The Algarve is a small region which is quite densely populated. I’m always intrigued by this since I come from a country where it is quite easy to drive places where you can go for hours without seeing a house, hamlet, village or town. Canada is known for its vast expanses of wilderness and unpopulated landscapes.
I’m always tickled by the fact that in 20-30 minutes I can have my choice of towns and villages that are not only different in landscape, but in character. Today I’m going to explore with you my favourite towns across the region. I’ll save the many more villages I love for another day. Let’s start in the East, right on the Spanish border and head west. Read on to discover waterfront towns, hill towns, shopping towns, historical towns and even a mountain town or two that will give you a different perspective on life in the Algarve.
Head North along the Guadiana River to discover quiet, sleepy Alcoutim. It has only been in the past couple of years that this small regional centre has begun to tart itself up and really promote itself to tourists. It’s a great spot to enjoy a quiet afternoon rambling about, exploring its riverfront, lolling in a cafe, discovering its modest castle and churches. Of late, Alcoutim has begun to offer some food fairs that celebrate its unique culinary heritage. Last Easter I enjoyed a Sweet’s Fair the town put on on Good Friday. Definitely worth the drive up from Vila Real de Santo Antonio or Monte Gordo.
Vila Real de Santo Antonio
Sitting right on the border with Spain, Vila Real is a delightful town with a great riverfront, a ferry that plies the river over to Spain many times daily, some very nice restaurants, fabulous shopping for kitchenware and household linens and relatively flat streets for folks with limited mobility.
By Algarve standards, Vila Real is new in its lay-out and architecture. It was decimated in the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. So it was rebuilt around 1760 in the then latest town planning mode. Its streets are laid out in a grid pattern; unusual in a locale where streets follow ancient sheep paths and streambeds! In fact, I’m always struck when I enter the large town square how much it reminds me of Quebec City which was being built at the same time. It’s easy to rent a bicycle in Vila Real and spend the day cycling around, heading into the salt flats that surround the town or heading over to Spain for some cross-border shopping.
I’ve spend many fun hours wandering about, buying inexpensive linens to bring home for gifts, eating fine lunches at riverside cafes & restaurants, people watching. You’ll find many Dutch folks in the area, which adds some interesting colour. And on weekends, ferry loads of Spaniards head over for the inexpensive linens and food that the Portuguese offer.
Oh my, what a lovely town this is. Over 37 churches dot the skyline of this small, compact, historic yet modern town. Parking can be a challenge but I typically resolve that by arriving early in the day. The tidal Gilao River runs right through town, separating it into North & South portions. There are more sights, shops and cafe’s on the north side, but better prices are available in south side restaurants. You can watch people fishing right off the several bridges that cross the river and at low tide it is not unusual to see fishermen in the shallow waters clamming on the sand bars and mud flats. Expect to see schools of fish that get caught in the tidal pools, plus herons and egrets
fishing. There’s a lovely old castle that offers great views across to the ocean. You can get a good idea of the salt making business from the heights. And the gardens are great. There are public toilets inside the castle, by the way. Rustic but always clean.
Tavira is filled with alleyways and small squares. Many of its shops offer great fashions as well as good souvenir shopping. Just behind the old mercado building is Vitel, a wonderful gourmet food and wine shop that I stop into each visit. Marcelino, it’s manager has worked there for 45 years now! Amazing.
I could go on but suffice it to say that Tavira is one town that I visit each and every time I’m in the Algarve.
I wasn’t really certain whether Fuseta qualified as a town; it certainly is a small one. But it seems larger than most of the villages so here it is. And what a small town. Each time I visit this little gem I feel like I’m stepping back in time.
It’s all about the waterfront here. Restaurants are only steps away from where the boats tie up. It is easy to find someone loading his catch of sardines or mackerel. And you can be certain that they don’t travel very far before showing up on someone’s grill. I had the joy one day of coming upon an older gentleman named Lionel with his grill on the sidewalk getting ready to cook up a huge pile of lamb that had been marinated in garlic, mint and oregano and an equally generous pile of pork marinated in lemon, garlic and herbs. I never did find out what the occasion was but over the hour I spent watching, a large group of men of varying ages showed up, grabbed a beer or glass of wine and settled in at tables in a nearby sidewalk cafe. Were they relatives? a football team? a church group? Who knew, but they were sure having a good time and inhaled Lionel’s grilled meats when the time came.
