The Algarve is much more than a sandy expanse on the edge of an emerald sea, with sheer cliffs and stretches of green pine forest. Alongside its unique landscapes and ambience, the Algarve is rich in traditions and art that bear witness to its ancient origins. Our tour will take you to the well-guarded corners of the Algarve – between Faro and Tavira and up to Mértola – where an inimitable and ancient Mediterranean civilization still pulses.
Tavira, with its typically historic center and baroque churches, and its whitewashed houses that help give the Algarve its strong scent of the Mediterranean, is the perfect starting point to your journey. Set on the riverbanks of the Gilão River, which meets the Atlantic Ocean at this point, Tavira is a charming village, marked by the presence of the lovely Roman Bridge (in spite of its name, it was built by the Portuguese Kings in the Middle Ages) that gracefully unites the two banks. Tavira is also know for the profusion and quality of its ecclesiastical architecture: there are 21 churches in Tavira, which, as you will see, serve as reference points to stroll around the city and help to shape an age-old urban landscape. One of the most distinctive architectural elements of Tavira is the four-sided or hipped roof, known as “telhado de tesouro”, and whose shape recalls a scissor. This is a great example of vernacular architecture, as it is perfectly tuned to the region’s climate, allowing free circulation of air inside the rooms.
Leaving this urban setting, we head to the mountains (serra) where you will explore one of the well-guarded aspects of Algarve, cork production, by taking the Cork Route (Rota da Cortiça) in São Braz de Alportel. You will watch and interact with the entire process, from the forest of cork trees to the craftsman working with this sustainable, natural material (55% of the cork produced in the world comes from Portugal). This will be an attention-grabbing experience.
Next morning, the day begins with a boat trip through the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, one of the most exceptional natural sites in the Algarve, where you will catch sight of rare species of migrating birds and observe the striking colors of the river where it meets the ocean. On the island of Deserta, you have the luxury of a stroll along a private beach and lunch at the edge of the sea. The afternoon is spent in Faro, where a walk through the old town, the most primitive nucleus of the city, known as vila-a-dentro (inside the village), evokes the spirit of the Moors, with its narrow streets, arches, medieval gates and ancient walls. Faro, the capital of Algarve, bears witness to many civilizations, from the Phoenicians, to the Romans and Arabs, to the Christians who took in 1249, and it is fascinating to discover all these layers in the streets and buildings of the town, both inside the remains of the castle’s walls and extramuros. Faro is also home to numerous artistic treasures in the Cathedral, the Convento de Nossa Senhora da Assunção (16th century) and in the baroque exuberance of its tiles and gilded carvings.
This morning you rejoin the Guadiana River to journey through a landscape seemingly frozen in time on the way to the charming town of Mértola. After a typical local lunch composed of fresh produce and rich flavors, you will come across numerous archaeological treasures, spanning a vast period from pre-history to the time of the Arabs, of which the ancient mosque remains the most magnificent example. Also well worth a look is the medieval castle of Castro Marim, once the seat of the military order of Christ that succeeded the famous Knights Templar in Portugal. As sunset arrives at the end of the day, you will find a truly enchanting view across the estuary from the old fort and the lovely Renaissance church of Cacela-a-Velha. What a fantastic place to have a drink and taste the succulent oysters taken from the sea just in front of you!
It is amid the bustle of Olhão’s fish and artisans’ produce market that you begin your last day at the Algarve. After looking for the freshest products in one of the liveliest markets of the south, you head to a local farm, where you will have a cooking class and learn how to prepare the famous cataplana fish, cooked in a special copper pan following a meticulous recipe.
From here, you move on to discover the Mediterranean legacy left by the Romans at the Villa of Milreu, famous for its ancient mosaics. Up in the mountains, you visit the medieval castle of Loulé, and then move inland, following ancient, tree-covered roads through a seemingly never-ending landscape of timeless tradition and rural architecture, where the secret Algarve still breathes.