Ten days in the Algarve: a diary

TRAVEL Series

This glorious planet was made to traverse. And Rant! is here to tell you about it – the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s all marvelous irrespective!

My little family and I spent ten days in the Algarve. Why the Algarve? In a single word: BEACH! Our holiday was as magical as Portugal’s southern coastline and we will most certainly return for a follow up visit. From beautiful beaches, silver sands and scorching sun to delicious delicacies, scrumptious seafood and manic market places… every cliché in the Algarvian Book of Holiday Awesomeness is totally true.

 

I kept a rather haphazard diary of the things we did for three reasons; a resource for anyone planning a holiday to the Algarve (perhaps you may garner some useful ideas and tips), to entertain (my life does evoke justifiable laughter on the occasion) and… lest we forget.

Day 1: Getting to the Algarve

What we did: Went on holiday.

What happened: So, you know when you rock up at the airport on the wrong day… well maybe you don’t know but I sure as hell do! I have a friend who once likened me to Phoebe from Friends and I was greatly offended. As it turns out; the likeness is not completely off base; I am as scatty as the Smelly Cat vocalist and my friend apparently knows me better than I know myself (and I am more like my mother than I care to admit). Friday-7:30-Gatwick-EasyJet was meant to be Saturday-etc. I learnt that lesson the hard way – with my husband and seventeen-month-old daughter in tow.  Sometimes life is totally lame!

With the aforementioned lameness in mind, when the mission of waking up at 4:30 to catch the 5:03 bus to St. Pancras, to then catch the 5:35 train to Gatwick and thereafter helter-scelter our way  to check-in by 7:30, to take off by 8:10; let’s just say I had ‘been there done that’ and was tired.

The sacrifices one makes for a cheaper flight…

… such as waking up at an ungodly hour of the morning when not even the previous evening’s drunkards roam the streets with aggressive banter for company.

The one cool thing about an early flight is that it gives you the opportunity to start holidaying earlier – you get to your destination with time left over for Day 1 exploration. Which is all good and well when it’s just you and your man… children complicate matters just a bit. That said, my I-refuse-to-sit-still-because-I-WILL-spend-every-second-walking-playing-and-exploring daughter couldn’t have been better behaved on our 2hr25min flight to Faro airport (bragging mom in the house). She slept on my lap for an hour and managed to be entertained for another hour. The trick – snacks and iPhone. When travelling with a toddler, for the preservation of one’s own sanity (and the sanity of all in sundry) rules such as ‘no snacks between meals’ must be foregone. Food is really a magic keep-quiet-on-plane device; I recommend it to any travelling parent.

After a rad flight and a quick walk through passport control, we were ready to pick up our car from FaroCar (the cheapest deal we could find). So this is how it works in the Algarve; car rental agencies occupy tables at a café just outside the airport exit – there is no formal car hire booth. Although this may smack of scam it’s not ‘dodge’; totally legit. Promise. And the car is only paid for upon collection.

After the car was sorted, we drove half an hour to our pre-booked and paid apartment in Tavira. Our flat was totally lovely; big, light, sea view (albeit from a distance) – I recommend with heightened exclamation.

The apartment was a five minute drive from Tavira Town, which is best known for its abundance of churches (nearly 40 in total) and is described by DK Eyewitness travel as town oozing “timeless atmosphere, traditional character and dignified charm.” All true, I am pleased to report.

Although rain on the first day had suspended our plans of hitting the beach (boo hoo), we were itching to get out. 2pm and the rest of the day ahead of us: HOLIDAY HAD SET IN AND WAS HERE TO STAY FOR TEN SOLID DAYS. Booyah!

We took a drive around town of Tavira and visited the Continente (local supermarket) to hook up some deliciousness. Holiday is of course synonymous with eating; cooking dinner together, sitting on the balcony, looking at the sea, drinking red wine and talking (slurring) until the sun comes up (well almost) – the best!

Lesson of the day: booze is CHEAP – take advantage!

Day 2: Roadtripping

What to do in the Algarve when it is raining… other than curse the sun and mourn the waves?  On a Sunday! The answer is ROADTRIP!

What we did: Our spontaneous itinerary took us out from 9 until 6-ish. We drove into the western Algarve region, hitting Alcantarilha first. Next was Silves via Algoz, and then Carvoeiro, Ferragudo, Portimão and on to Lagos.

