Somethimes, when you come home from abroad, it is the sights that you remember; other times it’s the people. I saw some fine things and met some charming folk in the Algarve, Portugal, but it is the smells and the tastes of the place that will linger most in my mind: the sweet miasma of the ubiquitous orange groves, the heady scent of the wine cellars, the smoky aroma of chicken roasting on coals, and the sharp tang of the fish markets down by the sea. It all makes for a very perfumed country.
I started my exploration of the Algarve at the top. The summit of the little mountain called Monchique is the highest point in the region. Stand with your back to the steel forest of telecom aerials, look south, and half the Algarve lies below you like a rumpled green bedspread. Beyond that is the sea, spangled and silvery in the midday sun. This upland part of the Algarve is farm country, and the ruddy, sunburned skin of the people who live here is proverbial.
If you see a person blush with embarrassment you might say ‘You look like you come from Monchique.’ One Algarve man, a native of the seaside town of Portimão, told me that when he was young his family used to come up here for picnics, bringing fresh fish with them to cook on an open fire. There were always uncooked leftovers, which they would trade with the local people for vegetables. ‘So we went up the mountain loaded with sardines and snapper, and came back down with sacks of potatoes and cabbages’
That kind of barter is no longer part of life, but the fruits of the land and the harvest of the sea still come together – often inside a cataplana, the lidded copper wok that is the Algarve’s special contribution to the batterie de cuisine. This part of Portugal is a great place to eat well, and it is astonishing that it is not better known for its food, which is universally fresh, simple, and delicious. I ate perfectly grilled fish and a fantastic octopus salad at Bubagem, an entirely unremarkable café in the town of Sagres.
The local speciality of chicken piri-piri is to be had in any village; everyone knows of a place (just a little bit out of the way) where for six or seven euros they do the best piri-piri in the Algarve. At the same time, there are plenty of pricier and more sophisticated dining experiences to be had.
The Arte Náutica, for example, is a jumping beach restaurant in Armaceo de Pera (try the clams, which you eat straight from the spoon-like shell, or the arroz de lingueirão – a soupier and altogether tastier take on Spanish paella). At the very top end of the culinary scale, there is the Michelin-starred Ocean restaurant at the very luxurious Vila Vita, and a double-starred one (the only one in Portugal) at the beautiful Vila Joya hotel, close to Praia do Galé.
View from the private terrace at Vila Joya
A better-known attraction of the Algarve
A better-known attraction of the Algarve is its long hot summer – this is the perfect destination if you are after some short-haul sun. All along the coastline the beaches are strung out like pebbles of amber on a necklace.
Some are tiny coves curtained by low cliffs (Praia dos Três Irmãos, or Praia do Camilo), other beaches are embellished with caves and sea-carved archways where you can shelter from the heat of the day (Praia de São Rafael, Praia do Carvalho); then there are the lively sandstrips where people come to be in a crowd (Monte Gordo, Praia de Tavira). Unless you’re on a stag weekend you will skirt round Albufeira, which is the overdeveloped Magaluf of the Algarve coastline.
Its only claim to fame is that, in the days before the high-rises, Cliff Richard had a home here; he has been spending part of his summer holiday in the Algarve pretty much since, well, Summer Holiday). Sir Cliff now has a palazzo in the nearby village of Guia (his vineyard there is sometimes open to visitors), but the street in Albufeira where his first Portuguese house stood is now named after him: rua Sir Cliff Richard. He would probably want to differ, but that may be as close to immortality as a person can get.
Tavira town, Algarve
There are several pretty towns on the south-facing part of the coast, and inland too. Despite the lure of the lounger, it would be a shame not to investigate them. One of the Algarve’s most appealing towns is Lagos. It was from here, in the 1570s, that the young King Sebastião embarked on a crusade against the Moorish kingdom of Morocco. The undertaking was a disaster: the crusaders were roundly defeated, and Sebastian himself disappeared in the sands of North Africa. That incident gave rise to the redolent Portuguese term sebastianismo, meaning a failed venture or forlorn hope – a great word in anybody’s language.
