Tuesday 11th February to Monday 17th February 2020 – Winter sun in the Algarve.

The MAEs like a bit of warmth and sunshine towards the end of an English winter and often head south for about a week at this time. Last year late February found them in Menorca (see post below). Although your Man had recently been to Dubai and had enjoyed temperatures in the twenties there, mid-February found them heading to Gatwick for a late afternoon easyJet flight to Faro for a long contemplated short break on the Algarve after one of the wettest UK winters on record.

We chose Faro as our base as it seemed to be a city that did not just rely on tourism. Being in a resort town in the winter can be rather dispiriting experience when a lot of restaurants and sites of interest are closed. Also the administrative capital of the region seemed to have a number of places to visit and things to do as well as being on a railway line giving easy access to much of the coast (though, be warned, the stations can be some distance from the town centre in many places). Arriving at 8.15 at night it is also blessed with an airport that really is “only a short taxi ride” away from the centre – less than 10 euros including a tip. We had chosen a large modern hotel, the Eva Senses, and it was a good choice, even though the reception area was being renovated. It has a perfect central location near the waterfront and the old city. (Be warned sun-worshippers, Faro doesn’t have a beach as such – though wonderful beaches can be found on the off shore islands that can be reached by ferry). Our balcony room looked out over the marina. A very good buffet breakfast is served in the light and airy fifth floor restaurant, often with suitably relaxed live musical accompaniment.

On our first full day we woke to sunshine and later the temperature reached around 20 degrees centigrade, though it seemed warmer. This pattern was repeated daily. We were apparently very fortunate as we were told the weather isn’t usually quite this good in February – doubly so as the worst excesses of Storm Dennis were hitting Britain during our absence. We decided to explore the walled Old City on foot. It was quiet and virtually traffic free, with whitewashed houses and a municipal museum which we kept in reserve until later in our holiday. We did visit the attractive cathedral and its sunny cloister. Little of the medieval building remains as it caught fire in 1596 when attacked by the Queen Elizabeth’s (then) favourite the Earl of Essex following his successful capture of Cadiz. Portugal is often referred to as England’s oldest ally but this attack was OK because from 1580 to 1640 Portugal was under Spanish rule. As well as many ornate chapels be sure not to miss the wonderful 18th century oriental style wooden case (1752) of the organ. There are several attractive restaurants in the old city and we saw one we liked the look of, the eponymous Cidade Velha. We booked in for our St. Valentine’s Day dinner two days later. As lunch was calling we left the old city and headed for the mostly pedestrianised shopping area just north of the marina. Plenty of lunch choices and we plumped for a little café called Baixacaffe at 54 Rua de St. Antonio. Excellent for toasted sandwiches and beers etc. (****) Further strolling and some window shopping followed, and then back to our hotel for a siesta, before dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant called Mivala (Largo de Madelena 10) which was highly regarded on Tripadvisor. Slightly off the beaten track it is well worth finding. It is decorated like an old inn with wooden tables and chairs, antique prints and an old radio. It was empty when we arrived – it was a Wednesday in February – though another couple arrived later. The friendly waitress took our order from a sensibly short menu. We shared and antipasto with salamis and good goat and sheep cheese. Mrs. MAE then had homemade mushroom and potato ravioli (a little dry she said) and Mr. MAE a long cooked beef and wine stew (tender and delicious). He also enjoyed the house dessert of the day which had cream and cherries if he remembers it correctly. Good choice of Portuguese wines by the glass. Recommended (****).

