It’s no secret that come summer, the alluring coastline of southern Portugal — better known as the Algarve — practically sags under the crush of holidaymakers who throng its vacation villages, resort hotels, marinas, 18-hole links, beachwear boutiques, souvenir emporiums, seaside cafes and seasonal discos.
Blame the Algarve’s good looks. Stretching from the Spanish border nearly 100 miles along the Atlantic coast to the very southwestern tip of the Continent, the seaside is blessed with windswept dunes, powdery sands, ocher cliffs and natural grottoes. The seafood can be sublime and the prices extremely modest, especially compared with summer havens like Italy’s Amalfi Coast or the French Riviera.
With such an irresistible cocktail of scenery and values, it’s no wonder that some two million foreigners — primarily from Britain — flood these expanses like the Allies storming Normandy on D-Day. Some two-thirds of the flights to Faro, the gateway to the region, arrive from London, Leeds, Liverpool, Dublin and their neighbors, transforming popular towns like Albufeira into variants of Brighton with more powerful UV rays. Menus feature fish and chips. English Premier League football matches flicker from screens in bars. No euros in your pocket? Just pay in pounds sterling.
The human density of high summer was conjured most vividly as I gazed out from the terrace of the Bela Vista Hotel & Spa, a Moorish-style mansion surrounded by charmless high-rise hotels on a cliff overlooking the enormous Praia da Rocha beach.
“In July and August, you can’t find a single space to put your towel,” said Gonçalo Narciso, the hotel’s operations manager. He shook his head. “You can’t imagine.”
Amid the sunscreen-smeared hullabaloo, the question arises: Is there an alternative Algarve? A less-trod Algarve? An Algarve where a bit of serenity and the flavor of the past have been preserved? In quest of such a place, I set off in late May to travel beyond the universe of half-board arrangements and karaoke nights. Carried by the region’s efficient EVA bus network, I traveled along rocky coasts and sun-baked hills, pleasantly surprised to find fishing villages and citadel towns where a more traditional Algarve still exists — and, in the case of one tiny hamlet, Pedralva, is being reborn. From storybook medieval castles to unmarked surfer beaches to mom-and-pop seafood joints, this unspoiled Algarve, it turned out, is available to anyone with bus fare and an urge to go against the flow.
Following a three-hour train journey from Lisbon to Faro, and a one-hour bus ride through uninspiring back roads, I landed in Tavira, a coastal town near the Spanish border with vestiges of ancient Phoenician and Roman settlements lurking under its streets. Whitewashed buildings with wrought-iron balconies filled narrow lanes, along with numerous Renaissance and Baroque churches — testaments to the town’s wealth generated long ago from the fishing and salt trades. Even today, the shallow, shimmering tidal pools of the salt pans do their quiet work just outside the town.
On a stone bridge spanning the Gilão River, which splits the town in two and flows into the Atlantic, a three-piece band of guitar, accordion and tambourine played spirited folk songs. More music spilled out from the tile-lined interior of the Renaissance-era Church of Misericordia, where a bearded hipster schoolteacher was strumming a guitar while leading boys and girls, dressed in pink smocks, in a soaring hymn. Above, atop a hillside, the ruins of a medieval castle and the clock tower of the 18th-century Santa Maria do Castelo church lorded over a sea of orange-tile roofs.
The salt breeze suffused the town with an agreeable torpor as I strolled toward Praça da República, the town hall square, for a rendezvous with a resident. In the middle of the riverbed, men toting plastic buckets yanked mussels from small, rocky islands revealed by the low tide. A few German and French voices drifted from sidewalk cafes, though hardly enough to drown out the locals’ mellifluous Portuguese greetings of “Bom dia!” and “Tudo bem?”
“The essence of eastern Algarve is its authenticity,” said Tim Robinson, a stocky, blond Englishman as he welcomed me on the terrace of a cafe called Veneza. “This is really where the old Portuguese way of life is being retained.”
Dressed in cargo pants and a T-shirt, Mr. Robinson waxed poetic about the local architecture and unfurled a tale that began with a brush with death and concluded with a life-changing move to the eastern Algarve, where he has lived since 2008.
Several years ago, Mr. Robinson recounted, he was living in London, where he ran a storage and transportation business when he suffered a heart attack. Only 42 years old, he conferred with his wife, a public relations executive, and they decided to flee their high-pressure world and settle in Estiramantens, an eastern Algarve village next to Tavira.
“For people who are interested in the historic nature of the Algarve, this is probably the crown jewel of historic cities,” he said, referring to Tavira. Today the couple operate a 10-suite boutique hotel and restaurant, Fazenda Nova, on the grounds of a formerly ruined 1836 farmhouse that they restored. Mr. Robinson fills his days with tending to the hotel grounds — which include herb gardens, fruit groves and 200-year-old olive trees that yield the restaurant’s own brand of oil — and taking his family to offshore island beaches like Ilha de Tavira (reached by a small ferry) and Praia do Barril (arrived at by a miniature train).
