While not extensive, there are some lovely Roman ruins around the region, especially at Milreu, near Estoi, just north of Faro.

Evidence of various Moorish invasions, the Knights Templar and other medieval visitors are everywhere. While local museums are pretty modest, the array of churches and fortifications is tremendous. You can even seek out a couple of chapels made out of human skeletons.

 7.   Activities:  swim, surf, hike, bike, ramble, fish, boat, run, birdwatch, kayak, bowl

Think of an outdoor activity and you can easily find it in the Algarve (as long as it doesn’t involve snow, of course!)  There are all kinds of tour operators catering to various skill levels and it is easy to rent the equipment you’ll need.

Many cafes offer great live entertainment. The quality of musicianship is high

Fishing Rio Formosa’s inland waterways

Bird watching is gratifying and often doesn’t require any equipment

 

Cycle along a beach at low tide

Visit one of the art shows that are held regularly

Stroll one of the many boardwalks and promenades

6.   Stunning Vistas: almond blossoms, fields of wild herbs, cliff views

Almond trees in bloom sparkle in the morning sun

Wild thyme coming into blossom

The cliffs at Cape St. Vincent are magnificent

Imagine looking out across a small valley near your hotel or villa and seeing the land white with almond blossoms. Head into the hills or out onto a headland in the western region in February or March and watch fields of wild thyme, lavender or fennel come into bloom, breathing in their heady aromas.

Stand atop a 200’ cliff that drops straight into the surging Atlantic and try to see Africa or America over the horizon. Imagine for a moment when you’re out at Cape St. Vincent that virtually all of the great discoverers sailed past this headland on their way to Africa, the Americas or the Orient – Columbus, Dias, Magellan, da Gama – you could have stood there and watched their tiny vessels plough through the seas on their way to explore the world.

Or drive into the spring hills and discover fields of poppies and wildflowers just waiting for you to snap some great photos. Look back towards the coast and don’t be surprised if you see the ocean glittering in the sun. The vistas in the Algarve are everywhere and are glorious. Drive slowly so that you can enjoy them!

 5.   Shopping:  fashions, leather, pottery, cork, linens, Port, wine, olive oil

 The Algarve boasts several large, modern shopping malls that are filled with shops carrying fashion forward clothing, shoes, lingerie and accessories.

 

An open air shopping mall is a delight to those who come from cold, raining and snowy climates

A fraction of the Aguardente available at Vitel’s Tavira gourmet shop

Pottery is one of the Algarve’s classic offerings

 

 

 

 

 

Towns like Loulé, Olhão, Tavira and Lagos also offer great shopping for fashions as well as leather goods, pottery, cork and linens.

Vila Real de Santo Antonio, across the river from Spain, specializes in shops selling linens and kitchenware.

Foodies will love the Appolonia food stores and Vitel in Tavira for their great selection of food products, wine, Port and local brandies, as well as sea salt, flor de sel and other regional condiments. Heck, for North Americans, just heading to the local supermarket is a treat with its aisles of wine and beer, its incredibly fresh fish section and the bread and local cheese section.

 4.   Food & Wine: great food, fantastic wine, fabulous service, good prices

 I’ve traveled extensively around the world and have never visited a place that has such a wide selection of restaurants and cafes. My Algarve Dining guide reviews Portuguese restaurants around the region but there is much, much more to choose from. Many international cuisine spots exist offering great Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Thai and French fine dining.

Cataplana is a regional specialty you must discover

Restaurants in all price ranges abound. Service is amazingly good and friendly. Prices very reasonable.

Exploring Portugual’s rich culinary tradition is worth a trip to the Algarve

In general, service standards are high, staff is friendly and prices are reasonable, especially given the quality of food served. Wine is ridiculously low in price as is Port and local brandies. Whisky and cognac tend to be relatively pricey but gin is made locally so is also a good value.

I’m such a fan of Portuguese food that I’ve written a restaurant review guide for the area. You can purchase a copy locally or on Amazon.com – or get a free e-book version by sending me an e-mail.

 

3.   Safety: safe streets, safe food, safe water, safe beaches, safe people

Virtually every town has its own mercado ladened with the freshest of fruits and veg

Violent crime is rare in the Algarve, although sadly things are changing. It is, however, still a very safe place to vacation.  Unless you head for the bar strips late at night your chance of running into anyone with nefarious objectives is minimal.

