1 May 2022

Three Weeks in Portugal Part 1 - The Algarve

Since the restrictions have eased, I have indulged the wanderlust in me by doing short trips to Majorca, Island and Madeira. Unfortunately this only served to make my appetite even bigger, so I decided to do a longer trip in March, partly to try and jump straight to the spring weather in the UK and partly because it's been about eight years since I did a three week trip (Thailand in 2013). 

I'm trying to remember how I decided upon Portugal; all of a sudden I had the Lonely Planet Portugal and Porto guidebooks in my hand. Ah ok - it was because that I read that there are a lot of digital nomads in Portugal and there are active communities in the Algarve, Lisbon and Porto. I wanted to combine work with travel, and see if I could do a decent job of balancing the two and meeting new people. 

I mainly went for the custard tarts 

I originally was going to fly to Porto from Manchester but one of the recent storms was raging when I was scheduled to fly, so I chickened out and decided to delay for a week. I changed my mind and decided to start in the South and work my way up north, flying from Newcastle into Faro with Ryanair, then getting the train to Lagos, Lisbon and Porto before flying back from Porto to Manchester. I'm not the biggest fan of flying but I felt much calmer avoiding the storm (we took off in strong winds to Madeira and it's not an experience I'd like to repeat). 

Somehow I'd never done the popular family trip to the Algarve as a child - I questioned whether I should go and wondered if it would be too touristy but reminded myself that I could avoid the tourist traps. My plan was to stay in a co-working space with an office attached to meet people and hopefully prospective clients so I found a place that I thought fitted those requirements in Faro - GrowIN Digital Nomads right in the centre of Faro (only two kilometres from the Airport and around the corner from the Carmo Church with the famous Chapel of the Bones). I arrived at the property and was quickly told that the offices weren't open (!) and that I was the only person staying there apart from a guy who was looking after the place for the owner. So much for making new connections! I decided to go with the flow and maybe accept that I could have some time off in the South before making more connections in the busier Lisbon and Porto. I discovered a Facebook group for remote workers (I'll link it at the bottom of the post) but it seemed quite quiet in the comments (I guess to be expected after everything that's happened). 

Typical Portuguese architecture, boat trip on Ria Formosa, cheese and walnut toast and the Chapel of Bones 

The property itself was actually really nice, I landed in a big double room with high ceilings and there was a shared bathroom and kitchen space if you felt like cooking (I wish I could say that I cooked during the three weeks but I got pretty comfortable being a tourist...). The location was central and I would recommend it even if you're just on holiday there. The pizza was good in the restaurant next door (Paparazzi) and there was a great all you can eat Sushi place (Sushi Ya) just around the corner. 

Faro itself is pretty compact, with most of the main sights within walking distance of each other. On the first day in a new place I like to walk around and get lost - there were so many gorgeous buildings (some of the most impressive architecture I've seen was in Portugal). Spending some time exploring the Old Town is a must-do and gives you a real sense of the history of the Algarve's capital, leading you around medieval cobble stoned, orange tree-lined streets towards the 13th century Cathedral, a hodge-podge of gothic, renaissance and baroque features. A highlight was a visit to the Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Carmo, with its twin towers and lemon yellow painted facade. Like many churches in Portugal, the interior is covered in Brazilian gold leaf and is seriously impressive. The big draw however is the Capelo des Ossos (Chapel of Bones) behind the church. Not for the faint-hearted, the chapel is decorated with the skulls and bones of over 1,000 monks which cover the walls and ceiling. I was fascinated and spent some time trying to figure out which part of the body the bones came from (spine, knees etc). It was quite strange that a primary school was next door, with small kids playing next to all of these bones. 

Nature lovers will enjoy the Ria Formosa lagoon, a large national park/series of islands where many birds stop during their migration in the spring and autumn. I booked a sunset boat trip with Formosamar (€20) to get a closer look at the wetlands and some of the wildlife there (spoonbills, storks, herons and my favourite - flamingoes)! I didn't see flamingos on that trip but it made me determined to search them out when I visited Tavira further along the coast. 

Statue in Tavira, the view from the boat trip complete with flying flamingo, the salt factory and the fragrant jasmine arch in the castle gardens 

After a few days exploring Faro I took the forty minute train journey to Tavira, partly due to my flamingo mission. The town is rightly billed as the Venice of the Algarve, and boasts lots of traditional architecture with Moorish influences. The town itself is very compact with a main plaza ringed with seafood restaurants and cafes. Take the steep path up towards the 8th century Moorish castle and you'll come across the castle gardens. After the steep climb this was a great place to pause and breathe. The air was scented with jasmine and the medieval walls were covered in bougainvillea (I didn't even go into the castle because I was so enamoured by the garden). Nearby you'll find the bright white Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo; it's worth climbing the bell tower for great views of the old town and the salt plains. 

