History, Gastronomy, Fun, Festivals and Events
The Algarve, whose name is derived from the Arabic ‘Al Gharb', meaning ‘The West', is situated in the extreme south of Portugal. The region is a delight to visit all year round, with the golden sandy beaches on the coast offering a haven for sun seekers whilst the sleepy hillside villages further inland offer peace and tranquillity for those who just want to get away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.
Among the Algarve's main holiday destinations are resorts such as Albufeira, Armação de Pêra, Praia da Rocha, and Vilamoura. Offering an excellent selection of accommodation, beaches, entertainment and a variety of nightlife, ranging from cabaret shows at casinos to lively discos and quiet welcoming bars, it is no surprise that many visitors return to the Algarve year after year.
The coastal city of Faro is the region's capital. Faro stands out as an important commercial, artistic and cultural centre. Often simply passed through by visitors as a gateway, the city in fact offers fascinating architecture inspired by the region's rich history.
The remarkable Infante D. Henrique, who was a driving force for the Portuguese Discoveries as well as founding a school of navigation, came to Sagres during the 15th Century. The era of maritime exploration was born. Moving east, Henry the Navigator was also extremely influential in Lagos. Set on one of the largest bays in the Algarve, Lagos was once an important naval centre and is now an attractive, bustling town. Evidence of its important naval history is still visible today with a large statue of Henry the Navigator situated in one of the town's main squares, gazing out to sea.
Despite the region's fame being largely due to its sandy beaches, the inland villages of the Algarve offer visitors peace and tranquillity in the lush green hills. The cork and oak forests are a haven for nature lovers; they provided the natural habitat for the Iberian Lynx, which is now thought to have died out in the region and remains an endangered species. Just as interesting are the Algarve Mountains of the Serra de Monchique, where a stop at the thermal spa of Termas de Monchique is sure to help you relax.
Tavira, situated on the edge of the Ria Formosa Nature Park, is a must-see for visitors to this part of the Algarve. This pretty town abounds with historical churches and fine mansions and a plethora of excellent restaurants where you can sample some of the delicious local seafood.
Once a rich and powerful city, Silves is today a sleepy town lying in the foothills of the Serra de Monchique mountains. Whilst its exact origins are uncertain, the town's cathedral and ruined red sandstone castle remind visitors of its rich and industrious Moorish past, which came to an end after a three-month siege led by King Sancho I in 1189. Silves boasts the best-preserved castle in the Algarve. Built on the site of the 11th-century Palácio das Varandas, its turreted walls dominate the town and provide panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. Built on the site of a former mosque, the town's 13th-century Gothic Cathedral contains a number of Crusader tombs and a jasper statue of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, believed to date from the 14th century.
Regarding the local gastronomy the "Cataplanas" and the "Caldeirada fish stews" are delicacies in the Algarve and are dishes that every visitor should try. From the tuna steak of Tavira to the octopus of Santa Luzia, the Algarve excels in seafood. Local cockles, razor clams, oysters, squid and cuttlefish are also commonly featured on menus due to the region's longstanding fishing tradition. Inland delicacies include almonds, oranges and figs that are great eaten fresh or used as ingredients in desserts.
Every February, Carnival is celebrated throughout the Algarve, but none has such a deeply rooted tradition as the Loulé Carnival. The city fills up with colour and cheer as visitors and locals welcome the vibrant parade. This procession of colourful floats, with over-sized puppets, samba groups and lots of music, is a huge party in the region.
The five-day-long Med Festival brings life and excitement to the streets of Loulé's historical centre at the beginning of summer. World music, originating from various Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal, as well as other forms of art, including handicraft exhibitions, dance performances and street theatre, will keep any visitor enthralled.
A paradise for seafood lovers, the annual Festival do Marisco (Seafood Festival) takes place every August in the Jardim do Pescador Olhanense in the town of Olhão just eight kilometres from Faro. One of the most important gastronomic events in the Algarve calendar, the Festival do Marisco is an opportunity for local fishermen to show off their catch on one of the hundreds of stalls that line the fishing port. Offering visitors the chance to sample some of the local delicacies, a huge variety of seafood is available ranging from fresh local shellfish to fried shrimps and of course the traditional cataplana, a much loved Portuguese dish consisting of clams, mussels, bacon, chorizo, garlic, onions and olive oil. Music and folk dancing accompany the festival, with performers encouraging both locals and visitors to eat, drink and enjoy the superb atmosphere.
At the end of August, Castro Marim and Silves return to the Middle Ages, in a meticulous historical recreation. During four days and nights, the castle of Castro Marim once again plays host to kings and queens, knights in shining armour, jesters, buffoons, noblemen and ladies, as the entire Court parades before the admiring gazes of the many visitors who travel to the event every year. Jousting tournaments, on foot and on horseback, street theatre performances, banquets accompanied by mediaeval music and a handicrafts and merchandise fair, complement the entertainment activities of these Mediaeval Days, giving visitors the opportunity to relive the magic and mystery of bygone times.
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