Algarve Diary An Englishman abroad in Portugal
Claudia’s family own a villa in the Algarve in southern Portugal, so Claudia, Charlotte, Kaleb, baby Elizabeth and I went for a ten day holiday at the end of September.
Day 1 – Monday
An uneventful trip to the airport and a pleasant flight – for me at least. I am a few rows in front and Elizabeth calls to pay me a visit, but it isn’t a social call; she has just projectile vomited all over Auntie Claudia!
We pick up the hire car, a Renault Clio, at Faro airport and drive along the N125 to the villa. What a place! It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere and was originally an old farmhouse, but has been modernised over the years and has a beautiful swimming pool.
We go to the nearby Aldi (nearby is a fifteen minute drive!) for some food and drink including a bottle of Douro Reserva for €3.75 and a perfectly acceptable bottle of port which turns out to be a euro!
We dine al fresco on cold meats, cheese and salad. Portuguese cured ham is called presunto and is very nice. I’m pleasantly surprised with the temperature for the time of year, even in the evening.
Day 2 – Tuesday
It gets light very quickly here: at 6 a.m. it was jet black with a multitude of stars and by 7.30, it’s brilliant sunshine. Mind you, the cocks saw fit to crow from 6.
We have a leisurely day in the pool followed by a tour of the farm. Oranges, lemons, pomegranate, olives and figs in profusion. The countryside is stunning and the weather is glorious. Elizabeth is loving it; it’s so nice to see her enjoying everything so much.
Fun fact: a Real Mallorca shirt and Halifax Town shorts look just like the Spanish national kit. I’m not wearing it in public, so they won’t be offended.
A pleasant walk to the small town of Luz de Tavira for dinner. The Sports Bar & Grill is the typical unassuming exterior with a pleasant surprise inside. In a bamboo-roofed annexe, I have a large tuna steak for €8 plus €4.50 for two large beers and a half-litre of local red wine. Well, I’m not driving, so I have to make the most of it.
On the way back, Kaleb realises he has lost his ‘phone, so goes back to the bar. They suggest sending a text to the ‘phone asking whoever finds it to take it to the post office. They say the locals are an honest bunch and it would probably turn up. I’m not a gambling man, but I’d have a small wager against it.
Claudia told me on the first night that the house used to be haunted and had a really bad atmosphere with unexplained noises and occasional sightings of spectral figures, but it had been exorcised twice and now felt fine. Apparently, most of the nocturnal visitations had been in my room. “Oh, cheers for that”, I said, but it’s been two nights now and nothing but good vibes.
Day 3 – Wednesday
Another glorious day – we’re having temperatures in the 30s – and to think I brought a jumper for the chilly evenings! Mind you, it’s still September yet.
Well, blow me, I’d have lost my bet! Claudia’s ‘phone rings in the morning and it’s a man who has found Kaleb’s ‘phone. Only problem is, he speaks only Portuguese, so we’re not absolutely certain what he’s said. Anyway, we go to the Post Office in Luz, but it isn’t there. Then Kaleb tries the shop next door where he had bought a Coke and there it is waiting for him.
We drive on to Tavira and it proves to be every bit as beautiful as the descriptions. We cross the Roman bridge over the river and walk to the market, with its stunning array of fresh fish and vegetables and after visiting the castle and botanical garden (it always amuses me to see what in the UK are houseplants, growing happily outside in the sun), we go for a light lunch at a café on the riverbank. They serve a few petiscos (the Portuguese equivalent of tapas), so I order ham, cheese and home-made black pudding and the friendly waitress brings me ham, cheese and chouriço. I then order potato and shrimp chowder. I clearly hear the waitress call it out to the kitchen and it appears on the bill, but what I actually get is octopus salad. Maybe they don’t know their own menu or think the stupid tourist won’t know the difference (don’t judge a book by its cover!), but it was nice anyway, so I don’t complain.