Why it was awesome: The town of Alcantarilha is known for its gruesome bone chapel, the garish horror of which I had no intention of passing up a chance to see. Capel Losso contains the remains 1,500 former parishioners completely covering the ceilings and walls. The church is tiny but poignantly eerie. The Saviour of the world hangs on a cross amidst the skulls and bones of his worshipers. Creepy deluxe! The little church looked like it was closed when we got there but the little lady operating the shop opposite gave us the key to unlock the chapel door for the sum of a small donation. Totally worth it!

The drizzle did not stop us from further exploring the delightful little town of Alcantarilha – keep a look out for a bright orange house with a clashing purple door frame; it’s a great photo op.

The Castelo in Silves is the grandest monument to Islamic rule in the Algarve. It was built on the site of 4th Century Roman fortifications and boasts some superb views of the surrounding town. Silves Castle is an outdoor experience – one thing we learn in England is never let the weather stop you… so ‘castle in the drizzle’ was no problem for me and my hardy team of adventurers.

Next to the castle is a little eatery called Café Da Sé, which is fabulously cheap and oh so yummy. We ordered two milkshakes, two toasties plus a wrap and two cappuccinos for €15 (starving is the word). We sat happily, guzzling our lunch, listening to the German tourists next to us and soaking in the Orange Tree mural on the next door wall whilst admiring the gorgeous Sé (cathedral); it was one of life’s perfect moments.

The town’s Gothic Cathedral dates from the 13th Century and boasts a magnificent arched doorway. My husband tells me that things are rated in my esteem according to how old they are; he is mostly right so naturally the Cathedral is a must see.

The resort town of Carvoeiro, although rather touristy, boasts a gorgeous little beach – the perfect stop for a sunny day. As it was not sunny on this day, we made a note to return.

The little fishing village of Ferragudo is surprisingly unspoilt by tourist trappings and is said to have some of the best seafood restaurants in the Algarve.

Portimão was next on our hit list – a quick drive through showed a mall and a massive retail park – we missed Praia da Rocha but hope to return without cascading water drops accosting the fun.

And Praia da Dona Ana in Lagos is simply stunning.

So beach scouting was the name of the day’s game and we hatched some great plans for a sunny weather!

Lesson of the day: On rainy days, retail centres are the perfect therapy for a toddler’s cramped-car-seat-legs. Toy shops and miniature plastic trolleys also help.

Day 3: Exploring Tavira

“Beach at all costs, come rain or shine” was our motto of the day. Cloud cover is no deterrent for eager holidayers and denizens of Country of Poor Climate.

What we did: Strolled Tavira and hit the beach.

Why it was awesome: We were out of the apartment by 9 and walking around Tavira Town by 9:15.

We got a map from the town’s tourism office; a map we hardly used. Winging it seems to be how we roll. The ruins of Tavira Castle are atmospheric and offer a romantic view of the town’s pyramid shaped rooftops and the broken castle walls envelop a beautiful spruce garden.

The clock face of the Igrejo de Santa Maria do Castello is a familiar land mark and the church interior is beautifully ornate. Inside are the tombs of the Moors’ nemesis Dom Paio Peres Correia and seven of his Christian knights.

Ponta Romano is the low, arched stone bridge that spans the Rio Gilau and is Roman in origin. It is a favourite subject for artists and emanates a sense of historical significance.

I walked round Tavira barefoot – my preferred mode of beach holidaying (call me a pleb if you like) – and managed to be solicited by only one smudge of dog poo. Perhaps I will don shoes next time.

With Tavira and the remnants of a dog’s rear end engrained in the souls of my feet we made our way to the ferry that would take us to Ilha de Tavira – a beautiful expanse of magnificent beach. FYI: the ferry leaves on the hour and costs €1.40 return (return journeys occur at 20 past the hour). My Amelia had an absolute ball – her first time at the sea (really special) and it took ten minutes for her to fall in love with the wispy waves and frivolous froth.

Three hours of fun and frolicking and back to Tavira we headed, to sit on the sidewalk, observe and immerse ourselves in coffee and cake (at the bargain price of €6.80).

Lesson of the day: do not use the ‘water cooler’ next to the ferry: squatting toilet – no flushing – bare foot – bin full of used toilet paper – a floater = scarred for life.

Day 4: Exploring Albufeira

What we did: Strolled around Albufeira and hit the beach.

Why it was awesome: Albufeira is a kickass resort town populated by cafés, restaurants, cocktail bars and beachy awesomeness. The town’s main beach offers an umbrella and two lounges at the rather steep price of €15 for the day – a necessary expense when feeding and changing a seventeen-month-old is part of the holiday’s festivities.

