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!

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!