My previous trips to Portugal's Algarve had been more of the hedonistic variety -- lazing around on a beach with the odd foray to the bar for refreshments. This trip was going to be very different. A weekend of activity-based adventure, a concept that is relatively alien to my ageing brain.
We were going to see a part of the Algarve that most visitors don't experience, yet which is very accessible and well worth the effort. We were based in the eastern Algarve, in the fishing village of Cabanas, and stayed at the Cabanas resort. On our first night, we ate at Pedras d'el Rei, where the manager, the charming Paulo, told us he would guarantee the most tender and succulent octopus we had ever tasted. He wasn't wrong. We had a wonderful meal, and finished it off with amarguinha, a fabulous local almond liquer.
All was fine on our first adventure; we began with a boat ride with Barbara, from Formosamar Traditional Boat Tours. We set off from Faro through the channels of Ria Formosa, a series of salt-water lagoons separated from the open sea by lots of lovely little sandy islands. Twitchers are in their element here, as it's awash with migrating birds. Gannetts, petrels, and egrets abound. We came up close and personal with a flock of flamingos. I have a pink feather to prove it -- not that I plucked it from a bird, I just found it.
It was with a certain amount of fear and trepidation that I went to bed on our first night knowing that a 24km cycle was ahead of me the next morning. I'm not an avid cyclist. I'm incredibly unfit and a smoker with a bad back. But I woke up with a whole "is feidir liom" thing going on, and envisaged myself crossing the finishing line legs akimbo singing "Raindrops keep falling on my head" as in the scene from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
It all started off well, and it's a wonderful way of seeing the countryside. There are lots of different cycling and walking trails which Cristina, Ana or Patricia from Megasport will advise you on. Vines to the left and orange groves to the right, wind in your hair... for a moment one could forget one's woes or where the next drink or fag was going to come from.
I battled on for five or six kilometres and was really enjoying it until we hit a few minor uphill stages and my lack of knowledge of gear-changing and my bad back got the better of me, and, despite the exhortations of my younger buddies, I had to give in and travel in the van that was following us. My face was iridescent, moving from a light shade of green in the beginning to a deep shade of purple with each kilometre travelled. So much so that when I needed to go to the loo the girls from Megasport came with me and waited outside. I imagine they assumed I had been released from a home. The others finished the trip with no problems at all and returned with glowing faces and broad smiles, singing the praises of their trip, especially the stage though the woods.
Then it was lunch on the marina in Villa Real, where we sat outside the restaurant Sem Espinahas and embarked on a wonderful culinary extravaganza of seasoned sardines with sweet potato, clams with ginger and aromatic herbs, octopus tentacles with sweet potato mousse and shrimp -- to name but a few. The Portuguese are very proud of their local produce and regional dishes, and go to great lengths to explain everything.
Then it was time for the walk. Thankfully, this part of Portugal is fairly flat, so I was able to partake with gusto. Again we were far from the madding crowd, strolling through orange groves, surrounded by peace and tranquillity, rock roses and rabbits. We passed through sleepy white-washed villages; in one, an elderly woman sitting on a bench gestured for us to join her.
We ate that night at our resort and had the most divine tasting menu, and then it was time for our last day of the weekend and a bit of culture. Lagos is a town on the western Algarve, encircled by old town walls and full of cobbled streets and sidewalk cafes and restaurants. Again, we had our bikes and cycled along the promenade, this time with more confidence except for the odd roar at locals to get out of my way as the whole sudden stopping thing was getting too much for me. We visited the Forte da Ponta da Bandeira, a 17th-Century fortress built to defend the town and went on to the Lagos Regional Museum, which contains a lavish baroque-style church, and an adjoining museum with Portuguese chimneys, pottery, shells and old banknotes.
And then it was the piece de resistance, and Don Sebastiao for a lunch of the most sublime seabass and a spot of very welcome wine tasting with Victor. Many lovely wines are made in the Algarve as well as in the north of Portugal, and they also pride themselves on a poteen-like after-dinner drink. Home from home.
Culture done, it was time for another 5km cycle along the coast to Faro and, wait for it, I finished first! Basking in the praises of my Megasport cohorts I put the bike away and heaved a sigh of belated achievement. For our last night we stayed at the very comfortable and ideally located Hotel Faro. Our last meal was overlooking the beautiful Faro beach at the Suigeneris Restaurant where we partook of such delights as beef tenderloin and filet of foie gras sealed in cocoa butter on a warm compote of red onion and ragu vegetables and green asparagus and lobster risotto with aromatised truffle olive oil.
Gone are my days of hedonism and once my back is better I'll be back to explore the beautiful countryside of the Algarve and maybe this time it'll be the yellow jersey and not the Lantern Rouge. Lance Armstrong, watch out!