Go west – sightseeing in the Western Algarve

15 Aug

For many people, holidays in Portugal mean heading to the main Algarve tourist hubs of Albufeira or Vilamoura. Guest author Katie, a food and travel blogger from the UK, believes that while resorts have their considerable charms, getting off the beaten track is one of the pleasures of travel. She has put together a few highlights from her trip to Portugal earlier this year where she did exactly that.

To borrow the words of the Pet Shop Boys, I decide to take some time to Go West and experience some of the lesser known parts of the Algarve. Loading up the hire car, I head off as far west as you can go without falling into the Atlantic.

Laid back vibes

Sagres has the same sort of end-of-the-world feel that you get when looking out from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. So, I had been expecting a landscape that was wind whipped, dramatic and barren.

And, while there’s certainly no shortage of windy weather and spectacular scenery, Europe’s most southwesterly point also has something of a bohemian, laid-back vibe thanks to the surfers who flock here to ride some of the best waves in the world. Surf and gift shops line the road leading into Sagres and I stop to pick up some skull-and-crossbones pirate t-shirts for my nieces and nephews before continuing to Sagres’ imposing fortress.

Simply dripping in maritime history, Sagres is the place Prince Henry the Navigator built his famous school of navigation. And, his legacy still lives on with the Fortaleza de Sagres. Originally constructed in the 15th century, it was rebuilt in 1793 after being destroyed by Sir Francis Drake.

As soon as you enter, you come across something of a mystery – a giant stone circle which some believe is an ancient compass rose, but which others think could be a form of sundial.

Further in and ancient canons provide photo opportunities as children climb astride these once defensive weapons. But, the real attraction is the view. Visiting slightly out of season means Mother Nature is at her most ferocious, hurling huge white breakers against the cliffs.

But, despite the wind, the early spring sunshine is beating down. So, I take advantage of the warmth to eat lunch outdoors, finding a seat on the busy terrace at the D’Italia, which overlooks Sagres’ pretty square, the Praça da República. I opt for fettucine frutti di mare from an extensive menu that includes stone-baked pizza, pasta and salad, along with a piccolo menu for the little ones.

It’s the ideal spot to take in Sagres’ low-key feel and, afterwards, I take a short stroll to the Praia da Mareta, the closest beach to town and the most sheltered from the westerly winds, to watch the brave souls who have braved the Atlantic in March, before heading east to Lagos.

Chattering monkeys and charter yachts

It takes me around half an hour to drive the easy route along the coast from Sagres to Lagos, which, sitting along the banks of the Rio Bensafrim, is probably the western Algarve’s biggest tourist draw. The car parks are busy even in low season. But, I find a spot beside the harbour and cross the marina bridge to a promenade lined with stalls offering family fishing and dolphin-spotting boat trips.

I stop for an espresso at the Oasis snack bar, indulging in a bit of fantasy about which luxury yacht I would choose in the event of a lottery win – a catamaran, I decide, with a crew and plenty of sunbathing space.

Slightly more affordable, however, is my next port of call. A short drive inland to Barão de S.João and I arrive at Lagos Zoo. Open all year round, it’s not one of those big commercial zoos you struggle to get around in one day, but more of a cross between farm (with goats and ducks you can feed) and zoo. It costs around 14 euros to get in, but under fours go free and there’s plenty of shade for hot days.  I arrive at primate feeding time and watch as one of the keepers dons waders before setting off across the moats which separate the enclosures to give the lemurs and monkeys fruit.

Castles and carafes

From here, it’s around another half-an-hour’s journey – an easy trip on the A22 (although be warned, the Portuguese authorities have recently introduced tolls) – to Silves, which boasts the best preserved castle in the Algarve.

There’s a light drizzle that’s unlike any rain I’ve experienced in Portugal – I’m more used to heavy downpours that are over almost as soon as they begin. But, it doesn’t mar the trip. The entry fee is cheap – I pay around 2.50 euros for my ticket into the castle. And, you can walk around the thick walls, marvelling at the views over the village and surrounding countryside. There aren’t any safety railings though, so parents visiting with young children are keeping a tight grip on their little ones’ hands.

With red-stone walls, an abundance of citrus trees and winding backstreets, the rest of Silves is pretty sleepy. But, it’s perfect to get away from the crowds if the coastal resorts are busy and I happily stay for an evening meal at O Alambique. It was recommended to me by the girl on the ticket desk at Silves Castle and, I have to say, she was right. As dusk falls, there’s a roaring fire to keep diners cosy and I can imagine eating on the terrace will be a delight during summertime. Unusually for Portugal, there’s a good vegetarian selection so, despite being a committed carnivore, I opt for the pumpkin ravioli, washed down with a carafe of red from the neighbouring Alentejo region.

Even more food

I know I said exploring off the beaten track was one of the best things about travel, whether you’ve arranged everything yourself or you’ve booked a trip to Portugal with Jet2holidays, or another tour operator. But, one of the others is definitely sampling some of the local cuisine. So, the next day, I double back on myself a little, heading back to the coast and one of the Algarve’s most spectacular beach resorts.

Still a working fishing village, I find I take most of my holiday snaps here. Whitewashed cottages tumble down to the harbour, cobbled streets are packed with family-friendly shops and restaurants, and Alvor’s main beach is nothing short of breathtaking – mile-upon-mile of pristine white sand, backed by dunes that wouldn’t look amiss on the Northumberland coastline. At one end, the beach is wide and windswept but I walk towards Vau, where there are caves and coves explored by children playing at pirates.

Even this vast beach, however, does get busy in high season. But, you can find your own private spot by walking across the wooden promenades which have just been built over the dunes, to the estuary side, which tends to be visited by locals rather than tourists. Here, the water shelves gently, so it’s safer for children. And, if  the wind does pick up, you can watch kitesurfers being whipped across the waves.

The beauty about Alvor, I find, is everything is within 10 minutes walking distance. So, I head back into town for a shopping trip, passing by the blink-and-you’ll miss it entrance to the kids play park, which is in the old castle walls, before visiting the municipal market for some fresh fruit.

There are plenty of restaurants in the village, including two of my favourites – the tiny Piccolo Mondo which serves the best garlic bread I’ve ever had, and the non-flashy O Arco Da Velha, which has delicious prawn curry on the menu.

But, I decide to round off my road trip back at the beach. At the 5 Quinas, or 5 Crowns, the waiter brings me the fish-of-the-day to look at before it’s expertly grilled and brought back to my table to be filleted. Bay-leaf infused olive oil is then drizzled on my seabass, which I accompany with a crisp glass of Planalto.

It’s the perfect spot for families as it’s right on the dunes. So, while I’ve pushed the boat out with my last meal, there’s also a snack menu for little ones and, parents are able to dine in peace while they watch their children playing on the beach. There can be no better way to end a holiday than sitting here, watching the sun go down over the headland.

*This post was sponsored by Jet2Holidays

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