After several very enjoyable days in the Southwest Alentejo and Vincentine Coast Natural Park, we continued our journey across Portugal. The next destination was the Algarve region, which covers the southern part of the country, along the Atlantic Ocean. I was a bit sad to leave the natural park, but I was at the same time also looking forward to new adventures. Many years ago I travelled across northern Portugal, but I’ve never been to Algarve before. It was all totally new to me and I was happy to explore a new area, in a company of friends.
However, travelling with other people is not the same as being alone. A lot of flexibility and compromise is required in order to keep the group united and to make everyone happy with everything that’s being done. I was on my own during my five week travel in Turkey and I did whatever I wanted to do, when I wanted to do. It was different in Portugal, so I adopted what I considered to be the easiest strategy of all. I simply followed my friends and I gladly did whatever they decided for us to do. Being with them was more important to me than creating and following my own travel schedule. It worked perfectly fine.
WHAT DO I THINK ABOUT ALGARVE?
I’ll start by saying that it’s beautiful. I have never seen such big and long sandy beaches, everywhere. Additionally, being the south of the country, it has a perfect climate, especially in the summer. But, I believe that the same as in the rest of southern Europe, it becomes very hot in July and August. We were there in the first week of September and it was impossible to stay in the sun for a longer period of time. However, it was a perfect beach weather.
Because of this, Algarve is also a very popular touristic destination, geared towards mass tourism. As per the latest statistics, more than 4 million tourists visit it annually. Considering that it’s not a very big area, that’s a lot of people, especially if you consider that most of them visit during the hot summer months. It also means that it is expensive. In fact, in our experience it was probably the most expensive of all places we’ve been to. Consequently, whatever we did, most of the time it was rather poor value for money.
Anyway, I knew all this when I decided to go to Portugal with my friends. I did it because I wanted to be with them and also because I wanted to see something new in Europe. I don’t think that I would return there, although you never know.
Our first stop was Lagos. That’s not Lagos in Nigeria. I’ve never heard of this town before, so it was strange that it had the same name as the Nigerian capital. Nigeria was never a Portuguese colony, the nearest colonial area was the Gold Coast in today’s Ghana. Perhaps, there is some connection.
We spent one day in Lagos, which we started by visiting its beautiful historical centre. The colonial style Santa Maria de Lagos church is in the heart of the historic area, in Plaza Lagos.
Its architectural style and the way it dominates the square reminded me of the colonial style churches and squares that I had previously seen in South America. That’s not really surprising. Lagos had a prominent place in the history of the Portuguese colonial expansion and the Age of Discovery. Shamefully, it was also a centre of the European slave trade.
I am surprised that Lagos is not much more popular, although this may be my mistaken perception. I didn’t know about this place and I’ve never heard any of my friends mentioning that they would like to go to Lagos.
This could be because Lagos does not have a major international airport, the nearest one that serves the whole Algarve coast is in Faro. I know people who visited Faro, but it’s quite a distance from there to Lagos. Although, Lagos is clearly a popular destination because there were many tourists when we were there.
The old town is small and very pretty and it’s worth a visit. But at the same time, it’s very touristic. Souvenir shops and touristic restaurants are everywhere, which is good for businesses that want to earn money from tourists.
Anyway, it is the same all over the world, so it’s something that we have to put up with, regardless of whether we like it or not. We can choose not to spend too much time in the overly touristic places and we can look for more authentic experiences instead.
There is one phenomenal aspect to this city. Lagos has a superb beach, very close to the city centre. In most places, you have to travel to go to the beach. Here, the only thing that you have to do is to cross the Bensafrim River. To do that, you have to take the Vai Vem boat for 1 euro and in several minutes you are on the other side of the river. The beach is right there, in front of you.
We spent the whole afternoon sunbathing and swimming. The water was slightly warmer than in the Southwest Alentejo and Vincentine Coast Natural Park that we visited before coming to Algarve, although still too cold to stay inside for a longer period of time. It’s an unfortunate set back, but that’s the Atlantic Ocean. The beach is huge and although there were many people on the beach, it didn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic.
Towards the end of the day, we went to see the famous Dona Ana beach. Even at that late time in the day, it was packed. While it is undoubtedly a very beautiful beach, somehow I wouldn’t like to spend my time in a place where I am surrounded by too many people.
CAPE ST. VINCENT
That same day, we went to the Cape St. Vincent (Rota de São Vicente). This cape is the Portugal’s most southwestern point, it protrudes into the Atlantic Ocean. It almost felt like being at the “end of the world”. We went there to watch a sunset.
Watching a sunset with friends is a very romantic notion. But, there was nothing romantic about this particular sunset. The same as us, there were many other people with exactly the same idea. Regardless, the dramatic landscape in this part of Portugal was a perfect setting for this daily event, when the sun disappears into the blue ocean.
I’ve seen equally beautiful sunsets in Izmir and Kusadasi, in a more romantic setting and with fewer people around. We departed after the sunset, otherwise there was nothing else to do there. Basically, you go to the Cape St. Vincent just for the sunset and nothing else.
Our main base was in Vilamoura. A friend of mine works in a tourist industry, so he booked for us a five-star Hilton hotel. We stayed in a fabulous apartment. The hotel was full of British tourists who mainly remained around the swimming pool, rather than going to the beach.
Vilamoura is an artificial town, built for British (and other) tourists. There is nothing interesting to see there. Once, we went to the town centre which extends around the Vilamoura Marina. It was very uninspiring with exclusively touristic but overpriced shops, restaurants and bars.
But, the same as Lagos, Vilamoura also has a fabulous sandy beach. Plus, it is so big that I am sure it never feels crowded, regardless of how many people there are on the beach.
The Falésia Beach is easily the best part of Vilamoura. We spent several magnificent days on this beach, under the parasols. The water was cold, so it wasn’t really possible to swim for longer than 5 minutes. It’s just the way it is with the Atlantic Ocean.
The small town of Quarteira is immediately next to Vilamoura. We went there one evening, for a walk and for dinner.
Unlike Vilamoura, which was packed with foreign tourist, Quarteira had a slightly more authentic feel. But, don’t get me wrong, it is also a touristic place, although from what I’ve seen, primarily for Portuguese tourists. Personally, I prefer places where you have local people. There, you have a better chance of experiencing the local culture. The Portuguese music was playing from several bars, with people dancing, a scene so different from the artificial ambience in Vilamoura. We had dinner in a fabulous family run – A Gaiata – restaurant.
One more aspect that I particularly liked about Quareira is that the city spreads along the beach. It means that, if you are there on holiday, all you need to do is to cross the promenade and you are on the beach. It can’t really get better than that.
We also visited the capital of the Algarve region – Faro. Faro is the biggest city in southern Portugal and with its very busy international airport, it is the gateway for the whole region.
The historical centre is very beautiful, although we didn’t explore it in detail. Rather, we went for a walk around the central area, to see as much as possible and to get a good feel of the city.
There were many tourists in Faro and we had a problem to find a restaurant to have our dinner. There were many restaurants in the city, but they were all full at dinner time. Our dinner was acceptable, although too expensive for what it was.
Of all places that we’ve seen in Algarve, Faro is together with Lagos a place that I would like to go back to at some point in the future. It is also a great place to explore the Portuguese history, despite its overly touristic aspect.
From Faro, after two months in Turkey, Italy and Portugal, I came back to London. There is really nothing more fulfilling than travelling and exploring different countries, people and their cultures.