Faro & Portimao
A seaside walk in Faro.
Faro, the Algarve’s capital, is a city of perhaps 50,000 located about 30 miles (50 km) west of the Spanish border. Besides the usual administrative buildings, stores, hotels and artisan shops, it is a fishing port, and the site of the University of the Algarve. There is a convenient railway station, and most visitors to the Algarve land at its international airport.
Faro has been occupied at least since Roman times, with the Moors developing it as a port until they were expelled by the same King Afonso who recaptured Silves. Most of the artifacts from these periods were destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 or periodic raids by booty-seeking crusaders and sea-borne raiders. For example, about 400 years ago the bishop’s fine library was “liberated” and “relocated” to Oxford, where it became part of the Bodleian Library.
Faro’s 18th century Arco da Vila, gateway to Cathedral Square.
The most interesting parts are the old walled area beside the port and the nearby pedestrian mall, which offers good shopping and restaurants. You enter the old walled city through a decorative arch, which was once the facade of a palace. Inside are a tranquil square, the stark 13th-century fortress-cathedral, the 18th-century bishop’s palace, and the archaeological museum. Just outside the walls is a marine museum. A few blocks away is the famous Carmo Church, with magnificent and tasteful gold-leaf woodwork, and its attached Bone Chapel, which was featured in my earlier article about Gothic Tales.
On a nearby side-street is the shop of the man reputed to make Portugal’s finest cataplanas (clam-shaped copper steam cookers). We had read about him earlier in Travel and Leisure magazine, and he proudly showed us that article with his photo framed on the wall. His workmanship is excellent and the prices are right. We also discovered good inexpensive restaurants on the mall, where we had the best bacalhau a bras we’ve ever eaten. The meal and the service were so good that we tried to leave a tip, but the waiter insisted that it was already included in the bill, and even followed us outside to return it.
Side entrance, former Estoi palace.
You may find the surrounding area more interesting than the city itself. Just offshore there is a string of barrier islands, where beach and water sports can be enjoyed, which can be reached by a bridge or a ferry from downtown. Some of the islands form a nature preserve, frequented by a variety of migratory birds. A northern suburb, Estoi, contains an estate with gardens and an early 1800s summer palace. It lay abandoned for decades, but Faro acquired it 15 years ago and is gradually refurbishing it as a tourist attraction. There’s no doubt that it will be very impressive when the restoration is completed. Of interest to history buffs, a Roman villa is being excavated at nearby Milreu.
A few miles west of the airport is the small town of Loulé, famous for its produce market and for its leather, wood and copper master craftsmen. According to local legend this was where Mardi Gras parades originated, before being transported to Brazil 500 years ago, and it still boasts one of Portugal’s best attended festivals. The theme for the floats when we went was “A century of cinema”, and they represented a wide variety of movies, from prehistoric through science fiction, interspersed with others bearing sensuous Brazilian samba dancers. It’s mostly a family carnival, though, not a slick, gaudy extravaganza like those that have evolved in Rio and elsewhere.
Rocha beach, Portimao.
Now, let’s move on to the Algarve’s second-largest town. Portimao [pop. approx. 35,000], is located about 30 miles (50 km) to the west of Albufeira, and thus is ideally situated for visiting Silves, Lagos, and Sagres. A good source of information is this website. Although mainly a fishing port, it’s also great for shopping, especially for quality footwear. The Modelo Shopping Centre is well-stocked, and its exchange counter gave the best rates we found anywhere in the Algarve for exchanging travellers cheques.
Golfing on courses beside or near the ocean is a major attraction. There are five good ones in the immediate vicinity, with a championship course and others only a short distance away. Good web-sites are www.qvts.com/english/golf.htm and www.portugalgolf.pt. Sailing, windsurfing and deep-sea sport fishing are available, but the real “kingfish” here is the sardine. They are about the size of smelt, nothing like the oily tinned midgets you buy at the supermarket. Near the town’s entrance you can enjoy charcoal-grilled sardinha grelhada at numerous quay-side restaurants. There’s even an annual sardine festival in August.
Although Portimao itself is a rather “ordinary” town, the surrounding area to the south and west is a cosmopolitan tourist mecca, similar to Spain’s Costa del Sol, though (fortunately!) not as heavily built-up. Like Albufeira, it’s overcrowded in the summer, but pleasant and relaxing in the winter. Three beaches Rocha, Tres Irmãos, and Vau stretch for kilometers with accommodations and activities for all. The largest, Praia da Rocha, is the Algarve’s oldest holiday resort, with dozens of bars, clubs, discos and restaurants for all tastes. Its apartment hotels range from very inexpensive budget establishments all the way to the five-star luxury Hotel Algarve, with its ritzy Casino and cabaret entertainment.
Here is a very useful website, which provides first-hand information and customer evaluations of many hotels and apartments throughout the Algarve. It is also an excellent source of knowledge about many other holiday destinations all around the Mediterranean.
In the next article, I’ll look briefly at other places of interest in the Algarve, then we’ll head farther north.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Europe Insiders page.