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Beyond the beaches – an Algarve road trip

Over the years, the Algarve region has developed a reputation for crowded beaches as travelers from Portugal and abroad flock to the seaside in search of sun and fun. Yet if you look past the main resort towns, a more authentic experience is there for the taking.

Faro, the gateway city of the Algarve, is the administrative hub of the region and home to the main airport. It offers a selection of charming scenes linked to the past if one ventures into the old town.

View on Cathedral in Old Town of Faro. Photo: Shutterstock

The Vila Adentro area is accessed via medieval gates and leads visitors into a walled historical quarter that traces its origins to the Roman and Moorish occupations.

The plaza in front of Faro’s cathedral, built in the 13thcentury over the remains of a Roman temple, Visigoth church and mosque, welcomes new arrivals with a row of leafy orange trees. Inside, the cathedral enchants with a series of pretty Portuguese tiles (azulejos), marble inlay and gilded woodcarvings. 

To savor a proper culinary experience in the city, it’s necessary to move past the cafés and restaurants lining the main squares and poke your nose up a few pedestrian alleyways. For lunch, the cozy A Venda restaurant offers diners a genuine experience of petiscos, the Portuguese version of tapas. The small kitchen is in plain view, and the retro interior, complete with mismatched furniture and mesmerizing tile patterns, also serves as a mini market of sorts, selling the odd bottle of wine, tinned fish and citrus fruit. But the main reason to come is for the appetizing selection of dishes, including clams sautéed in garlic and coriander, blood sausage stew and fava beanfritters with smoked paprika sauce.

A Venda

Hidden away from the crowds on a quiet side street in Faro, this part restaurant, part grocery store – pick up a crisp white wine or tinned mackerel to take home – delivers a delicious array of Portuguese tapas and dishes that includes octopus salad, blood sausage, codfish and oven-baked goat’s cheese.

A Venda

60 Rua do Compromisso, Faro

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Telephone: +351 289 825 500

Photo: Pedro GuimarãesAfter tucking into several offerings, and then taking in the city’s dusty red rooftops and views of the Atlantic, push beyond the town’s limits and head inland several kilometers. Climb up gentle hills in the car and soon a few hamlets come into view. 

Estói

In Estói, the site of Roman ruins home to an ancient villa, you’ll come across the Pousada Palácio de Estói. Once the estate of a local viscount, the former aristocratic residence – it has since been converted into a hotel by Portugal’s Pestana hotel chain – is easy to spot with its pink exterior complete with bell tower and dome. Indoors, the decor is rococo in style, with ornatestucco ceilings, frescos on the walls and ceilings depicting nymphs and cherubs, extravagant chandeliers and gilt-framed mirrors. 

The main attraction, however, is found outside in the gardens. Down a flight of stairs, there is the main terrace with a formal French-inspired design done in a geometric layout that also features tea pavilions and a 200-year-old pomegranate tree. Enjoy the views of the Serra do Caldeirão Mountains and the city of Faro, and then venture down more stairs to explore the grotto and its sculptures. To unwind, there’s a modern swimming pool next door – part of a restoration project overseen byarchitect Gonçalo Byrne and Pestana to create a comfortable hotel on palace grounds. 

Photo: Pedro Guimarães

Pousada Palácio de Estói

This baroque palace in the hills outside Faro was once the home of a local aristocrat. Today, the property, with its charming gardens and chapel, hosts a pousada, one of the country’s historical hotels that is run by Portugal’s Pestana hospitality group. The 63-room pousada sports a spa along with indoor and outdoor swimming pools.

Pousada Palácio de Estói

Rua São José, Faro

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Photo: Pedro Guimarães

Olhão

Leaving behind the past, venture down to the town of Olhão, the main fishing port of the area.

Along the waterfront is the bustling fish market that was reportedly designed by famed French architect Gustave Eiffel during his sojourn in Portugal. The labyrinth of streets in the heart of the city invites visitors to explore every inch to discover stunning tile work.

“The great thing about Olhão is that it’s not a resort town,” explains Tara Donovan, the British owner of Casa Fuzetta – a three-floor rentable holiday home with a rooftop pool that projects the vibe of a Marrakech riad, albeit one with modern touches and an eclectic mix of furnishings.
“It’s like living in the medina of a North African city. Here, you don’t have nightclubs. Just great fish restaurants and a down-to-earth atmosphere.”