So, I’m stumbling by quite successfully with a combination of Spanguese and English. I learnt a little basic Portuguese especially for the trip, but my Spanish is much better. Somebody once told me that the Portuguese are offended if you presume to speak Spanish to them, but I think they’d rather understand your Spanish than not at all. The thing is, written Portuguese is easy to understand, but it’s the pronunciation that’s very different. Of course, most of the waiters speak good English anyway, but they do appreciate it if you make the effort.
Day 4 – Thursday
Whist the girls stay at the villa, Kaleb, Elizabeth and I take the short drive to Santa Luzia, known as the octopus capital of Portugal. Once the archetypal fishing village, it’s been somewhat commercialised but not spoilt. In fact, it’s delightful and lives up to my expectations, especially when we find Restaurante A Casa, which does octopus petiscos. I have octopus egg salad, octopus and prawn rissoles, and fejioada, a Brazilian dish of black beans, octopus and black pudding. All superb. We can look out at the little fleet of fishing boats which brought in the catch that very morning. The town isn’t actually on the sea, but on a ria, which is an inlet. It is still tidal and as we were walking in, looking at the hundreds of little crabs scurrying across the sand, the boats were high and dry, but as we walk back, they are bobbing about on the water.
Whilst there, we realise we have run out of sun lotion for Elizabeth, so pop into the pharmacy. The cheapest on offer is €16 – the one they are trying to push is €90!
In the late afternoon, we take the ferry from Tavira to Tavira Island. It has a fantastic long beach of which I can appreciate the quality, but I’m not really a beach person. The others go down to the sea, but for me, getting covered head to toe in sand and ruining a good pair of shoes is not my idea of a good time.
Though it’s a fair while since I’ve been to the south of France, I can’t help comparing so much of this part of the Algarve to the French Riviera. There is even a flock of flamingos in a pool in the estuary mudflats on the way to the island.
The idea had been to have dinner on the island and return in a water taxi, but the restaurants are closing by 7, so we take the last ferry back to Tavira. This proves to be a good thing as those on the island did look very touristy with photos of the food outside and back in Tavira, we find a little gem with Restaurante Marés. Fish soup then pork and clams. Perhaps an unusual sounding dish, but a local speciality and absolutely delicious. The staff are very friendly (admiring Elizabeth as usual) and even bring us some mosquito repellent as the little blighters are everywhere.
There is a 0.05% alcohol limit for driving here, so whilst a small beer is ok, any more would be folly. Kaleb suggests an alcohol-free beer and, whilst at home I would punch anyone for that, I decide to try a Super Bock Sem Alcohol and it’s really good! Problem solved.
Tavira is beautiful at night, tastefully illuminated, with the bridges reflecting in the river.
Sunset from Tavira Island
Day 5 – Friday
A comparatively early start for the trip to Slide and Splash waterpark near Portimao. I confess I was a little nervous at driving that distance, but we take the A22 and it proves easy. The A22 is classed as a motorway and has frequent tolls, but it’s actually just a dual carriageway with stretches in far from perfect repair.
We drop Charlotte, Kaleb and Claudia off at Slide and Splash and then Elizabeth and I head into Portimao. We stop at the port and pull into a car park which turns out to be full, but a young man appears from nowhere and says, “You want to park?” “Er, yes”. “Follow me” and takes us to a secret car park right next to a little tunnel which leads to a load of restaurants. I’m obliged to cross his palm with a couple of euros, but it’s well worth it. This part of the town is quite picturesque with yachts moored in the harbour and pretty squares with fountains. We have a mooch around and then go for lunch. Portimao is the sardine capital of Portugal (everywhere here seems to be the capital of something!) so it is de rigueur to have them for lunch and this I do in a pretty restaurant called Dona Barca, complete with said boat outside. It’s a hefty portion – six whole sardines with boiled potatoes accompanied by an alcohol-free beer. I’m not having a problem with this new drink choice and with the driving ahead of me, I’m taking no risks.
