Most travellers dismiss Portugal’s Algarve as a whirlwind of booze and beaches, but its quiet east is a land of wild walks, lagoons and historic villages waiting to be explored…
Clearing customs at Faro Airport, the main entry point for Portugal’s busy Algarve, I was instantly accosted by a dizzying array of tour reps. Each was touting a sign for the buses that spirit new arrivals to the overflowing resorts outside of the city. This was the Algarve that I had been expecting, the one in most people’s imaginations.
The region’s long-held reputation as a playground for sun-blasted Brits on tour isn’t entirely unfounded. Trawl west of Faro and you’ll soon see that side to the Algarve. Indeed, the airport is all that most of Faro’s 3 million yearly arrivals ever see of its regional capital even, let alone the fishing villages and raw coast towards the Spanish border.
Escape east, however, and that other side emerges. This is the Algarve of deserted sands, half-forgotten islands, wild wetlands and boat-fresh seafood all served up in whitewashed villages. It’s an ancient land alive with Moorish ghosts and tall tales of lost Portuguese adventurers. But to most visitors that come here, it might as well not exist.
I was determined to explore this overlooked corner after a Portuguese friend insisted it was not only their favourite part of the Algarve, but in all of Portugal. It seemed a bold claim, but one I was eager to test, starting with the most overlooked part of all: Faro itself, the forgotten capital.
My first stop in the city was Faro y Benfica, a seafood restaurant that lies on the edge of the marina – an area that, unlike Vilamoura in the western Algarve, is home to a flurry of fishing boats rather than millionaire’s yachts.
A heaving tray of fish was brought out, but I opted for cataplana, the Algarve’s version of bouillabaisse.
It’s an apposite local speciality, alive with a collage of white fish, clams, scallops and prawns, eclectic like the Algarve; this region swirls in Roman and Moorish influences, as well as tales from the days when the Portuguese Empire stretched as far as Goa and Macao.
A sense of history is never far away here, as I found when I headed through the Arco da Vila.
This grand arch – part of the old Moorish walls that once surrounded the city and were later rebuilt in the early 19th century – is like a time machine, leading you deep into the cobbled streets of Faro’s pedestrianised Old Town. Here the centuries peel back at every turn in a scene as far from the brash resorts as it’s possible to get.
As I wandered the main square, the chimes of Faro Cathedral’s bells filled the air and woke the storks nesting in the rooftops.
The cathedral’s exterior is an eye-catching melange of gothic, renaissance and baroque, but the highlight for me was ascending to the viewing deck that opened up views over Faro and across the Ria Formosa National Park – the next stop on my journey across the Algarve’s wild east.
The coastal lagoons of Ria Formosa Natural Park run for 60km, almost all the way to the Spanish border.
They are an important wildlife site yet lie just an hour’s drive west of Faro. Its fringes are a necklace of islands and sandy islets that act as a barrier against the ravages of the Atlantic, protecting the fragile tidal ecosystem within.
I travelled to neighbouring town Olhão, the main gateway to the park, where I met a flurry of boat operators and local ferries busying off from the waterfront to navigate its car-free islands. You can head out for a quick spin to get an idea of this natural wonderland, but I wanted more.
I joined Natura Algarve guide Jorge for a trip that opened a window into the lives of the local clam diggers. I was soon rummaging around the mud flats searching for clams using one of the traditional trowels that are still used to gather these tasty morsels.
“Digging for clams is something my family has done for centuries. It’s part of our culture,” explained Jorge.
“It’s not just a job, as many people will dig for them with their families at weekends. We don’t use any expensive machinery either – I just use the same tools my father and his father before him used.”
The Ria Formosa lies on a busy migratory route for birds, providing a handy bridge between Europe and Africa, but just as interesting are its human inhabitants.
Pushing further into the lagoon, we came to the outer isle of Culatra, which spreads its sandy tentacles across 5km. This is one of the islands that is still inhabited, even if you can walk from the lagoon side to the Atlantic in just a few minutes.
Life here is a low-key affair, lived out under big blue skies with the salt of the ocean filling the air.
“In the old days, people could build what they wanted out here and nobody really cared,” a local student told me.
“Development in the national park is much more tightly controlled these days. I like that there is still real life out here, though.
"People live and work on the island. It’s not just a tourist attraction like many places further west of Faro. After my studies I want to come back and live here.”
Back in Olhão, on the waterfront, I settled into a café with a heart-starting bica – the potent local version of espresso – and gazed at the hulking fish market. It’s a building worth lingering over, as one of its traders explained while sharing a coffee.
“That is no ordinary fish market,” he smiled proudly. “It was designed by the French engineer Gustave Eiffel, who built its iron structure here on the waterfront a few years after creating his tower in Paris.”
Inside, mornings see the market bursting with every type of fish and shellfish you can imagine. The local tuna is world class, caught as it makes its migrations between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
What few tourists Olhão manages to attract tend to just be here for the seafood or boat trips. I chose to linger longer, tempted by an old town that reminded me more of North Africa than anywhere in Europe.
I wandered a few streets further into this warren and gone were foreign voices. Little family-run shops and tumbledown cafés were plying their trade among a rich collage of buildings whose faded grandeur bore a rough charm.