We ate lunch at a not-quite-off-the-beaten-path-but-not-quite-on-the-main-square restaurant: a starter of sardine pate with bread and olives, two mains of calamari and ribs with chips and salad, a bottle of heavenly rose and a cappuccino and espresso for the bargain price of €23 – seriously! The price was almost as enjoyable as the lunch.

There are loads of cute touristy shops to peruse at your take-a-break-from-the-boiling-hot-sun leisure. I managed to hook myself up with a sweet pair of ‘Barcelona genie pants’ for the bargain price of  €12 – go me!

The Albufeira sea kicked up some cool waves, which were a big hit with me and my man but not so much with my seventeen-month-old. I can’t say it was her favourite beach day – luckily we have a whole week to go.

Lesson of the day: a tractor on a beach makes for a very scared little girl.

Day 5: Loulé & Carvoeiro

What we did: Perused the market at Loulé and swam at Carvoeiro.

Why it was awesome: The market in Loulé is renowned for its traditional handicrafts and vast array of tasty goodies. Mixed herbs, cheeses and red chilli peppers vie for the eye with sweet figs, marzipan cakes and golden honey (contained in lovely souvenir jars). Elsewhere, kaleidoscopes of flowers and the freshest of fish, the ripest of fruit and a genuine variety of handicrafts make the visit unforgettable.

The prettiest part of Loulé is the Moorish sector (the old town) that leads on from the market. Take a stroll around the cobbled streets and observe the recently restored Castelo as well as Museu Municipal, which boasts the recreation of a traditional Algarve kitchen with its 19th Century utensils and tableware.

After Loulé we hit Carvoeiro for a little beach adventure. Nestled in between to cliffs, the picturesque beach makes for a great day out. We were entertained by a scantily clad group of local teens who shared kisses, cuddles and football, and did acrobatics into the sea from the precariously situated cliff edge. Health & Safety would have freaked! I loved it.

We later enjoyed a rather pricey cocktail – probably the most overpriced beverage of the holiday. Carvoeiro is a resort town after all.

Lesson of the day: Algarvian Mosquitos are mutant sons of bitches. Itchy! Itchy!! Itchy!!!

Day 6: Buying fresh fish and the best beach of the holiday.

What we did: Visited the market in Tavira and hit Manta Rota.

Why it was awesome: Shopping at the market in Tavira was as much fun as it was intimidating. When one is expertly poor at speaking the local language, asking for food can be a somewhat daunting. My best advice is to be polite and adopt a sense of humour if you have not got one. It also helps if you have a cute kid; Amelia bats her baby blues and the horror of faulty Portuguese is forgiven. Whew!

After depositing our bundle of fresh produce at our flat, we made our way to Praia de Manta Rota. We passed through Cabanas and stopped off at an exquisite village town called Cacela Velha. It is just magnificent. The settlement is little more than a whitewashed church, a squat 18th Century fortress and a row of fishermen’s cottages but it is totally unspoilt and absolutely worth your time of day. Fanned by an invigorating sea breeze, this smudge of antiquity looks out over a lagoon and the Atlantic beyond.

Praia de Manta Rota was a blast! It is the perfect beach for young children. Boasting a sweep of golden sand (the perfect playground), the waves are gentle and the water is shallow. As the tide comes in a natural rivulet springs into being, which is fun for splishing, splashing and taking a dip.

As most beaches in the Algarve, shells on Manta Rota are scattered a plenty. I was collecting shells with my daughter and trying to explain to her the magic of creation when a little girl, not English speaking, came to listen in on my lesson and add her contribution to my growing collection of shells. It was too precious; another one of life’s special moments (the Algarve seems to birth many). I was reminded that language, although a barrier in many ways, never contaminates human connection; a person to person understanding that supersedes words.

Manta Rota hosts a divine little restaurant called Proa – GO THERE if you’re in town!

Lesson of the day: Raison bread looks like olive bread and ‘raison bread prego rolls’ still taste delish.

Day 7: A drive in the hills and Manta Rota again

What we did: Drove inland and swam up a storm.

Why it was awesome: The hills of the inland are spectacular. Our aim was to drive the scenic route to Cachopo but ended up taking a random detour through the Aria region via Santa Catarina de Fonte de Bispo. The drive was relaxing and the scenery majestic. A surreal sense of magic was invoked by a plethora of seemingly disembodied white flowers that looked like confetti thrown over the mountain scape.