Lagos fish market is something to behold. The sheer variety on offer is astonishing. There are little shark- like pata roxa – dogfish – skinned and laid in neat rows; espadas – ‘scabbard fish’ – that look like long strips of aluminium foil; tambril – monkfish – huge blobby things that seem almost extraterrestrial; prawns piled in pink pyramids; hake fanned out on the slab with mouths agape.
Upstairs is a vegetable market, where the dried piri-piri (a type of chilli) hang in bunches like pungent catkins, and the tomatoes are as big and bulbous as a boxer’s fist. A short walk away is another market, long since abandoned. It is the mercado dos escravos – the slave market – Europe’s very first. The wide and sunny porch where the pan-European trade in humanity began is no bigger than one end of a tennis court – but it seems somehow chock-full of ghosts.
Cliff-fishing at Sagres
A short drive to the west of Lagos is the town of Sagres.
If you imagine Portugal to be the face on the square profile of the Iberian peninsula (as I always have), then Sagres is the very point of its bearded chin. That is to say, it is the south-western extremity of the European mainland. Prince Henry the Navigator set up his Nautical School here in the 1450s.
What form the school took is unclear – it may have been a bricks-and-mortar academy based at the fort on Sagres Point, or just a loose affiliation of cartographers, instrument-makers and seafarers working for the same royal sponsor. But Henry’s aim was clear: to find out what might lie beyond the blank, Atlantic horizon. The white-walled fortress entrance that you can see today is pretty much all that is left of this medieval NASA. Beyond the gateway, you find yourself on a high cliff that is windswept and desolate.
You are immediately aware of a regular and ominous noise, like a repetitive sonic boom: this is the waves smacking into the rocks far below. Walk up to the cliff edge, and you see that all around there are fishermen, balanced on the rocks like wingless cormorants, casting their lines 70 metres down into the water.
It looks terrifyingly precarious, and the little tiddlers they are plucking out of the water hardly seem worth the risk: every year an angry sea plucks a fisherman or two off his perch. You can walk to the very end of the spit, beyond the stubby lighthouse, to the point where the land falls away like a table edge. Looking out at the ‘unknown and tenebrous sea’, listening to the tolling of the waves, you could easily believe – as people did 600 years ago – that this was the very edge of the world.
The cloisters at Faro Archaeology Museum
Keep going west from Sagres and you will be out in the Atlantic like the intrepid sailors of old. Turn north, and the wilder west coast of the Algarve opens up before you. Much of the seaboard is a national park, and the countryside is wonderful. I drove up through this lush green landscape late one afternoon.
The wan ghost of a springtide moon hung low in the blue sky, brushing the hilltops like a stone skimming on water. There was an unkempt stork’s nest on each telegraph pole along the highway, and a single bird keeping a lugubrious watch in every one. At one point, an auburn beech marten scuttled across the road ahead, moving remarkably fast on its little sausage-dog legs, before darting into the undergrowth with a flourish of it bushy, ginger tail.
The view from Faro Cathedral bell tower in Faro
I was heading for Herdade Dos Grous, a country estate belonging to Vila Vita.
There are vast acres of vineyards and vegetable gardens, as well as cows, black pigs and sheep – which go to supply the restaurants of the resort. But Dos Grous is more than a farm: it is a rural, inland extension of the seaside hotel, with 26 chalets grouped in two little ‘villages’.
It would be very easy to spend a quiet holiday here – playing billiards in the communal lounge, horse riding or biking in the grounds or beyond, and sampling the marvellous wines. As the sun went down I sat on the terrace and watched the cranes flying in to roost in twos and threes. Soon there were hundreds of them, quacking like hoarse ducks in the pine trees down by the lake. After dark I took a tour of the wine cellar, where the oak barrels were stacked four deep. The smell in the air was as powerful as church incense – but subtle, too, like the fragrance of some vinous flower.
THE NEXT DAY I WENT TO FARO, the regional capital. Most visitors to Portugal fly in to Faro, but few tarry in the western Algarve, although Faro itself and the towns beyond it are very appealing. It was Palm Sunday, and close by the gate to Faro’s old town an open-air service was being held. All the members of the congregation were holding little bouquets of palm leaves – not hard to come by in these parts – and they sang a melancholy Lenten hymn. Whole branches of palm – eight feet or so long – stood upright against the doors of the church of the Misericordia.
