Travel: Look beyond Portugal's beaches to discover a wealth of cultural delights
Although synonymous with sun, sea and sand, the Algarve region has much more to offer in late spring, says Liz Ryan.
I’d blown into the Algarve on a cheap holiday flight buffeted by gales coming, unusually, from the north east. “No good wind comes from Spain,” warns my taxi-driver, quoting a popular local proverb, which has more to do with patriotic pride than meteorological forecasts.
If Portugal is emphatically not Spain, the Algarve is not quite Portugal. Firstly, it’s separated from the rest of the country by a high mountain range, the Serra De Monchique. What little rain there is – the Algarve has more sunny days each year than California – falls between November and February.
In the bone-dry summer months, it can seem as if the whole of Europe is catching a tan on the magnificent sandy beaches of Albufeira.
In many people’s minds, the region means two things – sunshine and golf. But Algarve tourism bosses are on a mission to make their southern province a year-round cultural destination.
For those who seek tranquillity, it’s good to visit out of season. In spring, almond blossom creates fragrant snow clouds of white petals, and orchards are bright with citrus fruit. It’s easy to hire a car or motorbike, and move around unhindered by August’s intense heat and traffic gridlock.
Travelling 50km westwards from Faro, popular resorts give way to crumbling, iron-stained cliffs, and expensive private villas constructed on land now protected from further development by strict planning regulations.
A discreet lane through a nature reserve leads to my hotel, the Suites Alba Resort & Spa, owned by footballer Luis Figo. The place is half-deserted and, wandering alone along the cobbled paths of the brightly painted, low-rise complex, I feel as if I’m on a movie set.
A brush with the past
The place has history in abundance: The Moors were here for 500 years, and the Romans before them. At Silves Castle, I examine the recently excavated ruins of a Sultan’s harem, complete with eunuch quarters, a tiny herb garden, a hammam, and the ladies’ primitive but functional toilet. (Lavatories of similar design, I’m amazed to hear, were used in Portugal until the 1950s.)
At Lagos, from where the earliest European explorers set out to map the rest of the world, you can still see the bases of the stone columns which once formed Europe’s oldest slave market, dating from the 15th century. A small museum commemorates victims of the trade.
Simply sophisticated cuisine
Blending fine dining with local culinary traditions, there are several restaurants in the region worth seeking out. At Veneza restaurant and wine cellar (restauranteveneza.com) in Mem Moniz, I eat food ‘as grandma made it’ – a deconstructed crab laid out nakedly and without pretension on a platter, followed by a bean soup pungent with chorizo. If you eat in the wine cellar, be warned: The ambient temperature is kept at the convenience of the wines, not you, so bring an extra jumper.
At Estamine (estamine.pt) on the uninhabited Ilha Deserta (Desert Island) in the Ria Formosa lagoon and wetlands at Faro, gastronomy combines seamlessly with eco-tourism. An exhilarating speed boat trip ferries me to lunch at a wooden-decked restaurant powered by solar energy, with fresh water recovered from the ground.
The seafood-based menu is garnished using island herbs such as marsh samphire. Ecologist Thomas Santos offers guided tours, explaining above noise of the crashing waves how the island came into being and how plants stabilise the dunes. The windswept beach is littered with pretty shells, but Thomas only lets me take three, so I choose them with care.
Artisan arts and crafts
“Culture is more than concerts,” I’m told by Joao Silvestre Ministro, general director of Proactivetur, a Loule-based responsible and cultural tourism consultancy. It’s a phrase I hear more than once from Algarvians, keen to protect their heritage.
In 2010, a project linked artisans with contemporary designers to revive interest in traditional crafts. Wandering the narrow alleyways of Loule, you can admire groups of women weaving palm baskets, or watch a coppersmith bashing the dents from a cataplana – a pot which gives its name to the fish stew which is cooked in it. Practical workshops are also available to visitors (in2south.pt).
Music for the soul
Culture is more than concerts, yet the region has an impressive live music scene too. This is the third year of 365 Algarve, a generously-funded arts programme that runs from October until May. On my first night, I catch The Analogue Music Project, a jazz band from West Portugal, playing to a chilled audience at the Quinta de La Rosa Winery at Silves.
Another evening, I travel to Sao Bras de Alportel, a small town north of Faro, to watch a late-night cinema programme that would have kept even the most obsessive film buff happy. Unfinished works by directors including Henri Georges-Clouzot and Orson Welles set to live musical accompaniment. The local cultural mafia are out in force, with hipster beards in abundance.
And for its haunting strangeness, I will not forget a dance work created by Giacomo Scalisi and Madalena Victorino. At Monchique, a mountain settlement of ear-popping altitude run by enthusiastic mayor Rui Andre, who is also an art teacher, I am part of a mixed group of locals and visitors who set out on a long walk to an abandoned hamlet. There, amid stone ruins that smell of woodsmoke, we watch Eva Poro #1, an ambitious piece featuring bare-chested men, dogs and horses.
Perched somewhere high on a rock behind me, a lonely cellist plays and sings her flamenco-inspired compositions into the deep silence. With the light fading and a cold wind whipping at the cork trees, it is a unique experience that will live far longer in my memory than noisy bars and crowded summer beaches.
How to get there
A two-person suite at the Suites Alba Hotel & Spa starts from E97 (about £84) per night, with breakfast during the low season. Visit suitesalbaresort.com.
For more information on the destination, visit visitalgarve.pt.
For details of the 365 Algarve cultural programme, visit 365algarve.pt.