Algarve – Without a Car

Bikes may not be public transport but they make a pretty picture!

I’ve had a number of enquiries from folks planning to visit the Algarve without a car. Where can I go?  What sightseeing can I do without a car? How easy is it to get around, they ask.  It is pretty darned easy, actually, as bus and train service is widely available.  Now remember always when you are using public transportation you have to allow lots of extra time.  Keep in mind that the except for the narrow strip along the coast, the Algarve is amazingly sparsely populated so don’t expect big city schedules and convenience.  But if you are willing to invest a little time and effort into planning and scheduling your outings, you can a lot of the Algarve and its many treasures without a car.  And it won’t break the bank either!

Bus

The good news is that local bus service is pretty decent so you can see a lot.  Eva is the Algarve bus company.  Alas, their website is all in Portuguese but there are enough pictures, etc. that you should be able to find your way around.  If you go to  you’ll see a page that shows all the towns across the Algarve you can visit using their Tourist Pass.  Eva’s buses run from Quarteira in the east to Lagos in the west, with branches off to Loule, Silves and Monchique.  The Tourist Pass is an ‘all you can eat’ over a 3-day period.  I’d recommend that you take some time to plan out your itinerary and then commit yourself to 3 days of intense sightseeing to make best use of your pass.  Locations where you can buy the pass and pick up the bus are also listed.

Check out other tabs on Eva’s very informative site.  They appear to have a tour bus run that takes you out to Cape St. Vincent.  And if you are interested in the commuter buses that follow the coast from town to town, there are bus route maps, timetables, etc.

Train

There is a commuter train that runs from the Spanish border (Villa Real de San Antonio) all the way west to Lagos.  Faro is the hub of this rail line and you’ll apparently have to change trains there if you want to visit towns further east or west.  CP is the train company.  The good news is that it has an English website   The less good news is that their information doesn’t seem to be well laid out.

Tourist Train

Finally, if you decide to stay in Albufeira or make a day trip of it, the city offers a small tourist train that meanders around various sites and lets you get on an off for a set fee.  Pick up a brochure and map at the local tourist information office or most hotels.

It always takes more time to travel around when you are using public transportation.  Make sure you allow for it.  The nice thing about hanging around waiting for a bus or train is that it is a great opportunity for people watching, for having another spectacular Portuguese coffee or glass of vinho and for just sitting quietly reconnecting with yourself.  So even if you opt for an Algarve visit with a car, you are not stuck to one village or town.  Probably 75% of the sights and activities that car drivers can access you’ll be able to get to as well.

What Women Want

Almond Blossoms

A woman’s needs and wants varies throughout her life.  Nowhere is this more evident and important as in her travel preferences.  What women want out of travel often changes dramatically as her life changes.

Many of us start out life either being interested in backpacking around the world, staying in hostels, finding inexpensive, culturally rich places to visit and eat.  Or perhaps we begin our travel lives with a preference for top-drawer, 5-star, luxe vacation oases, replete with massages, mojitos and perhaps even hot and cold running beach boys!  And some even choose to forego exotic travel, preferring instead to head to the cottage or campsite with kids and family.

But over time our lives change and our travel interests change as well.  As we move into our 40’s, 50’s and 60’s many of us find that whatever our travel history has been, we are craving different things.  For a surprising number of us, we begin to prefer to travel alone or in small groups.  For others, either through bereavement or divorce, solo travel is foisted on us.

It is not unusual for ‘women of a certain age’ to begin to seek out travel experiences that offer a combination of experiential learning along with opportunities to meet new friends and discover new cultures.  Our bodies may be telling us that while we still feel vital and interested in adventure, we are no longer drawn to sleeping rough or sharing with relative strangers.  Standard tours and cruises often don’t meet our needs:  too many people, too little time to really explore a place, too few opportunities to create our own discoveries.  Take my client Ida.  Recently widowed, she’d always traveled with her husband, taking cruises around the world and spending happy summers at the cottage.  As part of her re-discovery process she took an adventure trip to Turkey and reports a new sense of self worth.  Then there’s Vicki, a single woman who had become tired of vacationing with her girlfriends.  She came along to one of my retreats because she felt it was time for a process of reclaiming herself and discovering what she wanted for the future.  Her two weeks of reflection, exploration and introspection are still with her two years later.  Katy just wanted a couple of weeks away that had more focus than a beach vacation has but was free from the daily moving on that her typical tours entailed.  She selected a creativity retreat with me and discovered a renewed interest in painting, but also realized just how big an issue safety is in her life.  She realized that she’s missed out on a lot because she chose cruises, tours and all-inclusive packages in her earlier years.