The next morning we set off for the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve just off the coast. Founded in 1987, in all it stretches 60 km. along the shore. It is made up of lagoons, islets and channels protected from the open sea by a chain of barrier islands covered in sand dunes. A number of companies provide boat trips and their sales kiosks can be found just by the marina. We chose the Hop On Hop Off islands company which runs bright yellow “ribs” (rigid inflatable boats) holding a maximum of about eight passengers which travel between the drop-off points at quite an exhilarating speed. We disembarked first at the Ilha Deserta. There is a map showing a recommended walking route across the dunes on raised wooden walkways and then back along the beautiful sandy beach. We followed this for some distance but then cut across inland for fear of missing the next boat. The Estamine restaurant, a distinctive wooden building, didn’t seem to be fully open. We moved on to the fishermans’ village of Culatra for lunch which we took in one of its two bars, the Café Janoca, which was busy with noisy local fishermen. We ordered two portions of fried prawns (shell on), a portion of (slightly greasy but not unpleasant) chips and a half litre carafe of the house white. One portion of prawns would have been plenty. Certainly no frills and very messy to eat, but quite fun. (***). We then took the next boat to our final stop of Farol, which is on the same island. We walked through what is a village of (mostly shuttered up for the winter) holiday bungalows to the impressive lighthouse (Farol, in Portuguese, means lighthouse) which was built of concrete in 1851 and is 50 metres tall. From a distance it has (purely coincidentally I’m sure) something of the look of a pagoda. We went back to the landing stage in good time for the next scheduled boat. We waited and waited for about an hour. I think we had been forgotten, though eventually one arrived, presumably having been sent back for us. A shame but still a very enjoyable day. (**** - would have been 5). All we wanted for dinner was something simple and we were well pleased with both the pizzas (a Diavola and a Prosciutto e Fungi), and the welcome at the Pizzeria bell’Antonio (Rua Conselheiro Bivar 52) near the hotel. (****).

Friday was bus trip day. My guidebook suggested an outing to Estoi which has a Rococo-style Palace, and a Roman villa just down the road at Milreu. There is an hourly bus (No. 65, 6.80 Euros return) from the bus station which was just a few yards from our hotel. The best plan is to go to Estoi first and then walk downhill (less than a mile) to the villa which is near a bus stop back. If you walk uphill on arrival in Estoi you come to the Palace Gardens which are run by the council – pleasant but a little shabby. To visit the palace itself, which is now a Pousada, you have to exit the gardens and walk further uphill around to the rear. It is worth the effort. It is a pretty pink and white building built from 1840 to 1909. It has recently been restored and it and its gardens are a good place to while away an hour on a warm day. We enjoyed a refreshing fresh lemonade on the terrace. We then walked back down the hill and out to the villa which was built from the first to the third century A.D. There is an interpretative centre in the entrance building. The ruins are quite extensive. The best bits are the temple and some of the fish mosaics in the baths. (***) However better can be seen at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, and especially at Casale in central Sicily. We had a ham sandwich (literally) at the village bar just down the hill over the bridge, and then waited (for some time) for the bus back to Faro, from a stop outside a builders merchant’s yard.

That evening we headed out to the old city for our Valentine’s Day dinner at the Cidade Velha restaurant. The evening did not start well. Having decided against the special Valentine’s Day menu, which we didn’t fancy, and arriving at 7.30 before all the lovebirds we found ourselves towards the back of the dining room away from the specially decorated tables with a family who were eating early, and a man eating alone who had clearly not enjoyed his meal. The atmosphere was anything but relaxing. Persevering, I asked for something sparkling and we were offered a half-bottle of Casal Garcia, which turned out to be a vinho verde. It was actually pleasant enough though not at all what I was looking for. I noticed later that those on the special menu started with a glass of Portuguese sparkling wine which we would happily have paid for had we been offered it. We enjoyed a small plate of local goat’s cheese with the wine. Our main courses took a long time to arrive, but when they did were actually very good. Grilled salmon for Mrs MAE, and one of those barbecue skewers hanging from a hook loaded with grilled monkfish and large prawns for me. We accompanied this with a delicious half-bottle of white from the Douro (which, looking at the bill in front of me, we don’t seem to have been charged for, so I can’t tell you what it was). By this time the guests for the Valentine’s menu were arriving, the staff had relaxed, and the atmosphere had markedly improved. I finished with bolo chocolate caseiro – house made chocolate cake. Good. I think we were a bit unlucky (***). On a regular night the rating might be higher.