“You don’t get groups of guys coming here to celebrate a friend’s wedding, ” he said as the breeze fluttered the cafe’s white umbrella above us.
Later, exploring Tavira on foot, I found resurrected historic edifices scattered all over. The town’s former covered market — a lovely wrought-iron structure from the 1880s — bustled with boutiques and restaurants. Farther afield, some new white walls and oddly angled metal surfaces had elevated a former jail into a modern town library. Just around the corner, a renovation plan by the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who won the Pritzker Prize two years ago, was transforming the Renaissance-era Convento das Bernardas into luxury apartments.
Entering the majestic 16th-century Palácio da Galeria, I discovered the municipal museum. This year’s big show, “Dieta Mediterrãnica,” runs into 2014 and is dedicated to the foods of the Algarve. (Though the Algarve is not on the Mediterranean, the show asserts that the region “is influenced by the Mediterranean climate.”)
Amid displays of the Algarve’s cornucopia — baskets of dried carob, sacks of sea salt, bottles of olive oil, tins of tuna, piles of figs — information stenciled on the walls imparted intriguing facts (“Portugal is the third-largest consumer of fish in the world, immediately after Japan and Iceland”). Suddenly, I was ravenous. Fortunately, my visit coincided with Tavira’s annual two-week Festival de Gastronomia do Mar, a homage to seafood. Many restaurants had assembled special menus to showcase local tuna, mackerel, octopus, mussels, clams and other briny bounty.
On the hilltop up the street from the museum, a modern white restaurant called A Ver Tavira served a lunch of plump scallops and shrimp on a bed of cucumber and strawberries followed by baked mullet drizzled in olive oil. Dessert was an unctuous fig parfait on a dark carob brownie.
By nightfall my culinary explorations had taken me to the rustic Ponto de Encontro restaurant, whose interior is lined with the region’s blue and white ceramic tiles. Tender anchovy strips in vinaigrette received Christmas colors from diced red and green peppers. A dessert of smoky carob ice cream sealed my reverence for Algarve flavors.
Eager to bring home those flavors, I ducked into Ex Libris Gourmet, a small boutique stuffed with handsomely packaged sweet tomato jams, fig liquors, tinned sardines, smoked sea salts, wines and olive oils — including a local brand called Monterosa that won gold awards this year at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. “The concept is food and design,” explained the owner, Tiago Centeno, who turned out to be another refugee from the rat race. After 10 years in the Portuguese military, he said, he and his wife moved to Tavira “because it’s more quiet and peaceful” than other parts of the region.
“When most people think of Algarve, they think of beaches and hotels, not history,” he continued, pausing to show off chocolates filled with local olive oil. But Tavira, he went on, “is not like the rest of Algarve.” One day I rented a bicycle and pedaled down the riverbank past the tidal pools of the salt pans to Quatro Águas, a finger of land pointing into the Atlantic. An old woman sold me a ticket for a ferry that sputtered across a small channel and dropped me on Ilha da Tavira, a long, slender island. A trail led between two rows of quiet outdoor bars before emerging on an expanse of powder-perfect sand extending to the vanishing point in both directions.
Scores of Polynesian-style grass umbrellas poked up from the beach in orderly rows, giving shade to nothing but scores of empty sunning beds. The lone employee of this mini-oasis ambled over and explained that true high season wouldn’t begin for another month.
“All the people are in western Algarve right now,” he said. “The east, Tavira, is still very little known.”
Praia da Rocha and Silves
I encountered mainstream Algarve in Praia da Rocha, a sprawling beach resort in western Algarve — the first spot in the region to be frequented by tourists. That was more than a century ago. Today the cradle of Algarve holidaymaking represents all of the triumphs and tragedies (mainly aesthetic) of the region’s rise from provincial backwater to international getaway.
Triumph: the sublime beauty of golden sands backed by jagged red cliffs. Tragedy: the stampede of summer vacationers who pack its beach clubs and bars. Triumph: a 17th-century fortress and century-old villas that dot the cliff-top streets. Tragedy: generic condo developments and uninspired hotels. Triumph: fresh seafood, everywhere. Tragedy: pints of Guinness, everywhere.
