Many of us have visited Portugals beautiful Algarve coastline and stayed in one of its busy resorts such as Albufeira, Portimao and Vilamoura. But did you know there is another very different side to the region of peaceful mountain hotels and guest houses and a coastline of 100km containing dramatic cliffs and some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe if not the world and this relatively undiscovered region is only an hours drive at the most from most of the resorts. There are no high rise developments but in their place picturesque whitewashed towns and villages where the pace of life instantly makes you relax and where you get a true picture of the ‘real’ Algarve and get to know its friendly and welcoming people.
We were lucky enough to discover the beauty of this region a couple of years ago and were somewhat shocked at how it had ‘escaped’ us for all these years so we would like to share it with you!
Most vacations to the Algarve begin with flying into Faro airport though Lisbon airport may also be an option. We flew into Faro and after picking up our hire car we were soon heading west on the new A22 toll road. You should be aware that there are no toll booths but a series of electronic number plate reading cameras at intervals along the motorway. You pay your toll at one of the many newsagents/tobacconists which you find in any town but from recollection you have to wait 24 or 48 hours before being able to pay. You just have to provide your vehicles registration number. The tolls can be relatively small depending on how far you have travelled along the motorway and there is an alternative road which you can use, the N125, which has no tolls but your journey will inevitably take longer. If you use the motorway at the end of your vacation to return to the airport you will need to leave the car rental company some money to cover tolls incurred during the last 24/48 hours. The system is far from ideal, especially for tourists but once we were aware of the rules we had no problems with it.
Leaving the A22 close to Portimao you take the N124 towards Monchique and soon you are climbing into the mountains through cork tree plantations and every curve in the road brings another beautiful view. The area is famous for its natural spring water which is believed, by locals, to have healing properties and apparently many people from the area come to the springs on a Sunday to fill their water containers for the following week.
There are luxurious spa resorts in the area but also a number of smaller hotels and guest houses. We chose to stay in beautiful newly built guest house in the called Vilafoia. It was more like a small hotel to be honest and every room had a large balcony with spectacular views down the mountain towards the town of Portimao in the distance. It also had a swimming pool and beautiful gardens. The area of Foia is the highest point of the Algarve at 902m and from the summit there are magnificent views, on a clear day, of the entire region.
Monchique itself is, as you would expect, a relatively peaceful, small town but it has a selection of bars, restaurants and grocery stores. Near Foia there is also the restaurant O Luar da Foia which is recognised as being the finest restaurant in the area with many traditional Portugese fish and meat dishes and an outdoor terrace with amazing views down the mountainside especially at sunset.
The area has a variety of walking trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty so try to get out into the countryside to experience the tranquillity and enjoy the scenery and the wildlife after which a good nights sleep is guaranteed!
How long you stay in Monchique is entirely up to you but two or three nights would probably give you enough time to explore the area but many people spend entire vacations there.
Leaving Monchique heading towards the west coast take the N267 which is a scenic road winding through the mountains and forests and past small villages before descending towards the coast into the town of Aljezur. Aljezur is the largest town in the immediate area and its location close to so many attractions makes it an excellent base for exploring the beautiful coastline. It has a greater number of hotels, guest houses and self catering rental properties than Odeceixe to the north and Bordeira to the south. Newly converted traditional style homes are available to rent on the edge of the town www.carpe-vita.com . The town is also of some historic significance and the remains of a Moorish castle can be seen high on the hill above the old town from which there are fantastic views.
The western coastline of the Algarve contains the Costa Vicentina National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, which is the longest coastal national park in Europe at approximately 100km running from the town of Odeceixe in the north to Burgau in the south. With its beaches backed by sand dunes and dramatic cliffs containing an abundance of rare plants and wildlife including fishing eagles and white storks it is visited by zoologists and botanists from all over the world.
The list of beautiful beaches is endless. Some are easy to get to by road whilst others require a little more effort being more secluded but the effort will be worth it. About 10km from Aljezur is the small village of Monte Clerigo where the pretty whitewashed houses spill down the hillside to a long beach of golden sand.