Our drive led us back to Tavira and then on to another day at Praia de Manta Rota.

There is no better way for a child to figure out how to have fun on the beach than to learn at the hand of other children. After observing a possy of slightly older kids cavorting in and amongst the waves on the beach, my little Amelia got down and dirty with the sea. It was beautiful to watch.

After our fill of fun and sun we took a drive down the coast through Santa Luzia, Luz de Tavira, and Fuseta.

Lesson of the day: Portuguese radio is killing me slowly (apparently Rihanna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are the only artists alive). Moral of the story: bring roadtripping music next time.

Day 8: Seville in a day

With Spain a stone’s throw away, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity for an adventure.

What we did: We did Seville and it was an absolute pleasure.

Why it was awesome: I can’t rave enough about Seville. I fell in love with the town. We hit the road early on Saturday morning; it was an easy drive from Tavira – straight all the way (A125 and then the A49) and surprisingly no border control so our passports weren’t necessary (I guess Spain is Portugal and Portugal is Spain). We had even bought a map but didn’t need one; the main road is clearly signed.

Old Town Seville is imbued with the festive flavour of all things Spanish. Locals were kitted out in their traditional get-up; frills, flowers and castanets adorned the sidewalks and groups of singers stopped at random spots to fill the air with folk songs.

Horses and carts roamed the streets and a sense of relic permeated the air.

There seemed to be something new nestled in each and every nook and cranny; restaurants, gardens and shops. The narrow cobbled streets conspired an aroma of intimate mystery.

Seville, famous for its oranges, is populated by citrus trees and my little girl had a brilliant time playing ‘collecting the fallen oranges’.

The grand, gothic Cathedral of Seville is appropriately imposing and is paced at the heart of the attractive city.

Lesson of the day: Crème catalunya is the best flavour ice cream EVER!

Day 9: More Praia de Manta Rota

What we did: Went to the beach.

Why it was awesome: Overkill is not something I believe in – when you find a good thing, exploit it till its dead – Manta Rota is my victim of the moment.

Lesson of the day: If you want an Italian style cappuccino in the Algarve, order ‘white coffee’ – if you order a ‘cappuccino’ you will get coffee with cream.

 

Day 10: My favourite town in the Algarve and Quarteira

What we did: Drove to Alte via Alportel, Salir and Rocha Da Pena, and visited the beach at Quarteira.

Why it was awesome: Alte is stunning. An absolute gem! The town is quietly serene and free from anything touristy. The little village with its whitewashed façades, filigree chimney pots and rural charm appears to have little time for the 21st Century, but greeted us with a warm handshake and friendly smile. The central attraction is the fonte picnic area next to the stream.

Sit down, order a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and bask in the marvel of simple beauty.

After Alte we made our way down to Quarteita for our final visit to the beach. And we went out with a bang; the day was boiling hot and the waves were enormous shore breakers. My little daughter, with fear abandoned, ran toward the sea with little concern for being washed away like a piece of driftwood. I spent a good hour and half chasing her in and out of the water and protecting her from the violent ocean – and she had no idea. Her reckless sense of freedom made me jealous and I revelled in the joy of childhood as experienced through the charisma of my daughter. It was a perfect gift for which I am most grateful.

Lesson of the day: Portuguese radio does not understand the anomaly of the ‘one hit wonder’ – apparently U2, Billy Joel and Roxette are all ‘one hit wonder’ bands.

Day 11: Faro and home

What we did: Blitzed around Faro and then went home.

Why it was awesome: As one of the larger cities in the Algarve, Faro is an interesting blend of old and new. The Old Town is pristine and lovely; the landmark cathedral and cloistered convent are set alongside a patchwork of narrow, cobbled streets with some inviting cafés and shops.

If we’d had more time we’d have spent more time exploring the newer part of the city.

Our flight home was horrid: bragging mom NOT in the house. My princess turned Chucky and made life occasionally unpleasant for anyone who was without hearing impairment. But even the inconsolable rants of a tired toddler were not enough to obliterate the afterglow of a fabulous holiday.

Lesson of the day: Overtired overrules snacks and iPhone.

Dear Reader, I hope that my words and photos have done a little justice the resplendent spirit of the Algarve. Don’t let the masses of tourists scare you away from the area – there are hidden treasures waiting to be discovered by you and some of the world’s most sensational beaches deserve to be enjoyed by all!

I wish you a happy holiday!

Source: DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Algarve

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