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Far from the madding crowd in Portugal
How to escape the jammed beaches, and flood of British tourists, in southern Portugal’s Algarve region.
The New York Times
It’s no secret that come summer, the alluring coastline of southern Portugal — better known as the Algarve — practically sags under the crush of holidaymakers who throng its vacation villages, resort hotels, marinas, 18-hole links, beachwear boutiques, souvenir emporiums, seaside cafes and seasonal discos.
Blame the Algarve’s good looks. Stretching from the Spanish border nearly 100 miles along the Atlantic coast to the very southwestern tip of the Continent, the seaside is blessed with windswept dunes, powdery sands, ocher cliffs and natural grottoes. The seafood can be sublime and the prices extremely modest, especially compared with summer havens like Italy’s Amalfi Coast or the French Riviera.
With such an irresistible cocktail of scenery and values, it’s no wonder that some 2 million foreigners — primarily from Britain — flood these expanses like the Allies storming Normandy on D-Day. They turn popular towns like Albufeira into variants of Brighton with more powerful UV rays. Menus feature fish and chips. English Premier League football matches flicker from screens in bars. No euros in your pocket? Just pay in pounds sterling.
The human density of high summer was conjured most vividly as I gazed out from the terrace of the Hotel Bela Vista, a Moorish-style mansion surrounded by charmless high-rise hotels on a cliff overlooking the enormous Praia da Rocha beach.
“In July and August, you can’t find a single space to put your towel,” said Gonçalo Narciso, the hotel’s operations manager. He shook his head. “You can’t imagine.”
Amid the sunscreen-smeared hullabaloo, the question arises: Is there an alternative Algarve? A less-trod Algarve? An Algarve where a bit of serenity and the flavor of the past have been preserved?
In quest of such a place, I set off in late May to travel beyond the universe of half-board arrangements and karaoke nights. Carried by the region’s efficient EVA bus network (eva-bus.com), I traveled along rocky coasts and sun-baked hills, pleasantly surprised to find fishing villages and citadel towns where a more traditional Algarve still exists — and, in the case of one tiny hamlet, Pedralva, is being reborn. From storybook medieval castles to unmarked surfer beaches to mom-and-pop seafood joints, this unspoiled Algarve, it turned out, is available to anyone with bus fare and an urge to go against the flow.
After a three-hour train journey from Lisbon to Faro, and a one-hour bus ride through uninspiring back roads, I landed in Tavira, a coastal town near the Spanish border with vestiges of ancient Phoenician and Roman settlements lurking under its streets. Whitewashed buildings with wrought-iron balconies filled narrow lanes, along with numerous Renaissance and Baroque churches — testaments to the town’s wealth generated long ago from the fishing and salt trades. Even today, the shallow, shimmering tidal pools of the salt pans do their quiet work just outside the town.
On a stone bridge spanning the Gilão River, which splits the town in two and flows into the Atlantic, a three-piece band of guitar, accordion and tambourine played spirited folk songs. More music spilled out from the tile-lined interior of the Renaissance-era Church of Misericordia, where a bearded hipster schoolteacher was strumming a guitar while leading boys and girls, dressed in pink smocks, in a soaring hymn. Above, atop a hillside, the ruins of a medieval castle and the clock tower of the 18th-century Santa Maria do Castelo church lorded over a sea of orange-tile roofs.
Later, exploring Tavira on foot, I found resurrected historic edifices scattered all over. The town’s former covered market — a lovely wrought-iron structure from the 1880s — bustled with boutiques and restaurants. Farther afield, some new white walls and oddly angled metal surfaces had elevated a former jail into a modern town library. Just around the corner, a renovation plan by the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who won the Pritzker Prize two years ago, was transforming the Renaissance-era Convento das Bernardas into luxury apartments.
A local bus whisked me into the backcountry from Praia da Rocha, a sprawling and busy beach resort in western Algarve, past lemon trees and orange groves. After 20 minutes a hilltop fortress came into view, its red-stone battlements hovering over a village that spilled down the hillside toward a river.
Winding my way up the cobbled streets of this town, Silves (pronounced SIL-vish), I found Maria Gonçalves, the chief municipal archaeologist, seated at a table in the castle’s lushly planted grounds. A few couples roamed the ramparts, peering through the crenelations as Gonçalves filled me in on the history of the town and the structure, the largest and best-preserved castle in the Algarve.
“They were Arabs from Yemen during the first half of the 11th century,” she said of the original settlers and rulers, who arrived at the time of the Moorish occupation of Andalusia, in neighboring Spain.
Dynasties from North Africa later seized the city, and Silves was eventually conquered by Christian crusaders. But the Arab influence remains omnipresent.
The ultimate Moorish experience is the annual medieval fair, which takes place this year from Aug. 2 to 11 amid a recreated souk, hammam, mosque and other medieval edifices, ersatz and real. Thousands of locals and visitors in period outfits consume food typical of the time, and cheer at elaborate re-enactments of pivotal episodes in the Arab and later Portuguese history of Silves — including the European crusaders’ bloody 15-day siege in 1189.
I pushed to the western edge of the Algarve, Europe’s far southwestern corner, over waves of brown hills dotted with ruined stone houses and tiny lime-washed villages. In a village called Vila do Bispo, a car from the nearby hamlet of Pedralva picked me up and deposited me amid its stone-paved streets and restored white stone houses.
The village’s existence is an Algarve miracle. Several years ago, Pedralva was on the brink of ruin. The population had dwindled to nine residents, and many of the 19th-century houses were abandoned wrecks.
“It was a complete ghost town,” said Antonio Ferreira, a former Lisbon advertising strategist who effectively saved Pedralva by transforming it into one of the most original new getaways in the Algarve.
After a health scare several years ago, while still in his 30s, Ferreira quit his high-pressure urban lifestyle to “get back to basics” in the Algarve. Rather than settle in one of the myriad resort communities, Ferreira fell under the spell of the 200-year-old backwater hamlet and, with some partners, spent years buying and restoring the old stone residences. In 2010 they opened Aldeia da Pedralva, an eco-tourism village replete with cobbled lanes, whitewashed houses, a grocery store and a traditional Algarve restaurant.
“The idea here is to cut off from the life that you have in big cities, or even small cities: cars, traffic, lots of information, lots of advertising, mobile phones,” he said in the village’s reception area, where we sat drinking coffee. Outside the window, in a quiet valley of pine and cork trees, no nightclub pounded, no driving range beckoned. Occasionally a rooster crowed.
“We are the other Algarve,” Ferreira said. “This is the unspoiled Algarve.”