In one of the cafés I learned that Olhão was granted its royal charter after a small wooden vessel, the Caíque Bom Sucesso, crewed by sailors from the town, made its way to Brazil in 1808 to give the exiled King João VI the good news that the last of Napoleon’s invading troops had been ejected from Portugal.
I found a replica of the boat back on Olhão’s waterfront. This is a region, I was quickly learning, where the past mingles freely with the present.
Working further east, I was heading to Tavira when I remembered the words of a waiter back in Faro, who insisted I stop off en route in the village of Santa Luzia. This small fishing port is famous locally for its octopus. I soon realised why, after arriving to find its waterfront lined with a flurry of restaurants serving up the fruits of the day’s labours.
At Polvo & Companhia I discovered you can cook octopus in over 20 ways. But it was the beaches, not food, that brought mass tourism to the Algarve in the 1960s, and the east is not short of beautiful stretches of coast.
A few kilometres away from Santa Luzia lies a bridge that reaches over the lagoon in search of Praia do Barril. An old train line – once used to ferry tuna to the mainland – has been resurrected to take visitors out to its sands, yet as I stepped onto the beach I saw neither hotels nor cafés. Nothing.
Beyond a scattering of bathers lay 5km of sea-lapped shore. I strolled on towards the beautiful Ilha de Tavira, a seemingly endless sandspit, and all the way it was just me, the cobalt-blue Atlantic, unblemished sands and a cloudless sky.
In summer you can catch a ferry from the Ilha de Tavira right into the heart of its namesake town.
It proved an apt way to arrive. Tavira was built on the riches brought in by sea during Portugal’s Golden Age in the 15th and 16th centuries, when explorers and traders plundered the world’s oceans.
Today it is a whitewashed charmer, straddling the lazy banks of the Gilão River.
I wandered into the Old Town across its Roman bridge to find a treasure trove of grand architecture, a legacy of the days when people and goods flowed here from all corners of the empire.
Sprinklings of Roman and Moorish influences were everywhere I looked – not least in the azulejos, the distinctive bright patterned tiles that are ubiquitous in the Algarve and trace their roots back to the Moors.
Tavira’s castle may no longer be grand in its own right, but it is surrounded by verdant gardens. It’s a great place for Tavira’s favourite pastime – taking it easy.
After whiling away an hour there, I wandered the town’s cobbled streets, which snake around and then open out into shady squares peppered with little cafés where you can indulge in a fortifying pastel de nata (custard tart).
Tavira seems to have almost as many church spires as it does residents.
The 17th-century Igreja de Santiago is one of more than 20, and is thought to stand on the site of an old mosque.
From high up in its belltower I was back in the land of storks nesting on rooftops, with sweeping views of a town that straddles both sides of its lifeblood river.
The last stop on my journey into the Algarve’s forgotten coast came within swimming distance of Spain at Cacela Velha.
This whitewashed hamlet was like a mini Faro, with just a sprinkling of graceful stone buildings gazing out from a bluff overlooking the most eastern lagoon in the Ria Formosa estuary.
Its main sight is the Fortaleza de Cacela, a rugged fortress that has stood over the approach since it was rebuilt in the 18th century. Cacela Velha is not the sort of place that attracts tour buses.
I sat alone in a café before lazing away an hour just taking in the views. The only time it gets busy here is in July, when a four-day Moorish festival brings its streets to life.
Yet it made a fitting end to my journey along the coast, where the slow pace of its villages lets you take in not just the sights but a way of life.
I’d found the east coast of the Algarve to be quiet, but heading inland it felt like Manhattan by comparison.
I spent my last few nights upriver in the border town of Alcoutim, which lies at the heart of the most sparsely populated municipality in Portugal.
The town lies just over the Guadiana River from Spain. Archaeological digs have uncovered evidence of the various civilisations who have breezed through here and across the eastern Algarve, from the Phoenicians and Romans, right back to Neolithic times.
I sifted through their leftovers at the archaeological museum within the walls of the city’s 13th-century castle.
Alcoutim’s main claim to fame today is that it is the starting point for the Via Algarviana, a long-distance walk that stretches for 300km from the banks of the Guadiana to the very tip of western Europe at Sagres, which for many centuries marked the very edge of the world for the Portuguese.
I tackled the first stretch of this walk over two days. Again, I was blissfully alone as I wandered under cloudless skies. This time the ocean had been replaced by scorched red earth, broken only by cork and eucalyptus trees.
The scene felt more like the plains I’ve come across in Africa or the Australian Outback rather than anything I’ve seen in Europe. The only people I met en route were an elderly couple in a hamlet, who invited me to sit down and take tea with them on their porch.
“We don’t see many walkers coming past here,” the man explained. “We don’t really see many people. We like it that way, but it’s nice to sit down with a passing walker once in a while and hear something about the world outside our home.”
Heading back to the maelstrom of Faro Airport, I envied the peace they had found, and reflected on the Algarve that I had encountered.
It had been a far cry from the resorts of popular imagination. I had wandered towns draped in the legacy of Moorish and Roman conquest, walked lone trails and solitary sands, and boated into wild lagoons under bird-filled skies.
I had explored a land that retains so much of what has been lost elsewhere – a time capsule of the old Algarve.
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