The east Algarve still remains virtually undeveloped .The natural beauty of the coast and inland areas are well worth exploration and reveal much more about the real Portugal, its history and its people than any of the resort towns further west.
The approach when flying into Faro often follows the coastal nature reserve of the Ria Formosa and even a glimpse, from the air, is enough to inspire curiosity. It is a wonderfully unspoiled area that stretches eastwards for 40 kilometers, almost as far as the Spanish border. There are sandbank islands and sandbars creating tranquil lagoons and estuary formations that are constantly transformed by the tides.
At Ria Formosa Natural Park close to the town of Olhão, there are walking trails through the park, where it is possible to enjoy the splendor of this natural wilderness. The resident population of birds increases during autumn and spring with many species calling in on their migratory routes. Flamingos, White Storks and Black-Winged Stilts are familiar sights throughout the year and seeing such large and spectacular birds in their natural habitat is not to be forgotten.
There is also a tide mill on the reserve and inside this splendidly restored building there are six great millstones, grinding grain. There are also the remains of Roman saltpans, where 2,000 years ago seawater was evaporated to leave behind the salt, important at that time for preserving foodstuffs. These are familiar features all along the coast and even today there is a commercial industry in salt production.
The Research and Visitor center at Ria Formosa highlight the importance of this wildlife haven. A breeding program of the rare Algarve water dog has been undertaken here. These attractive and placid animals look like large poodles but have webbed feet enabling them to swim with great efficiency and dive to depths of six meters. Water dogs were previously a common sight in the Algarve, working on fishing boats where they assisted with the fishing.
The nearby town of Olhão is a genuine Portuguese fishing port complete with an morning fish market the largest on the Algarve. The flat-roofed houses of the old fishermen’s quarters are Arab in design and are not found anywhere else on the Algarve. The town has had long standing connections with equivalent fishing ports, across the water in Morocco, where these flat roofs are a common sight and used for drying fish in the sunshine.
Beyond Olhão is the handsome and historic town of Tavira. It is one of the most fascinating places in the Algarve and it has almost certainly been inhabited for the last 4,000 years. The picture-postcard bridge that crosses the River Gilão in the center of town is a perfect vantage point to admire the ornate 16th century houses and neat little cafés that line the river’s banks. The old Municipal Market situated on the quayside has recently been transformed into an exclusive arcade of shops and eating establishments, some with views across the river. In the clear water, shoals of shining fish flash by and at low tide when the river almost empties, locals can be seen digging for clams, a popular gastronomic indulgence often eaten in a stew with pork.
The old walled city of Tavira, situated on the hill is a treasure trove of architectural interest, with a great deal of excavation still taking place. The period of Moorish domination of the Algarve is well represented since they were rulers here for 500 years. It is an entirely captivating experience to thread a route through narrow cobbled streets, remembering that this was an important Moorish citadel. Once they were expelled it was common throughout the whole of Portugal for Islamic mosques to be converted into churches, which were then renamed Igreja Santa Maria. There is a fine example of such a church in the center of the old city.
Travelling further on along the coast are the hamlets of Cacela Velha and Fabricá. A lone restaurant called O Costa stands right on the lagoon beach at Fabricá. It serves delicious, unrivalled fish dishes. The dourada, an Atlantic sea bream, is a succulent white fish that is so fresh it could almost swim off the plate back into the ocean, just a few
The next place of significance is Monte Gordo, set on an expansive white beach, where there is a string of bars and cafés. These are casual places, mostly dominated by Portuguese visitors eating sardines on crusty bread – the correct way of enjoying these charcoal-grilled specialties. This is the only town on the eastern Algarve coast that has a rather gaudy holiday atmosphere, with several hotels, a casino and one tall apartment block. Once on the glorious beach, looking out to sea and the distant coast of the Costa de la Luz in Spain, it’s easy to understand why this resort is so popular with the Portuguese.
Further eastwards still is the River Guadiana, a majestic waterway that forms the border with Spain. On the Portuguese side is Vila Real, a smart little town rebuilt in just five months during the 18th century, following its earlier destruction by a tidal wave. Its perfectly geometric grid-like streets and the exact architectural symmetry of the buildings were a modern innovation at the time. When the town was completed, it was forbidden for residents to place a plant pot on a windowsill, since this would spoil the carefully designed equilibrium! Even today, when sitting in the town square of the Marques de Pombal, the eccentric autocrat who commissioned the re-building of Vila Real, there is still a striking sense of order. A ferry from here makes frequent crossings to the delightful town of Ayamonte in Spain. For just a few euros, a car and passengers can be transported to another country on the Central European time zone (add one hour)!
The trip takes only 20 minutes, first passing the castle of the Knights of Christ and the colossal fortress of São Sebastião at Castro Marim. The modern motorway suspension bridge that crosses the Guadiana looks particularly impressive from the river and after a plate or two of genuine Spanish tapas in Ayamonte, it makes a convenient route for the return journey back to Portugal.
A tour inland along the Portuguese bank of the River Guadiana is another rare experience with some magnificent viewing points along the way. The landscape is dramatic and yet the vegetation is very southern European; hillsides are covered with aromatic bushes of Gum Cistus, and there are cultivated fields of olive and fig trees, small vineyards and fences grown from Prickly Pear Cactus plants. There is no equivalent road on the Spanish side of the river but the huge fortress of Sanlúcar de Guadiana, which was built to intimidate the Portuguese, looks both impregnable and imposing!
Not to be outdone, on the Portuguese side is the town of Alcoutim, which has two castles of its own. One is 12th-century with Moorish origins and the other dates from the 14th century. This is another town with a past that is long enough to absorb any avid historian and there are plenty of small cafés, high up on the riverside, to keep a yacht-spotter or a people-watcher entertained! The town’s population of 400 includes several boat- wners, who will take visitors on excursions up and down the Guadiana.
This little town quite surprisingly has its own inland beach, created by a man-made dam, to form a sheltered haven away from river currents and turbulent tides. White sand and all the other necessary amenities have been transported to the site, where they complement the natural habitat of giant reeds and papyrus. The quality of the water is pure and silky; the EU, which has recently awarded 169 prestigious Blue Flags to beaches in Portugal, has presented one of them to this unusual spot in Alcoutim.
Also in town is the beautiful Estalagem do Guadiana, situated as its name suggests, on the riverbank. The indoor dining room and outdoor rooftop restaurant, 'Panoramico’, have elegant charm and serve real Portuguese cuisine. The wild boar and the ancient lamprey may well end up on your plate – but these culinary delicacies depend upon the season. However good the food, it is the scenery that is the ultimate delight.
The high road from Alcoutim back to the coast runs parallel to the Guadiana route but takes in a different scenery of pine- covered hillsides and the natural park of Mata Nacional Terras da Ordem. The route leads along the edge of the Odeleite reservoir and travels onwards until crossing the length of the dam’s wall. The views stretch up the flooded valley and the sun sets dramatically at its western end.