Best Kept Secrets of the Algarve, Portugal

By: Martin Thompson

The Algarve meaning 'the west' is the sunny, warm coastal region along the south of Portugal. In the years since the 1960's tourism has overtaken agriculture and fishing as the main industry and a lot of the Algarve's charm has gone with the bleak apartment blocks and sprawling villa complexes. Even so, with a little knowledge there are certain areas that remain wild, untouched and oozing with culture and history.

Although most tourists head to the central Algarve to destinations like Albufeira it is in fact the east and the west of the Algarve where you will find the most beautiful and untouched beaches. In the back country only miles from the tourist destinations many villages and towns remain untouched with little known rural walks in the spring flowers and shady woods.

Most notable in the eastern Algarve is the historic city of Tavira with it's multitude of churches and a central castle. This area is close to the Ria Formosa natural park offering miles of lagoons and barrier islands where flamingos and numerous aquatic birds live and bread. The island of Tavira is easily reached by boat from the centre of town or after a 15 minute walk by the side of the salt pans. This stretch of sand is very popular with the Portuguese but continues for miles allowing for solitude even in the busy summer season.

In the west the city of Lagos is a popular destination and with good reason. The city has an important history as it is was from here that the Portuguese began their expeditions along the coast of Africa in the age of discovery. Lagos now has a completely pedestrianised centre within the old town that is surrounded by the castle walls. There are many shops, excellent restaurants serving fish and in the night Lagos is notorious for its bar scene. On Saturday mornings a trip to the vegetable market is highly recommended to purchase local produce for the kitchen. Walk along the cliffs out to the Ponta da Piedade (Mercy Point) with it's lighthouse or go swimming on the little known nudist beach at Praia do Carnavial.

The mountains of Monchique are easily reached by car from anywhere in the western Algarve. The Caldes de Monchique are therapeutic thermal baths and the area is ideal for a stroll in the wooded hills or down by the bubbleing stream. Drive out to the village of Marmallate or climb to the top of the mountain where you can take in views of the whole of the Algarve coastline and enjoy the refreshing cool mountain air. Many local shops offer locally produced hams and varieties of 'Medronho' (a brandy made from the Arbutus fruit that symbolises frienship) as well as hand made craft items. Restaurants either side of the main road offer up freshly grilled chicken, Piri Piri style.

After Lagos the Algarve coastline continues west towards Sages and the region once called "the end of the world" as little was known of what lay beyond the waves. Resort towns such as Praia da Luz with it's arced bay and black rock headland give way to the natural park of Costa Vincentina where many more secret beaches can be discovered especially along dirt tracks west of Vila do Bispo. Atlantic rollers meet a wild landscape of immense natural beauty. Popular with surfers the beaches at low tide have waves that collapse on themselves again and again and sitting on the beach on a sunny afternoon undisturbed by the modern world listening to the roar in the background while looking out into the abyss one can see how sailors were captivated to venture forth to discover what lay beyond.

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