The Algarve is an incredibly popular destination for families and with cheap flights to Faro, year-round sun and more Mateus Rose than you can shake a stick at (if it’s good enough for Cliff Richard, it’s good enough for us) it’s easy to see why. For families, Portugal also makes good fiscal sense; it’s one of the most affordable places on the continent with food, drink and transport significantly cheaper than other European countries. However, as the old adage I’ve just invented goes, ‘Sunshine and cheap pink wine do not without a price cometh’ and so in the more popular areas, you may find it easier to get a fry up than some local seafood. Still, who am I to judge. There’s room for all of us on those golden beaches.
The Algarve is actually really diverse. The West is dramatic; the coastline shaped by the powerful Atlantic waves, and characterised by incredible rock formations and lagoons. Popular areas in the central and western side of the region like Vilamoura, Lagos and Albufeira have some of the best beaches and lots of activities geared towards families – theme parks, zoos and water parks for example – but without wanting to sound like a crashing bore, we wanted to see a side of the region that wasn’t so obviously geared towards tourism. So when we weren’t hanging out by the pool getting horribly sunburnt, we were exploring parts of the Eastern Algarve in search of a more authentic experience. We were clear about what we wanted: custard tarts, grilled sardines, white sand beaches, crumbling tiled buildings, castle ruins, dramatic churches, and maybe some octopus. Reader, we were not disappointed.
We started in Tavira, a glorious place only 18 miles from the Spanish border. I fully and wholeheartedly recommend you base yourself here for a week. I’ll tell you why. Situated on both sides of the Rio Gilao, the town has a beautiful, meandering, easy-osy beauty about it. A touch of Venice and Florence with an undeniably Portuguese faded grandeur. It has its own Moorish castle ruins which you reach by wandering through its cobbled streets, flanked by walls draped in bougainvillea or lined with brilliantly violet jacaranda trees. The ruins of the castle have fairytale-style rambling roses creeping up the crumbling walls and if you climb to the top of them you are rewarded with a view of the red rooftops of Tavira, its many churches and in the distance, the sea. Like Florence, it has a Roman bridge (the Ponte Romana) and almost every house has the incredible azulejo tiling and quirky door knockers in the shapes of hands. There’s so much beauty in the detail of Tavira – people have really cared for this place. It also has a fantastic beach, Ilya da Tavira, reachable by ferry. With plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops it would be a great base for a family trip. We enjoyed eating locally caught sardines at the riverside restaurant, Gilao Restaurante, pictured below.
Since Tavira is so close to Spain, technically you could combine a trip here with a trip to Seville. It’s about a 90-minute drive and you’d have to check that your hire car would allow you to do this. Alternatively, you could head to the town of Vila Real overlooking the banks of the Rio Guadiana which you can cross by ferry for a day trip into Spain.
Santa Luzia is a small peaceful, fishing village close to Tavira. It has the impressive accolade of being Portugal’s capital of octopus. Having never eaten it before, we all decided that this was probably the best place to be brave and give it a go. Caso Do Polvo Tasquinha is a restaurant located on the Santa Luzia harbour which specialises in octopus dishes – we ate it grilled with almonds and apricots and it was utterly, utterly delicious. Even the suckers. There’s no better time to pop your polvo than in the Portuguese sunshine, knocking back a glass of rose as you listen to the fishing boats knocking gently in the water. The kids ate calamari and chips – one portion was enough for two hungry boys to share. After that we spent some time watching local fishermen salting sardines – gawping at them with wonder, whilst they ignored us – before heading to Praia do Barril beach; a lovely beach with fine white sand and lined with fishing huts that have been converted into shops and cafes. There is a pine tree-lined footpath leading up to the beach or you can take a rickety vintage train, worth doing just for the experience even though it’s probably quicker to walk.
The Ria Formosa Natural Park, of which Praia do Barril beach is a part, runs for 60 miles along the eastern side of The Algarve and is home to flamingoes (yes actual flamingoes) and chameleons, nesting storks and a psychedelic explosion of wildflowers. We spent the morning here walking the nature trail – you can also hire bikes and cycle it – checking out various sights using the map given to you at the Visitor’s Centre. Some of it is a bit run down, there are buildings on the map that claim to be sites of interest, but are in fact slightly unsettling, derelict buildings. Avoid those bits and stick to the lovely path. It is almost impossible to locate the entrance to the natural park on sat nav – just drive through Olhao in a straight line until you almost reach the beach, then hang a left.
It’s also worth taking a trip inland to the beautiful village of Paderne and the hilltop village of Alte. Like the Ria Formosa, the entire area here was bursting with wildflowers; poppies and daisies and wild orchids. Paderne has a gorgeous charm and is home to two great restaurants, Venezia and Xerem. It is well worth braving the slightly hair-raising drive up to the red sandstone remains of the Moorish castle – from here, you can view an 18th century bridge that looks like something out of Game of Thrones. Alte is also a beautiful village with whitewashed houses, and plenty of cafes and shops. It is known for its springs – the Fonte Grande – with a series of natural pools for paddling and swimming in.
There’s so much more to The Algarve than I thought and it’s given me a real desire to see more of Portugal – from the surf beaches of Cabo da Sao Vincente to Comporta and the cities of Lisbon and Porto. In the meantime, I need to whack on some Fado, select some new kitchen tiles and get myself a recipe for those custard tarts.