A quick tootle into the square for Elizabeth to demolish a strawberry ice cream and then on to Lagoa, the wine capital of the region (haha!). The satnav takes us to what it alleges to be the town centre, but it isn’t. Anyway, we head inward, but the cobbled pavements are really difficult to navigate with the air-portable (an old Land Rover term I use for the lightweight perambulator that we’ve brought with us) so after passing one closed winery, I decide to head back to the car, stopping off for an alcohol-free beer and an orange juice. Elizabeth has been good as gold and really enjoying it.
Anyway, all is not lost on the wine front, as we call in to a Jumbo supermarket just outside Lagoa and they have a large selection of local wines. We also get some food for a barbecue back at the villa. It takes a while to get going and the food takes ages to cook, but top marks for atmosphere.
Did I mention the similarity to the French Riviera? It’s not just the landscape and architecture – I’m covered in mosquito bites!
So, everyone has had a great day in their own respective ways – them playing in the water and me travelling and eating!
Day 6 – Saturday
In the morning, I suddenly remember an eerie experience. “I had some visitors last night”, I say. “What, you heard it too?”, says Charlotte. “Heard what?” “Something was banging on my bedroom door”, says Claudia. “No”, I say, “It was a large dark figure with some smaller ones around it.” We look at each other for a moment and then laugh it off. Nonetheless, I move the little figurine of Our Lady of Fátima a couple of feet so she can watch over me during the night.
We drive the short distance to Pedras del Rei and park in the large municipal car park for the others to go to the nearby Barril beach and me to explore the town with its many restaurants. I ask some workmen where Pedras del Rei is, seeing nothing but houses and they reply, “Here”, so I ask about the many restaurants. One looks puzzled and goes to ask the householder. He returns, pointing to the left and saying, “Down there”. So, I set off walking and carry on walking until I reach Santa Luzia, where there are, indeed, many restaurants. It turns out to be no bad thing, because it’s a lovely walk and I discover petiscos on offer at Casa do Polvo Tasquina, a kind of annexe of the larger Casa do Polvo next door.
The olive oil is some of the best I’ve ever tasted and it bodes well for the meal to come. I start with an octopus croquette, which is ok, then an octopus and onion fritter, which is really good and a skewer of octopus and onion in béchamel sauce, lightly battered. I then try the raw tuna slices which turn out to be dried (like Spanish mojama) and then the carpaccio of octopus. This comes on a large plate and is absolutely stunning. There is a tomato mousse and a whole range of flavours. There is balsamic and I think in the little dots of sauce I can detect roasted red pepper and avocado.
When I arrived at twelve, there was one other table of two; when I leave around one, the place is packed. I remember though, on the way back, that it’s Saturday.
I decide to join the others at the beach: not in the actual sand, of course, but I wanted to take the little train across the salt marsh and see all the anchors at the beach. It was once a small tuna fishing community and the anchors from the fleet have been placed along the sand dunes. This rusting memorial is now known as the Anchor Cemetery. Apparently, the original houses have been converted to shops and restaurants and it’s perfect timing, because this is where I join the others for a drink and we all return together.
In the evening, we go to Tavira and, after a few drinks, go to Praça Velha Marisqeira for dinner. The waiter, who speaks perfect English, is a bit of a joker and makes us feel welcome. Kaleb and I share a cataplana of kid with prawns; it is plentiful and delicious. The cataplana is a traditional cooking vessel from the Algarve. Made of copper, it has two hemispherical parts which are hinged together and sealed with clamps so the food steams inside. The dish is named after the cooking vessel and, whilst the classic cataplana is seafood – clams or mixed seafood with sausage – the opportunity to try this unusual one is too good to miss.
By 10.30, we are the only ones left and they are getting ready to close. This is not Spain, where they’d only just be getting started! Mind you, over the next few days, we see the same waiters working from noon, so, although we know only too well that hours in the catering trade can be punishingly long, one can understand that they’ve had enough by 11pm.
After resolutely sticking to my alcohol-free beer, despite the waiter’s best efforts to tempt me, I’m ready for a nightcap when we get back and we open the bottle of Lagoa Reserva. It’s excellent and had cost less than £4.