Fuseta sits behind a low barrier island so the water can be quite quiet and yet on a couple of my visits there was a stiff, cold on-shore wind blowing that made it dicey for boats to leave the sheltered harbour. People seem to love to try, though. Have fun watching their antics as they try to manipulate small boats. Enjoy the colourful boats, colourful characters and gentle pace of life in this small, charming spot.
Not far east of Faro is Olhau, one of the last communities on the shore to boast a commercial fishing fleet. I hear that it has a commercial fish market that opens extremely early each day and auctions off the catch to local stores, restaurants and hotels. You need a local to get you in and I think I’ve found one who’ll take me along on my next trip.
Otherwise, head for the twin mercado buildings right on the waterfront in the centre of town. One is devoted to things fishy; the other to fruits, veg, meats and baked goods. The Olhau mercado is one of my favourite Algarvean marketplaces.
Sao Bras de Alportel
Modest is probably the best term I can use to describe Sao Bras, tucked in the hills northwest of Tavira and due north of Faro. And it is its modesty that, for me, makes it just so darned appealing. It has a lovely historic centre with a modest church and lovely old pavement headstones in its courtyard from the days when rich citizens were buried there. Poor folk, by the way, got a communal grave somewhere else. There’s a gorgeous view down to the ocean from the parapet. There are also some lovely meandering side streets and small squares in the historic district.
Sao Bras is very much a workaday town where Algarvean folk live relatively untouched by tourism. Each April the town transforms itself to celebrate Easter Sunday with its Allellulia Parade. The whole community seems to get involved lining its streets with real flowers and greenery. The men show up with large bouquets or torches of flowers which they parade noisily through the streets after a celebration Mass chanting Allelulia, Allelulia, Allelulia. There are craft kiosks, food booths and souvenir sellers galore. Busloads of tourists come for the celebrations.
Otherwise it is a sleepy town that is lovely to spend an afternoon in, getting away from it all. The surrounding countryside is gorgeous, filled with hiking trails through cork forests. I must say that Sao Bras de Alportel is one town that does it up right with translating tourist materials into English. There are lots of them and they are pretty readable. You’ll quickly note that many towns seem to save money on translation by using computer-based translation services. While colourful, at times they are almost unreadable! But I think Sao Bras actually uses real people. Yay.
Loulé lies northeast of Albufeira, inland from Almançil. It is a wonderful working town and regional administrative centre most famous for its Saturday morning farmer’s market. I can barely imagine Saturday without an early start to beat the hordes at the Loulé mercado. Local farmers fill the streets surrounding the mercado building with colour and life, to say nothing of a fabulous array of fresh produce, meats & cheeses and baking. Later each Saturday morning there is a special market set up down the street in the historic centre; each week you’ll find a different focus: crafts, antiques, artworks, books & memorabilia, etc.
I don’t restrict myself to Saturday morning visits to Loulé either. It is a great place to find fashions, footwear, lingerie, hardware items and much, much more. But you’re probably interested in its sights and activities. If you take some of the back streets that snake out from the mercado building you’ll find an old church in the historic centre and next to that is a lovely little park behind wrought iron fences. There are some nice views from one side of the park and it can be quite delightful to sit in the shade of the palm trees on a hot day, just watching the world go buy and the old folks collect to catch up on the local gossip. There’s a ‘hidden’ chapel that you won’t know even exists unless its doors are open down the hill from the mercado building at the sign to the castle ruins. And the castle ruins have some interesting old artifacts to poke around exploring.
For me, though, Loulé is more about shopping than sightseeing and history. It has a number of pedestrian streets that are lively and lined with some great jewellery stores as well as shoeshops and fashion accessories. I can’t imagine a trip without several visits to this charming town.
Heading slightly west now and definitely into the hills you’ll come upon Silves, another regional administrative centre. But where Loulé seems to be all about shopping for me, Silves is all about history and entertainment. As you drive north from Armaçao de Pera you can’t help but notice the ancient castle on the hill. And sharp eyes might be able to pick out the cathedral just below the castle. The cathedral has been gracing the hills since the 13th century, the castle since the 10th! If you are a fan of the Knights Templar, Silves is a must. This castle was originally built by the Moors when they invaded the Iberian peninsula but then was traded back and forth between the Crusaders and the Moor for the next several hundred years. And the Crusaders were primarily Knights Templars.