I get numerous calls from women who are retiring or who are thinking about what kind of life they want for themselves now that their kids have left home.  What seems to be a common theme amongst them all is that they are seeking something new and fresh in their travel lives.

It never fails to amaze me how my personal experience parallels that of other women.  And what I discovered from the many women who’ve participated in my retreats and culinary experiences further supports this.  But what about you?

What are you craving in a travel experience these days?  What would the perfect get away look like for you?  I’d love to compile a list of what women want out of travel these days.  Please be certain to leave a comment and I’ll happily post a summary in a few weeks time.

Chillin’ in Tavira

Tavira is a delightful city in Eastern Algarve.  I love to spend the day there, exploring its many churches, alleyways, restaurants and shops.  Make sure you take the time to discover this charming place.

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A Visit to Alte

Alte's Church dominates the town square

Call me ornery, call me a snob … and sometimes call me just plain stupid!

I drove through the hill village of Alte (pronounced alt, located north of Loulé) many times and because I’d seen it in tour books described as ‘the prettiest town in the Algarve’ I decided to ignore it.  I mean, how can anyplace that makes the major tour books and is so glowingly described be of interest to a self-proclaimed specialist in ‘off-the-beaten-track’ Algarve?  Well, one day I decided to stop and see what all the action was about and realized I’d been being a stupid, ornery snob!  Sigh.  …again.

The main road that runs through Alte doesn’t really let you see its delights.  And it is quite a delightful little place.  Sure there are a couple of interesting looking pottery shops.  And the cemetery looks like it’s worth an exploration, sitting perched on the side of a broad valley.  But beyond that, Alte certainly doesn’t look that picturesque from the highway.

Let art and your mood entice you up and down these pretty streets

But if you head up-hill at the traffic circle on the western edge of town, you quickly discover an absolutely delightful little place with cafés spilling out onto the street, at least one great pastry shop, an attractive church and lots of meandering, narrow streets.  Parking isn’t easy, even in the off-season so you’ll need a bit of patience.

Enjoy a break in the shade

There’s a small mercado located on the left as you enter the village.  It is a long series of covered stalls with a fun mosaic.  Alas it has never been open on any of my visits, but one of these days I’ll make it when it is filled with fruits, vegetables, fish and meats.

Medronhos - the main ingredient in a fiery drink

In the meantime, this is a great place for a wander; a fun place for poking around, soaking up the sunshine and watching the locals go about their business.  If you like to drive, press upwards on some of the streets and you’ll have the joy of wondering how sharp an angle your vehicle can handle, plus the pleasure of seeing what the backside of the mountain looks like.  On one fall visit I was fortunate enough to find a number of medronhos (arbutus trees) bushes in full fruit.  What a find.

The pastry shop near the mercado makes wonderful almond treats and has a lovely balcony where a few lucky people get to gaze over the valley while sipping coffee and munching on almond crescents.  Yummy.

And it is just about the prettiest place I’ve been in the Algarve.  Great spot to while away a couple of hours doing not much of anything.

Easter Sunday Alleluia Parade

Easter Sunday in Sao Bras de Alportel is a glorious, joyous occasion. The streets are lined with flowers and greenery, all lovingly done by the hands of local volunteers. I can only imagine how many hours it takes to lay down several kilometres of flowers in intricate designs. Men and boys carrying astounding floral arrangements parade through the streets and calling Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. It seems that they cluster in groups and they definitely try to out cheer one another. A form of non-violent competition, it seems.

Bedspreads are hung from windows to pick up good luck as the parade passes by. Thousands come out to view, eat goodies from market stands, buy balloons for the kids and visit with one another. After the parade there is music, more food and a true Portuguese party atmosphere. Definitely an event not to be missed. The parade starts around 11ish, but arrive early cause parking gets tight.

The Sacred Side of Easter

I’m not a religious person and I choose to live a pretty untraditional lifestyle.  But I remain fascinated by religion, faith and the many ways in which people retain long-held traditions in our world.

One thing that I love about the Algarve is that its people seem to excel at maintaining a fairly traditional lifestyle in spite of that fact that they are swamped by tourists year in and year out.  That’s a theme that I am planning to explore in future visits.

But for now, I am reveling in the memories of my experience last spring of Easter in the Algarve.  Today’s post focuses on the night-time procession that happens on Good Friday through the streets of Silves, Algarve.  The faithful walk slowly along with litters carrying images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, beginning at the Cathedral and snaking their way through much of the historic district.  It takes a good 90 minutes to 2 hrs before the procession climbs back up the hill to the Cathedral.  What a delight it was to be present to so many people making their silent way to observe a 2,000 year old event that still holds meaning in their lives.

