Albufeira & Vicinity
Winter at Albufeira beach.
When the world discovered Brigitte Bardot sunbathing at the tiny French village of Saint-Tropez, everything there changed forever. It became such a crowded destination for sun-worshipers, starlets, wannabes and devotees of outrageous behaviour that the French started calling it Saint “Trop” (“Too Much”).
Well, something similar happened to the sleepy little fishing village of Albufeira in the middle of the Algarve, only there it was the Rolling Stones who were the catalyst. It has since become such a popular destination, especially for northern European sun-seekers, that it’s often called “Portugal’s Saint Tropez”. The charming original town is still there, but now it’s surrounded by so much new construction that it no longer reflects the real Portugal. When it’s terribly overcrowded in the summer, it’s probably “too much” of a good thing, just like its French counterpart.
A tranquil square in old Albufeira.
Albufeira doesn’t have much in the way of historical artifacts, but it does have a magnificent pristine golden beach, perfect for relaxing and sunning year-round (although we found the water too cold for swimming until March). The centre of “Old Albufeira” has a small pedestrian-only shopping area, great (inexpensive) markets for produce and fresh fish, charming little bistros around its main square, a busy inter-city bus-station, and an atmosphere of friendly informality. Handicraft bargains can be found at the traveling “gypsy market”, held near the bull ring the first and third Tuesday of the month.
Although it’s still relatively small, the town has spread out over the past decade. There are more than two dozen apartment hotels, but many are beyond walking distance of the beach. Most have a pool, though, and some provide free transportation to the beach and downtown. All offer modern well-equipped studios and apartments at bargain prices in comparison to most other destinations. For example, this coming winter you can get a comfortable three-star apartment with maid service for up to a month for around US$1,000 (per person double). That includes airfare from Montreal or Toronto, and no doubt from Eastern US cities as well. With prices starting at about US$110 per week if you rent in advance, car rental costs are among the lowest in Europe. To the west of town there are many more apartment and villa complexes, all built in the past decade, and all more pricey. For more information have a look at this Hotels List. Your travel agent can likely find very affordable package deals including air, apartment and car.
Typical street in old Albufeira.
Nowadays most of “the action” is found along The Strip, a stretch of new cafes, restaurants, aparthotels and night clubs extending eastward through the former villages of Praia da Oura and Olhos d’Agua. It is anchored by a modern shopping centre, which has most of the amenities you’d find back home, although at slightly higher prices. The last time we were there it even had a pizza parlor, but I got the impression that fast food is a relatively over-priced novelty, not likely to catch on in such a laid-back place. And of course fast food places have none of the atmosphere you find at local restaurants that serve traditional Portuguese dishes.
There are lots of British expatriates in the area, so English is widely spoken, and there are the weekly Algarve Resident and the monthly Essential Algarve. The expats have influenced the local language: many of the young men making time-share pitches sound “cockney”. When I asked one if he was from East London he said: “Blimey, no, Guvnor! I’m from right ‘ere!” Obviously, he hadn’t learned from Professor Higgins!
In the winter Albufeira is a clean, safe, relaxing and inexpensive place where Northern Europeans – mostly retired Britons, Dutch and Germans – come to escape their own dismal climates. It’s popular with Canadians, and Americans too are beginning to discover it. For those wanting more than just sun and sand there are lots of good restaurants, and clubs offering entertainment ranging from discos to traditional fado. Golfers can enjoy two excellent and affordable courses in the immediate vicinity, and half a dozen more within a short drive east or west.
Alcantarilha water slide.
For family fun in the summer there’s a great water-slide at Alcantarilha, 8 km (5 mi) west of town. A little farther west the village of Porches is the best place in Portugal to buy hand-made ceramic articles at very low prices. The Euro is about on par with the US$ these days, which makes it easy to calculate costs.
Our first visit provided us with an extraordinary and delightful experience. While driving in open country just a few miles west of town we came to pretty São Rafael beach with its sheltered grottoes, and decided to stop for a picnic. Two Portuguese couples had already staked out one end of the beach; we found ourselves a spot, and unpacked our food. Suddenly, a woman whom I can only describe as a naturally blonde goddess – obviously Scandinavian – arrived, complete with photographer and equipment.
Why Albufeira is called ‘Portugal’s St Tropez’.
The photographer spoke to the Portuguese couples, then came to see us. When our blank looks told him we didn’t understand he switched to English, and explained that she was a well-known model who had come to shoot a “naturist” portfolio. They didn’t mind our watching, as long as we didn’t talk or take photos. Always happy to further the cause of photography, of course I agreed… as did everyone else! The model shed everything, and proceeded to pose for what turned out to be a blissfully spellbinding session. Eventually she got dressed, blew kisses to everyone, we all applauded, and they left. The next time we visited that beach the area was all built up: I don’t imagine she comes back for “shoots” anymore, but if you do happen to run into her there consider yourself supremely favoured by the gods. Sigh…
In the next article we’ll look at the two largest towns in the Algarve, Faro and Portimao.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Europe Insiders page.