The town of Odeceixe to the north tumbles down a hillside to the broad valley of the Odeceixe River. Out of season it’s a sleepy slow paced town but in the peak of the summer it attracts many young surfers and families lured by its superb beach and laidback atmosphere. The town centre, if you can call it that, has a collection of bars, grocery stores, craft stores etc and some very nice cafes. One which we had lunch in was attached to a craft shop and the café had a pretty courtyard with orange trees and was the perfect place to spend an hour or two before heading to the beach which is 4km away via a pleasant drive alongside the river. During July and August there is a road train, which children and adults alike would clearly enjoy, running from the centre to the beach. It is one of the most sheltered beaches in the area but always be cautious as the beaches of the west coast are famous for their excellent surfing conditions and large waves. There are plenty of parking spaces available above the bay and a cluster of houses and cafes along with what was the steepest street we have ever seen in our lives and that includes anything we witnessed in San Francisco!
Other popular beaches contained within the Costa Vicentina National Park are Porto Covo, Arrifana and Praia do Amado which is another beach particularly popular with surfers. The first beach which we discovered at Carrapateira close to the town of Bordeira remains one of the most amazing beaches we have ever seen if not the most amazing. The sheer scale of it has to be seen to be believed and it also extends back at least 2km which makes it resemble a small desert. There is a car park at beach level but we chose to park above the beach which has superb views and a number of wooden walkways to viewpoints and down to the beach where we crossed what was at the time a small shallow river, more about that later! We had already been watching the surfers from one of the viewpoints high above the beach but now at beach level the sheer power and scale of the waves was truly awe inspiring.
We settled down on the beach for the afternoon and Martha braved the sea and basically got rather beaten up by the waves which were crashing down only a few metres out whereas Nigel went in briefly but then decided it would be more fun to photograph and film Martha getting thrown about like a rag doll when a wave struck! To be honest even most of the surfers at this point had decided that watching the waves from the shore was a better idea as the swell was rather dangerous looking even to them.
Lunch was purchased in a beach shack which looked like something straight out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Sadly we have since discovered that it has now closed down so if you are going for the day best bring supplies though there are cafes in the vicinity in an emergency.
Now we come to the interesting part when we were heading back to our car. What had been the small shallow river which we had crossed to get onto the beach was now a deep fast flowing river. We hadn’t realised that the river led to a large lagoon at the rear of the beach which filled up at high tide so we now had two options, either take a long detour around the lagoon or wade through the lagoon to take a short cut. Taking the wading through the lagoon option probably seemed like a good idea at the time and obviously we lived to tell the tale but there were definitely moments during the crossing, especially in Nigels head, when it didn’t seem such a smart idea as we had no idea how deep it would get! Anyhow we reached the shore and Nigel ran the couple of kilometres up the road to drive the car back to collect Martha at the beach car park.
In the far southwest tip of Portugal is Cape St Vincent with its rugged rocky coastline and steep cliffs which are home to numerous birds ranging from peregrine falcons and kites through to herons and storks. It has a lighthouse guarding one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes and its light can be seen as far away as 60km making it among the most powerful in Europe. There are many market traders beside the car park with their stalls selling jewellery and heavy woollen knitwear and furs which seems slightly unusual in that climate!
Close to the Cape is the town of Sagres from whose harbour Portugese explorers set sail to make their voyages of discovery as long ago as the 15th century. The most famous of these was Henry the Navigator who brought fame to the region with his exploratory journeys. He founded the Sagres Nautical School in the 15th century which soon became a magnet for sailors from all over the world. The town of Sagres today contains a variety of historic monuments dating back to roman times and its harbour remains a lively place especially at the end of the day when the boats return with their catch of fresh fish for local restaurants and ones throughout the Algarve.
Sagres also marks the finishing point to our tour of the western Algarve though of course there are still other places worth visiting as you make your way back to the airport such as the towns of Lagos and Silves for historical interest particularly in the case of Silves or the coastline west of Albufeira close to Gale with its mixture of long beaches and smaller picturesque coves our favourite of which is Praia do Sao Rafael which has been ranked amongst the worlds most beautiful beaches by many experts.
We hope you come travelling with us again very soon!
(c) Originally published in German on http://blog.bravofly.de .