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Portugal Hanging Out in the Algarve and London

Doug Phillips

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By Doug Phillips from Canada, Fall 2002
October 15-November 1 2002 - Twelve days in the south of Portugal with four days in London before returning to Canada. The Algarve doesn’t get much respect on Slow Travel, but for us it was a great introduction to the concept of Slow Travel, long before we were aware of the term or the web site.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Introduction and Planning

In the spring of 2001, one of my brothers-in-law asked my Beautiful Wife (BW) & I, “How about going to the Algarve in the south of Portugal in the fall?” Our reaction was, “Sure, when do we leave?”

I retired in June 2000, 53 years old, after 31+ years as a high school teacher. BW & I had four children - an older daughter who was living on her own, a pair of twins about to go off to university and a younger son still in high school. Our travel opportunities had been quite limited for the past several years. For five years early in my teaching career I took groups of students to Paris, London or Rome on Spring Break tours and two summers I backpacked through Ireland, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. We trekked off to Orlando for a week one year when our children ranged in age from six to 12. I won a travel prize at a conference back in the late ‘80’s – which translated into a week in Ixtapa on the Pacific Coast of Mexico for the two of us in December 1990. In February 2001, all six of us went on a Caribbean cruise for a week with brief stops at Aruba, Barbados, St. Martin, Antigua and St. Kitts. But that was it. Raising four children tends to limit both travel resources and opportunities.

We didn’t get to the Algarve in 2001. The tentative plans of our relatives never materialized. Over the winter BW & I decided we would plan our own trip. I went to the travel agent who had been very helpful arranging our Caribbean cruise the year before.

We had a couple of choices for our air travel. We could fly a charter plane directly from Toronto to Faro in the Algarve or we could fly British Airways to London then change airports from Heathrow to Gatwick and fly on to Faro. On the surface, the direct flight was the better option. However, the agent said that if we flew through London, we would have to spend one night in London on the way back. “Can we spend more than one night?”, I asked, naively. Eventually, we decided on 12 nights in the Algarve and four nights in London.

In the Algarve we chose to stay at the Jardim do Vau, located on Praia do Vau beach, three kilometers from the main town of Portimão and two kilometers from the very popular Praia da Rocha. We also booked a Fiat Punto, with pickup and return at the airport in Faro, for our time in the Algarve. In London, we booked four nights at the Tavistock hotel, close to Russell Square in Bloomsbury.

And off we went.

We spent most of our time in a very popular and commercialized tourist area where the primary language appeared to be English, with German coming in second; where we could eat pizza and fish and chips or patronize North American fast food palaces; where we could visit a multi-level shopping-mall less than five minutes away; where my biggest cultural challenge was figuring out how to gas up at the self-serve stations; where the primary attraction for many people we met was golf; where, in many respects, the location was about as exotic and foreign as Florida.

So how did it work out?

We had a great time. Our only slightly negative experience occurred on arrival in Faro. We had to make the drive in our rental car from the airport to our hotel more than an hour away in the dark and with very sketchy directions. While we will very likely never return to the Algarve, our experience there and in London was the start of our travels to Europe, which we hope will continue both in frequency and duration for several years.


BW on Praia da Rocha in the Algarve
Historical and Geographical Overview

Algarve is from a Moorish phrase “Al-Gharb”, meaning “The West.” The Moors controlled the Algarve for 700 years. The Moorish influence is still evident in the Algarve – in the architecture, colours and designs, cooking utensils (the cataplana), food – including figs, oranges and lemons which were all introduced by the Moors – and even in the names of many of the towns. The “Al” at the beginning of place names like Alvor, Albufeira, Aljezue and Alcoutim indicates their Moorish origins.

My sister and her family lived in St. John’s Newfoundland for three years. We visited them for a few days in the summer of 2003 – about 10 months after our visit to the south of Portugal. She and her husband drove us around much of the Avalon Peninsula. At some point, my sister asked what I thought of the terrain. I replied that its rough beauty reminded me of the Algarve – except that, where there were cedar forests along the rugged cliffs in Newfoundland, in the Algarve that’s where the people lived and many towns were located. The beautiful, sandy beaches in the Algarve were replaced by rocky and boulder-strewn seascapes in Newfoundland. The cool, windy August weather we encountered in Newfoundland didn’t recall any experience I had in the Algarve the previous October. Every day was sunny and quite warm. We spent part of each day on the beach.