The castle has been completely restored thanks to UNESCO money. For a very slight fee (~€2.50) you can walk its ramparts, enter the guard towers and make certain there are no marauders at the gate, and enjoy the gardens and habitation reconstructions inside. The views from the ramparts are stellar.
Silves is chock-a-block filled with old churches, a nice archaeological museum, cobbled alleyways and side streets. The town square half-way down the street is delightful and contains a very old-style pastry shop with great tile-art and fabulous goodies. There are a couple of tables outside to make it easy for you to access the free wi-fi on offer. Head down to river level and you’ll find a ton of cafes & restaurants, the mercado building (I can’t believe I haven’t made it to this mercado yet) and a lovely waterfront walk with an old Roman era bridge. The tidal Arade River is fun to ponder, either when it is mostly mud flats at low tide or when filled at high tide. Imagine that in the good old days ships came up this far to discharge their cargoes. Even fierce Vikings rowed their longboats up as they raped & pillaged their way around Europe! Yikes.
On weekends, Café Ingles which is nestled half up the steps between the cathedral and castle offers great music & meals on its patio. Down by the water, O Cais is a great place to have dinner and enjoy Fado. Be sure to book ahead, though. It is small and fills up fast. If you are a night owl, after the formal fado finishes upstairs, people pile downstairs for an informal fado jam session that can go on into the wee hours. Here’s where you get local singers taking the floor and providing their heartier, more rustic version of songs. Sometimes they even break out into regional folk dancing.
Drive north from Portimão and you’ll eventually find Monchique perched high in the mountains. It’s a good road but definitely very winding and you can expect your ears to pop more than a few times. Monchique is most definitely a mountain town. Not a lot of pretty architecture but very worth the visit. The village square sports a nice array of statues and a frescoed wall. It’s narrow, steep streets are fun to ramble around in. But keep your wits about you. Many of them are both narrow and steep; it can be easy to forget that car traffic might happen along on streets that we could consider to be impassable.
In fact, I did that one day. My friend Sandy and I were heading up to Foia, the highest point in the region. You have to go through Monchique to get there. But as we entered town on Easter Thursday they were getting ready for some sort of event so the road was blocked off. Being an inveterate off-the-beaten-track driver, I knew I could drive around the town and pick up a back road I’d discovered on earlier visits and make my way up the back of the mountain to Foia. As we headed to that back road, I noticed a little sign and thought I’d discovered a short-cut to it. Well, my my my. What I’d discovered was the back way through Monchique. We went up and down and around, several times on streets so narrow that I wasn’t certain my teeny-tiny car would make it. I would have turned around but that was physically impossible! So on we crept, surprising several groups of old ladies who clearly thought it was their right to occupy the middle of the street. Eventually we came to a place where I thought we were heading into a farmer’s yard but then spotted a bit of pavement beyond it. We pursued that route, did another couple of dipsey-doodles and then I spied some bright blue condos down the road. I recognized them as a landmark on the way up to Foia. Yay. We had successfully meandered our way through the back streets of Monchique. Not for the faint of heart to be sure. And your driving skills better be pretty darned good, especially if you are driving a standard. Lots of stops at the top of steep rises!
Monchique is definitely worth a visit and a wander as you look down the mountains, discover a resilient and hearty people and perhaps find some of the robust chouriço sausages they are noted for. And don’t be surprised if a herd of goats gets paraded along heading for the next pasture!
Right on the west coast, about the same level as Monchique lies ancient Aljezur. You can take the main highway up the coast but I like to head west from the Monchique highway and approach it that way. Until very, very recently Aljezur was a town that only hippies and surfers seemed to know about. Like Silves, it has an old castle on the hill. Definitely worth visiting as the views are incredible and the history described is quite interesting.
The town of Aljezur itself is a peaceful one with a few nice restaurants, a nice but small mercado and wonderful cobbled streets. I love driving them because I know they are 2-way streets even though they are narrow enough that I can touch the houses from my car!
Like Sao Bras de Alportel, part of my love for Aljezur is that it is so ordinary in the sense that it doesn’t have fabulous monuments, shopping malls or beaches. It is a place where you can see real people getting on with life, relatively undisturbed by tourist concerns.