Algarve, more than a popular retirement destination?

December 9, 2016

We had a week of holidays left which we had to take up before the end of the year. After visiting Porto and the Douro, the Azores and Lisbon, Cascais and Sintra, the Algarve was the place we still had to visit in Portugal. Many people are very enthusiastic about the Algarve, and many others buy a holiday house there. Conclusion: the place must be really beautiful and we wanted to walk, another good reason to choose the Algarve. Ryanair is the only airline flying direct from Brussels to Faro and their rates are so low it would be foolish not to fly with them. We booked our tickets and started thinking about where to stay. We do not like very touristy places, so we ended up choosing for the East of the Algarve. Tavira is named one of the most beautiful towns of the Algarve, and the hotel Azodi Tavira hotel had great rates in low season.

We booked a double room for 75 euro a night, breakfast included. And as it turned out, the hotel is a real beauty. Nicely decorated, an outdoor swimming pool, a steam bath and fitness area, a really cosy large lobby lounge area with couches, large tables, smaller tables with board games, and a bar-restaurant. The fitness room is rather small, but the simple steam room functions perfectly. The rooms are spacious, with very comfortable beds, a sofa, desk, and a large bathroom with a large walk-in rain shower, and all possible toiletries restocked daily. The breakfast buffet has everything you could wish for; fresh fruit, fresh juice, bread, pastries, croissants and bread rolls, yoghurt, cheeses and meat cuts, pancakes, bacon, beans, sausages and tomatoes, coffee, tea, cereals, and you can ask for any style freshly prepared eggs. The breakfast makes for a good start of the day. We more or less skipped lunch and went for a good dinner instead.

For dinner we looked around in Tavira, and ended up dividing our dinner evenings over two restaurants: Zeca da Bica and Aquasul, one street apart from each other on the East side of the river, close to the Roman bridge. Zeca da Bica serves Portugese food, from secreda Iberean pork, lamb roast, grilled fresh fish, grilled octopus to Cataplana for two. Their desserts are to die for: try their crem caramel, Algarvian orange cake, lemon merengue or Pavlova. The red house wine is better than the white house  wine.

Aquasul also serves Portugese dishes, freshly made pizza’s and they always have some daily suggestions. Their cheesecake is really good as a dessert. Zica is cheaper and more traditional, Aquasul is a bit more refined but also more expensive.

We had dinner at the hotel twice, and their food is great. The lamb was of a very high standard, succulent and tasty. And here, contrary to most restaurants, the offered entradas are included in the price. Traditionally you have to pay for the appetizers they serve you before the meal. If you do not touch them you will not pay for it. But don’t worry it usually costs only around 2 euros, so just dig in!

On our day of arrival we rented a car with Sixt car rental at the airport. We had booked a Volkswagen Golf for 109 euro for 7 days. We accepted the offer of a higher level car with a GPS for 6 euro a day extra. You have to pay 12 euro for the electronic toll device in the car for the week. All together we paid 177 euro for a large Seat Leon with GPS. We did not take any extra insurance and luckily did not need it, although we found out that the Portugese do drive rather unpredictable.

On the day of arrival, we stopped in Faro. We walked around a bit up to the Se, the cathedral, admired the storks on the roofs, and stopped at the bar-restaurant Tertulia Algarvia for a coffee. The pastries looked attractive so we ordered a pasteis de Nata and an orange cake. Orange is the local fruit, and the cake was delicious. Eating made us hungry, so we took roasted octopus (special of the day) and a salad to share. Very tender and fresh octopus and a great salad. I was really tired from getting up at 3 AM, so we continued to the hotel, where I crashed on the bed for a few hours.

We came to walk, but on our first day, our walk on the Seven hanging valley trail, was cut short by the rain, which started shortly after midday and did not stop for the rest of the day. At least we got to see the cliffs at Praia da Marinha in Lagoa before the rain started. I would have loved to see the Algar de Benagil, or the Benagil grotto, but it was not meant to be.

The next day we chose a walk nearby, A Walk to the Spring: a 9 km circular walk that took us 3,5 hours to complete. The walk starts in Fonte da Mesquita, is very diverse, goes up and down, but the road and noise of cars is never far away. At the start is a really nice bar-restaurant, Lagar Mesquita, which unfortunately has its closing day on Monday. We met the owner who was extremely friendly.

Next day we drove to the Costa Vincentina, in Alejanto, North-West of the Algarve. The Rota Vincentina, or Fisherman’s trail is very popular, so we wanted to see it up close. We drove to Almograve, where we wanted to walk the Dunes of Almograve trail, which is part of the Fisherman’s trail. The coastal cliffs are very impressive, with huge waves crashing on the coastline. Starting at Almograve beach, we only did part of the trail up to Praia da Barca Grande, me not really feeling well that day. We also visited the lighthouse at Cabo Sardão, with again great views of the coast. We immediately saw the attraction of the Fisherman’s trail for avid walkers and nature lovers. I would not recommend walking the  Fisherman’s trail in July or August, late autumn and early spring are the best times. In summer it is far too hot and far too busy.

We wanted to see more so we returned to the Southern end of the trail the next day. We parked our car at the Cap St. Vincento lighthouse.

This is the Southern most point of Europe, and the wind blows relentlessly here. From the lighthouse you can walk the 6 km long Telheiro Beach Circuit, last part of the Fishermans trail. You first follow the Historical trail, a GR trail, until the GR turns right towards the main road. The GR trail is marked with white and red stripes.

