The other side of the Algarve
The quiet village of QuerenÃ§a offers a dose of understated Algarvian charm. (Bridget Gleeson)
The arrivals hall of Faro airport is flooded with golf club-toting tourists every day, and multimillion-dollar yachts bob in the resort-style harbour of Vilamoura. But a more authentic Algarve lies just beyond the shiny sphere of cruise ships and weekend package deals.
Thanks to its colourful maritime history and centuries of Moorish occupation, Portugal's southernmost region is a distinctive cultural destination known for North African-inspired architecture, old-fashioned farms, lively religious festivals, time-honoured seafood recipes and potent aguardiente – probably the stiffest drink you will ever try.
Here are four ideas to get off Algarve's golf course and cruise ship circuit and onto its quaint country roads -- just do not get behind the wheel after sipping the local moonshine.
Islamic architecture in Olhão
Aesthetically intriguing and pleasantly off the beaten path, the fishing village of Olhão is a fine example of the cultural collision between Europe and North Africa that defines the Algarve. Known as “the city of cubes”, the village is known for its square-shaped whitewashed houses with Moorish terraces and mouldings.
The architecture is a throwback to the late 18th Century. Thanks to the infiltration of Moroccan culture -- and the town's financial prosperity from a flourishing fishing industry -- local people started building new houses in a geometric, Moorish-inspired style and transforming their wooden fishing huts into similarly square homes. At times, walking around the old town feels like being in an Islamic city.
After taking in the architectural sights, check out the lively fish market on the waterfront or catch a watertaxi to the peaceful ilhas (offshore beaches) of Armona, Farol or Culatra for a lazy afternoon of sunbathing and swimming.
Cultural festivals in Querença
There are frequent cultural festivals in the Algarve to celebrate the region's food, wine, music, art and dance -- but many events attract more tourists than locals. For a more authentic experience, steer clear of the popular ports and head for the hills, where smaller villages host down-to-earth festivals with local flavour.
The hilltop village of Querença hosts an annual Christmas celebration with an emphasis on cabbage -- the traditional accompaniment to cod in an Algarvian meal -- offering cooking workshops, tours of local gardens and music by the church choir. The end of January brings Portuguese wine tastings and the aroma of grilling meat as part of the Festa das Chouriças (Sausage Festival), which is a traditional homage to São Luís, the patron saint of animals.
Outside of festival times, the quiet village offers a dose of understated Algarvian charm: sun-baked white houses feature Moorish design details, such as coloured bars around the doorways, while the petite central square is flanked by a lovely 16th-century church and a tiny cafe selling delicious homemade pastries, cakes and ice cream.
Market shopping in Loulé
The Algarve's second-largest town, 16km north of Faro, is famous for its grand Moorish-style market hall on Praça da República. Early each morning (except Saturday), the cavernous space comes alive with a colourful clatter of farmers selling their sun-ripened fruits, old ladies scanning the displays of oversized olives and customers sampling local cheeses. Outside the hall, wooden stands are piled high with antique glassware, painted tiles, traditional copper pans and artisan wares.
It is Saturday, however, that brings Loulé's most touristy shopping event, the “gypsy market” on Rua da nossa Senhora da Piedade. For a more authentic Algarvian experience, skip the day-trip crowds and instead take a self-guided stroll through the surrounding cobbled streets lined with churches, cafes and family-owned shops, ending up at Largo da Matriz, home to the ancient Arab cemetery of Jardim dos Amuados.
The market town of Monchique, located high up in the forested mountains, is locally acclaimed for the production of aguardiente, a potent brandy brewed in antique copper stills. Popular varieties include medronho (arbutus berries) and figo (fig); taste the digestive after a classic Algarvian mountain meal of stewed chickpeas, roasted ham or homemade sausages baked in a wood oven at Monchique's Jardim das Oliveiras.
To taste traditional Algarvian seafood, skip the overpriced resort areas and head for a no-frills seafood institution like Silves' Rui Marisqueira. Order caldeirada de peixe (a hearty fish stew served in a terracotta pot) or cataplana de amêijoas (clams steamed in a copper pan) along with a bottle of vinho verde (young wine), then raise a glass and say “Saúde” (cheers) to the real Algarve.