As the service came to an end, the choirboys each picked up a branch and held it aloft like a green gonfalon. The priest then led the way through the town gate and the worshippers followed him. It was a re-enactment of the biblical incident this day commemorates: the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on a donkey. I waited a moment or two – so that there would be a respectful distance between the faithful and the unbeliever – then I followed them up the narrow cobbled hill to the cathedral.
Largo da Sé (Cathedral Square) was a revelation: an open piazza, like a kind of urban glade. Here, as in all the towns of the Algarve, neatly trimmed orange trees stood in plant pots, their fruit hanging like bright Christmas baubles. The congregation was just disappearing into the darkness of the cathedral, like the children of Hamelin. I didn’t feel inclined to join them, so went instead to the town museum. Two exhibits made a strong impression on me.
One was the Roman floor mosaic depicting Oceanus and the four winds: proof that here in the Algarve the sea and its moods have been a preoccupation for 2,000 years at least. The other was a 14th-century alabaster figure of St Bartholomew, who was martyred by being flayed alive. He was depicted carrying his own skin over his arm, like a waiter with his dishcloth. His bearded face looked mournfully out from the region of his hip, and his feet hung limp like a pair of long socks. It was quite disturbing, especially when you learn that the official hagiographers have designated him, in rather poor taste, the patron saint of butchers and dermatologists.
The chancel at Faro Cathedral
Further along the coast, a little closer to Spain, is the delightful town of Tavira.
A good place to begin exploring it is the ancient Roman bridge, which on this holy day was strewn with rosemary. The herbs had been trampled by every passing pilgrim, so for one morning this was the most aromatic river crossing in Christendom. Tavira is famous for having more churches than any other Portuguese town.
It is also known for the odd construction of the older buildings, where each room in a house has its own separate roof. These peculiar arrangements are known as telhados em tesoura – scissor roofs – because of the criss-cross effect when seen from above.
I wanted to get up high to see it, and as it happens Tavira has the ideal vantage point. It is a disused and unlovely water tower – like a gigantic cataplana on a tall trivet – that has been converted into a camera obscura. It was my bad luck that it is closed on Sundays, but there was a nearby vantage point almost as good: the ramparts of the ruined castle. To reach them you have to climb up a tall, uneven set of stone steps with no handrail or banister or any kind.
Halfway up, the thought crossed my mind that it would be a nightmare getting children up here, and I was suddenly struck by an unaccustomed but completely leg-wobbling attack of vertigo. I had to turn round and gingerly make my way back down. Que sebastianismo.
At Silves, the old Moorish capital of the Algarve, the castle ramparts were mercifully low, but they afforded a pleasing view of the verdant countryside, where the low, undulating hills were clothed in carob and olive trees. There were a few houses in the crook of the valleys, and a windmill stood on the furthest, highest hilltop. Its sails were bare, and its spindly masts against the sky looked like the insect legs of a waterboatman on a still blue pond.
There is a legend about Silves that seems to address the melding of cultures that occurred in this fertile land. It is said that the Moorish king of Silves took a Scandinavian princess as his wife. She was happy with him, but as soon as she settled in Silves she became ill and listless.
The doctors could do nothing for her, but the king’s wisest counsellor advised him to plant almond trees all over the plain. The king did as he was told without knowing why, and come the spring the land was carpeted with white almond blossom. When the queen saw this sight she immediately began to recover. ‘I have been so homesick,’ she said, ‘But this reminds me of the snows in my father’s kingdom.’
From the castle, all roads lead downhill to the market by the river. You can follow the gradient or follow your nose – the chicken piri-piri roasting outside the covered market will lead you there. As I sat by on the riverside, a party of primary-school children happened by.
All of them were wearing painters’ smocks for some reason, and each child held the tail of smock in front with one hand, and the hand of the child next to them with the other.
It made for a very tight and efficient crocodile… They all looked very happy. I remembered something I had read about the Algarve, a remark made by the Portuguese poet Miguel Torga. ‘For me,’ he said, ‘the Algarve is always a holiday in my homeland… I feel free, unburdened and content – I, who am sadness personified’. Here, on this sunny spring morning, I knew exactly what he meant.