Day 7 – Sunday
We drive into Tavira and have a pleasant wander around looking in a few shops. I did wonder if everywhere would be closed on a Sunday, but there are plenty of places open. Everyone else has sandwiches, but there’s nothing I fancy. Don’t feel sorry for me; I’m eating about four times as much as I do at home! It’s another hot day with clear blue skies. The nights are starting to get a bit cooler, but it is October, after all!
Claudia suggests we should take the scenic route back. It is pretty, but I can’t honestly say it’s a pleasant drive. A long way on narrow, winding roads. The Renault Clio is nippy and responsive, but I can’t see a thing out of the rear view mirror or back windows, so it’s like driving a small van with a low roof. I’m used to my V70, which is twice the size with a massive bonnet in front hiding a 2.5 litre engine. Never mind, it’s nice to have a virtually new car and we’d be completely stuffed without one.
There is a place in Tavira called D’Gusta which had been recommended for its excellent petiscos, so I was keen to give it a try, but when Kaleb ‘phoned to reserve a table, they were booked up for a month in advance! So, instead, we take a trip down the coast to Fuseta. Claudia finds an abandoned kitten under a car and vows to take it home, but fortunately, later on, Kaleb sees its mother coming to collect it. After a short walk, we round a bend and see a whole row of restaurants. Eventually, we choose Nuno’s. Though tempted by the wild boar, rabbit and black pork, I go for the dorade (sea bream) and watch it being prepared and barbecued. It tastes exquisite.
Back at the villa, we try the other Algarve wine, Porches. It’s nice, but not as good as the Lagoa Reserva.
Evening sky at the villa
Day 8 – Monday
We’re off to sunny Spain………from equally sunny Portugal. We drive to Vila Real de Santo António on an N road that in places is so rough, it’s like a cart track. After a bumpy start trying to find the harbour and then walking straight past it, we find the ferry port and get our tickets. We have a drink while we’re waiting and look in some shops where I treat myself to a new hat. My old panama has served me well, but it’s gone beyond the characterful to the downright scruffy.
Ayamonte from the ferry
We board the ferry and make the twenty minute trip across the river Guadiana to Ayamonte. I thought there might be at least a solitary border guard, but we walk straight into Spain. It’s funny – I haven’t felt like a fish out of water in Portugal (apart from the ones I’ve eaten – boom, boom!), but now that I’m in Spain, I’m swanking around like a local!
Ayamonte is really pretty, but we’re a little late for lunch and places are closing, but we find El Ferry Tapas Bar, where they kindly take us as the last table. Though nice inside, the exterior is quite unassuming, with photos of the food on the wall. As a general rule, never eat anywhere with pictures of the food, but there are exceptions and, of course, beggars can’t be choosers. Anyway, the meal turns out to be really good. I have battered pieces of marinated dogfish, croquette of squid in its ink and melt-in-the-mouth pork cheeks with orange. During a pleasant wander around, I buy some flamenco shoes for the baby and translate for a tourist and shopkeeper, which I’m really smug about. Then it’s back on the ferry to Vila Real.
We call in at Castro Marim, a small town steeped in history, which boasts not just one castle, but two! We then arrive at Monte Gordo, which had been recommended to us. Whether this was a joke or not, I don’t know, but from the name, I was expecting a picturesque hilltop town. The reality is the most ghastly seaside resort, the restaurants all advertising a Tourist Menu complete with chicken nuggets and full English breakfast. The main clientele here are respectable elderly people, but there are still a couple of bleary-eyed drunks staggering around. The whole atmosphere is unpleasant and vaguely threatening. The weirdest thing is that interspersed with the souvenir and tat shops are expensive jewellers and some shops selling the most amazing (and pricey) crystals. A decidedly odd place and one which we are not sorry to leave.