To reinforce her point about the town’s unique ambience, with its whitewashed homes and cubist architecture, Donovan shows off a collection of photographs from a 1952 issue of Vogue featuring Olhão. Models pose on the flat rooftop terraces, a popular feature of local buildings that permits residents to enjoy meals and nap in privacy above the hustle and bustle. The mood is more like Morocco than mainland Europe, and the same spirit can still be felt today when walking its narrow streets.

Photo: Pedro GuimarãesMoncarapacho

Heading east to Moncarapacho, there’s more stunning architecture to be discovered at Casa Modesta. Situated in the rural surroundings of the Ria Formosa Natural Park near the water, theformer fisherman’s hut from the 1940s has been given a careful facelift by local architectural practice PAr. Opened in 2015 by the Fernandes family, the whitewashed home and storage shed have been transformed into a modernist nine-room property. Patios, today outfitted with hammocks for guests, open on the south side to protect against cooler winds blowing down from the north and privacy is ensured by the balustrades. Flat roof terraces previously used to dry fish, now sport sun loungers.

“We want guests to slow down and forget the rhythms of city life,” says owner Carlos Fernandes. “Go for a bike ride in nature, head to the beach, or take a siesta in the hammock.”

Inside Casa Modesta is a traditional wood-fired oven and a sturdy Douglas fir table in the barrel-vaulted dining area. Local materials feature prominently in the remodel, including cork. Sliding doors divide the bedroom from the bathroom, which has a submerged floor that serves as a shallow tub, making life easier when you need to wash off sandy feet after a day’s outing on the coast. 

Photo: Pedro Guimarães

Casa Modesta

This modernist eco lodge consists of 9 rooms housed inside two whitewashed modernist blocks. Once the home of a fisherman, the Fernandes family has created a minimally furnished space using a mix of marble, brass, brick and cork. There’s an outdoor pool to cool down in summer and after dinner one can retreat to the lounge and its honesty bar stocked with an impressive mix of Portuguese wines and liqueurs.

Stay at Casa Modesta

Quatrim do Sul, Olhão

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Tavira

Next up on the itinerary is Tavira, arguably the prettiest settlement in the Algarve. Free of much of the noisy signage of touristy towns on the coast, it straddles the Gilão river and is a charming spot to take long strolls while admiring the blinding-white walls and red roof tiles as well as the dozens of churches that dot the landscape.

Photo: Pedro Guimarães

Santa Maria Church in Tavira. Photo: Pedro Guimarães
Two in particular to see are the Santa Maria Church, with its Gothic portico and large clock-face tower, and the austere façade of the late-medieval São Brás Church. 

 

Photo: Pedro Guimarães

If you get hungry

The seaside promenade in the village of Cabanas de Tavira is lined with restaurants but locals know to head to the one at the east end of Avenida Ria Formosa. Run by Noélia Jerónimo, a chef’s chef, she prepares out of this world fare for hungry patrons using seasonal ingredients that rely heavily on the sea.Try the tartares and grilled fish before moving to her fabulous rice dishes: lemon rice with corvina and clams, coriander rice served alongside fried fillets, ginger rice that comes with braised tuna plus a champagne-spiked oyster rice served with luscious bivalves.

Noélia

2 Avenida Ria Formosa, Cabanas de Tavira

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Photo: Pedro Guimarães

Castro Marim

After taking in the sights and spending time exploring the Formosa estuary and the local beaches of Terra Estreita, Barril and Homem Nu, it’s time to push further east to the Spanish border and explore the bucolic landscape of Castro Marim.

At Companhia das Culturas, owner Eglantina Monteiro has created rural lodgings in a chic setting on a property once home to making olive oil. Her 16-room hotel features a living room that formerly housed an olive press, and the decor is a curious assortment of furniture from different periods. A sofa in white leather by Brazilian designer Percival Lafer shares space with a Hans Wegner daybed, Marcel Breuer seating and a lamp by famed Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira designed in the 1960s.

To unwind, there’s a saltwater pool, a stunning hamam in marble and a generous offering of homemade treats from the property’s farm. Figs, apricots and oranges grown on the property are transformed into jams served at breakfast.
“My concept is rooted in something very rural and real,” says Monteiro. “It’s where you can escape the typical Algarve scenes and experience a different side of this incredible country.”

Companhia das Culturas

Acres of pine, cork and carob trees along with olives and other produce are one of the main attractions of this tranquil rural estate turned hotel that is a tucked away between the Guadiana River and the salt marshes of Castro Marim. There’s a cork-lined room for yoga, a hammam in white Alentejo marble and a lounge/library to curl up with a good book when one tires of sunbathing.

Companhia das Culturas

Fazenda S. Bartolomeu, Castro Marim

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