It was one of those idyllic nights when the food and wine flowed freely amid the chatter of diners on the seafront of a not too trendy resort in the Algarve.
My table companions Tony, an expat from Cheshire, and his Portuguese wife, Cidalia, have been friends since I owned a house several miles inland. I sold fortuitously before the overseas property boom took a tumble, but now I make what is almost an annual pilgrimage to look up many old friends in an area that is still largely unexploited.
This occasion I was a little concerned since Tony and Cid have a business managing houses like mine, mostly bought as an investment – and hopefully let to the more mature sun-seekers and families for most months of the year!
The Algarve News, picked up at Faro Airport, was filled with doom and gloom about the Euro crisis and austerity about to hit Portugal. But I need not have worried. Tony responded cheerfully in reply to my question:” Crisis, what crisis? Just look around. Every restaurant is virtually full with visitors as well as local people. I guess things are a bit tight for some compared with a year ago but I can’t say we are suffering too much.“
Our venue chosen for dinner was in the heart of Olhao at one of the many pavement cafes and restaurants that straggle the seafront. This is still much of a working port – actually claiming to be the biggest fishing port on the Algarve – than the more fashionable golfing and tourist resorts of the central and western Algarve. And an old town that remains very Portuguese with a Moorish influence mirrored in the narrow streets and alleyways from its ancient trading links with North Africa.
In recent times the town’s popularity has grown despite the lack of a beach, as a centre to discover what I think of as the “real” Algarve countryside and some of the best beaches and golf to be found anywhere, only a short drive away. There are lots of hotels and self-catering in and around Olhao, and among the gentle sweep of hills at Estoi, Moncarapacho and Sao Bra de Alportal. Villages such as Pechao where Tony and Cid live in a traditional Algarvian farmhouse set among lemon and orange groves and hugged by olive and almond trees, accommodation is also to be found.
In Olhao confidence in the future is reflected in the recently-built magnificent five-star Real Marina Hotel and Spa overlooking the sea and a series of offshore islands. The hotel also provides self catering in a string of stunning apartment blocks alongside and opposite there is a small jetty where a regular ferry service departs with guests and visitors to the islands in time for lunch or just to relax at the beach.
In September when I stayed at the Real Marina in a family party of sixty-somethings a feature of breakfast was champagne – or I guess local sparkling wine – but a returning relative told me this year it was not on the menu. Shame but I suppose something has to go in a crisis!
I’m always a little hesitant in suggesting areas to visit in this region but among my favourites is Estoi where we got our supplies from a tiny corner store. We could virtually coast down the road the several miles in the car from our hilltop villa.
It has Roman ruins and a real jewel in Estoi Palace. When I first visited this remarkable 19th century property only part of the gardens was open to the public. The ornate mansion was in sad decline, the result of years of neglect through lack of funding. Now after a long painstaking restoration it is back from the brink of collapse as the Pousada de Faro. The imposing palace and gardens filled with statues and features has been returned to its former glory together with the addition of a modern hotel extension. I have not stayed on holiday at the pousada but I have often walked in the grounds. I gather it is possible to take afternoon tea and dine like a lord in the opulent rooms once owned by the Viscount of Estoi, Jose Francisco da Silva!
No visit to the area is complete without calling at Maria’s bar in the nearby village of Azinheiro – really little more than a hamlet at the foot of a steep climb over one of the highest points of the Algarve. Maria lived in South Africa for many years and returned to take over the bar and local shop from her mother. Summer and winter I’ve often sat outside armed with a drink and thinking there can be no more blissful place on earth.