independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Faro from the crowds

Algarve rock - coast in Portugal

Nicola Brady traverses off-peak Algarve on bike and on foot ... and away from the masses

The streets of Albufeira were emptying as I caught the last of the afternoon sun. Shopkeepers were packing away their outdoor stalls, and waiters stood in the doorways of restaurants, waiting for their first patrons.

The beach was dotted with people soaking up some autumnal rays, and a few brave souls were jumping in the crashing waves.

Had I visited in the height of the summer, I would have no doubt met a different scene. The Algarve has long been a favourite holiday spot for the Irish, and we flock in our droves in July and August.

But I always find a certain charm in visiting busy destinations in their off-peak seasons. When the relentless heat has eased off, and the crowds have dispersed, you can get a better sense of a place.

If you visit the Algarve in the winter, you'll find a more laid-back, carefree scene, where you don't have to battle the masses or queue for a table.

You won't have to compromise with the weather, either – one day in October saw temperatures of 32°C in Faro. While that may have been a bit of an anomaly, temperatures in the winter and spring are warmer than Ireland, with generally mild, sunny weather.

These cooler months are the perfect time to get active and explore the Algarve on two wheels. Activity company Megasport (megasport.pt) takes small groups out for guided bike tours, be they 'CycleChic' jaunts to a restaurant or heavy-duty road adventures.

I opted for something in the middle – a 30km route taking in a great variety of landscapes.

We began near the seaside resort of Vilamoura. As we pedalled along the coast, taking in the rather soulless strip of neon bars and restaurants, my heart sank. Our final destination was the town of Faro, and I began to wonder if the whole stretch would take place alongside a nondescript boardwalk.

But I needn't have worried. The vista soon morphed into a much more appealing scene, with heavily wooded lanes next to a glistening sea. High-rise buildings gave way to languid countryside as we moved away from the towns and into the heart of the Algarve.

The terrain became more ragged, and could change dramatically within minutes. From the red sands along Almargen beach, reminiscent of Kenyan plains, we journeyed into the quaint countryside. Goats with bells around their necks ran amok in a smallholding, alongside chickens and pigs.

Soon, these rural shacks became glamorous villas, perched alongside extensive golf greens and expansive pools.

This was the only part of the journey that took place on a hill too steep to cycle. Dusty and panting, we pushed our bikes through Quinta da Lago, grateful that the residents of this exclusive district were nowhere to be seen.

Once we had reached the summit, it was a breezy glide down to the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Rich in biodiversity and popular with bird watchers, this lagoon landscape stretches along the east Algarve coast, and paves the way into Faro.

We certainly weren't the only cyclists on this path. Lycra-clad racers occasionally zoomed past, while older visitors tootled by on trusty electric bikes. The flat roads make it easy for all, though the path did get a little bumpy.

The next morning, as I hobbled from my bed, I felt the effects of these rough roads. Thankfully, I was set to discover a route for walkers next, on the Via Algarviana trajectory. Small painted symbols guide the way, marking roadside rocks and tree trunks.

We made our way steadily into the mountains, passing trees laden with figs and accompanied by the sound of distant waterfalls. Though the coastal parts of the Algarve are densely populated, particularly in the summer, the rural areas surrounding them are verging on deserted.

The population of villages is depleting with each year, despite their proximity to the beach and bigger towns.

We were led on our walk by Joao Ministro, who hopes to bring life back into these mountain dwellings. Through his company Proactivetur (proactivetur.pt), Joao leads groups on a variety of walks and tours through the backbone of the Algarve, exploring secret locations far off the beaten track.

We arrived at the village of Querenca as the church bells rang. The heavens had opened, and the heavy downpour forced us into a little bar on the village square. Inside, the residents of the village were gathered, sharing the news of the day over tiny cups of dark espressos. Like a childhood disco, the tables were segregated by gender, with men to one side and women to the other.

The restaurant next door was serving wild boar in a rich stew, as well as frango piri piri. Alas, I didn't get a chance to sample either – Joao was taking us to the only working mill in the area, Ti Casinha. When we arrived the skies were misty, and we were ushered in by owner Francisco Dias and her husband, Jesus, to a small room with thick stone walls and a roaring fire.

As we sat in the dim light, Francisco laid out an array of Portuguese liqueurs, lit a small gas-top stove and showed us how she made each one.

Pomegranate, apples and cinnamon were all blended into brandy in various concoctions, which we dutifully tasted alongside a hefty chunk of Portuguese cake.

Not satisfied that we were full, she then led us through to another room where we were met with a feast. A table was loaded with platters of battered sardines, roasted sweet potatoes and local cheeses. We piled our plates high with homemade fare, and I was suddenly glad I had kept away from the boar.

With a full belly and limbs still feeling the strain, I decided the time for activity had passed. After covering plenty of miles on bike and on foot, I had earned a little downtime. Luckily for me, there were plenty of spas that fitted the bill.

High in the hills of Monchique sits the Villa Termal das Caldas. There's something in the water here, with visitors flocking to the thermal baths to recover from all kinds of medical issues, from respiratory problems to muscular disorders.

Of course, the therapeutic qualities of the water can also be used for relaxation and pampering. A swim in the indoor baths leaves your skin feeling silky soft.

The healing power of these thermal waters features heavily on the programme at the spa. You can even receive a massage while lying under a cascade of water, which showers down on your limbs as the therapist works out your knots.

After a day of exploring the outer reaches of the Algarve, it was time to head back into civilisation. I suspect that Faro is one of those towns which is often disregarded, despite the fact that hoards of people fly into its airport each year.

Visitors disembark their flights and cast a cursory nod in the direction of the town nearby, before heading to one of the many beach resorts along the coast.

But Faro is worth exploring. The small town centre is home to a charming cathedral, and the muddle of curved lanes and streets are lined with tempting shops and cafés.

At the harbour, hundreds of boats bob on the water's surface, and people sit in waterfront restaurants devouring the catch of the day.

It's the kind of town that makes you walk a little slower, take your time and enjoy life at a different pace. A place where a quick coffee turns into a lost afternoon, as you settle in to a street-side café and watch the world go by.

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