The Algarve coastline is 155 kilometers (96miles) long and consists of five main regions:
  • Faro and the East - from Vila Real de Santo António to Faro. This area is fronted by a chain of sandy offshore islands.
  • Albufeira and the Central East - from Faro to Portimão, featuring the heaviest resort development.
  • Central West Algarve - from west of Albufeira to the Alvor estuary is also heavily developed but features many beautiful beaches.
  • The West - from Lagos to Sagres is the least developed and populated area culminating in the wind-scoured grandeur of the Cabo de São Vicente.
  • The Hills - The hilly, green interior rises to two high mountain ranges, the Serra de Monchique and the less-visited Serra do Caldeirão. This area offers the most panoramic views of the Algarve, it’s most beautiful community – Silves, and a quiet respite from the commercial activity along the coast.
During our 12 days in the Algarve, we never ventured east of Faro so I can only comment on the last four regions.


Early morning strollers on the Praia da Rocha
Thumbnail Sketches

Following is a brief description of the communities that we visited.

Albufeira and the Central East

Much of Albufeira is very unattractive with many disco bars, “real British pubs” and inexpensive souvenir shops. Apparently the “Old Town” high above the beach has survived the tourist boom, but it is the least appealing side of the town that the visitor passes through to get to the attractive beach. I would never recommend Albufeira to anybody.

Villamoura is a planned leisure community, begun in 1974. It features a 1,000-berth marina surrounded by large hotels, a casino, luxury hotels and manicured golf courses. We spent part of a day walking along the marina area, ogling the expensive boats and window-shopping before heading over to the Praia de Falésia for a picnic lunch. We had to seek refuge in a grassy area because of the fine layer of sand that was being blown by the constant wind along the beach. If I was looking for a place to dock my million dollar yacht, I would consider Villamoura.

Loulé (LooLEH) is the central market town for the area - a busy mix of old passageways and churches, an impressive market hall, modern streets and a broad boulevard. By far the best day to visit Loulé is Saturday – market day – when the colourful market overflows the central hall into the surrounding narrow streets. The market is a vibrant mix of colours, smells and sounds. Loulé is inland from the coast and is likely not a good place to stay for most visitors.

Central West Algarve

Carvoeiro (CarveWHEREoo) enjoys a dramatic location on a small triangular cove beach with steep cliffs lined with picturesque painted houses on both sides. High waves crashing on the small beach, at least when we were there, are very impressive. Unfortunately, away from the beach Carvoeiro is a lot like Albufeira, although on a smaller scale.

Portimão is the second-largest town (after Faro) in the region – a river port on the Rio Arade with traditional narrow streets and a modern commercial centre. It is a convenient place to do some shopping, has a lot of restaurants and is a good place to catch a boat cruise either up the river or out on the ocean in a modern replica of a traditional Portugese gondola. Our hotel was only a few minutes from the conveniences of Portimão.

Ferragudo is on the opposite bank of the Rio Arade from Portimão. It is (at least was a few years ago) a relatively undeveloped original Algarve community. We only spent a couple of hours there one afternoon, but it provided great views of the commercial developments across the river.

Praia da Rocha (Beach of the Rocks) features a spectacular man-made beach, combining impressive rock formations with a wide and lengthy expanse of sand. Away from the beach there is little to see or do with a streetscape dominated by souvenir and wine shops and inexpensive restaurants where English is the language of the day. But, we were tourists who spoke English and our hotel was on the adjacent Praia do Vau – so we did spend parts of several days both on and away from the beach at Praia da Rocha.

Alvor, a few miles west of Portimão and Praia da Rocha, is a traditional fishing village that has been transformed into another tourist development. However, most of the development is away from the original and attractive seaside area. Alvor was only a short drive west from our hotel on Praia do Vau. It was an appealing alternative to spending more time in Praia da Rocha. We liked Alvor, especially in the late afternoon or early evening, when we could enjoy the picturesque views framed by the low and setting sun. I have recommended Alvor to some friends thinking of going to the Algarve.

The West

Lagos (Lah-goosh) is a large attractive community with more history and character than any other town in the Algarve. It is a walled town with narrow streets, a vibrant commercial centre, some excellent restaurants and nearby beaches. We only spent part of one day in Lagos, but it could easily serve as a base for a holiday in the Algarve.

Luz is the last holiday resort of any size heading west. The original village has been replaced by low-rise apartments. From our brief time in the village, it would appear to be almost completely British.

Sagres, is most noted for it historic fortaleza originally built by Prince Henry in the 15th century. The fortaleza occupies a large area at the edge of the high cliffs a couple of miles from the town. The bleak landscape of the fortaleza, which provides some idea of the harshness of life in the 15th century, is somewhat redeemed by the impressive Compass Rose, carved into the surface rock. We never ventured into the town.

