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PORTUGAL
Fall 2003

Azores | Madeira | Lisbon | Algarve

Algarve (1) | Algarve (2)

The drive from Monte Gordo to the Hotel Vila Gale Cerro Alagoa in Albufeira, took a little over an hour. The hotel is well located in the city near the town hall and a short walk to the historic city center and the fishermen's beach. The hotel design with its curved balconies overlooking lush plantings gave the feeling that we had arrived at a tropical paradise. The warm-toned marble and stucco reception and lounge area offered a suitable setting for the warm, caring hotel staff. Although the hotel has more than 300 rooms and suites, the interior design and high service levels made us feel we were in a smaller, more intimate hotel. Our king bedded room and bathroom were of superior size and were beautifully furnished and equipped. Our balcony overlooked the garden and swimming pool.

Albufeira is the number one tourist destination of the Algarve thanks to its famous beaches and the splendor of its colorful cliffs and rock formations. It doesn't hurt that besides all the modern services one requires, there is the old Cerro da Vila area with its steep, narrow streets lined with picturesque whitewashed houses right down to a glorious beach with bright-colored fishing boats nearby and fishermen doing their thing. After the sun goes down there is no shortage of restaurants, cafes and bars to continue the holiday spirit and if you want to further enliven the evening hours the discotheques await.

Leaving the hotel, we crossed the wide divided boulevard and walked uphill until we reached the bus station where we bought our bus tickets to Lisbon. On the way down we stopped at Restaurante Pim Pam Pum, Rua Antonio Aleixo, 23 for a tuna salad and grilled sardine lunch. This was becoming our standard mid-day fare and as usual was excellent.

The Largo Eng. Duarte Pacheco is the heart of the old town. The park in the middle is surrounded by restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. It is a picturesque, lively setting by day and really begins to jump to the beat of loud music at night when the red-faced beachgoers arrive in droves with hearty appetites and try to decide which restaurant hawker they should trust. This was day, and a beauty at that, as we proceeded to Rua 5 de Outubro, a wide main shopping thoroughfare. At the south end is a stone tunnel that leads to a large patio from which the sparkling ocean greeted us in all its glory. Below was the beach, filled with sun bathers and swimmers and as far as the eye could see a continuous line of cliffs and sand. This was Albufeira.

While exploring the old city we had sniffed out what we thought was our kind of restaurant, O Zuca at Travessa do Malpique, 6, tucked in behind the main square. It was kind of small inside with a few tables out front so we decided to arrive early at 1900 which is the early opening time for most restaurants. It's a good thing we did not want to eat outside because the tables were taken when we returned. The no-frills interior was spotlessly clean and the smells from the partially open rear kitchen and the food on the tables was a joy. There is seating for about 22 plus 6 at the bar. The bar stools were filled as were all the tables save one, for us. ;) The one waitress cheerfully offered the table and it soon became obvious that she and the man and woman in the kitchen were family. We were delighted to hear only Portuguese being spoken, even by the Dutch group at the table next to us, who appeared to be regulars. One more large bowl of vegetable soup to savor, this one was densely pureed with pieces of potato, carrot, kale and garlic added to the broth. Linda had local clams done in oil and garlic which she enjoyed. The oily fish lover guy was in heaven with grilled mackerel filets right out of the water. Along with the servings of boiled potatoes and crisp salad, there was enough for two. Not to worry, I ate for two, which did not stop me from sharing a lovely flan with Linda. The house red, a Vinho da Quelha from Peso da Regua, was quite nice. It appears the tourists have not discovered this little gem because on both of our visits, we were the only non-locals. I guess most visitors prefer the larger establishments in the square with the outdoor seating areas - so great for people watching, if you don't mind paying for the privilege. Please keep our little secret.

We found an excellent internet cafe, "net@kafe" at the multi-level shopping complex across from the hotel. The staff and young clients were friendly and happy to welcome us old folks. There were also a couple of laundry and dry cleaning establishments which came in handy before our stay was over. There is a large supermarket a block away on the same side of the street as our hotel where we picked up bottled water. It was nice to have all these conveniences nearby.

The breakfast buffet consisted of many quality choices. The highlights were the assortment of fresh cut fruits, the egg station and the huge selection of breads and rolls. The staff was quite efficient at clearing the tables. This was the first time we saw a hotel manager and assistant manager on duty every morning checking to make sure all was going well at breakfast. I guess this is why we were impressed with the service level of all the staff.

