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PORTUGAL
Fall 2003

Azores | Madeira | Lisbon | Algarve

Algarve (1) | Algarve (2)

After another delightful breakfast we reluctantly bade farewell to the Solar Do Castelo and took a taxi to the Central Rodoviaria on Av. Duque D'Avila. The bus station was clean and well organized. The "Eva" bus left Lisbon promptly at 10:30 arriving in Faro at 13:25. We took a taxi to the local affiliate of National/Alamo car rentals that Reise-Profi Service GmbH had arranged and were on the way in a matter of minutes.

The Algarve stretches 155km across Portugal's southern coast from Cabo de S„o Vicente at the western tip to Vila Real de Santo Antonio in the east, at the Spanish border. Sun-filled beaches grace the coastline. The northern mountain ranges temper the strong winds keeping the region calm, the Atlantic waters warm, and the temperatures mild year round (average 24C in summer and 15C in winter). This is the most famous Portuguese tourist resort. We had decided to stay 3 days on the eastern side at Monte Gordo and 4 days in the central area at Albufeira. Getting around is very easy as the highway and road network is excellent.

It was 40 minute drive on A22 to Iberotel All Suites Hotel, at the beach in Monte Gordo. Everything about this hotel is large, from the reception to public rooms and suites. If you don't want to leave the grounds there are all the health and leisure facilities to keep you busy, and if you're thirsty there are 3 bars. Our king-bedded room and sitting area were divided by an arched ceiling. The sitting area was quite comfortable with a sofa, chairs and writing table. The marble and tile bathroom had all the basics and lots of space to move around. Our balcony faced the sea directly across the way.

This old fishing village is well known for its long and deep sandy beach and casino. We spent the afternoon exploring the village, walking north, east and west and came to the conclusion that the beach and casino were indeed the highlights. Monte Gordo proved to be a good base for us to explore the eastern part of the coast.

Also on the positive side we found a couple of excellent value restaurants. A sweet lady in an Internet shop recommended Churrasqueira Dom Jorge, Rua Dom Francisco de Almeida, Tel. 281 513 690. She lives in nearby Vila Real De Santo Antonio and suggested a restaurant there, as well, which turned out to be quite wonderful also. At Dom Jorge, the owner Victor greeted us warmly in the fashion of a family neighborhood restaurant we all love to find along the way. The decor was typical Portuguese Maritime accessorized by lots of nautical and seafood photos. The house offered a smoked ham/pimento/green pepper appetizer and a glass of white wine. After relaxing over this nice starter we chose two soups, gazpacho and mariscos, to be followed by seafood Cataplana for two. The pot of monk fish, shrimp, clams, potato and onion was delicately flavored with cilantro, laurel leaves and garlic. Everything was quite wonderful including the Casaleiro red wine from Ribatejano. We noticed many of the regulars were ordering gorgeous looking grilled pork. Victor explained that this was very special pork from free range pigs. We had a feeling we might be back.
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The buffet breakfast was of poor quality in every respect including the staff that ignored the dishes piling up on the tables all around. The good news is we ate very lightly and salvaged calories for later in the day. We enjoyed a walk along the lovely beach while our laundry was being done at a local lavanderia.

Praca Luis de Camoes is the hub of the town and the location of the popular Restaurante O Jaime. It's a perfect location to attract tourists and has a large umbrella-covered patio which is very welcoming as is the interior. After walking in for a look and sniff we determined it was not a "tourist only" spot and seated ourselves on the patio. Linda had a tuna salad with really fresh vegetables piled high as was the tuna. My grilled sardines were what dreams of sardine lovers are made of, crisp skin and moist firm flesh. The accompanying vegetables were the same as Linda's and the boiled potatoes were perfectly cooked and drizzled with olive oil. (Yup, I can even make love to a boiled potato.) (Editor's note: That says a lot for me, doesn't it! ;-)

Vila Real De Santo Antonio is 10 minutes east of Monte Gordo along the shorefront road. Between the two towns is the National Forest where we saw many folks enjoying a walk through the woods. The town was founded by Royal Charter on December 30, 1773. Due to specific agreements with neighboring Spain, the town had to be built quickly. Marking out of the street plan started March 2, 1774 and by August 6 the Town Hall, Customs house and barracks were completed and the construction of the church had begun. From the end of the 19th century and onward for decades the town prospered because of the abundance of tuna and sardines in the waters which lead to its development as a major canning center. Today fishing, agriculture, commerce and tourism are the mainstays of an expanding and diverse economy.

There are magnificent beaches for those so inclined, but we were particularly attracted to the town itself and its people. It was no surprise to find that the town was laid out in a grid pattern because it was created in the time of the Marquis of Pombal who is famous for this style. We started our walk through the pedestrian area which is the heart of town. It was a Saturday and the streets were filled with shoppers. Particularly noticeable were the number of linen stores piled high with goods doing a land office business. With Spain just across the Rio Guadiana, a good part of the commerce comes from Spanish shoppers and this type of merchandise is a favorite of theirs.
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At the end of the pedestrian way we came into the Praca Marques de Pombal, in the exact center of which is an attractive 1776 monument. A black and gray stone pavement radiates out from the center obelisk to the surrounding orange trees. Three important buildings are in the square, the Town Hall, the former guard house and the main church. We sat on a bench opposite the church and enjoyed some people-watching, exchanging smiles and greetings with passersby. It was fascinating to see the number of people of all ages coming and going from the church, all seeming to know one another.