If you drive up to Foia, the highest point in the region, you’ll pass a natural spring. Stop for a sip. This sign welcomes you “Water is life. This site a charming treat – with affection and love”

Food is as safe as you’d expect at home: no need to peel & cook fresh fruit and veggies before eating. Water can be drunk from the tap, although it doesn’t taste very good so most people buy bottled water which can be purchased for next to nothing. There are also numerous springs around the region and you’ll see locals stopping to fill up their plastic bottles. I’ve frequently stopped and topped up my supply and have been surprised that I can actually notice a difference in the taste and texture of different spring sources.

Beaches are incredibly clean and safe. Peddlers aren’t allowed so you don’t have to worry about being harassed to buy cheap jewelry, towels, blankets or other crap!

 2.   Beaches: large ones, small ones, surfing ones, sunbathing ones

Parque Rio Formosa with its barrier islands offer many stretches of quiet, gentle beaches

I thought I’d get blown away this stormy but exhilarating day along the west coast as the seas thundered ashore

The sands of Algarve’s eastern beaches can be deep, but are oh so beautiful

Next to sunshine, the Algarve is perhaps best known for its beaches. You’ll find one after another all along the Algarve’s southern and western coast; some go on for many kilometers, many are quite small coves. Some offer gentle waves lapping the sand except for the occasional stormy period. Others are filled with thundering surf almost all the time. I’ve seen seas along the west coast that are so wild that spume from the waves blast up over 100’ cliffs.

Except for the summer months there’s a good chance that you’ll have the beach pretty much to yourself, regardless of where you are.

1.  People: warm, friendly, inviting, colourful & English speaking

And despite all these many attractions that the Algarve has to offer, the one that keeps me heading back are the people. Native Algarveans are modest folks who still seem to enjoy interacting with tourists. You’ll find Algarveans polite, quietly friendly and helpful. Family business is common so you’ll find husbands, wives, kids, cousins and uncles and aunts involved in many enterprises.

This dapper young dude is ready for Sao Bras de Alportel’s colourful Easter parade

Sharing a laugh with an Olhao shop keeper who liked my buns!!

And so many Europeans have made the Algarve home you can count on meeting and mixing it up with a wide array of Brits, Germans, Dutch folks, Scandinavians and Frenchmen.

Children are treasured in the Algarve and are well received wherever they go.

Vendors at the markets are almost always quietly friendly

English is amazingly widely spoken and Algarveans love it when you take the time to learn a few phrases of Portuguese. Hello (informal – ola, formal – bom dia) goodbye (adeus) and thank you (obrigado for men, obrigada for women) in Portuguese can take you a long way.

Give yourself the gift of a visit to the Algarve. It’s as easy to have a camping or hostelling experience as it is to luxuriate at one of the many five-star resorts. Indeed, the incredible variety is one of the charms this region offers, as I’ve already mentioned.

You may be surprised at how often you are drawn back to the Algarve once you’ve had a chance to experience all that it offers!

 

Algarve — One of the world’s safe destinations

Once again the US is in a tizzy over another mass shooting, this time in downtown New York City in broad daylight. It must be terrible to live in a country where fear of your own personal safety is so prevalent. I live most of my year in the relative safety of Canada. And each time I visit the Algarve I am struck by how much safer I feel there than anywhere else.

Even single women can feel safe wandering Algarve’s beaches

Not that anywhere there are lots of people one is ever totally free from crime, but in the Algarve and Portugal there really isn’t a big worry about personal safety, nor food safety for that matter. If you are someone who likes to party hearty, heading for the local bar scene and staying out ’til the wee hours of the morning, the threat might increase slightly. There is something about the mix of youth, drink, and drugs that begets violence I find.

But except for that, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many folks who visit the Algarve who have horror stories to tell. Not like my friend who has a permanent scar on her lip from being assaulted with a machete on a beach in Barbados. At some places, usually parking lots near very popular beaches, you might have your car broken into, but that’s about it in my experience. And even that is relatively rare given the volume of tourists who visit this tiny region each year.

