Algarve adventures

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Saturday, July 1, 2006

Faro is the capital of an extremely pleasant region in Portugal called 'The Algarve', which sits at the very southern tip of the country around 280km south of Lisbon. As mentioned previously I wasn't planning to head this far south but an offer from Alexandra, new friend from nice times in Malta, to stay at her place and be shown some of the local summer treats was just too good to refuse.

So here I am, a little off-course but many a natural wonder experienced and more to come as we head off to explore highlights along the south-western coastline such as Lagos and Sagres. With the little time I have I'll whip a quick entry in to show what I've been up to in the last couple of days. So much for the rest I was expecting down here - the Portuguese in summer stop for no one!

Faro itself is known for some pretty graceful architecture, featuring flat roofs and fluted chimneys with elegant detailing on extremely bright white-washing that the resident population of giant storks just love to build on. Check out the nests in the first picture! Elaborately polished granite and calcite cobblestones cover most pedestrian thoroughfares in striking patterns - death on a rainy day or in high heels but adding loads of character to the streetscape. But it is the beaches and surrounding natural environments that many punters come to see - some of the best and most pristine I've seen on my wanderings through the Mediterranean so far.

It didn't take long to get out there. Not long after stepping off the bus from Lisbon I found myself on a mountain bike charging through the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa - a swathe of pine and cork forest, wetlands, salt marshes, sand bar islands and expansive beaches liberally sprinkled with Roman ruins that caps the southern most point in Portugal. The resulting environment is a strange but beautiful mix rich in life.

We checked out the cork trees first - large, ring-barked guys that produce a sizable proportion of the world's cork for wine closures these days - an increasingly rare commodity apparently. The chunky bark growths can only be harvested every 8-10 years which probably explains why. Then it was on to the rows of large salt evaporation ponds, all guarded by a gigantic pile of industrial salt crystals which is fun to climb even though it's only a fraction of its usual size. Just don't fall over unless you want a nasty salt scrape and rash.

Further on we sidled up to the golf course (which had me salivating after so long without play) and the Roman salting tanks that sit next to it. In ancient times the Algarve was a large fish supplier and it seems that a by-product of the fish preservation business was 'gorum' - a delectable fish sauce that became their real specialty, evidently supplying most of the Roman empire with the cherished condiment by the second century AD. The salting tanks are still sealed and non-porous after all this time, holding the rain water they collect until it evaporates.

After a great ride along the bank of the whatever it is (river, estuary, delta etc) we crossed it using the environmentally sensitive footbridge. A vast, fluffy sand beach was to be found over low dunes and that was impressive after months of pebbly beaches across the Med - even if the Atlantic waters weren't quite warm enough to swim in as the afternoon progressed to dusk.

Then all we had to do was ride back ;-) All in all a great intro to the Algarve Alexandra!

That evening we went for a tradtional meal of BBQ Sardines in neighbouring Tavira, quite close to the southern Spanish border. June is time for patron saint celebrations in Portugal and after a huge meal of very healthy fish and salads, this party was just starting. With funky decorations festooned across the central square and bridges we cruised the scene, although the girls were't too impressed with the local form of 'redneck' music playing so we opted for the raffles instead - unrolling hundreds of hard-rolled paper slips until two winners came out (great win rate I think). Neighbouring groups looked on enviously as toddled off with a bottle of Cinzano Rosso (blerk!) and a hideously glazed monkey-styled decanter. Lucky us.

Fortuntely we didn't drink too much because early next day we hit the waters around Faro for some serious kayaking. Happily stable in my slow but sturdy plastic job, we cruised through the marina channels and checked out some of Alexandra's sea grass research sites - particularly those effected by the propellers of stink boats that churn through these waters.

Despite the airport dumping planes above and the waters around looking like they would see pretty high boat traffic, it does look quite healthy. The storks that nest in great jumbles of sticks on the buildings come here to collect feed, wading around and generally oblivious to the various disruptions that humans pose at regular intervals. Was great to get that close to such a large and powerful bird.

Further afield we got out on the mud flats and promptly sunk in up to our knees. Makes you wonder how the nearby clam farmers work on this terrain day-in, day-out. For $E20 a kilo that's what! Unfortunately the videos of swishing sea grass taken on Alex's camera came out as .mov files so I can't do much with them now, but will try to convert them and post a vid or two of the serene focus of her research.

Very mellow but had great fun out there so it was a shame we didn't make it all the way to the beach, due to the tides and my sore back ("boo hoo - you're breakin' my heart!").

After a short siesta early in the afternoon we were back out to meet friends, watch Germany scrape by Argentina in the quarters and get prepared for the Festival Med concert that would be happening in the neighbouring town of Loule that night. Loule (pron. Lol-le) is a great little fort town that manages to be quiant and pretty for tourism whilst not losing too much of its old world charm under signage, vendor stalls and knots of power cabling to do it.

This week it is hosting the Festival Med in its castle-bounded old town centre, which is a collection of artists from places like Algeria, Israel, Spain and Morocco around the Mediterranean to present distinctly local entertainment. The food was good and cheap (particularly a interesting mix of beans and boiled cuttlefish in one dish), the belly-dancing was strangely hypnotic and the headline gigs by Souad Massi and Amparanoia had the large crowd jumping. I didn't understand most of the lyrics but it was infectious anyway, somewhat renewing my interest in guitar-type music. Hmmm.

So that was a whirlwind couple of days in what is a very pleasant and mellow place. I can see why so many Poms and Germans are settling in the region, retiring mainly to the mountains nearby. And it would be a place I'd consider basing myself for a while for its proximity, year-round climate, amenities and vibrancy of culture, so I'll be very interested in seeing Lagos and Sagres in the next couple of days. Hope you join me then.

Good luck to both Portugal and England in the game tonight (I'm torn at the moment and better not mention any affiliation to England ;-)!.

Words from the Wise #62

"Come on - you will have plenty of time to rest when you're dead."
Alexandra la Valletta
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technotrekker on

Re: From where man-o'-wars sailed off...
Done and done mate, check the last couple of entries out!

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