After seeing the historical sites I moved closer to my goal to see flamingos, and booked another boat trip with Algarve Fun. As the only person on the trip I had the guide to myself, a seasoned fisherman who had worked all over the world and lived on the Ihla de Tavira, a tropical island just off the coast on the Ria Formosa (lucky thing). What he didn't know about the area wasn't worth knowing. I managed to see a single flamingo in flight but unfortunately not a flamboyance (cool name for a group of flamingoes). I think he felt bad about it so he elongated the trip and I saw a lot of other birds. Luckily he told me where to find them and that if I walked about one kilometre out of town there was about sixty of them (might of been handy to know before the trip but it was nice anyway). 

Tavira flamingos

I disembarked and set off down a dusty road to Quatro Aguas feeling a bit concerned that it was quite isolated but luckily other tourists started walking past me coming from the other direction so I continued. As I turned the corner I clocked them, sure enough there was about sixty of them feeding; they weren't bright pink but more white with pink legs. My iPhone camera was rubbish but it was exciting to get closer to them and watch them for a while. Tired after all of the walking around but satisfied, I got the train back to Faro and started to read up on my next destination, Lagos. 

Just ninety minutes by train from Faro, Lagos is a port town with (you guessed it) an old town, plenty of squares and churches but stands out as a tourist destination for it's stunning coastline, namely the Ponta da Piedade sandstone cliffs and towers. (I've been remiss in mentioning the many amazing beaches along this coastline mainly because I stupidly didn't go to the beach). Here I was really impressed with my accommodation, the Nature Guesthouse about ten minutes walk from the centre. Surrounded by jasmine and lemon trees, the guesthouse is a peaceful hideaway with themed rooms (water, spiritual, yoga) and gardens complete with sun loungers. I stayed in the Water room, with a king sized bed large bathroom and balcony. Continental breakfast was included in the price in the adjoining Sensations guesthouse (cake for breakfast? Yes please). 

Fresh sardines, the spectacular Ponte de Piedade, street art next to the fort, delicious clams at Adega da Marina

The owner of the guesthouse recommend Adega da Marina, a really good seafood restaurant down by the river (I can also recommend Bar Millennium Jardim in town where I had delicious sardines). It was really busy but I highly recommend the clams/limpettes, easily some of the best seafood that I've eaten. The restaurant was only a five minute walk from the jetty where the boat tours depart from. I booked two boat tours with my go-app for tours (Get Your Guide) - an hour long trip to the stunning coastline of the Ponta da Piedade and a two hour trip to the Benagil Cave, a spectacular cave which is the subject of thousands of Instagram posts. The hour long trip was excellent value, and I marvelled at the towers of rock which reminded me of something out of the Pirates of the Caribbean. The captain of the boat even took us into a few small caves despite the sea being a little bit rough. I was less impressed with the longer trip to the Benagil Cave, as because of the rough seas we couldn't enter the cave on that day (so I thought they should have cancelled it). Despite that it was nice to be out on the water, and I met a woman who had been to 72 countries so that was a very interesting conversation! 

Another place worth visiting but I didn't actually get to is Sagres, the extreme western tip of the Algarve and the southwestern most point of Europe. With its amazing beaches, and windswept barren landscapes, it's a big draw for hikers, cyclists and surfers. You can relax on a number of sheltered beaches and perhaps see some storks nesting on the cliff faces (the only place in the world where they're known to do this). 

I was really blown away by the beauty of the coastline, the nature and the food in the south, and the fact that it's so cheap to eat and get around (train tickets are a lot cheaper than the UK, you can get a great meal for five euros and Ubers were literally three euros). 

Click the links below for more Algarve info:

Visit Portugal Algarve

Algarve Addicts on Youtube

Algarve Tourist

Algarve history etc - Wikipedia 

Algarve Digital Nomads Facebook Group 

Here are the links to Get Your Guide trips in the Algarve which I found were fantastic value and really easy to book:

Boat trip to the Ponte Da Piedade (75 minutes)

2 hour Boat trip to Benagil cave

Boat trip to Tavira

Ria Formosa boat trip 

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