But even here one can find remnants of an unspoiled Algarve. They lie beyond the gates of the Bela Vista Hotel & Spa, the extravagantly restored century-old Moorish mansion that claims to be the Algarve’s first hotel. Within I marveled at black-and-white photographs of Praia da Rocha in the early 20th century. The building’s exotic silhouette stands out starkly against a nearly empty beachfront. Stepping out of that hushed prelapsarian era into the Technicolor clamor of modern Praia da Rocha’s souvenir stands, cheap Chinese restaurants and Irish bars was like experiencing the Fall of Man and expulsion from Eden — touristically speaking.
A local bus whisked me into the backcountry, past lemon trees and orange groves. After 20 minutes a hilltop fortress came into view, its red-stone battlements hovering over a village that spilled down the hillside toward a river.
Winding my way up the cobbled streets of the town, Silves (pronounced SIL-vish), I found Maria Gonçalves, the chief municipal archaeologist, seated at a table in the castle’s lushly planted grounds. A few couples roamed the ramparts, peering through the crenelations as Ms. Gonçalves filled me in on the history of the town and the structure, the largest and best-preserved castle in the Algarve.
“They were Arabs from Yemen during the first half of the 11th century,” she said of the original settlers and rulers, who arrived at the time of the Moorish occupation of Andalusia, in neighboring Spain. Silves became the capital of Al-Gharb Al-Andalus, as the Arabs called the region: the west of Andalusia (“al-Gharb,” meaning “the West,” later became Algarve). The city was known as a cultural hub.
“There were lots of important poets from that period,” she said, most notably Al-Mutamid, who also happened to be the governor of Silves (and later the king of Seville). “He describes Silves as a town of indulgence. The palace. The ‘white gazelles’ — the women. The banks of the river.”
Dynasties from North Africa later seized the city, and Silves was eventually conquered by Christian crusaders. But the Arab influence remains omnipresent.
“There are around 3,000 Arabic words in Portuguese,” she said, including the names of numerous Algarve towns: Aljezur, Albufeira, Alvor, Alfambras. Today Silves is twinned with the Moroccan city of Marrakesh for cultural exchanges, but the ultimate Moorish experience is the annual medieval fair, which takes place this year from Aug. 2 to 11. Amid a recreated souk, hammam, mosque and other medieval edifices, ersatz and real, thousands of locals and visitors in period outfits consume food typical of the time, and cheer at elaborate re-enactments of pivotal episodes in the Arab and later Portuguese history of Silves — including the European crusaders’ bloody 15-day siege in 1189.
You can barely hurl a fez, in fact, without hitting some Moorish homage in Silves. Ceramic tiles with swirly Arabesque patterns form the facades of many of the two-story buildings, and shops on Rua Elias Garcia display Moroccan hammered brass lanterns.
Within a 16th-century house called Estudio Destra, one of many artists’ studios sprinkled around town, shelves showed off ceramic plates, jars and tiles whose geometric patterns and stylized animals, a brochure explained, were influenced partly by Moorish motifs.
“The earliest and best examples of European tiles are here in southern Portugal and Spain because of the Moorish conquest,” explained the gallery’s owner, a British expatriate named Roger Metcalfe, while carefully etching a ceramic vase.
I found the genuine articles in the municipal museum, a modern building constructed around a deep medieval cistern. Display cases showed off painted pottery — as well as finely carved bone and delicate colored glass — that had been excavated from this once-thriving Arab city.
“Send my regards to/The beautiful places of Silves/And tell me if they miss me/As much as I miss them,” read a poem by Al-Mutamid that had been painted (in Portuguese) on tiles in the entryway to a town house nearby. He had composed the verses after moving to Seville to rule as its king. But Silves remained forever in his heart.
That night, walking amid the discothèques and gaudy casino of Praia da Rocha, I was visited by the same nostalgia.
The final push to the western edge of the Algarve, Europe’s far southwestern corner, landed me briefly in the port town of Lagos. Along its palm-lined marina, hawkers approached with fliers for snorkeling adventures, whale-watching, sport fishing, kite-surfing and sightseeing cruises.
But I was headed to farther shores. Another bus continued westward over waves of brown hills dotted with ruined stone houses and tiny lime-washed villages. In a village called Vila do Bispo, a car from the nearby hamlet of Pedralva picked me up and deposited me amid its stone-paved streets and restored white stone houses.
The village’s existence is an Algarve miracle. Several years ago, Pedralva was on the brink of ruin. The population had dwindled to nine residents, and many of the 19th-century houses were abandoned wrecks.
“It was a complete ghost town,” said Antonio Ferreira, a former Lisbon advertising strategist who effectively saved Pedralva by transforming it into one of the most original new getaways in the Algarve.
