I will admit to having deep misgivings when I booked a holiday in the Algarve region of Portugal. I had visions of 1980s-built holiday resorts and drunk Brits showing off beer bellies in their football shirts… far removed from the sophistication of Lisbon.
The Algarve is well known for its 200 kilometres of coastline, 74 Blue Flag beaches and claim to enjoy 300 days of sunshine every year. As I’m neither a beach or a sun soaking sort of person, I was not sure a holiday in the Algarve was right for me.
But I proved myself wrong. Here between the mountains and the sea is a treasure trove of history, culture and architecture. And I didn’t spend more than half an hour on a beach.
Rather my most memorable hour was spent sitting in the cloisters of what was the 16th century the Convent of Our Lady of the Assumption, the old stone arches glowing in the sun, gargoyles depicting fabulous harpies and hybrid beasts. One creature grasped a human child in its arms.
The historico centro of Faro is lovely, with colourful wooden fishing boats in the marina and peeling plaster on the walls of the old buildings. Bright flowers in pots and the last blossoms of jacaranda trees falling in the main square.
Faro has pre-Roman origins and has been an important urban settlement in southern Portugal for a millennia. Ruled by the Moors and then the Portuguese, the remnant fortifications frame the city.
I arrived in the off season and the sunshine came and went, but when it was shining it was hot. The Atlantic was grey and shining clear. There were no football shirts to be seen until a mistaken detour through Albufeira one day. The least said about that the better.
Most of all I loved the architecture of the Algarve, for all its decorative delirium. Moorish style chimney pots vied with TV antennas on every rooftop. White walls are bordered with warm yellow or blue abstract shapes.
In Lagos you pass through the ancient walls to find quiet squares surrounded by building facades covered with exquisite tilework. The Azelejo tile decorative panels offer a play of colours and shapes that often cover entire house frontages. There are Dutch-influenced blue and white tiles, and colours of the red earth, the green olives, the citrus trees and the vineyards of the Algarve.
It was sitting in the little archeological museum of Faro that I found the true romance of the Algarve. A series of paintings depict the “enchantments of the Algarve” – legends of the Terras da Morra Encantada (Land of the Enchanted Moors), who ruled here from 711 to the middle of the 12th century.
Gilda – a snowy-fair blond of the icy north- was captured and sold in to the harem of an Arab Lord, a rough and noble prince of the Algarve. He was fascinated by here and weds her with great pomp and splendour, elevating her above all the others in the harem.
But she pines and sickens. Desperate, the prince searches for a cure and is at last approached by a man who was Gilda’s tutor in her childhood days. He explains that she misses the ice and snows of her homeland and his advice is to plant thousand upon thousand of almond trees throughout the land.
The Moor follows this advice and in the springtime white blossom covers the Algarve, reminding his lady of her home. If you ignore the bit about being captured and made a harem slave, this is really romantic.
The Cabo de Sao Vincente is the most south-western tip of Europe, a wind-swept promontory with its red lighthouse standing out on the cliffs above the green Atlantic. This is the Barlavento region of the Algarve and the cliffs have a honeycomb network of caves and rocks carved by the sea. The coastal vegetation is all mounds of yellow or purple flowers and low-growing juniper.
The coastal Algarve rightly claims historical significance. Not in Lisbon but here in the town of Sagres Portuguese ruler Henry the Navigator started a school of navigation in the 15th century that sent ripples of maritime exploration across the world for centuries afterwards.
“God gave the Portuguese a small country as a cradle but all the world as their grave,” wrote 17th century Portuguese writer, Antonio Vieira. I enjoyed seeing the fruits of that exploration in the architecture and culture of the Algarve.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited Portugal’s Algarve? What else would you recommend?