A lazy, laid-back vibe…
Moorish legends, an exotic coastal countryside, trailblazing Portuguese voyagers of yore, and a name shrouded in mystique (from Arabic al-Gharb, meaning ‘the West’). How can anyone dare to skip Algarve from their Portugal itinerary?
We picked Portimao as our base. So much less touristy than the nightlife hub Albufeira and the golf mecca Villamoura. And perfect for its proximity to Lagos, Sagres, and Monchique…which were our other lures. Missed Tavira, but you can’t have it all, can you? Multiple queues at the coach counters on Faro airport seemed like a setback until we reminded ourselves that October is off-season. An hour-long wait for the next bus or a seventy euro taxi. Hmm…devil or the deep blue sea, we pondered, before a taxi driver offered a shared ride with three other passengers. Five minutes, coffee and bags of munchies later, we were on our way.
The narrow, but impeccably maintained highway is bordered by a dry landscape…first views of the Atlantic teasingly elude you all the way. Meanwhile, an intermittent scattering of empty resort towns, overflowing with holiday homes, resorts and hotel complexes, continue to tug at your curiosity. Vacation world since the 60s…a favourite of tourists from UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland. Property prices? Tell me those two words didn’t pop into your mind for a split second there.
Small whitewashed houses with white shuttered-windows, red-tiled roofs and quaint, decorative chimneys…very mediterranean, very arab-inspired. What’s with the chimneys? During the Reconquista, many Muslims who resisted conversion, started installing chimneys on their roofs to identify fellow members of their community. Somehow, it became a national tradition. Now these smoke-emission agents have become symbols of the family…bigger, better, well cared for, clean and smoke-free.
An hour’s drive and you pull into Portimao. The city centre has a pleasant waterfront with several lively outdoor cafes, and some pretty churches in the old quarter (which doesn’t seem that old). Great alternative when you want more buzz or shop for local produce like preserves and condiments. Public transport is limited, and city buses ply through every half hour. People rent cars or bikes, and spotting a taxi stand can be an amusing treasure hunt. They aren’t marked out distinctly.
As you cross the quiet, winding roads of the small city centre, the spaces open up. The size of this resort town will surprise you…just 50,000 residents, but over ten times that can fit into the hundreds of those empty apartment buildings. Notice that only a handful have lights on clothes drying in the balconies. Off-season blessings for people like us, who don’t want to fight for a space on the beach. Dozens of resorts and hotels by the sea as well as rental apartments and cottages to cater to every budget.
While in Portimao, if luxe is your choice, consider Bela Vista Hotel, perched on a cliff overlooking the endless golden sands of Praia da Rocha. Built in 1918, it has the aura of a private mansion, complete with a grand piano, gilded-frame paintings and delicate objects d’art. From the champagne-and-orange welcome drink to the navy-red-white themed room with spectacular views of the sea and rock formations…its all pure Algarve. The guest book is a witness to who’s who from history, including Sidónio Pais, the King of Italy Umberto di Savoia, Fulgêncio Baptista, among others.
Luxurious breakfast on a sprawling terrace with unending seascapes, glorious sun, palm trees, canopied day-beds, rattan chairs, surprise fruit smoothies in tiny tequila glasses…can you ask for more? We even splurged on a gourmet seven-course dinner at the hotel restaurant for our anniversary. The 2.5 hour-long event included a gracious host who explained the concept of each dish in detail, a surprise tasting menu and synchronised movements of the two servers (one for each of us). Oh, and did I mention their La’Occitane spa…set aside half a day to pamper yourself with this other-worldly experience.
How can you possibly deny yourself the liberty of laziness in Algarve? Aimless strolls along the pedestrian Avenue Tomas Cabreira will become a compulsive habit. Shops and eateries lined all along beckon seductively and you are magnetically drawn in to browse for colorful souvenirs, flapping sarongs and dangling flip-flops. The barbecue counter at the Cafe del Mar fuels your appetite. Savour a tipica (typical) meal of chicken piri piri or chicken steak in peppercorn sauce with thick rice. Hog shamelessly on the fries as you soak in the classic Portuguese yellow-blue-white decor.
There are enough food choices to keep you satiated for a few days. An Irish pub, an American steak house, a couple of pizzerias, some Indian joints, and a British cafe that advertises fresh ham crepes, fruit smoothies, almond cake slice with strawberry and cream. Let your hair down and dance the night away at the jamming club, if you’re feeling a little crazy. Fresh seafood by the sea…yes, please. Everything is a few steps away. Sun-tanned elderly couples to young parents with toddlers…this is where time stands still for everyone. Sit back at the street-facing cafes or benches, sipping beers, juices and shakes, till you’re sleepy from the sun. Watch the couple waiting outside a bike-rental shop, squatting, chatting on the pavement for over half an hour, till the shop opens…no one is in a hurry to get anywhere. Gaze. Daydream. Revel in nothingness.
And of course, there’s the beach. Everything pales in comparison. Wake up to the most glorious of morning walks. The meditative swooshing of the incessant waves. The slow sinking of your feet as the soft golden sands melt away. The curl of your toes against the foamy, frothy, lace-edged waters. The dance of the floating cotton-wool clouds against the pure blue canvas. Let your bare feet soak in the warmth of the wooden planks along the endless boardwalk. Stare at the mesmerising rock formations jutting out on the far right. Float, swim, dive, play. Wonder about the ebb and fall of the tide. About the mysteries of nature. About the Portuguese voyagers. Drop onto one of the hundreds of loungers…close your eyes and just be.
In the evening, walk to the Miradoura viewpoint for an unbelievable, blazing sunset. Some photographer racing with his tripod and camera may overtake you, making you quicken your steps too. From high up there, with the Praia da Rocha sprawled beneath you, cool wind blowing your hair into your line of sight, screams of seagulls breaking the song of the waves, your one thought will be…can’t I freeze this moment forever? And if you can drag your eyes away from the ever-changing brushstrokes of the flaming fuschia-orange skies and gentle darkening of the silvery waters, you might even notice the fascinating compass-like pattern on the floor.
And this, then, is the essence of life in the Algarve…a languid retreat in the lap of nature. Where waves and winds provide the background score, the sky puts up a dazzling show every night and velvety sand carpets lie under your feet. What are waiting for? Just go!