The Hills

Silves is the crowning jewel of the Algarve interior. It is the closest approximation to a Tuscan hill town or a Provencal perched village found in the Algarve. The two main attractions of the town are the cathedral and the castle (Castelo), and a highlight of any visit to Silves is ascending the narrow streets and enjoying the excellent views from the battlements of the castle. There are many popular restaurants and shops in the town.

Caldas de Monchique is a spa town in the Monchique mountains. We spent a couple of hours in the village on a day trip into the hills. It seems very quiet and sedate, with a couple of recommended restaurants, but our visit did not coincide with a mealtime.


Silves, from the Rio Arade
Jardim do Vau in October

A significant reason for the success of our holiday in the Algarve was our accommodations. The Jardim do Vau is located on Praia do Vau beach, close to the main town of Portimão, two kilometers from Praia da Rocha and only a few minutes drive to Alvor. It consists of 131 apartments in three low-rise buildings, an attractive pool area and only a very short walk to a beautiful beach. Our room was large, well-furnished, equipped with a kitchenette, a separate bedroom, and included a balcony with a sea view. The Jardim do Vau was a very short walk to a great beach in a quiet area and a short drive to many places and services. We didn’t see any more desirable place to stay during our time in the Algarve. Highly recommended.

The building closest to the pool was almost completely occupied by British and Germans as part of a timeshare. Our building was almost completely deserted. We noticed extensive ongoing renovations in at least two of the nearby rooms.

We also noticed that there weren’t many people wherever we went in the Algarve, except for Saturday at the market in Loulé and the day we visited Cabo de Sao Vicente. Many of the restaurants were getting ready to close for the season at the end of October. We were very fortunate with the weather. Every day was beach weather but it was never too hot or uncomfortable.


Jardim do Vau from the sea

Each day I awoke about 7:00am, made my way down to the almost deserted beach – with only a couple of local fishermen casting into the surf - swam out into the Atlantic Ocean, returned to the beach and went for a brief swim in the hotel pool to wash off the salt water, walked back to our room, then, most days, started preparing breakfast. That may not sound like much to many of you, but it’s something I was never been able to do previously. I liked that a lot.

A few days we skipped breakfast, walked a couple of kilometers along the beach, climbed up the cliff-side steps into Praia da Rocha, had a late morning meal in one of the many English-staffed restaurants, strolled around the shopping area, then made our way back to our hotel by returning to the beach in the mid-afternoon. We would lie on the beach until it was time to think about where to go for dinner. Tough days.

Every day, tides permitting, there is a boat trip from the dock at Portimão up the Rio Arade to the hill town of Silves aboard a picturesque replica of a traditional 19th century Portugese gondola. We did it one day and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We had a few hours to walk around Silves before returning by boat in the late afternoon. We enjoyed Silves so much that we returned by car a few days later. There are other boat trips along the coast. These trips are of varying durations. We did one of the shorter ones. Aside from providing a sea view of the Algarve coastline and a chance for a brief swim in deep water, we didn’t enjoy it as much as the trip to Silves.

Market day in Loulé is Saturday. It is colourful, vibrant, busy and a great way to spend a couple of hours. After visiting the marker we wandered among the small adjoining streets and visited several artisan shops and design/antique stores. At one point we met some brief British acquaintances from a few days ago and stopped in a café on the main street for a light lunch and an espresso.

Cabo de Sao Vicente is the westernmost part of mainland Europe. Once known as “The End of the World” it is now home to a powerful lighthouse at the edge of the cape atop the rugged cliffs. It is a popular tourist spot with rows of buses and lines of vendors as you approach by the narrow road. It is worth a visit for its spectacular views and rugged beauty.

The Monchique Mountains are really a series of low hills that rise a few miles away from the coast. They provide some good views of most of the Algarve on a clear day from the vantage point at Foia. The village of Monchique provides the opportunity for a pleasant stroll and visiting some artisan shops and a quiet place for a drink or a snack. The interior of the Algarve is much less busy than along the coast.

The main shopping opportunity in the Algarve is pottery. There are inexpensive and unimpressive selections available everywhere along the N125. These we ignored. There are a few places producing higher quality pieces. We purchased several pieces from Olaria Porches in Porches. This workshop is operated by the family of Patrick Swift, the Irishman who helped to create the industry back in the late 1960’s. We also were attracted by the creations available at the nearby Olaria Pequenia, founded and still run by Scotsman Ian Fitzpatrick. Finally, we bought a couple of pieces from Kate Swift, Patrick’s daughter, who is based in Silves.