I recommend a purse that drapes across the body for safety and so you don’t get a pinched nerve in your shoulder

A friend was visiting me recently and the Algarve’s safety was very much on her mind as she considers a visit this winter. She was extremely pleased to know that there is so little violent crime. She was also extremely pleased to know that you don’t have to wash, peel and cook fruits and vegetables before eating them. Remember, this is both a first world country and one that is not tropical so parasites and critters are no more common here than elsewhere in Europe. She was also liked hearing that cockroaches are not a big issue either, nor is heavy spraying common to keep them down, as it is in Mexico and Caribbean locations.

Some locals having a chat after their visit to Loule mercado

So if you are looking for a safe place to enjoy a relaxing time, I can recommend Portugal and it’s sunny Algarve region very highly. Mind you, you can’t be an idiot about it. Put valuables out of sight in the trunk before you get to your destination. Lock your car. Keep your passport & credit cards in a safe place. Don’t walk down a street you don’t feel comfortable about, day or night. And don’t wander the streets late at night under the influence of drugs & alcohol. Pretty much the same rules you’d live by at home.

Come for a visit and rediscover how to truly enjoy yourself!

Fun on an Algarve Beach

Portugal or Sedona you might well ask

The Algarve is renowned for its great beaches. One of my favourites is Falesia Beach, near Vilamoura. It is a great swath of golden sand about 8 km long, backed for much of its length by red cliffs. I’m sure that in the summer it is filled with sun worshipers, but in the fall, winter and spring when I spend time in the region it seldom has more than a handful of people on it and most of them are being active: cycling at low tide, fishing, taking a walk or beachcombing.

Last autumn I came upon this guy whom I hope was having fun. He was sporting what I assume is a parasail but he didn’t seem to be trying to take off, even though there was a very stiff wind blowing. He kept at this for at least a half hour, so I assume that he was either getting a great upper body workout or simply having fun keeping himself grounded when mother nature was intent on having him fly!

Let me know what you think he was up to! I’m no jock so some of our more modern sports seem like giant riddles to me! Certainly the guy who surf fishing behind him was intrigued by his antics!

Algarve Spring’s Gentle Unfolding

Unlike Algarveans, we Canadians don’t have a lot of experience of true Spring! We know all about snow and cold one week that changes to warm summer temperatures just a couple of weeks later. We aren’t accustomed to landscapes that lie unfrozen, yet fallow, for several months and then which slowly, ever so slowly, begin to come alive again. For us Canucks, ground is either frozen or is bursting with life. There isn’t a whole in between those two states!

I realized as January unfolded into February that the land wasn’t really changing all that much, although almond trees brightened the countryside and magnificent storks began to take up residence on chimneys, church steeples and the many platforms erected for them. But as the sun got stronger, the nights grew warmer and the days lengthened the land began to soften and to change. Wildflowers started to brighten the roadsides with pinks and yellows. Farmers began to till the land and plant seeds. Field started to sprout recycled 5L water bottles, upturned to make effective little greenhouses for tender vegetable seedlings.

And then one day as I drove slowly down a back road near Silves, windows down to appreciate the lively birdsong and soft breezes I was hit by the sweet, pungent aroma of orange blossoms. How heady is that scent; so indicative that spring has fully arrived, finally. Almond blossoms spent, small trees lining roadways were now sporting fuzzy, soft green fruit that would turn into almonds. I hadn’t really realized before this spring that when the Portuguese talk about ‘dried fruit’ they really are referring to nuts produced on fruit trees.

Next I became aware of tiny little figs beginning to develop, almost before leaves were fully opened. Patches of gorgeous Easter lilies adorned entrances of farmhouses, as did daisies, jasmine, and irises. And finally wild herbs began to bloom: sage that had run wild, thyme, lavender and wild fennel all began to add their fragrance and bright colours to the countryside.

Before I finally left for home near the end of April, I realized that this was the first time in my life that I’d been somewhere to experience a proper Spring. It was delightful to be present to this unfolding of life. You could almost feel the earth begin to uncurl, to rub winter’s sleep from its eyes, take a cautious look around and finally to sigh with renewed vigour before finally sitting up and announcing that a new year was fully underway. I can’t wait to have that experience again!

