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There are still places in southern Portugal where there are more flamingos than tourists, and rural traditions are part of the fabric of life
Blue sea sparkled on the other side of the wetlands. The empty dirt path stretched towards it, through wild mallow flowers and nodding daisies. To the right, there was a small, empty beach, with a few rowing boats pulled up on the sand. Far to the left, a flock of flamingos were feeding at a bend in the lagoon. There was no one else around; no sounds except the wind and waves, and the faint gabble of the birds among the flowers.
It was hard to believe this was the Algarve – renowned for beach resorts and golf courses – but we came across nature reserves, like this one at Ria de Alvor, wherever we went.The drive west from Faro airport was easy and we sped along the fast toll-road. The route skirted the hilly interior, passing close to walled towns like Silves. We stopped off here, and walked up the lanes to the red, sprawling, Arab-built Castelo de Silves, before carrying on towards our destination: a small village north of Lagos, called Odiaxere, just a few kilometres from Ria de Alvor.
The old farm of Quinta da Alfarrobeira (doubles from €45, self-catering,responsibletravel.com) belongs to Dutch couple Inge Keizer and Theo Bakker. The quinta, whose name means “estate of the carob tree”, lies a mile outside the village, on top of a sandy hill. The new, brightly painted cottages are clustered among gardens full of herbs and lemon trees, with the odd chicken wandering around, and were designed by Theo himself. We got out of the car, and everything was tranquil. The landscape sprawled out below us in a wash of red earth and green fields. Birds flitted in and out of the olive trees and shadows drowsed around the swimming pool beneath the ancient carob tree.
Quinta da Alfarrobeira
We spent a happy week chilling in our three-storey cottage. We chopped veg from the market on our solid limestone counters, cooked local produce on the big range and ate at the candle-lit table or on the terrace. On a night-time walk, a barn owl glided low over our heads. By day, we walked across the estate, passing cattle, up to the brow of the hill above the sea.
Quinta da Alfarrobeira also made a good base for exploring. Starting at Cape St Vincent, we drove north through the Cape St Vincent natural park, which stretches all the way up the west coast of the Algarve. The route passed through quiet villages, like Vila do Bispo, with its yellow and white houses, before the flower meadows gave way to deep valleys and pine trees. The village of Aljezur offers donkey trekking, a good way to hike with small children: we stopped for lunch here. At Odeceixe, a little-visited bay in the northern Algarve, we explored a river inlet, walking between the sand spits and reams of purple and white African daisies.
Cape Saint Vincent. Photograph: Getty Images
Back at Ria de Alvor, there’s a fantastic bird sanctuary just down the road called Cruzinha. Visiting the Rocha Centre on a Thursday, it’s free weekly open day, we listened to a talk in English and had tea and cake in the garden. We watched the volunteers ringing and measuring goldfinches and warblers – a fascinating way to see wild birds very close up – then saw them fly off. The centre has been fighting to stop the birds’ habitats from being developed.
Silves, with its red castle. Photograph: Alamy
For eating out, Churrasqueira Amores (Estrada Nacional 125, +351 282 798 417, no website), on Odiaxere’s main street, was by far the best place we tried. We feasted on piri-piri chicken – the best in the Algarve according to other diners – and plates of salad, for under a tenner each.
For our second week, we drove back east. We wanted to spend time in the Serra do Caldeirao, a range of small mountains (up to 589 metres) that create the Algarve’s natural border to the north. This terrain is only a half-hour drive from golf resorts such as those around Almancil, but seems to belong on another planet: wild, almost devoid of people (young families have all gone to the coast to work), with just a few old folk doing things in the old ways and welcoming visitors.
Church Igreja Matriz, Vila do Bispo, Sagres natural park. Photograph: Alamy
Our first foray was a full-day honey tour organised by Portugal4U (€60pp, including honey tasting, lunch and mountain trip). Diana, our guide, took us to meet a bee-keeper, Don Chumbhino, on the outskirts of Almancil. He showed us around his hive-making workshop and the outbuilding where his lovely raw honey is stored. We tasted varieties from the vats – heady orange blossom, rich carob, lavender, and thyme – and drank several shots of melosa, a honey-infusedmedronho, the local liquor made from the fruit of the strawberry tree. We stopped for lunch at Flor do Arneiro (Sitio Arneiro 260, +351 289 815 287) in Arneiro near Faro, a fine restaurant serving cataplana (a dish of cuttlefish, clams and onions), where Don Chumbhino gave us some recipes for the dishes we were eating. Afterwards he drove us into the mountains, taking us along vertiginous dirt roads in his 4×4, to the places where he kept his hives. He and Diana (acting as his translator) told us about the plants we could see, their traditional uses, and how the cork oak trees were carefully harvested to keep them strong. We spotted buzzards, drank beer and herbal tea and snacked on chorizo, bread, and cake at the O Fortes cafe in the tiny mountain village of Parises near São Brás de Alportel. The cafe’s a lovely place run by two sisters, with cats dozing on the old armchairs.