After a health scare several years ago, while still in his 30s, Mr. Ferreira quit his high-pressure urban lifestyle to “get back to basics” in the Algarve. Rather than settle in one of the myriad resort communities, Mr. Ferreira fell under the spell of the 200-year-old backwater hamlet and, with some partners, spent years buying and restoring the old stone residences. In 2010 they opened Aldeia da Pedralva, an eco-tourism village replete with cobbled lanes, whitewashed houses, a grocery store and a traditional Algarve restaurant. “The idea here is to cut off from the life that you have in big cities, or even small cities: cars, traffic, lots of information, lots of advertising, mobile phones,” he said in the village’s reception area, where we sat drinking coffee. Outside the window, in a quiet valley of pine and cork trees, no nightclub pounded, no driving range beckoned. Occasionally a rooster crowed.
“We are the other Algarve,” Mr. Ferreira said. “This is the unspoiled Algarve.”
Keen to see the coast — the true end of the world, or at least the Continent — I hitched a ride with a villager to Praia do Amado, a few miles away at the end of an unmarked road.
Despite gray clouds, a steady procession of barefoot young men and women in identical head-to-toe black outfits marched across a crescent of soft sand bookended by jagged cliffs. Large oblong objects were tucked under their arms, and determined expressions sat stonily on their faces: surfers. Like some monastic order, they strode into the tide to worship the wave. “Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning have both come here,” said Filipe Costa, an instructor hanging around the booth of the Amado Surf Camp, invoking two revered wave-riders. He added that, several years ago, a more famous face had indulged in surf lessons here: Prince William.
That night, after lamb chops and local red wine in one of the two Pedralva restaurants, I retired to my cottage with its timber ceiling and wood furnishings in funky colors. No television, cellphone signal or Internet link distracted me from the silence and the stars. The only sounds were those of owls and crickets in the surrounding valley: the voices of the unspoiled Algarve.
IF YOU GO
EVA Transportes (351-289-899-700) operates an extensive network of bus routes in the Algarve; fares generally run from 3 to 10 euros, or about $3.75 to $12.50 at $1.25 to the euro. Routes and schedules can be found on the English portion of its Web site, eva-bus.com/novo/index.php?lang=uk. To reach Silves, a local bus run by Frota Azul(frotazul-algarve.pt) departs from Portimão, the small city adjacent to Praia da Rocha. The trip takes around 30 minutes and costs 3.25 euros. A regional train line also services the Algarve.
Pousada de Tavira, Convento da Graça (Rua Dom Paio Peres Correia; pousadas.pt) is a former convent that now features 36 rooms, a high-end restaurant and a spa. Doubles from 136 euros. For budget travelers, Residenciais Lagoas (Rua Almirante Cândido dos Reis 24; residenciallagoa.pai.pt) has small, cheerfully decorated rooms (some with a curious Buddhist theme) in the town center starting from 20 euros per night, depending on season.
Ponto de Encontro (Praça Doutor António Padinha 39; 351-281-323-730; rest-pontoencontro.com) serves simple preparations of sole, sea bass, sea bream, anchovies and other local fish — as well as steaks — in a tile-lined dining room. A three-course meal for two, without wine, costs around 50 euros. A more refined experience awaits at A Ver Tavira (Calçada da Galeria 13; facebook.com/avertavira) atop the hill in Tavira’s center. Options include razor clams with coriander and lemon juice, and duck breast with fruit sauce. Expect to pay about 60 euros for a three-course meal for two. Go to Ex Libris Gourmet (Rua 5 de Outubro 10; exlibrisgourmet.blogspot.fr) for olive oils, jams, chocolates, wines, liqueurs, tinned fish and other delicacies.
PRAIA DA ROCHA
The 38-room Bela Vista Hotel & Spa, (Avenida Tomás Cabreira; hotelbelavista.net) is housed in an early-20th-century Moorish-style mansion overlooking the beach. One of the Algarve’s top restaurants is on the premises. Standard doubles range from 125 to 240 euros, depending on season. No Solo Água (Marina de Portimão; nosoloagua.com) has a swimming pool, a restaurant, a bar and a beach club. A three-course meal for two people at the restaurant, which serves everything from tuna tartare to tiramisù, runs about 60 euros.
The hilltop town’s main attractions are its medieval Moorish castle (Rua do Castelo; 351-282-445-624; admission 2.50 euros) and museum, known as Museu Municipal de Arqueologia (Rua da Porta de Loulé 14; 351-282-444-832; admission 2 euros), which houses medieval Islamic artifacts. Estudio Destra (Largo Dom Jerónimo Osório;estudiodestra.blogspot.fr) is the atelier of Roger Metcalfe, a British expatriate ceramist.
Restored cobbled streets, whitewashed houses, a grocery store and a Portuguese restaurant make up Aldeia da Pedralva (351-282-639-432; www.aldeiadapedralva.com), which offers activities like hiking, biking and bird-watching. A one-bedroom house costs 62 to 133 euros, depending on the month.