As it’s getting a bit late to try anywhere else, we just go into Tavira and eat at the Imperial. The friendly maitre d’, who speaks perfect English, helps us with our choices and, for me, recommends Bacalhau a Brás – salt cod and potato. From his description, I’m expecting slices of golden fried potato layered with flakes of salt cod, but what I get is a plateful of mashed potato and shredded cod. To be honest, it isn’t fantastic, with not much flavour, but I might be being harsh, as if that’s what the dish is, then fair enough.* Claudia’s massive tuna steak is gorgeous and Kaleb enjoys his pork and clams, but Charlotte’s chicken is mainly gristle and bone, so a bit of a mixed bag. The service, however, is 100%. The waiters are great and as it’s quiet, the maitre d’, a 23-year old lad from Porto in the north, stays and chats with us.
* I subsequently discover that the dish is basically in that style, but the potatoes are meant to be fried to a golden colour before mashing and have the addition of egg (hence the Spanish translation “Bacalao Dorado” – golden cod) plus fried onion and garlic for additional flavour.
Footnote: I made this dish at home as it should be done and it was delicious.
Day 9 – Tuesday
Charlotte and Kaleb are going dolphin watching and Claudia is doing her own thing, so Elizabeth and I have the day to ourselves. I buy a cataplana (the utensil, not the food!) and look for more shops, hoping to find a bookshop, but there isn’t really much there. Everything seems to be on the main strip along the riverbank. We are just having a pre-lunch drink, when Charlotte and Kaleb turn up – they have to book their trip 24 hours in advance.
So, I go for lunch on my own and, after failing to find anywhere new, decide on Praça Velha where we had the cataplana a couple of nights ago. The waiter recognises me, which is nice. I have Frango (chicken) Piri Piri, which comes with chips and salad. It’s not an amazing meal, but it’s a pleasant enough lunch and the accompanying glass of white wine is really nice. For dessert, I have Pudim and it’s very good. It’s their version of crème caramel; it’s one of the few desserts I enjoy and I like to compare those of different countries. The Majorcan one is still my favourite.
We all meet up again after lunch. Claudia has had a cultural day visiting some museums and exhibitions. We decide to eat in tonight, so we call in Aldi on the way home. Amongst the usual fayre, I spot some cheese which promises to delight me and disgust everyone else.
It’s 4pm in early October and the temperature is 36°. The forecast had been highs of 23°, but I’m not complaining – it’s glorious. Claudia’s dad told her yesterday that he had to scrape ice off his car in Todmorden. It might be a wind-up, but whatever, I don’t want to think about that right now. We dine simply, al fresco, but unfortunately, the cheese is mild and inoffensive. Kaleb and I end the evening with port and cigars.
The Roman bridge in Tavira
Day 10 – Wednesday
I run Charlotte and Kaleb into Tavira at 7.45 am for the dolphin tour, then return again later with Claudia and Elizabeth. Claudia recommends I visit the museums, so we agree to meet up again after lunch. I’m particularly interested in the exhibition of the Mediterranean Diet. It’s perhaps a strange thing that the Portuguese consider themselves a Mediterranean nation, but have no Mediterranean seaboard. The feeling is based upon culture and food.
Anyway, the marching band on the way in should have been a presentiment that this was not an ordinary Wednesday and indeed, it turns out to be Republic Day, so the museums are closed. Ever one to turn adversity to advantage, I take the opportunity for a longer lunch. I walk a little further past the castle and find some more restaurants. I see that Alvaro de Campos offers petiscos, so I stop there.
They have a Fado session here on a Friday night and two Americans come to book a table whilst I’m there. Fado is a traditional Portuguese type of singing, accompanied by guitar. I would have liked to see some, but didn’t have the opportunity.
I try the goat’s cheese with honey, pepper and nuts, which is delicious, and the choriçou roasted in brandy, which is just two enormous sausages; tasty, but heavy going. I’d seen posters advertising the Festival de Petiscos throughout the Tavira region during October. I see that featured outlets prepare two dishes especially for the event and customers are invited to fill in a little questionnaire. I have to try the fried polenta with clams and it’s worth the wait. I award them a well-deserved excellent in the questionnaire. It’s a great idea, but up to press, I haven’t seen anywhere else advertising their participation in the event.