Hiking Rocha da Pena

The walking path is clear even through rocky terrain

The Rocha da Pena is a fine outcropping of rock outside the village of Pena in the Algarve, perfect for the serious hiker and some serious hiking.  The smaller settlement of Rocha lies at the foot of the rock, and is the recommended starting point of the trail.  The trail is a circular one of about 7 kms.  It climbs up one side of the hill, takes you across the top and then down the far side to Penina (“little” Pena), before bringing you on the road back to Rocha.  I thought I’d walk for about an hour or so and see what progress I was making, and if slim, retrace my route.  But I had all morning ahead of me.

So off I set.  Unless you are pretty fit, this is an exhausting climb!  It’s 2 kms to the top and it took me about an hour.  But I didn’t get to where I thought I was going!  I had reached instead the North Belvedere.  The view was spectacular, across the valleys and hills to the north.  But over the edge was the unmistakable “X” indicating “not this way.”

Route markings are clear but can be missed if you're looking down!

The signage in general is pretty good, but not always.  I retraced my path looking for the turning I had missed.  I found it, but not before seriously considering forgetting the rest of the trip.  The path almost doubles back on itself, and you have to look around the clearing at the top of the main climb to find it.

The views are stunning & the cliff drops can be dangerous

But once found, you are on a wonderful path across the top of the Rocha.  Far from easy to follow for the first part, though it is comforting to see the markers.  You spend a lot of time watching your feet to avoid the many embedded rocks and stones.  The path is narrow and winding through scrub, with some small climbs and drops, but then you emerge on the top of the cliff, looking out south over the parking lot where you have left your car, and beyond to the Atlantic.  To your right you will see the Iron age defensive stone wall, and in front, across the saddle you will clearly see the wider path you will shortly be following.  Kind of neat.  You have struggled and probably sweated to get here, and there’s the clear path ahead.  Not a soul around (nor another human being) and you are on top of the world!

One still has to watch one’s feet, but there is little doubt which way to go.  It took another hour or so following my feet, including a side trip to the very top, to return down to Penina.  The way I went, anti-clockwise, is probably the best way to go, since the down slope is steeper than the way up: going down is always easier than going up!

The village of Penina from Rocha de Pena

It took me about 3 hours to complete the circuit, at a leisurely pace.  There is a lot to look at as you climb if you are interested in flora, fauna and rocks.  The more you look the longer it will take you.  I didn’t see much: watching one’s feet means that all you see is the ground.

Ahh, but the pleasure of a cappuccino in the cafe in Rocha when you get there.  But if you want to discuss the weather or politics with the cafe owner, your Portuguese had better be pretty good, since the owner speaks no English!

This guest post was provided by Colin Griffiths, a fellow Canadian. Colin is a Brit, living in Ontario, who recently enjoyed a month’s holiday in the Algarve, walking here and there, drinking the wonderful local wines and eating their super cheeses, and revelling in the early spring bird watching.

Algarve Orange Grove Visit

Visiting an Algarve orange grove has been on my mind for a couple of years now. The winter of 2012 has been a particularly cold, clear and dry one in the Algarve and orange growers are very nervous.  After a few days of rain in early November the weather cleared and there’s been barely a drop since January. Indeed, there have hardly been any clouds in the sky most days. Days have required a jacket and sometimes a pair of gloves. Nights have been definitely nippy and frost has shown up on a couple of especially clear, still ones.

When I recently visited the citrus grove of Manuel and Joaquim Medeira Rodrigues near Silves they were assessing the damage of recent -0C nights on their crops.  As we walked their 3 different properties it was evident that Mother Nature hadn’t been in a good mood of late. The ground was littered with prematurely fallen oranges and clementines in a number of places. “Cold weather causes

Manuel Inspects His Crops for Frost Damage

the fruit to drop” Manuel reported. In other spots the frost burn to leaves and fruit was very clear.

