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An Iberian Exploration: The Algarve

We didn't want to spend too much time driving so we scheduled an overnight stop on the Atlantic coast before proceeding to the Algarve. Not far out of Lisbon we stopped at a farmers market in any tiny town off the highway that I had discovered in my research. After touring the stalls we had a lunch of grilled meat in a pop-up churrasqueria. It was a great beginning to a road adventure.
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Vila Nova De Milfontes is a popular coastal vacation spot for Lisbon natives, although it's not really on the international tourism radar. It's best known for beaches so we pretty much had the small town to ourselves in February. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast which only had a couple of other guests. It was run by an elderly couple who were enchanted with Cleo. Their adult children and grandson were over in the evening when we arrived and Cleo was able to try out his toys.
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By the time we mustered the energy to walk to dinner it was already dark. We had a hearty and delicious dinner at the town's best restaurant, Tasco da Celso. In the morning we ate our fill of the delightful breakfast that was waiting for us and then took our leave. By the light of day it was easy to see the town's attraction to city dwellers. The narrow lanes were lined with picturesque whitewashed houses with colorful trim.
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We continued our drive down the inland highway until we reached Sagres, the town at the southwest corner of Spain. We didn't stop in town but proceeded to the end of Cabo de Sagres, one of those places that has an end-of-the-world feel to it due to its desolation against the backdrop of a seemingly infinite ocean. Due to the high winds nothing grows at the tip of the cape except scrub and the only sign of civilization is a tiny abandoned fort. There wasn't much to do there except celebrate having arrived at the only well-defined corner of Europe.
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We were now in the part of Portugal known as the Algarve. The region encompasses the entire southern coast of Portugal and has become one of the most popular vacation areas for tourists from the British Isles and Northern Europe, many of whom have returned there permanently in retirement. The coast is largely over-developed with inexpensive vacation apartments and extensive beaches so we kept to the larger towns where we would have more opportunities to experience authentic Portuguese food and culture.
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We spent our first night in the Algarve in Lagos, not far east of Sagres. Lagos is one of the larger cities in the area so it was a natural choice since our only desires were a good dinner and an atmospheric town center. Our hotel was sprawling and beautifully landscaped with tropical vegetation. We had dinner in a small seafood restaurant that seemed to be the top choice in Lagos, as it was absolutely jam-packed. Once we had recovered from the stress of parking in the narrow streets and wedging the strollers into the crowded restaurant we were able to appreciate the warm atmosphere and open kitchen. Here we had the best version of cataplana of our trip. Cataplana is Portugal's answer to bouillabaisse, a seafood stew slow-cooked in a hinged metal pot. Cataplanas are traditionally seafood but the technique can be used for meat as well. In the morning we strolled around the pretty but somnolent town center for a while before resuming our journey eastward.
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We made a brief stop in the coastal town of Olhão for lunch. This relatively large fishing port has beautiful cobblestone plazas and rows of antiquated buildings with chipped tile facades and Moorish stylings.
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For those of us who aren't traveling just for beaches and fruity drinks, Tavira is the prize of the Algarve. The town is set back a couple of miles from the ocean, along the banks of the River Gilão, and is best known for its picturesque old town and the ruins of a hilltop castle. Our hotel was one of the most beautiful we had ever stayed in, a sprawling estate of classic whitewashed Portuguese buildings with fresh blue trim. Paths led out to intriguing gardens with a circular above-ground pool and a grove of orange trees.
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For dinner we drove to Santa Luzia, a fishing village on the bank of the inland waterway that forms the Ilha de Taveira sandbar. Santa Luzia is famous for the many seafood restaurants that line the avenue along the waterfront, all of them specializing in octopus. Our waiter spoke excellent English, which was a rarity in Portugal, and helped guide us through the many different preparations of octopus that were featured on the menu. We love octopus so it wasn't a problem for us to try several of them. Aside from the deliciousness of the food, what took us aback was the generosity of the portions. In the United States it's common for an octopus dish to include just one tentacle but here it felt like we consumed the equivalent of two entire cephalopods.

As in Lagos, the antiquated town center was blissfully free of tourists but here there was much more to see. There was a promenade on either side of the Gilão with a Roman-style bridge connecting the two sides of the city. The town center was a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys filled with mysterious churches and somber stone buildings.
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We encountered more travelers as we ascended the steep hill to the Castelo. On the way we were rewarded with a terrace with views over the red roofs of the town as well as the iconic clock tower of the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo. The ruins of the castle were enjoyable to stroll through with a bright and colorful garden in the remains of the courtyard.
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We would have liked to have stayed one more night in that beautiful hotel but our trip was only beginning and we still had much ground to cover. I would finally be returning to Spain after thirteen years, now with my own family with whom I could share its wonders.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:27 Archived in Portugal

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