Land of sun, sand and storks

In the Algarve along the southern coast of Portugal, the sun always shines. In fact, it shines about 3,000 hours a year with an average temperature of 18 C. So it’s no wonder that the Algarve is to European vacationers what the Caribbean is to North Americans. And now that siren song of sunshine and year-round spring-like temperatures is calling winter-weary Canadians too. But there’s more to the Algarve than simply sun and sand.

Shirley Lashbrook, 79, of London, Ont., first visited the Algarve with her late husband in 1990. Since then, she has been back eight times. “It’s the charm of the sunshine,” she says. “And the almond blossoms are out when I arrive.” Legend has it that a Moorish ruler of Algarve imported thousands of almond trees so his Nordic bride could be reminded of the snow of her homeland when the trees were in blossom. But for anyone wanting to escape snow, almond blossoms are a delightful substitute.

Lashbrook and her husband would rent an apartment in Alvor, an ancient coastal village whose narrow enclosed streets have kept development to a minimum although a multitude of seafood restaurants and bars abound. A popular holiday location, Alvor faces a naral lagoon with a long golden sand beach.

For the last 10 years, Lashbrook has travelled to the Algarve on her own. “The people are so friendly – shy but accommodating,” she says. And while prices have increased in the 15 years Lashbrook has been coming to Portugal, she still believes it is a reasonably priced holiday. Recently, Lashbrook has used her knowledge and love of the region to offer her services as a travel escort to Canadian groups visiting on long-term stays.

The Algarve is a 200-kilometre stretch from the windswept Cape Saint Vincent – the most westerly point of continental Europe – to Vila Real de Santo Antonio on the Rio Guadiana separating Portugal and Spain. The region has jagged coastlines, more than 100 extensive sandy beaches sheltered by golden sandstone cliffs, blue lagoons, marshlands and sand dunes. Beyond the coastal area lies the agricultural barrocal area, the transition between the coast and the mountains. Beyond that again are three mountain ranges in the hill area – ideal hiking country and home to the elusive Iberian lynx – which comprises half the Algarve. The mountains block cold northern winds and account for the Algarve’s mild year-round temperatures.

Historically, the Algarve was the last of the Portuguese lands to be reclaimed from Muslim rule in the 12th century, and five centuries of Moorish influence have left their mark: whitewashed buildings in the towns of Silves, Faro and Tavira; latticed doors, filigreed chimneys and Moorish architecture; narrow winding village streets; and castles galore. Even the name “Algarve” comes from the Arab Al Gharb, meaning “the country of the west.”

As a travel agent for Merit Travel, Suzanne Malloy usually goes to a destination only once to get a feel for it. But she so enjoys the Algarve that she has returned to the sunny coast five times, often escorting tours from Canada. Her last group numbered 40 people – some couples, many single women and all ages. “The food in Portugal is as good as the fabled food of Tuscany,” she says. “And the prices are reasonable. Another attraction is that you feel quite safe in the Algarve.”

Charters fly direct from Toronto to the international airport at Faro, about 50 kilometres from the Spanish border, and her groups stay just west of the city in an apartment hotel within walking distance of the beautiful Praia da Rocha beach. It’s an ideal base from which to explore the area. As long as you can drive a standard, you can travel all over the Algarve. “Driving is never a problem,” says Malloy. “The highways are seldom crowded.”

Faro itself is worth more than a day visit. The capital of the Algarve, many of its Moorish and Roman ruins were lost after an earthquake in 1755 devastated the town. However, the 13th-century cathedral in the heart of the Old City is a real attraction with its jumble of baroque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, fine azulejos (glazed tiles) and gilded woodwork. Some of the best examples of gold-leaf woodwork in southern Portugal are in the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo; its chapel houses a collection of the bones of more than 1,000 monks. Just outside the cathedral, the famous Portuguese glazed tiles on the walls of São Francisco Church tell the story of the saint’s life.

