Reach beyond beach to discover Algarve
Be dazzled, not just by the sun but by beautiful parks, villages and sights in Portugal's south, says Shane Fitzsimons
FOR years now, the narrow strip of resorts on the southern shores of Portugal have drawn Irish holidaymakers eager for a hot sun to burn away the winter blues and burnish up the all-over tan.
And perhaps it's the strength-sapping rays of the sun on freckled Celtic skin, but it's surprising how few people have strayed any distance from the bright lights of the coast.
Just ask any Portuguese about the Algarve and you'll begin to understand that there's a whole lot more to the region than family-friendly hotels and all-in resorts -- and exploring deep into the area can transform a two-week beach break into the sort of holiday you'll remember all your life.
Leaving the coast for the mountains, the air gets cooler and sweeter as you pass by small sharecroppings cut from the hills by generations of peasant farmers. Even in the April sun, potato flowers bloom side by side with sunflowers, lavender and wild poppies. In terms of the garden, the year starts earlier on the Algarve; by late summer, the heat and dry winds will have nicely crisped up all but the hardiest of plants.
Over in the Costa Vicentina national park, which takes in about 80km of Atlantic coastline, the same bracing ocean that batters Ireland's west coast has carved out a landscape of awe-inspiring cliffs and yellow beaches. It's a sight that looks familiar to anyone who loves Connemara; a bit like the Aran Islands -- but with a shock of brightly coloured flowers and guaranteed sunshine
But as in Eden, it hasn't always been rosy in this garden. As in our own West, a forced reliance on the ever-changing fortunes of weather has driven much of the younger generation to seek employment on the glittering southern coast. So, during the past 50 years, the population of the villages slowly dwindled away.
Towns and villages, such as Salir, Alte, and Monchique, were left with just a handful of old people and were longing for new life. After all, there's only so much you can do with chestnuts and cork.
But people of the West are never ones to give up. The only question was how to face the challenge? There'd been a blanket ban on building in the national park for many years, which appeared to stymie the development of tourism -- until someone had an idea.
Four years ago, Lisbonites Antonio and Filipa Ferreira were tired of city life and were seeking a rural retreat. Looking for the ideal holiday home, they chanced upon the depopulated hamlet of Aldeia da Pedralva. Once a thriving village of 100 houses, there were only seven families left -- and the local school was about to close as there weren't enough children to warrant a teacher.
Within a few hours, this couple of ad-agency workers realised that their life's dream was staring them in the face -- they would quit the rat race, rebuild the village in as environmentally friendly a way as possible, and bring employment, life and energy back to the hamlet. Within weeks, they had bought not one but five run-down farmhouses. Buying the rest was tougher, as they had to do genealogical searches to find the 200 properties' owners, now scattered by emigration throughout Portugal, Germany, England and France.
Helped by the tourist board, investors, friends and four years' hard work -- and fired by the passion that this stretch of coastline inspires -- Aldeia da Pedralva is now a dream realised. The post office is saved, the school is still open, life is returning and the hay turns golden as nightingales sing in the evening sky. Such triumphs are the stuff of epics.
The whitewashed one-, two- and three-bed restored houses are self-contained, rustic and charming. And despite it presenting its own challenges, they operate a no TV/ no WiFi policy, creating the most peaceful setting, perfect for soothing frayed nerves.
If you feel the need for the fleshpots of the south coast, you're no more than 30 minutes away, past some of the world's best golf courses (if that's your thing). But in the Barrocal (the area of the Algarve between the coast and the hills), surfing, biking, bird watching, whale watching or trekking are more the done thing.
And if you are on a walk, you don't even have to carry your own water -- for about 7km from the eco village, near Aljezur, on the Costa Vicentina, we met with the donkeys of Sofia von Mentzingen, a tall German (with impeccable English), who has made this wild coast her home.
She runs Burros & Artes, combining a donkey rescue with walking, trekking and hiking activities. The sure-footed animals are so peaceful and docile, and know the best tracks through the Vale das Amoreiras. They can patiently carry young children on their backs -- but for we adults who walked, Sofia had packed a picnic of local cheeses (and more of that wonderful honey that you find everywhere in Portugal).
Incredibly, the immaculate beaches were deserted -- while 20km away, people were jostling each other for towel room on the shore. A few surfers sat out in the waves, grinning like punch-drunk sailors as the sets rolled in, regular as rungs on a ladder.
Sofia's donkeys can also help you along stretches of the Via Algarviana, an extensive 240km trail of walking paths leading inland into the foodie heart of the region. The walks are broken down into easily achievable chunks for walkers of all standards, linking the villages as you meander through some of the most beautiful countryside.
The path we took led us to Jardim das Oliveiras, high in the hills around Monchique, surrounded by olive groves, eucalyptus, pine and cork trees (and a playground for the kids). It's a wonderful rustic restaurant specialising in authentic regional dishes -- and I'd recommend the wild boar, followed by coffee and desert while reclining in a hammock strung between two ancient olive trees. Amazingly, I didn't spill a drop.
You can dip in and out of the Via Algarviana -- it's one of the best-signposted walks through nature, and as you sip a hot and sweet espresso after your three-hour trek, you have the added benefit of knowing that you're helping put something back into the local communities.
As night falls, and you look down from the cool hills on the necklace of lights around the coast, you find yourself wondering why this holiday within a holiday shouldn't last forever.