The Sacred Side of Easter YouTube Video

Saturday morning in Loulé

Fruit Stand Loule Market

Especially when I’m traveling I’m not the sort of person who lives a very structured life.  Routine and I don’t make the best of friends.  But there are notable excep

tions …and Saturday morning in Loulé is one of those exceptions.

Every time I’m in the Algarve you can find me in Loulé on Saturday morning because of the fabulous farmer’s market.  But over time I’ve discovered that there is so much more to Loulé than just the farmer’s market.  However, let’s start there.

Moorish Inspired Mercado Building

Right in the heart of town there is a huge market (mercado) building that houses fish mongers, butcher shops, small bakeries, fruit and vegetable dealers, pottery shops, café’s, florists, and a variety of other services.  Outside, local farmers arrive and set up stands selling an incredible array of local goods.  Fresh fruits and vegetables in season.  Home-made Piri-Piri sauce, fresh and dried herbs, breads, cakes, local honey and seasonal flowers are always available.  Cheeses, presunto (local air cured hams), chorizo and other sausages are for sale as is salt fish, candy and bedding plants.

Buying Bread

Whether you buy anything or not it is such fun to wander through the stalls, watching friends and family catch up on gossip, seeing what folks are buying, noticing what is fresh and in season this week.  People are alive and engaged, weathered faces and hands ready with a smile, a nod, a willingness to show off what they have on offer.  Nobody seems to mind having their picture taken.

Pottery of all designs awaits

I like to arrive early, stop at one of the local coffee shops and then saunter inside and outside of the market building while it is still fairly quiet.  As the tour buses start to arrive around 10:30 or so, I have another coffee and then head off to explore other aspects of Loulé.  That might mean walking half a block North from the main traffic circle and then heading East along a pedestrian mall to window shop in the many fashionable boutiques and shoe stores.  I’ll head back to the main street and then back towards the mercado, continuing West about a block past it.  By then there is usually a display set up on the sidewalk and into the courtyardand it is time for more shopping.  I suspect there is a schedule somewhere, but I love not knowing what I’ll come across.  One week it’ll be local artists selling their paintings, sculptures, cards and photographs.  Another week it’ll be antique dealers, still another it’ll be crafts people offering jewelery, knick-knacks, knitted goods, etc.  And sometimes it is local artisans selling breads, pastries, candies and other edibles.  You just never know, which is a big part of its delight.

Getting spring water

Eventually I’ll head towards the old castle, perhaps stopping in at the small chapel that might be open, standing agog, yet again, at how much elaborate design can be crammed into one tiny room.  Sometimes the street will be lined with local folks selling lotions, potions, hand made soaps and other goodies.  If not, it is fun to swing down this side streetscape exploring art galleries, the Moroccan Tea Shop and hanging around the 150 year old community water fountain to watch the locals come and fill up on fresh spring water.  Finally it is around the backside of the castle, through a small archway and onto yet another pedestrian walkway lined with shops of all kinds as well as pastry shops and cafés.

Fine Art Galleries

By late morning a party atmosphere has developed.  Everyone seems to be in a good mood.  A few street musicians are out and adding to the ambience.  It is a time to savour life, perhaps finding a nice patio on which to enjoy another coffee and from which to watch people be people getting on with life!

Finally when my legs are tired it is time to find a restaurant and settle in for a big Saturday lunch.  If you pick the right place, you’ll find yourself amongst local families celebrating the end of the week.  Be aware that the market closes down at 1 o’clock.  Be aware also that most of the Algarve closes down at 1 o’clock.  It can be difficult to find a restaurant that’s open.  When you find one and have eaten your fill, be like the locals and head home for a wonderfully long siesta, letting yourself lie back and re-live the vibrancy of the morning before you eventually decide what to cook with all that great food you couldn’t resist buying!

Inside Loule Mercado

There is so much else to talk about.  But that’ll be for another posting about Loulé!

The High Cost of Roaming

Silves Town Square is a Delightful Place with Free WiFi

We all need to remember to pack our smarts when we leave on a trip.  I always think I do, and sometimes I’m surprised to discover that I only brought my brains – my smarts got left behind.  And nowhere is this more true than being aware of the high costs of data roaming charges for international travel.

Like on my recent trip to the Algarve.  Before I left home I downloaded a whole bunch of apps for my beloved iPhone.  I can now turn it into a flashlight, play a bunch of games, find free wi-fi spots, listen to CBC radio ‘live streaming’.  I even got an app that allows me to take pictures and then have them inserted into a map so that family, friends and clients can track my progress.  How wonderful!  What I totally forgot, despite being warned about the high cost of international data roaming charges, is that most of these apps use data transfer in order to function.  Duuh.