Off we went to Cabo de S. Vincente, the westernmost tip of the Algarve. Here on its cliffs high above the ocean the feel of the sea breezes and freshness of the air was invigorating. The sight of the waters cascading off the rocks and the huge caverns and hollows that this erosion has created is something to see. We were able to walk around part of the outside of the 16th-18th century fortress but could not go inside where the former Monastery of Hieronymite friars and its chapel are located. They were doing a brisk business from a truck selling grilled bratwurst with a huge sign on its side reading "Last Bratwurst before North America". Along the southern coast of the cabo are some small sandy beaches accessible by long stairways. We could just about see the sunbathers and the swimmers in the white capped clear turquoise waters. We continued east along the coast to Sagres, where a fortress had been built to protect the local population from marauding pirates. This fishing port has a lovely marina surrounded by a rocky coastline and an inviting sandy beach.
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The city of Lagos rests on the sea with gorgeous beaches of soft sand tucked between ochre cliffs leading to the fishing port and marina that fronts the historical center. The long tree-lined stone promenade along the waterfront was good place to start our tour. Once again the sights of the fishing boats and pleasure craft bobbing in the waters were a digital moment. The restaurants and cafes across the way on Avenida dos Descobrimentos were beckoning but we had sworn off lunch today after a very hearty breakfast and guilt beginning to take hold. Much of the old city walls still stand across the north and at the south corner which define the old medieval town. This is a very pretty town. The stone work around windows and doors and the wrought iron balconies have been preserved, maintaining the original character of the narrow streets, and patios with fig trees, vines and flowers add a touch of warmth and color. In the pedestrian streets around Praca Gil Eanes, there are still houses with tiles in the art nouveau style and grand whitewashed houses with impressive facades and stone work.

The Church of Santo Antonio is notable for its baroque facade with an interesting eye window and pediment and its two bell towers of different proportions. The gilded carvings, wood ceiling with paintings, and whimsical baroque forms like a pig being led to slaughter create a unique interior.

Across the way the Church of Santa Maria Misericordia has a jewel of a doorway with Doric columns and busts of São Pedro and São Paul on either side of the archivolt. The first slaves brought on ships from Africa were sold at the nearby 15th century slave market. There is a terrace at street level with four arcades. The town was brimming with visitors and the shops were geared for them - obviously, and rightly, a popular destination.

Back at Albufeira we trotted on high to Igreja Matriz and Igreja de São Sebastiao. Both were closed so we could only admire the exteriors. The former had attractive high wooden doors and an imposing bell tower. There were great photo ops from the patio including one of an elderly gentleman and his cats who perked up and smiled brightly when the digital was pointed in his direction. After the photo session he said goodbye and walked across the way to his home, cats in tow. The latter has baroque ornamentation on the doorway and the side door is Manueline. Walking downhill a bit we came to the Hotel Sol de Mar which is located on the cliffs over the beach. The balcony of the bar/lounge area gave Linda the opportunity to capture great shots of the beach and coastline. It was fun wandering aimlessly downward thru the small streets, peering into every alley and open window exchanging greetings and waiting for an invitation to dinner that did not come. We settled on a restaurant that we noticed had been filled the previous night when we walked by, Restaurante O Manjar, Rua do M.F.A. 17. The vegetable soup was only fair, the swordfish was frozen, and the dourada (whole white fish) was good - you can do better.

The hotel has a complimentary van service to and from various strategic locations. After another enjoyable breakfast we took the van east to the "strip", which is Avenida sa Carneiro, which runs south from Avenida dos Descobrimentos to Avenida Infante dom Henrique. It is indeed a "strip", a narrow street with pretty shops, restaurants and cafes that is quite appealing and where visitors do a lot of shopping. Our hands were empty; we were out for the exercise and scenery. At the end of the strip we proceeded straight ahead down the steep Rua Ramalho Ortigao to see if there was a walkable trail along the coast to the city center. We found a crowded sandy beach but alas no trail. Back up the hill to Avenida Infante dom Henrique. This avenue runs parallel to the oceanfront with fab views for the owners of the new homes along the way. Our walk took us back to Fishermen's Beach where we sat on the walkway above enjoying the sunny day and the picture perfect scene of beach, fishing boats and rocky shore - Albufeira at its best. Just up Barrios dos Pescadores we sat outside on the patio of Taverna Imperial for a glass of delicious, freshly squeezed orange juice, a grilled cheese sandwich for my digital darling and a Polvo salad for me. The sandwich was fine the octopus salad was sensational. Judging from the wait time and the finished product it was made to order. Fresh vegetables had been neatly cut in small pieces and mixed with pieces of tender octopus and dressed with olive oil and parsley - simply delicious.

Vilamoura is due east of Albufeira. Driving into the town we passed acres of golf resorts, which sport is the most popular in all of the Algarve. The heart of Vilamoura is its marina. It is a visual beauty, such that we were immediately inspired to live on its shores. There are 1300 moorings surrounded by attractive hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, residences and a yacht club. The sun shone brightly on the pleasure craft of all sizes that decorated the waters. Walking to the marina we passed magnificent accommodations, beaches and tennis courts. Without a doubt this is the fashionable leisure center of the Algarve.