Manuel, Joaquim and João are proud of their citrus operation which produces very high quality oranges, grapefruits, lemons and clementines for hotels, restaurants and fruit markets as far away as Lisbon. While it is extremely difficult to product totally organic citrus fruit, this father and son team do their best to use green farming techniques so that their customers get a high quality, pesticide free product. They leave grass and non-invasive weeds to grow between the rows of citrus trees. This not only conserves precious water but gives them an indication when a pest is invading. They keep their orchards well trimmed to allow as much air to pass through the trees as possible, keeping mildew and fungus to a minimum. When it does have to be addressed, they prefer to spray lightly with copper, a natural mineral. Mediterranean fruit flies are another pest that all citrus orchards need to deal with. These folks hang bottles of a sweet liquid that contains a pheromone or hormone that the flies are naturally attracted to. They fly into the bottle and then can’t escape to lay their eggs and do damage to the skins of the fruit.

Joaquim & Manuel Are Proud of Their High Quality Fruit ProductsJoaquim explained that many of the orange producers in the Algarve sell their crop to multi-national food producers before it is even harvested. Once ripe, the crop is harvested and shipped off to factories to make preserves and other citrus products. But for Mr. Frutas it is a very different strategy. Serving the hospitality and consumer markets means that they have to have product available year round. So they have many varieties of oranges, each that ripen at different times of the year so that the fruit is always fresh and newly ripened when it leaves their small production warehouse.

José Luis Hand Picks Oranges

Freshly picked fruit are taken in small batches for processing

I met José Luis Guerreiro as he was hand picking crates of oranges.

 

They are then taken to a surprisingly small shed where they are stored briefly and then gently dumped onto a conveyor belt which moves them into a unit that brushes off the field dirt and puts a nice soft shine onto the fruit. No waxes or artificial polishes are applied to the Mr. Frutas product so that it can be as natural as their customers wish it to be. The conveyor then moves the fruit along to a circulating table with a series of diameter regulated exits on it. The fruit is assessed on its size and slides down a short trough and into a waiting wooden crate. The crates are then labeled as to size, variety and company information and stacked until the delivery truck arrives to take them to market.

Not only did I get to sample many oranges, tangerines and clementines as we wandered the orchards, but I had the chance to pick the fruit as we went along. That may seem like a small thing to many, but when you grow up in Canada like I did, citrus fruit seems slightly magical.

Me happily picking oranges!

So getting to pick right off the tree made me feel like a kid on a school outing again!

I came back to my apartment ladened with fruit and have been cooking up a storm ever since. I’m experimenting with mixing local products to create some new savoury taste sensations.

So far I’ve made a spicy chutney with oranges, onions, lemons, honey, port, piri-piri and spices. I’ve also made a very different chutney of oranges, onions, dried figs, ginger, port, piri-piri and spices. So similar and yet so different. Each lovely to accompany a cheese tray to brush on pork or chicken before grilling or to serve along side sausages. I made up a batch of dry-rub, a spice mixture of sea salt, pepper, piri-piri, dried orange peel and herbs. I rubbed that on a chicken breast and let it sit in the fridge overnight and then quickly pan-fried it in olive oil. It was heavenly! Grilling would have been preferable but my little kitchen doesn’t have an oven. I’ve also made up a batch of pink grapefruit jam, even though I’m not a fan of grapefruit. And today I bought some sweet pumpkin at the market and made a pumpkin, orange & ginger soup for lunch. Yummy.

Some of these oranges are huge!

Next up is a wet rub that will have orange rind, garlic, piri-piri, herbs, olive oil and who knows what else that I plan to plaster on a nice chunk of pork. I fear that I have turned into a mad woman as far as savoury citrus is concerned. Thank goodness I don’t have an oven or I’d be making all kinds of savoury biscuits and breads too.

I can hardly wait until Mr. Frutas completes his plans to offer small group tours through his citrus grove. It’ll be a delight for me to send people in his direction, knowing that he and his Dad will be as gracious and informative with others as they were with me. And who knows how many more Canucks will get the pleasure of picking their first citrus fruit right off the tree.

Algarve’s Moorish Chimneys

A 'fully loaded' chimney with cockerel, wind cups & weathervane

You can’t help but notice just how many homes and commercial buildings across the Algarve are topped with ornate chimneys, whether working or not. These chimneys are a unique feature of the Algarve’s culture that have been brought forward from it’s Moorish past into modern times.