So I merrily explored the Algarve once again, vaguely aware that I was using my iPhone more than in the past but secure in the knowledge that I had all these new apps and had pretty much figured each of them out.  Roaming charges didn’t even register in my mind.

Now I’m not a stupid person.  I made no phone calls ‘cause they were $2.00/minute.  I sent no e-mail (but I did download my inbasket regularly, alas) and I was very prudent with my texting, using it only a dozen or so times at a cost of $.75/message.  My carrier had kindly reminded me to pay attention to these International travel pitfalls.  But I wasn’t very smart.

The penny never dropped that each time I searched for free wi-fi’s I was sending and receiving data.  The one or two times that I tuned into CBC Radio it never occurred to me how much data was flowing.  And that great picture taking/tracking app that I kept testing has been sitting unused since I got back 3 weeks ago.  Too much else to do.

My bill arrived yesterday.  My heart attack thankfully didn’t arrive, but the palpitations I received from looking at that bill are still echoing!  $600 in data roaming charges for a 2 week trip.  I doubt that I used my iPhone for more than 5 minutes a day.  Oh Lord, why didn’t I just go and pay €10/hr at an Internet café instead of trying to find something ‘free’, at a much higher cost.

So next time I’ll definitely remember my smarts.  I might even try to find an app that tells me how much I’ve spent in roaming charges!  My advice to you is put those wonderful electronic devices away.  Bring a laptop, go to an Internet café or one of the many town squares with free wi-fi, connect with people at home via Skype.  Enjoy knowing that you won’t receive any post-vacation surprises in the mail!

How do I find places?

While places in the Algarve frequently have street addresses, forget simply using a map and street coordinates to locate them!  I also don’t think you need to spend mucho dinero on the GPS units car rental agencies are happy to provide.

By and large you’ll find that using landmarks is a much more efficient way to find places than is a map.  It is also a lot more fun than working with a GPS.  But is does mean that those of you who aren’t terrifically visually astute are going to have to hone your skills.  But for those of us who are very visually oriented, locating stores, restaurants, homes and public buildings can be a lot of fun because of what you’ll discover en route.

An 'obvious' Algarve street market - very atypically large & easily seen

And here’s the reason.  Streets and roads are not signposted the way we’re used to.  For one thing, what signs exist are located down low to the ground, not high up on little metal posts.  For another, street names are often painted on or carved into stone or cement markers which can’t be seen in low light situations.  So it is easier to pay attention to landmarks.

Those of you who use my Gwen’s Guide to Dining Well in the Algarve will find that I use this landmark system to lead you to the restaurants I review.  The tour guides at hotels and even directions given by car rental companies all also use this process.

Let me give you an example.  Let’s say you are trying to make your way to the wonderful Saturday morning market (mercado) at Loulé.  Here’s how I’d direct you in:

Take the N125 to the traffic circle marked “Loule/A22” or take the A22 to the Loule West exit.  Travel North until you enter the town of Loule.  At the Cyclists traffic circle, exit right and proceed along to the stop light.  Turn left and you’ll immediately see cars parked up on the curb. After 2-3 blocks you’ll see the Market Building and farmers stalls on your left.  At the main Loule traffic circle with the fountain, you can take any of the exits and find parking spots. Arrive early, tho because parking is at a premium.

Or let’s say you are looking for the Modelo Shopping Centre in Albufeira.  Here’s how I’d direct you, assuming that you were coming from the East.

Take the N125 into Albufeira, always heading West at the Globe and Worms Traffic Circles.  When you get to the Swatches circle, go 3/4 round (or 270˚) and exit onto a service road.  Go 1 block West, get in the left turning lane.  As you turn left, turn right immediately into the Modelo parking lot.

It isn’t difficult to find places, but you have to be open to doing things differently than you’re accustomed to.  And you have to be awake and alert as you travel.

On the up-side, the Portuguese aren’t as up-tight as we are about arriving on time.  So if you get lost, don’t worry about it.  Actually, if you get lost, have fun with it.  Some of my best discoveries in travel, especially in Portugal come from the times that I got lost and proceeded down a road I’d never traveled before.  And then there is the luxury of going around in circles in a traffic circle while you make up your mind which exit to take.  When you are stuck at a 4-way stop and the guy behind you is honking, you have to make anxiety provoking split second decisions.  The beauty of round-abouts or traffic circles is that you can take your time deciding and you are slowing no one else down!

And let me know if you have special ways to find places in the Alarve!

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!