We had enjoyed our lunch at Pim Pam Pum (can you believe the name) and decided to give it a try for dinner. The vegetable soup was good. The curried shrimp was just okay and my grilled mackerel was a huge portion (two whole fish), which probably had been frozen. Can't win them all!
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After last night we really enjoyed breakfast, after which we headed north west to the interior and the historic city of Silves. We were drawn to the red sandstone Castle high above the town, which dominated the countryside. The entrance to the castle is through a double gateway with an atrium between and a tower on either side. The three largest towers are on the north and northeast side as this was where attackers would have struck. There are four more on the west and three on the south. The towers are interlinked by battlemented parapets with a walkway all around creating a formidable system of defense. Inside the grounds in the northern area is the large rectangular "Aljibe" cistern which supplies the town water. To the south is a smaller one known as the "dogs’ cistern" which is more like a well.

From the ramparts we got a real good fix of the town and the green countryside. Just below the castle is the cathedral which was built on the site of a mosque in the 13th century. Across the way is the 16th century Misericordia Church. Portions of the old city walls still stand around the center and give a definition to the history of the city. Continuing downhill we came to the Municipa Museum of Architecture which exhibits a history of architectural design, building materials (types of stone), and implements. In the center is a cistern/well estimated to be from the 12th century that was excavated in 1980. A little east on Rua Gregorio Mascarenhas is the Cork Museum which unfortunately was closing when we arrived. There is a very large courtyard outside the museum with restaurants and cafes around the perimeter. Orange and cork trees in its center provide atmosphere and shade. This visit to Silves was in sharp contrast to yesterday's Vilamoura. The Algarve has something for all tastes.

Our next visit was to Portimao, south west of Silves. This is one of the largest towns of the Algarve and frankly turned out to be our least favorite by far. All that is left of the old town is a few stretches of medieval walls. The old town now consists of 19th and 20th century houses without much beauty or character. It appeared to be a busy commercial city and very difficult to drive thru, much less find parking. The gardens at the river front and the marina were the highlight. The major tourist draw to the area is the Praia da Rocha with its golden sands and turquoise waters meandering among the sculpted cliffs and rocks.

Leaving Portimao we entered a world of gorgeous villages, cliffs, rock formations and beaches as we drove east along the coast. Ferragudo has been a fishing village forever with its rows of ancient whitewashed houses rolling down the hill to the river. Beautiful homes and villas came into sight along the way sitting splendidly on the cliffs with water views to the horizon.
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Carvoeiro is a picture book village of magnificent properties. We just followed our noses thru the streets ending up at a cliff end overlooking a tantalizing mosaic of red rock formations below that had been carved out by the eroding effects of wind and water. In the middle of this incredible sight is a restaurant which was doing a nice business from the rock climbers who found their way down. Those who chose not to eat could take a swim in the natural pools.

At this point we left our dream homes behind and headed north to Lagoa. When we stopped at the park in front of the Main church we had come to the conclusion that this was the kind of pretty little town where time had stopped. The town had grown up around this church with its Manueline doorway to the bell tower. In fact as we walked thru the winding streets we spotted many whitewashed homes with Manueline doorways and windows. The Miscericordia Church is small and plain with interior walls of patterned tiles from the end of the 17th century. The old Camera Municipal from 1895 houses the Mercado which was filled with shoppers selecting produce and fish. There was a wonderful aroma that got my attention and I poked my head around a corner to find a tiny bar and kitchen with the owner cooking up a fish stew. We had had a forgettable lunch on the road earlier and I just couldn't handle it at the moment. We noticed that the attractive Convento de S. Jose was open to the public and we were warmly welcomed to take a self tour. The shiny tile floors led us thru the small old living quarters. There's a new white and yellow cloister that just doesn't have the character and charm of an old one. The new living quarters are not accessible. There were women sitting in their doorways weaving leaves of palms which would become hats, rugs and mats. Life is like that here - rooted deep in the past.

We wanted to leave the Algarve with a nice taste in our mouths so we headed back to O Zuca, Travessa do Malpique,6 for our last dinner. The same woman greeted us with the same warm smile and once again had saved the last table for us ;) Since we were sticking with a winner we again started with the vegetable soup. Linda hadn't had a tuna salad for a while so she really appreciated her plate piled high with garden fresh vegetables and chunks of local tuna. The fresh fish of the day was called Besugos. It was a good size whole fish with the skin grilled crunchy and the white flesh firm and juicy. The generous servings of boiled potatoes and salad were just right. The house wine was still delicious and the prices still represented super value. The experience of eating where the locals eat is priceless.
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