When Spain and the Algarve were conquered by Muslims over a thousand years ago many new technologies and plants were brought to the region. Castles were built to defend against invaders of all sorts, whether marauding Vikings or Crusaders en route to the Holy Land to save Christianity from Islam. Housing and public buildings were built in a style more familiar to North Africa. Citrus trees, almonds and other plants were introduced to the area. And ornate chimneys topped homes.

These are modern versions of traditional designs

An ultra modern approach that honours tradition

The Algarve still retains citrus trees, ancient castles, almond trees and the beloved Moorish chimneys. You can see examples that are very old as well as those that are clearly right out of a modern factory. Some are rustic with layers of old paint. Others are pristine white highlighted by blues, yellows and occasionally reds to match house trims.

Some chimneys are topped by wind vanes, cockerels or other ornamentation. I’ve found that as you travel east of Albufeira you are more likely to find chimneys topped with cockerels and other devices. However fancy or humble, it is always fun to drive around seeking out the most ornate chimneys around, to discover which house owners spend most time matching their chimney to the paint job and overall design of their home.

A witch rides the wind

A goat/devil windvane atop a Silves chimney

The anthropologist and psychologist in me thinking about what a great research study it would be to map choice of chimney to a person’s beliefs and commitment to a traditional or more modern lifestyle. For me, so often the really fascinating things about travel are the small distinctions that the locals take so much for granted but that we newcomers see as unique, distinct, idiosyncratic, playful and downright quirky. Here’s to the joy of quirkiness. The Algarveans do it well in so many ways, most publicly with their Moorish chimneys.

Dancing Flamingoes

Finally. On my most recent Algarve trip the flamingoes near Castro Marim and Vila Real de San Antonio came out to play! These large, exotic birds are a regular feature of the far eastern reaches of the Algarve. And yet, for me, they had remained elusive until this trip. They provide easy birdwatching for those of us whose primary purpose is shopping!

As an additional thing to do in the Algarve, I decided to break with routine and instead of shopping at the Loulé Market one Saturday morning, I headed east to check out the action in Vila Real. And what a treat that turned out to be. As I drove along the highway between the A22 and Vila Real, I spotted a small flock of flamingoes on the tidal flats. I got some nice pictures and then headed into town one very happy camper.

Algarve Basket Maker

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that Vila Real on a Saturday morning has quite a bustling, vibrant place. There’s a craft market in the central square filled with vendors offering hand made baskets, jewelery, linens, baked goods, honey, cork products and other goodies. Someone drove down from the Alentejo with a truck full of chouriço, presunto, cheese and olive oil. This added quite a festival air to the many shops with their linens and kitchen items spilling onto the sidewalks. I had heard that many Spanish folks came over for some serious cross-border shopping, and sure enough the sound of Spanish was heard everywhere. My fancy was also tickled as I watched folks rest on one of the many benches of the town square under a canopy of ripening oranges. For a Canadian, citrus fruit always seems like a marvel. And to think of resting in the shade of an orange tree seems downright magical!

Taking a Break Under a Loaded Orange Tree

There were also a couple of chestnut roasters offering this delightful winter treat at various corners. And a guy selling parakeets had a huge cage of pastel blue & green birdies singing up a storm. The kids were absolutely enthralled with his display. He even had a large green parrot that many adults seemed to get a kick out of trying to feed without losing part of their fingers to his thick, curved beak.

Down by the waterfront there was lots of action. A couple of groups of young sailors were racing down the river using the full force of a stiff breeze to try out their new techniques. And for the first time in several visits I saw a number of people working on their yachts and sailboats, perhaps getting them ready for the cooler weather of the winter rainy season.

After several hours of wandering about, savouring the sense of life this usually sleepy town has on a Saturday morning I decided it was time to head home. Imagine my surprise to discover that my flock of flamingoes was still there in the shallow tidal waters. This time I got a bit of video footage and became aware of their dance. They shuffle and skip lightly on their feet in the shallow water, stirring up the rich mud so that they can filter out the minute sea creatures that are their diet. Whatever they were eating, it wasn’t shrimp because these flamingoes were white, not pink, the colour of their features derived from the colouring of their food.

All in all a great Saturday morning. And while I missed the sea of vegetables, fish and other produce on offer in Loulé, I’ll definitely head back to Vila Real de San Antonio when I need a break from routine on my frequent Algarve trips.