The Serra do Caldeirao mountains. Photograph: Alamy
At Fonte da Benemola, a natural spring, we walked (€55 for 1-3 people plus €8pp for picnic, guided trip with ProActiveTur) along the side of the river to its source among the rocks, a 4km round-trip. Families of wild turtles sunbathed on the banks, among great thickets of bamboo filled with nightingales.
Our guesthouse, for this portion of the trip, was in Salir. Casa de Mae (doubles from €60 B&B), has a pool with great hillside views and was spotlessly clean. Conveniently, it is not far from the Via Algarviana, allowing us to leave the car and hike the stretch to Alte (16km), passing shuttered houses smothered in creepers in old, abandoned villages. Olive groves baked in the morning sun and the scent of orange blossom would suddenly take me unawares. The track twisted up and across a plateau of rock roses filled with birds. This is the landscape of thebarrocal, quite different to the serra. You can take a taxi back to Salir (about €15), or book ahead to stay at different places along the Via Algarviana, which traverses the Algarve. More adventurous types can take their time and tackle the whole path on foot.
Odeceixe. Photograph: Alamy
We finished our trip with four days by the Ria Formosa wetlands at a chic new guesthouse, Casa Modesta (doubles from €180 B&B). Lisbon architect Vânia Fernandes and her brother Carlos have redesigned their grandparents’ old fishing cottage as a contemporary place to stay. It uses elements of local architecture to create semi-private sun porches outside the ground floor rooms, and is the prototype of Casa Cha or “simple house”: Vânia’s philosophy of design.
We used this beautiful place to stay as a base for exploring the area, where fishing has thrived alongside abundant birdlife. In the port of Olhão, we had espressos and pasteis in Cafe do Mercado (Avenida 5 de Outubro), in the tiny old market. We loved wandering around the fish market, a huge building echoing with the sound of a thousand purchases. We bought presents at the shops across the road – quality wool, cork and leather items – and had drinks at an upturned barrel outside a bar.
Casa Modesta. Photograph: Joao Carmo Simoes
A 237km-cycle route, Ecovia, runs along the coast of the whole of the Algarve from Vila Real de Santo António on the Spanish border to Cabo São Vicente, passing close by Casa Modesta. Carlos arranged cycle hire for us, so we could ride out on part of it across the salt flats to the village of Fuseta, 19km east of Faro. An onshore breeze cooled my face as we pedalled our bikes between banks of yellow flowers and sun-slabbed reflections of the wide blue sky.
Fuseta has shacks for somewhat pricey drinks and snacks by the quayside. We caught a ferry to a deserted island, Barreta, our bags full of lunch packed by Vânia. The Ria Formosa natural park has several islands, all of which were once bases for local fishermen. They’d store nets and sleep in huts there. The local authorities are in the process of clearing the fishing huts from the islands, with the result that these new, “deserted islands” as they call them, are a bit strange and dull. For the real experience, go to islands like Armona and Culatra, where fishing is still active (ferry timetable from Olhão at olhao.web.pt. Passeios Ria Formosa operates tours from €12.50pp).
Ria Formosa nature reserve. Photograph: Alamy
Some evicted fishermen from the islands have had to resort to sleeping rough on the mainland. It is tragic that a vision of environmental tourism for the Ria Formosa has not found a way of including them, given the history of human unity with nature here.
As Carlos told us: “This is a place where you feel part of the landscape, because it is always moving. It is where the sea and the land are changing place.”
It’s a magical part of the world. A large part of its magic comes from the relationship that the fishermen have with it: it doesn’t (yet) feel artificial, but rather somewhere that people and nature have been able to get along, neither one having the upper hand.
• The trip and accommodation was provided by VisitAlgarve, with the exception of Quinta da Alfarrobeira, provided by Responsible Travel Algarve. Car rental was provided by AutoRent
Sophie Cooke is a novelist and poet. Her filmpoem Byland was commissioned for the Year of Natural Scotland