Unfortunately, I miss an event of a different kind. Claudia and Elizabeth have gone to a café for a late breakfast, when a man who appears to be the ex of the waitress walks past with friends. It begins with traded insults, progresses to throwing of tables and ends in a full-on Wild West style brawl!
We all meet up after lunch. Charlotte and Kaleb have enjoyed a nice boat trip, but didn’t see any dolphins. Elizabeth is getting tired (so am I, actually), so we return to the villa. Bizarrely, it’s getting hotter every day.
For dinner, we go to Cabanas, just west of Tavira. There is a nice long promenade and we notice that all the benches are single. We imagine lonely people gazing soulfully out to sea, though it’s probably just to discourage canoodling. After some walking around, dismissing one restaurant after another, we chance upon one which only does petiscos, but has something for everyone (including cocktails for the girls), so I am delighted. Barca da Moura is a small family-run place and they also brew their own beer made from carob pods – the eponymously titled Moura. I try a bottle of the red and it is very good.
The others have presunto ham with fresh figs and quail eggs with bacon, whilst I try the stewed gizzards. Yes, I know it sounds awful, but believe me, it’s delicious with a really rich sauce. We have some nice fresh oysters and chouriço with orange. They have joined in the petisco festival, so I try both their entries – fresh cheese with dried tuna on carob bread and goat’s cheese with apple, almond and honey. All the food is excellent and the only criticism is that the portions are too big and we don’t manage to finish everything, which is a shame.
I pick up a leaflet for the Festival de Petiscos (they have to subtitle it “tapas”, so that people will understand) and it transpires that it features twelve restaurants in the Tavira area, each one with a “House Petisco” and an “Innovative Petisco”. Some look exceptionally good and some, pretty ordinary. Well, at least I’ve managed to do two of them.
Day 11 -Thursday
It’s the dawn of the last day, but we don’t have to leave until 5pm, so there’s time to pop into Tavira for a spot of lunch. The girls are craving hamburgers, so I strike off on my own and decide to return to Alvaro de Campos to try their “innovative“ petisco. Bit of a let down to be honest. The Arjamolho salad is just tomato and peppers in iced water with bread cubes and the petingas (which turn out to be baby sardines) are on the side, although they are very tasty.
Instead of seeking out something exotic, I decide to see how they do a classic and choose prawns with garlic. No surprises – a fair sized bowl of delicate king prawns in garlic oil. I have to mop up every last drop with the nice fresh bread.
Back at the villa, we finish packing and leave to head for the airport. We drop off the car, which has been really good value; by using a local firm, it has been literally half the price of one of the multi-nationals and very good on petrol, which is cheaper here anyway.
And so, adeus Algarve………… but I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing each other again.
The little table in the atrium where I wrote the diary
Surprisingly, very few of the restaurants have a website, but most have a Facebook Page.
El Ferry Tapas Bar
C/ Antonio Concepción Reboura, Edificio Aduana, 4 – 21.400 Ayamonte
Barca da Moura
Av. Ria Formosa 3, 8800-593 Cabanas
Rua proj. á GonçaloVelho Bioco C r/c Esq.8700-o34 Fuzeta
Luz de Tavira:
Sports Bar & Grill Chic Zé
Largo da Barca, 22, 8500-527 Portimão
Restaurante A Casa
Avenida Eng. Duarte Pacheco, 10 8800-537 Santa Luzia, Tavira
Casa do Polvo Tasquina
Av. Eng. Duarte Pacheco 8, 8800-545 Tavira
Alvaro de Campos
R. da Liberdade 47, Tavira
R. João Vaz Corte Real 80,Tavira
Largo Dr. José Pires Padinha 22, 8800-354 Tavira
Praça Velha Marisqueira
Rua Jose Pires Padinha | Mercado de Ribeiro, Tavira 88
Rua Jose Pires Padinha 134 140, Tavira 8800-354
Festival de Petiscos
Car Park 4, Faro Airport
Tel: 00351 289 825 673