Here starts the Fisherman’s trail marked with blue and green stripes, and cairns, small heaps of rocks. The first part is very wobbly, the path is full of white spiky rocks. The path then meanders through low marine shrubs, goes up and down, you have to climb some rocky parts and a ladder at one point. The trail offers beautiful views of the coastal cliffs with the lighthouse in the back and a second lighthouse far away in front. Just walk until you get tired and turn back because this trail is not circular. Make sure to bring water and some snacks. The fauna is very diverse with many flowering plants and aromatic herbs. We might come back one day to walk the whole Fishermans trail in the future.

We drove to Sagres to see the sunset at the outermost point of Sagres, at the Fortaleza de Sagres (fortress). The historical importance of the fort outweighs the tourist experience as there is comparatively very little to see. But the view is impressive, and it is definitely a great place to enjoy the sunset. But is is also an extremely windy spot, once the sun is gone, the temperature drops dramatically, and we left feeling really cold and in need for a hot drink.

Since it was between 1,5 to 2 hours drive from our hotel to the Costa Vincentina, we decided stay closer to Tavira. From Faro to Vila Real on the Spanish border the coastal area is a nature reserve of coastal marshland called Ria Formosa. Ria Formosa is famous for its fauna, flora and the many bird species. Unfortunately not many trails are set out in this nature reserve. We googled a bit and found the Ludo trail that crosses the Ria Formosa, just next to the airport of Faro. The trail looks a bit out of place next to the noisy airport, but once in the reserve, the planes do not really bother any more. There are some salt pans, and on the far side the trail is bordered by a golf course. The trail is 7 km long, is circular, and takes about 2 to 2,5 hours to walk. When you arrive at the golf course, the trail does not continue straight, that road leads to a private property with noisy dogs and a very angry landowner. The trail continues by the side of the golf course on the right side of the dirt road. A bit further there a two bird watching houses. But most birds can be seen in the water parts of the marsh. We spotted storks, heron, egret, cormorant, dukcs, grebe, a hoopoe, a turtle and a flock of flamingoes. The trail is really worth it, but probably very busy in high season, since it is also popular with runners and bikers. The entrance sign is a bit confusing, but do not let it deter you from going in.

I wanted to see Cacela Velha, so we drove there after our walk. It is indeed a very picturesque small fisherman’s village with a small fort and a church, and a great view over the marshy coastal area with its many small islands. None of the cafés was open, so we visited the cemetery before leaving. It is a really weird place. The bodies are buried in alcoves stapled above each other, and in one the bones of a corpse were there for everyone to see, since they were making place for new bodies. The graves are colourfully decorated with pictures, plastic flowers, little statues, and lamps. But even more special are the little mausoleums, like little houses were the caskets are only covered by a heavy carpet. The caskets are shelved on both sides of the little ‘houses’ with a table in the middle where they put pictures, candles and statuettes. Family members can come and sit between their dead relatives, really strange. I was wondering if the place did not start smelling after a while with the caskets in open air like that.

We went for a coffee in Vila Real. The small city surprised us in a pleasant way. The town has a harbour at the river side, nice pedestrian streets, and we had coffee in two different coffee bars, where a galao only costed one euro! I read there was a nature reserve in Castro Marim North of Vila Real, good for bird watching. We went to check it out, as a possibility for the next day. The Tourist office of Castro Marim was still open, and with a lot of pointing on a map, and no English, I understood we could visit the nature reserve on the North of town, and make a walk in Cerro di Bufo in the South of town.

The visitor’s centre of the nature reserve itself was closed this time of year. We drove to the nature reserve to see the sunset. When we walked in we spotted some spoonbills, which were alarmed and flew off. We saw many more in the distance together with some storks. It was clear we would not be able to see them up close, but the zoom of our camera did a good job as binoculars.

The next day we first returned to the nature reserve and spotted spoonbills, herons, storks and flamingoes but all quite far away.
We drove to the South of Castro Marim, and found the entrance to Cerro di Bufo, where we could park our car. The entrance to Cerro di Bufo is on the main road towards Vila Real, South of Castro Marim. You have to take the second little road to the right after leaving the village. There is a little signpost about 500 meter away from the main road. We again spotted spoonbills, herons, ducks, sterns, and at the end of the walk a large flock of flamingoes. Some of them flew over, a beautiful sight! The path was quite muddy after the rain, but we were all alone, apart from a farmer who came to feed his cows. His cows recognised the sound of his horn, and came to eat the hay.

We had a last coffee in Castro Marim. Since the weather was still good although they had predicted quite some rain, we decided to drive to Tavira and make another walk at the seaside. In Pedras d’ El Rei part of Santa Luzia, we walked the Praia do Barril trail, which is in fact the walkway to the beach for local tourists. At this time of year it is a nice short walk of 1,5 km one way. In high season tourists who find this walk too long can hop on a small train that runs between the little village and the beach.

On the beach several old fisherman’s houses are turned into bars. One of them was open, so we took a red port to warm us up a bit. At the beach is an anchor cemetery. We walked back because the rain was intensifying, and reached our car just in time before a heavy downpour.

We rounded of our week with a relaxing time in the steam bath and a last dinner at the hotel. The hotel offers free tea in the late evening for its guests, as a night time cap.

We had seen most of the Algarve, and though it is very popular with tourists, it did not really charm me very much. I enjoyed my week of holiday, but do not feel the need to go back, except maybe for the Fisherman’s trail.

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