Stretching 60 kilometres along the coast from Faro is the Ria Formosa, Portugal’s largest natural park and an important wildlife sanctuary. The 26,000 acres of lagoons, channels, offshore islands and marshlands is home to more than 1,500 species of birds and mammals. The marine life attracts flocks of wading birds such as flamingos and storks. In the Algarve, storks may not bring babies, but they do bring construction to a grinding halt: nesting storks are protected here and cannot be disturbed.

Further east, Tavira – “the place of 1,001 churches” – is the town for history buffs. Occupied since prehistoric times, Tavira offers a smorgasbord of eras – the turrets of a Moslem fortification; the tiny often windowless houses in the Moorish Quarters, the eclectic appeal of the Convent of St. Francis which was given to the Order of St. Francis in 1312 by the Order of the Knights Templar; the Church of the Misericordia, said to be one of the finest examples of the Renaissance period. Reflected in the Ria Gilão are the facades of the whitewashed buildings with trussed roofs (telhados de tesoura), a touch of the Orient brought back by Portuguese explorers, the first westerners to discover Japanese culture.

On the eastern extremity of the Algarve at the Guadiana River lies Vila Real de Santo Antonio. No Moorish or Roman antiquities here. Vila Real de Santo Antonio is Portugal’s “modern” town. In 1774, the Marquis of Pombal planned a buffer to Spanish settlements on the other side of the river. Set on a rectangular grid, the building materials were pre-cut and pre-fabricated in Lisbon, then shipped down by boat. All right angles and perfectly geometrical, the streets of Vila Real de Santo Antonio are a marked contrast to the more usual twists of Moorish laneways.

Portimão with a population of 35,000 is the second largest town in the Algarve. It’s an ideal base for sightseeing through the western half of the Algarve, including Cape Saint Vincent and the towns of Silves, Lagos and Sagres. In Silves, stones of different times and cultures overlap. The castle, with its famous water cistern and walls, is of Arab origin; the Gothic cathedral (having undergone several restoration works) was built on the site of an ancient mosque; the 12th-century bridge was built where a Roman bridge formerly stood.

Portugal’s borders are the oldest in the world, unchanged since they were established in 1249. But the Algarve is not all history. Vilamoura is Europe’s largest luxury tourist development complete with casino and the largest marina in the country. The marina is a fashionable hangout with bars, hotels, restaurants and yacht club. This November, Vilamoura plays host to the 2005 Golf World Cup.

Wherever you are in this land of sailors and fishermen, the sea is never far away in. Seafood is the lynchpin of Algarvean cuisine. The church has had its influence too: old convent recipes using egg yolks left over after stiffening the priests’ vestments with the egg whites dominate the dessert selections. Combined with the Moorish contribution of almonds and figs creates the Algarve’s unique offerings of Dom Rodrigos (a rich egg yolk and almond paste confection) and Morgado de Figos (marzipan and fig).

A land of history and culture, sun and sand, spring-like weather all year-round, delectable food and affordable accommodations, the Algarve is the perfect antidote to a Canadian winter.

At the end of the world
The Algarve isn’t all beaches and sunshine. Cape Saint Vincent is its most westerly tip. Here on the edge of Portugal, the granite sea cliffs drop 100 metres straight into the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean. The roar of the wind competes with the crash of the breakers. With a never-ending view of water extending to the curve of the horizon, Cape Saint Vincent seems to be the end of the world. The land is desolate, barren, primitive, almost frightening, and it’s no wonder that pre-Roman inhabitants believed Cape Saint Vincent at Sagres to be occupied by the gods.

It was here in the town of Sagres that Prince Henry the Navigator founded his school of navigation in 1418, sponsoring voyages of discovery to find “new worlds to give the world.” Until then, few sailors had ventured past the Pillars of Hercules, as the Rocks of Gibraltar were known, and none passed these daunting cliffs, which marked the end of the known world.

Today, on the road leading to the solitary lighthouse at the point, enterprising Portuguese sell heavy woollen sweaters and toques to the tourists who come unprepared for the chill of the wind and are dressed only in the light summer clothing appropriate to the rest of the Algarve.

CARP Travel offers three-week long-term stays. Call toll-free 1-877-246-2277.
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