As we wandered the streets surrounding the pedestrian area, we were struck by the uniformity of the architecture which lives in harmony with the grid pattern. Since these buildings have stood for so long and many of them have not been restored, the original colors have taken on new hues and the decay has exposed the underlying stone and brick. The facades, as intriguing as the faces of the people, lend character to the town.

We spotted a small, unmarked bar on a corner. When we peeked in, we were amazed by the slice of life we had discovered. Shelves on the walls were filled with wine and beer bottles and hanging sports pennants. At the wooden bar were four or five men and one woman; the few tables were all occupied. Behind the bar was a tough lady serving drinks and dictating the rules of the place. Most were drinking wine from two wooden wine barrels with spigots. I couldn't resist walking in and was soon drawn into conversation by the hearty drinking crew. They told me the place is called the Fishermen’s Bar.

These fishermen had deeply tanned, wrinkled, leathery faces, strong handshakes and were eager to welcome strangers. Linda took a few photos while I accepted an offered glass of wine. The barmaid was happy to have Linda snapping away as long as she was excluded (camera shy). Quite the opposite with the female customer with the craggy face, a unique character Linda was delighted to photograph. The chatty group decided it was time to move on to another bar and invited us to join them, but since we were not in their drinking league and it was getting to be time for dinner, we begged off.

Casa Pisa 11 is located a little west of the main square. As we approached we passed an open rear window where family members and friends were sitting near the kitchen having dinner. It looked and smelled compelling and we hoped someone was available to take care of us. Have no fear; a delightful young woman would soon appear. She explained that the menu changes every day according to what is fresh that day. She told us we would love the vegetable soup and the Borrego a Pastora, lamb baked in the oven with vegetables. We nibbled on dense bread and fresh cheese while enjoying the comfort of the blue and white tiles and the photos of the town and ships adorning the walls. The irate shouts from the kitchen convinced us that this was a family affair. We were the first to arrive, but the locals began to pour in almost immediately. The delicious soup was served in huge bowls. The lamb was tender, not overly seasoned, relying on the natural flavor to please, which it did. The Borrego was served with fries, rice and peas. The house red was a medium dry, fruity delight, much nicer than I had earlier out of the barrel. Casa Pisa 11 is another very good reason to visit Vila Real de Santo Antonio.

One of my drinking buddies at the Fishermen’s Bar told us that there was a terrific Sunday market in the village of Estoi just north of Faro. The next morning, off we went in search of it, only to learn that the Estoi market would be held the following Sunday. However the man who gave us the bad news advised us that there was a big market in nearby Moncarapacho and he gave us directions to get there. There were the usual offerings of clothing, shoes, household goods, produce and assorted food products. There were a lot of youngsters hawking the goods with good lungs and lots of personality. A lot of farm animals had changed hands very early in the morning; just a few were left by the time we arrived. As usual, it was a buzz to watch the interaction of vendors and buyers. This is a village typical of the "Barrocal" or the zone between the coast and the hills of the interior, home to orchards, fig, almond and pomegranate trees, and vegetable gardens. The village center is neat with old churches and parks. There is a large, beautifully kept cemetery with many vaults with windows displaying decorations, flowers, artifacts, and pictures of the deceased. Some have sun shades to protect the contents. Another large area is devoted to stone, marble and tile vaults like little houses. The less elaborate plots all have attractive markers or covers of stone or marble.
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Due south on the coast is Olhao, a very important fishing town, and a center of the food preservation industry. The fishing port with the brightly colored fishing boats swaying in the moorings and the "covos" (earthenware pots used to catch octopus) stacked beside fishing gear and the fishermen working on their boats was as picturesque as it can get. The fishermen's quarter just behind is a maze of twisting streets where we could easily have gotten lost if Linda was not such a good navigator. The white houses trimmed in grays and blues are of square design and the roofs are flat which gave rise to the nickname, "cubist town". The main church in the center of town was the first stone building built in Olhao, paid for by contributions of the fishermen. The baroque facade is extremely attractive as is the main chapel with its carved and gilded retable and triumphal arch. The nearby pretty Church of Nossa Senhora was the former place of worship. The colorful waterfront promenade with its parks and gardens is a great spot to appreciate the sights, sounds and smells of all that is around.

East of Olhao along the coast is Tavira, resting on the Rio Gilao which divides the older city from the newer, joined by an ancient bridge. Old and new a city of churches, 25 to be exact, that's a lot of bell towers. There is a vast panoramic view of the town, surrounding area and the sea from the top of the towers of the Castle. This old Moorish fortification was rebuilt in 1261-1325 and was part of the city's defense system which was comprised of the ramparts that surround the town and sections of walls between houses that still stand along with the Gate of Mercy. Along the riverfront the old market building is now a small center called "Discoteca da Riberia". Lots of fishing boats are moored along the banks and restaurants line the promenade. On the banks and down the narrow streets behind are old noble houses with distinctive triangular roofs rising to a point known as "Tesouro", treasure roofs. Another remnant of Tavira's Moorish past is the wooden slatted doors made of finely interwoven lengths of wood which allow air into the houses. There are beautiful sandy beaches on the banks offshore that are accessible by regularly running boats.

We had been dreaming of that grilled free range pork all day and headed for Churrasqueira Dom Jorge. Victor recommended we start with sizzling shrimp grilled with olive oil and garlic, a crunchy, aromatic delight. The pork was very special - tender, sweet and succulent. It is done on a flat grill with just a touch of salt; the marvelous flavor comes from the naturally raised animal. We finished off the delicious meal with sweet melon.
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