Algarve Entrances

The entrances to many places across the Algarve are inviting, artistic and visually appealing, whether they are public buildings or private ones. In some cases the doorways are old and covered in a patina of paint, dust and other grunge. But mostly I find people simply ‘do up’ their entrances to entice and appeal, to draw you in either for a closer look or to buy. Then again, it may simply be because the owners want to give themselves the pleasure of arriving at a lovely, enticing entrance to their abode or place of work.

Here are a few of the spots that call to me.

1.  A lush, elegant water entrance

A lush, elegant water entrance

Right next to the Roman Bridge in central Tavira there is a row of townhouses, each of which has access to the tidal Rio Gilão. This one is particularly lush with huge succulent plants draping off the balustrade towards the water.
Each time I visit, I love to imagine a boat pulled up to the lowest step and an elegant woman making her way with aplomb from the small boat onto the even steps. I equally know that if it were me, I’d probably miss the step and drop like a stone into the river! But my mystical lady never does. She is graceful, accurate and dry each time she steps off the bobbing boat. What would your fantasy be about arriving by boat at these lovely stairs?

Patiently waiting for a friend

2.  Doggy dressed up door stoops

Don’t know what it is about the Algarve, but people sure do love their pooches. Sadly, far too many are ultimately abandoned to wander the streets. But there are a lot of lucky pooches who simply wait for their owner to arrive home, faithful and hopeful that company will arrive soon.

Another sweet little mutt

These are two of my favourite little dogs, each clearly anxious for company. Makes me wonder what it would be like to have such a greeting each time I come home. . . . And I’m not even much of a pet person! But who could fail to love these charming little faces.

 

 

3.  Portuguese cemeteries are walled in

Explore the local cemetery

When you drive by a Portuguese community and see a large, walled-in enclosure you are likely walking or driving by the local cemetery. Public cemeteries in Portugal began to be established in the 19th century and their current form has developed since then. Cemeteries at that time became a place where wealthy families could display not only their wealth, but their culture and commitment to the arts.

So it is always exciting to find the cemetery entrance and either sneak a peak inside or go in for a ramble around. You’ll be certain to find a combination of grave-sites with ornate headstones and marble enclosures as well as masoleums containing generations of deceased family members. These small buildings are often ornately decorated and carved, containing lots of wrought iron fittings, stained glass, stone carvings and gleaming brass, lace and linen interior trim.

More recent additions are plain, rectangular ‘high rises’ filled with small lockers for individual coffins. They certainly add very little esthetic value to the cemeteries but clearly are an efficient way to deal inexpensively with a large number of deceased. People dress these little ‘bird cages’ up in imaginative and often highly tacky ways. And yet the overall effect is one of life and vitality.

Do stop and take a peek. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you can learn about a people in the way they bury and honour their deceased.

4.  My favourite hotel has a lovely entry way to its pool

What mystery awaits through this portal?

No matter how many times I walk past the entrance to the pool at Hotel Vilas D’Agua, I always enjoy the view of the ocean it presents, as well as knowing that a lovely, serene swimming pool is just out of view.

The modern, square arch contrasts with the traditional cobblestoned walkway. And the blast of bright white plaster against a cerulean blue sky seems to only add to the delight I experience.

I know there is a pool on the other side of this entrance, but to me it feels like a magical portal. You know, one of those entrances where you can make up a great story about what awaits you on the other side. What would your story be?

5.  How could you not be tempted by a restaurant entrance like this?

What an Invitation

I love to visit my friends Stefan and Lisa at Restaurante Rouxinol, just outside the Caldas de Monchique. Partly it is because I love the drive up into the mountains. Mostly it is because of the friendly welcome and great food and hospitality I know always await me.

But this entrance! Who wouldn’t be tempted upward to the patio by such a welcoming entrance way. It is a tight turn off the main road into Restaurante Rouxinol’s driveway, but as I leave my car and walk towards this inviting stairway I know that I will be well received. Each visit there are different flowers in bloom and sometimes the lemon and orange trees are in fruit. Other times the banana plants are bursting with lushness. You just never know. What I am certain of is a huge grin from both Stefan and Lisa, a bear hug and an invitation to sit, to enjoy, to refresh myself and to catch up. Now that is a special treat!