Saturday was train trip day. The railway station was a short walk from the hotel and we were headed west along the coast to Lagos, a fishing port with a busy marina. The journey takes about an hour and 45 minutes. Not unpleasant, but by no means one of the great railway journeys. On arrival at the modern station at about noon it was a short walk to the marina and the long promenade on the other bank of the Bensafrim river estuary across a bridge. We had been hoping to visit the Benagil sea caves further east during our holiday but couldn’t work out a practical way to do it, so when we saw a lady advertising Lagos Grotto Trips (lagosgrottotrips.come) we were easy meat. And a boat was just leaving. We were well looked after by our skipper guide Pedro who was genuinely interesting, and the various grottos were quite spectacular. (*****) On our arrival back we headed back over the bridge to the Marina where there was a line of smart looking cafes. We chose the Quay, where we ate a delicious light lunch. Mrs. MAE particularly enjoyed her goats cheese salad drizzled with honey and the best walnuts you ever tasted. (****) It seems to be particularly popular with the British ex-pat community. We then walked along the promenade to the 17th Century fort at the harbour mouth. This was host to an exhibition of large ceramic sculptures of fish by Studio Bongard in Ferragudo. Technically brilliant but not MAE’s thing at all. We then visited the church of St. Anthony. It was rebuilt in 1769 after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Above a dado covered in the traditional blue and white azulejos tiles the walls are completely covered in gilded wood carvings, apart from paintings showing the life of St. Anthony. A must see (*****). We bought a joint ticket which included entrance to the nearby slavery museum in the old slave market overseer’s office. The exhibition is perhaps a little over designed to be able express the full horror of the trade (***). We then walked back to the station for the train, arriving back in Faro after a full and rewarding day. Rather than go out to eat we settled for hamburgers and beers in the hotel bar and watched some Portuguese football.

Sunday was our last full day and we decided to explore Faro some more. North from the centre are some once attractive streets with what were grand villas, though far too many are now boarded up. We did come across the old municipal market which was very well stocked and busy. It also has an Auchan supermarket in the basement. I read that Auchan in Portugal have a policy of selling as much local produce as possible and we were able to buy some delicious local goat and sheep cheeses to bring home plus two small jars of honey with walnuts in order to recreate the delicious salad we had in Lagos. After a walk back to the centre we had lunch at the Woods, a salad bar near the hotel (Ave. da Republica 10) – generous portions and an imaginative menu. Sadly we discovered they have a roof terrace only after we had eaten. (***) We then headed for the Municipal Museum in the old city. I know the museum is often the last resort for visitors to a town but this was actually a very enjoyable place to spend a couple of hours. Located in an attractive old convent it shows the usual range of artefacts from prehistory through Roman times (including a spectacular mosaic found near the station) into the middle ages. It also holds a number of exhibitions by local and international artists. Particularly of note were the abstract paintings by Michael Biberstein, a Swiss/American artist who lived in Portugal for three decades. He died in 2013. We then headed back to the marina where a local rock band called The Threw (see them on YouTube) (****) was performing at the Café do Coreto on the harbour side. We had fresh lemonade sitting in the afternoon sun. There was also a better than average local craft market close by. That evening we decided to try an Indian restaurant, the Namastey, which we had seen during our walks around Faro. We arrived early which was a good thing as it was soon completely full and customers were waiting a long time for their meals. Standard local curry house fare, and not expensive. We shared a samosa and a bhaji, lamb jalfrezi and, in a nod to India’s Portuguese heritage, piri-piri prawns. (***).

Next morning, after a good breakfast we took another economical taxi to the airport where we bought some prize winning olive oil from the Quinta de Ventozelo in the Douro, and some of that delicious Ginja cherry liqueur from Obidos before our flight back to Gatwick.

A very varied and enjoyable holiday. I think the Algarve needs a slogan. Perhaps something along the lines of “not just resorts and golf courses” might do it.

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