Attractive resorts with port towns. Inland lies Porches, the centre of the Algarvian pottery industry, and Silves, a majestic hilltown brimming full with history and culture. Beyond the fertile valleys around Silves lie the foothills of the Serra de Monchique mountains. North from here are the pretty mountain villages, as well as the Algarve's highest peak at Foia (902m)
Silves is a delightful town with a colourful history. Originally a Phoenician colony in the I' millennium BC, it became the Roman city called Silbis, and then from the 8th century, the Moorish city of Xelb - capital of the Algarve. Described by Arabic chroniclers as 10 times more impressive than Lisbon, Xelb was a city of gleaming domes and minarets, of poets, writers, musicians, traders, craftsmen and farmers.
Due to the earthquake of 1755, little now survives of the Arabic architecture, only a 65 metre deep well and the vaulted roof of the huge cistern. The most lasting legacy however is visible in the almond and citrus groves viewed from the castle walls, introduced by the Moors.
Today, Silves is a sleepy down boasting a superb castle and a cathedral. The castle was built to last and, despite bearing the brunt of fighting during the Christian reconquest of Portugal in the 12th and 13th centuries, it remains substantially intact. From the castle, narrow cobbled streets descend steeply to the castle and archaeological museum.. The magnificent 13th - 15th century cathedral, built on the site of a Moorish mosque, is one of only a few in the Algarve to retain it's medieval feel. Another monument of interest in Silves is on the main road in the direction of Sao Bartolomeu de Messines. It is the Cross of Portugal thought to have been made in the 16th century. One side depicts the Crucifixion, the other, Christ's descent from the cross. Such crosses were erected at key points along medieval pilgrim routes and this is a rare surviving example.
The main square of Silves has a town hall, ancient pillory and pavement cafes. Shop lined streets lead from here to the covered market and the embankments of the River Arade, a nice spot to linger over lunch with a view over the town's medieval bridge.
Alte is probably the most picturesque of all the villages in the central Algarve countryside. Winding roads climb to the village through a region dubbed the "Garden of the Algarve", where fig trees and citrus groves surrounded by dry-stone walls alternate with almond orchards and stands of gnarled and ancient olive trees. To get a feel of village life, stroll around it's narrow backstreets. The focal point of the village is the parish church ornate with it's decorative woodwork and rare 16th century tiles. About 200m upstream is Fonte Grande, a popular picnic spot, with picnic tables and a local restaurant popular for it's folklore.
Monchique is a charming little town situated nearly 900 metres up in the Monchique mountains. More than 2,000 years ago, the Romans built a spa on the site, calling it Mons Cicus, from which the spa, and the nearby market town of Monchique, derive their name. Just to see the fantastic views of the valleys, ravines and coastline make it well worth the visit.
The spa village, Caldas de Monchique, is well known for it's spring waters which are used for the treatment of rheumatism and chronic illness of the respiratory tract. Springs feed the fountain that adorns Monchique's main square, Largo dos Choroes. Cafes, craft shops and art galleries ring the square offering free tastings of medronho, produced by distilling fermented fruits of the strawberry trees. Monchique manufactures charcoal, excellent wooden furniture and wicker work. They are also famous for their chilli-flavoured chicken piri piri and smoked ham (presunto).
Caldas de Monchique is a major point of interest in the region, and a must for all nature lovers.
Portimao is one of the Algarve's main fishing ports. Portimao was one of the towns to suffer most from the earthquake of 1755, consequently there are almost no historical sites or buildings. However if you head inland from the harbour make a visit to Largo 1 de Dezembro. This is a park with benches of blue and white tiles depicting key events in Portugese history. It was named lit December 1640 to comemorate Portugal's independence from Spain. The adjacent town hall is a fine 18th century palace, once home to the viscounts of Sivar. Another place to visit is the Jesuit Igreja do Colegio, on Praca do Republica. This profusely decorated church is the largest in the Algarve.
Today, Portimao is a commercial and industrial centre of great importance connected with fishing and industry.
Praia da Rocha
Just Zkm south of Portimao stands Praia do Rocha, best known for it's vast sandy beach. It was one of the first places in the region to gear up for tourism and is now a developed, popular resort. Shops, restaurants and bars abound on the Avenida Tomas Cabreira, the main seafront road. The resort's most historic landmark is the ruin of the Fortress of Santa Catarina which along with the fortress at Ferragudo, opposite, formed a 17th century defensive system designed to guard the Arade River Estuary. At the opposite end of the beach, Praia de Vau and a chain of other smaller sandy coves eventually link up with the glorious long sandy beach at Alvor.
Carvoeiro is a pretty fishing village which has remained virtually untouched. There is a small beach in the heart of the resort and small roads feed out from there where you can wander around and shop or simply enjoy a drink or meal in one of the many local bars and restaurants clustered around the centre.
The sheltered beach can get very crowded at the height of the season, but local fishermen will happily take visitors to other beaches, such as Benagil and Marinha, and onto the nearby caves, tunnels and rock stacks of Algar Seco about ikm to the east of the resort.
Algar Seco is a series of wind-and-sea eroded rocks which make this part of the coast unique, and it can be interesting to explore the rock platforms, pillars, arches, caves and small pools that litter the shoreline. There is not much sand, but the colourful show of light and shade that begins as the sun sinks at dusk is well worth seeing.
