Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Algarve


“Portugal – it’s like Donegal, only with sunshine.”

I recall this quip from a work-mate, a description of his favourite golfing destination when I told him about my impending first trip there back in the 1970’s.  And it is indeed accurate, in a couple of senses.
Just as the Irish county is bolted onto Northern Ireland providing Ulster’s western seaboard, Portugal reveals itself as an appendage to the Iberian peninsula, almost in the shadow of its larger Spanish neighbour.  But the most striking parallel is that both places contain some of Europe’s most beautiful and inviting beaches.

That was why the Portugal was this family’s preferred holiday destination when our children were growing up.  One or two trips were made to the country’s west coast near Setubal; but most of those idyllic holidays were spent on the south coast, the Algarve.

This year, like a new awakening, it dawned on us that it had been more than 20 years since visiting Portugal (apart from one trip to Madeira).  To prove our resolve, an immediate decision was reached to remedy the shameful deficiency.  But rather than return to earlier haunts like Alvor, Portimao and Albufeira, we decided that the priority this time would be to explore the eastern Algarve.


From Ireland, there are two principal options for flying to the region’s airport at Faro.  One is Belfast, the other is Dublin.  The former entails a very early start to meet a 6 a.m. flight departure; whereas the latter offers a late afternoon departure and a mid-morning return flight.  For that reason, as well as the benefit of free transport direct to the front door of the airport terminal (using the senior citizens bus-pass), we booked Aer Lingus flights from Dublin to Faro.


One attraction for holiday-makers to Portugal is its range of good quality accommodation in restored buildings of architectural and historic interest.  
Pousadas describe themselves as small luxury hotels and are spread over the country[i].  Only three are located in the Algarve.  One sits in the village of Estoi which is just north of Faro.  It was temptingly described by one travel writer[ii] as

“for style and luxury combined with Portuguese panache, base yourself in this Neo-Rococo palace with chandeliers, mirrors, impressive stucco work...”

Evidence which is hard to resist.

Arriving in the early evening, this was a good choice for us being a short drive from the airport.  The late 18th century Pousada do Palacio de Estoi is a spacious modernised property in a grand baroque building with Versailles-style gardens.  It has 45 double bedrooms, 15 superior rooms and three suites.  Its facilities include outdoor and indoor swimming pools, spa, and wifi.

Venturing out without ambling too far beyond the confines of the village, our first discovery was the Algarve's premier Roman site at Milreu.  This is the location of a Roman villa and a range of associated structures, whose most impressive feature was a series of beautiful mosaics. 

It appears that the affluent Romans built villas with facilities that are still regarded today as the the essence of luxurious living, such as a spa.  Very civilised.

One joy of discovering this area in late spring is the abundance of all sorts of wildflowers.  Poppies thrive. Nature is winning.


We visited two of the most beautiful beaches anybody could wish for, both accessible (almost tantalisingly) only by boat.

The first was the aptly-named Ilha Deserta.   
We took a boat from the Porta Nova just outside the walls of Faro’s old town, a trip of about 20 minutes.  You sail along shimmering channels between sandy islets through the Ria Formosa Natural Park wetlands, emerging onto what appears like the most expansive and deserted sandy beach ever.  After an hour or more of relaxing with a good novel and some swimming, there is time for a late lunch in the island’s single restaurant before a return trip back to Faro.

The other magnificent beach was thirty kilometres further east, off the pretty town of Tavira.  The ferry-boat to the Ilha Tavira leaves from a spot close to the town centre at the estuary of the Rio Gilao.  The distance and time to get there is similar to that for Faro’s deserted island.  

One difference is that this island is populated with an array of restaurants, all grouped together and offering a range of prices.  Another difference was that there were more visitors than on the Ilha Deserta.  That said, however, walking for no more than five minutes up the expansive sands and it was easy to find privacy away from the madding crowd.  Gorgeous sand and crystal clear water once more.  Bliss.

Faro, the old town

A couple of years ago we spent a week discovering Malaga, through which most tourists pass through from the airport and head to the costas.  That trip was a revelation, partly because Malaga is a fascinating city with many cultural assets and one that is not dominated by tourism.  In such resorts, one feels more like a local than a visitor.  The same applies to Faro.

We travelled from Estoi into Faro on the local modern bus, offering the opportunity to gaze at the verdant countryside and its fertile fields displaying a wide range of horticultural produce including olive groves, orange trees, and grapevines.  The 8 kilometre journey took less than half an hour.

One of the most eye-catching sights of Faro is storks and their nests.  These tall skinny-legged birds build the most enormous nests sited precariously on top of some of the city’s most prominent buildings.   
Storks' nests (4) on Arco da Vila
I observed as tourists risked getting knocked down attempting to get the impossible photo of these elegant creatures landing and taking off.  What a tribute to Faro’s green credentials and its citizens that they allow nature to co-exist rather than, as might happen elsewhere, relocate the nests.

Entering the old town at the 19th century Arco da Vila gateway and its bell tower adorned with storks nests, we visited the majestic Santa Maria Church, Faro Cathedral.  This is the centrepiece of the historic quarter.  The Cathedral accommodates eleven or more chapels, replete with enough religious art and sculptures to keep a saintly person going for at least a lifetime.  
                                    And what a view from above.
View over Faro from the Cathedral

Outside the old town, we visited another large church, the Igreja do Carmo, again full of elaborately decorated altars, a place for quiet reflection.  Its chief draw for visitors, however, was the almost ghoulish Capela dos Ossos, or Bones Chapel.  
Apparently, to accommodate an extension to the mother church, the skeletons of many monks were disinterred from the adjacent cemetery and to this day their skulls and bones form the neat interior of this chapel.

This being a holiday, more earthly pleasures merit space.  While waiting for our return bus to Estoi, we stopped at a cafe across the street from central station for coffee and cakes.  I ordered a triple pancake smothered in cream, ice cream, strawberries all covered in a Chantilly and chocolate sauce.  
A mid afternoon snack like this combined with pleasant sunshine creates quite a soporific effect.  I suspect this is why I slept most the way back to the Pousada.


Before setting out on this visit to the Algarve, a friend at home had recommended a visit to Tavira as the most pleasant place to visit, unspoilt by mass tourism.  It lies about 30 kilometres east of Faro, an easy drive for us from Estoi.   
The Ilha Tavira ferry
Apart from the beach on the Ilha Tavira, the town’s riverfront was recommended by our guidebook[iii] as the best place for a wander.  It leads up to the town’s central square, the Praca da Republica, where we were met by the magnificent strains of the best busking jazz band I have ever heard.  Not unlike the Buena Vista Social Club in tone and quality.


When we visited in mid-May, apart from some cloud on the first two days, the weather was mostly very pleasant with temperatures in the low 20's C. Sea temperatures were perfectly acceptable for swimming.  
All in all, our next visit to Portugal will not take twenty years to organise.

©Michael McSorley 2016

[ii] Belfast Telegraph Weekend 2 June 2014 Harriet O’Brien 48 Hours in Faro
[iii] The Rough Guide to Portugal Jan 2014