One day we almost went golfing like many other people we met, but we came to our senses and did something else.


Market day in Loulé

Please note that the information below was accurate in October 2002

Hellmans – at the harbour in Alvor, is a popular Swedish-run restaurant. Great views and several fresh fish options. Closed November - March.

Togi – a Dutch-run restaurant on a quiet street in Carvoeiro on the road to Algar Seco. We enjoyed an excellent meal in a very pleasant setting. Closed late November - late March.

Dona Barca – behind the sardine quay in Portimão in the old part of the town. We sat at benches outside. Fresh fish is the reason to go there. Take it from me, DO NOT order the cuttlefish.

Titanic – an upscale restaurant in the newer part of Praia da Rocha on the ground floor of a tall building. We had a relatively expensive meal there on our last evening in the Algarve. Closed late November - late December.

A Logosteira – A reliable, unpretentious fish restaurant in Lagos at Rua 1 de Maio 20, just a block off the main pedestrianised shopping street. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner sitting at the open window. In retrospect, this was the most authentic Portuguese restaurant we enjoyed in the Algarve. Highly recommended. Closed mid-January to mid-February.

Fortaleza do Beliche – This small stone fortress between Sagres and Cabo de Sao Vicente was a great stop for lunch on the day we went to Cabo de Sao Vicente. It’s off by itself so in one way you can’t miss it, but you have to know it when you see it from the road. Closed mid-November to mid-December.

Café Inglês – located behind the cathedral in Silves, this English-run restaurant is a great place for lunch. Service can be casual (i.e. slow) but we enjoyed our two visits there. The bases of the small tables are recycled Singer sewing machine cast iron frames.


Lunch at Fortaleza do Beliche
Days and Nights in London

Fortunately, our British Airways flight from Faro back to London was uneventful. The previous day London was hit by near-hurricane force winds, resulting in cancelled flights and long delays at the airports.

We took the train from Gatwick into London, ending at Victoria Station. From there we took a cab to the Tavistock Hotel in Bloomsbury, only a couple of minutes from the British Museum and a short walk to two tube stations – Russell Square and Euston Square. The room was tiny; the breakfast (included) was very mediocre; but the rate was reasonable, the location great and the staff friendly and helpful. Apparently it is very popular with Canadians.

It was our first time in London in 30 years. We decided not to spend much of our limited time in museums and opted instead for several offerings from London Walks. The highlights were our visit to Greenwich (Historic Greenwich), the Jack the Ripper Haunts evening walk with Donald Rumbelow and the Old Westminster walk which ended near the Cabinet War Rooms and the opportunity to visit the underground bunker at a discount.

One evening we enjoyed a topical comedy, the controversial and short-lived Damsels in Distress by Alan Ayckbourn, at the Duchess Theatre. Back in the 1970s I had seen his Norman Conquests trilogy during its West End run. As much as the play, I relished the experience of returning to a small London theatre – a whisky in the bar before the first act, leaving an order with the barman for the interval, later sharing a table and a drink with a couple down from Scotland to take in a few plays over their anniversary. Not for me the lavish production musicals in large venues.

One day we walked and shopped in Covent Garden and along Oxford Street. We spent a few hours one day out at Canary Wharf. Another day we joined a tour inside the Tower of London and later walked along the Thames. And in the evenings we visited a different and unmemorable restaurant each evening. Nothing very remarkable, but we did enjoy our brief return visit to London before returning to Canada.


BW atop the Prime Meridian in Greenwich

Our 16 days in the the south of Portugal and London in October 2002 was our first independent vacation and it was by far the longest trip we had taken together. We enjoyed the experience tremendously. Somewhere around the fifth or sixth day in the Algarve we commented that we didn't have to get ready to go home in a day or two. Our positive experience led to the first question we now ask each other when we return from any trip - Where do we go next?

We did too little research about the Algarve before we went. However, one resource that we did find very helpful was the AA Spiral Guide volume on the Algarve.

Lessons Learned
  • I can drive in Europe.
  • Read about an area before I go.
  • Avoid peak periods.
  • Stay in as few places as reasonable.
  • Take along a good map and an accessible guide book.
  • Some days will be busier than others.
  • Plan some restaurant visits in advance.
  • Espresso is the only way to drink coffee.
  • Cuttlefish are not fish. Avoid for the rest of my life.
  • A week isn’t long enough.
  • It’s not about the shopping.
  • Learn at least a bit of the language.
  • Add a second travel experience with the main trip.
  • Travel is good for our relationship.
  • Remember where I parked the car.

View of Cirtus Groves from Silves Castle

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