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!

How Safe is Algarve Driving?

Algarve's Decorative Traffic Circles are often used as direction markers

Driving seems to be a major concern of North Americans as they plan their trip to the Algarve.  And the answer is an easy one:  it is as safe to drive in the Algarve as it is safe to drive at home.

Sure the cars are a whole lot smaller, and in general folks drive faster than we do.  But I also find that they are way more respectful and far less inclined to honk their horns, give you the finger or engage in otherwise aggressive behaviour.

But they drive on the same side of the road as we do and pretty much have the same rules as we’re accustomed to so the adjustment isn’t too demanding.

Probably the biggest driving challenges in the Algarve for North Americans (Quebecers excepted on the first one) are:

  • – remember to not turn right on a red light.  Wait for a green and then proceed.
  • – if you haven’t driven a manual transmission car before, prepare to pay a significant premium for an upgrade to Automatic, or take a few lessons.
  • – learn how to safely drive traffic circles.  The Algarve is full of them.

Tips for Safely Navigating Traffic Circles:

  1. Traffic already in the circle has the right of way.
  2. Signal with your left signal light that you are entering a traffic circle.
  3. Stay in the outside lane if you are exiting at the first possible exit, or if there are 2 lanes in the circle and at each exit.
  4. Signal with your right signal that you intend to leave at the next exit.
  5. If there are 2 lanes in the circle and you are in the inner lane but plan on exiting where there is only one lane, remember to check over your right shoulder before exiting.  Legally the person on the right has the right of way.  Most of the time the other person will give way to you.  But remember that you’re on vacation – and they have legal priority.  When it comes down to it, it is much easier and faster to give way and let someone else proceed than to (a) end up in an altercation (b) have an accident and all the associated hassles.
  6. Remember – you’re on vacation.  Leave your attitude, ego and need to be right at all times at home or on a beach somewhere!
  7. Enjoy the flexibility that circles provide – if you aren’t certain, go round a couple of times while you get yourself figured out!!!

The Speed Limit in towns & villages is 50 kph.  On highways (where it typically isn’t posted) its 90 kpm.  The EN 125 is the Algarve’s major east-west local highway.  Sometimes it is hard to tell if you are ‘on the way’ or ‘in town’.  Pay attention to how the locals are driving.  On the A-22 and other controlled access highways the limit is 120 kph, but expect almost everyone to overtake you.  It seems like those who drive BMWs, Mercedes, Saabs or anything with a significant engine don’t know there is a speed less than 150 kpm.  I just let them blow by me and proceed at the speed that feels safe and prudent given the size of car and my skills.

Always remember that folks from the British Isles are very fond of trips to Portugal.  They are accustomed to driving on the other side of the road from what is ‘normal’ for us.  Account for that in your timing decisions.  Be awake for folks who may make what appear to be stupid driving choices.  They are deeply ingrained to look what we would consider to be ‘the wrong way’ and to pull out of parking spots and entrances on ‘the wrong side’.  Be alert, be patient and be accommodating.

If you rent a car, make sure you have your Driver’s License with you at all times, as well as the rental contract from the rental agency.  Having a Passport with you is important too.

If you do have car troubles, make certain you put on the bright florescent vest you’ll find in the glove compartment.  It is illegal to not wear it.

And finally, while the Algarve is a place that is amazingly safe, be prudent with your belongings.  Leave bags and cameras covered up in the trunk.  And place them there before you get to your destination.  I met one couple who had foolishly put their cameras in the trunk at the parking lot to a hill-top walk they were taking.  Of course, the stuff was gone when they got back.  I’ve never had anyone tamper with my stuff on any trips, but you never know who is around so better to be safe than sorry.

Next, we’ll talk about the the best way to find where you’re going in the Algarve!

Let the waters flow

Even in fog the vistas can be spectacular

This is my first Algarve trip in low season and it is definitely different. The locals are quite distressed because there has been so much rain. And indeed, it feels quite odd to be here without sunshine a major feature of each day. But fear not. Even with overcast skies for much of the time the sun can’t help but peek out with great regularity. And the temperatures remain in the high teens so a light sweater is all that is necessary to be comfortable.

On the up side things are incredibly green. Greener than I’ve ever seen the Algarve in my many visits. There are moments when I almost wonder if they haven’t scooped up a bit of Ireland and dropped here in southern Portugal!

I took a drive into the Serra de Monchique yesterday and was well rewarded for my troubles. The trip up to Foia was very interesting. I hit low-lying clouds about half-way up and continued the rest of the way in very poor visibility. When I reached the top I was within a few feet of the tourist information centre before it loomed out of the fog. Fortunately I knew the country road on the back side that I was looking for, although it did feel a bit intimidating to head downwards into countryside I couldn’t see. Never fear, though. Before long I was in sunshine, passing through old farmland, herds of sheep and tiny valleys of oak and citrus orchards. The small mountain streams were swollen with rapidly flowing water. I regularly passed waterfalls spilling off small cliffs. Quite delightful I must say.

So although the Algarve in January isn’t the warm, sunny place I’ve grown to expect, it has other delights to offer the intrepid traveler willing to get away from the beachfront. I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience what I gather is a rare occurrence in these parts. Flowing mountain streams and waterfalls happen very intermittently and are experienced by few. Lucky me!