Armacao de Pera
Armacao de Pera started out as a place where the farmers of Pera, a village a few kilometres inland, kept boats to supplement their income by fishing. Armacao de Pera is now a fairly large resort with one of the longest beaches in the Algarve. Nearby Senhora da Rocha has adjacent bays sheltered by high cliffs and connected by a rock tunnel. Perched high on the cliff is the delightful Ermida de Nossa Senhora do Rocha (Hermitage of Our Lady of the Rock). This sparkling white chapel dates from at least the 13th century and has long been a place of pilgrimage for devout Portugese who come here to pray to the Virgin in this idyllic spot. Below the chapel are the quiet beaches of Praia Nova and Praia Nossa Senhora da Rocha.
Albufeira is the Algarve's most popular tourist resort. It is a fun, family-orientated resort enjoyed by all age groups who enjoy a bustling holiday atmosphere by the seaside.
Originally a Roman town called Baltrum, it was then renamed as AI-Buhhera by the Moors. Although not much of the old Moorish castle has survived the ravages of earthquakes and wars, a certain Moorish atmosphere still lingers in the narrow cobbled streets that lead down to the main square in the old quarter. Until the 1960s, only fishermen used the beach below the town, now called Fishermans Beach, and you can still see them bringing in the daily catch if you are out and about early enough. The small streets leading back from the beach are full of small shops, bars and restaurants and during the summer evenings live music can be enjoyed in and around the main square.
Towards the newer, eastern side of Albufeira you will find what is affectionately known as "the Strip" - a long road flanked on both sides by cafes, bars and restaurants. In the summer months this is probably the Algarve's liveliest street, particularly at night when all the bars spring to life! Beyond the Strip are the areas of Montechoro and Praia da Oura, the latter of which leads down to a golden sandy beach.
Whilst in the area, it is well worth visiting Olhos de Aqua, 7km to the east. This is a charming compact resort which has grown outwards from the small sandy coved beach in the centre. The name comes from the fresh water springs which well up from the sand at low tide. Near the beach are several popular fish restaurants overlooking the sea, and fishermens' boats.
Loule is a city to savour at leisure, arriving early in the day for the market and exploring the town's attractive streets and historic buildings before lunch. The second most populated city in the Algarve, it combines bustling modernity with narrow, cobbled alleys where saddlers, metal workers and seamstresses carry on age-old traditions.
Loule explodes into life every Saturday morning when the large outdoor gypsy market comes to town, and if you're looking for souvenirs then the handicraft centres are worth checking out. If its history you're after, then a wander around the narrow cobbled streets in the old part of town makes an enjoyable tour. Try the Museu Municipal (Municipal Museum), built against one of the remaining walls of the medieval castle, where they have displays of flint tools and pottery fragments from the many prehistoric grave sites in the area. Opposite is the delightful Espirito Santo monastery, part of which has been turned into a Municipal Art Gallery, with changing exhibitions by contemporary artists and nearby is Loule's Gothic parish church, Sao Clemente. It has a bell tower which originates from the 12th century and was originally a minaret of the city's mosque.
An attractive purpose- built resort which has, as it's focal point, a large, boat-filled marina ringed by shops, bars and restaurants. This is the place to head for, especially in the evenings when locals and tourists alike take to wandering around visiting the shops, which stay open till late in the summer, and enjoying a nice dinner overlooking the marina. From here, it is a short walk to the nearest sandy beach, Praia do Marina. Vilamoura's second beach, Praia do Falesia is situated on the other side of the marina and is a long stretch of golden sand.
Though the resort looks and feels very modern, there was a Roman town here, traces of which can be seen at the Cerro do Vila archaeological site.
Formerly a fishing village, and one of the first resorts to be developed in the Algarve, Quarteira has now officially been declared a city. It has an exceptionally long seafront promenade and a long sandy beach, lined with shops, bars and restaurants. In the old quarter, there is a lively fish and produce market every day, and the outdoor gypsy market, held on Wednesdays,is one of the best and biggest in the region.
Early in the mornings, it is quite a sight to see the multitude of fishermen bringing in the daily catch - a riot of colour and noise.
Faro is the capital of the Algarve and is the largest, busiest and one of the oldest of the region's towns. In the centre there is a quiet walled city of immense historic character, as well as a lively shopping area with plenty of pavement cafes.
The Praca Dom Francisco Gomes, next to the harbour is the best starting point for a walk into the old walled city. The entrance is through the Arco do Vila (Town Gate), an imposing baroque archway, with it's statue of St Thomas Aquinas, Faro's patron saint. Of all the sights in Faro you should try to visit the Capela dos Ossos (The Chapel of the Bones). The Carmelite monks created the chapel from the bones of their pre-deceased brothers to remind onlookers of their mortality and to shock them into a more sober and upright lifestyle. Other places of interest include the Museu Arqueologico (Archaeological Museum) which includes Roman and medieval funerary monuments, dress uniforms, and antique Rosewood furniture to name a few. The Museu Maritimo, in the same building as the harbour authority, contains model ships, from 15th century caravels to modern naval gunships, as well as a collection of colourful shells and models explaining the techniques of the fishing industry.