Many people visiting Portugal will arrive in Faro airport – the transport hub that serves the Algarve, Portugal’s most touristic region – before travelling to holiday destinations such as Vilamoura, Albufeira and Lagos. However, visitors often miss out Faro, a beautiful town just under three miles away from the airport. After spending a weekend in Faro and Tavira, two lesser-visited towns in the Algarve, hopefully some of my experiences will make you consider visiting.
I travelled by coach from Lisbon to Faro. You can also fly, but the coach journey is not too long, around three and half hours, passing through the Alentejo and stopping in Albufeira on the way. A short walk into Faro from the bus stop takes you past the colourful train station and to Faro’s marina, a beautiful palm-tree lined harbour full of fishing and passenger boats offering tours of the Ria Formosa, a coastal lagoon in the eastern Algarve that separates Faro and other towns along the coast from islets that have stunning Atlantic beaches. There are two sides of the Algarve, the western Algarve, known as the Barlavento Algarvio, and the eastern Algarve, known as the Sotavento Algarvio. It is the western Algarve that has this geographical feature of islets and lagoons that provide the stage for the most beautiful of sunsets.
After dropping my bags off at the hostel, I wandered around the town to get my bearings and work out what I wanted to visit. Although I always research a place and make a note of interesting things to visit before travelling, I find that the most interesting discoveries are usually made while exploring and talking to locals. I first walked around the historic centre of Faro, passing through the spectacular Arco da Vila into the old town, a stone labyrinth that goes from the marina to the municipal museum, the cathedral and the town hall. The town was quiet in the morning, with people doing their shopping and cafés and bars opening up for the day’s trade.
It was early October, yet the sun was still baking and the temperature was around 28 degrees, perfect conditions for an autumn getaway. With the soft Algarvian breeze alleviating the intense heat of the sun, I decided it was time to stop at a quiosque in the town centre. In many squares in Portugal, you find quiosques, small huts with windows with chairs and tables outside that serve a whole range of light meals and drinks. From coffees to beer, soft drinks to beirão (a sweet and syrupy Portuguese liqueur), quiosques have it all, and usually at a very reasonable price. At some point I’d like to write an article about my favourite quiosques in Lisbon. There are so many great ones – making a shortlist will certainly be a challenge.
With the Algarve being famous for its oranges, I had a delicious freshly squeezed orange juice (available at all of the cafés, bakeries and quiosques that I have visited in Portugal so far) and took time to read my book, Iracema by José de Alencar, a novel about Brazilian nationhood that I studied last year as part of my Modern Literature paper. Continuing my visit, I walked along the mosaic streets through the picturesque pedestrian centre under the shade of the fabric stretched between buildings and palm trees that stretched up to the sky in dramatic fashion. For lunch I stopped at a bakery for a presunto sandwich, a sandwich full of Portuguese smoked ham.
When the day came to a close and the night fell, Faro was filled with the most beautiful sunset. The sky went from a radiant azure to a deep pink and then to a soft orange glow over the marina and the lagoon beside it. It was truly one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. It was impossible not to sit and marvel at it with my imperial (20cl measure of beer) in hand. By the time it was dark, Faro was busier than it had been in the day. It was Friday evening and locals and visitors alike were sat on terraces in the humid algarvian evening enjoying cataplanas and a whole host of other seafood dishes, from sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines) to bacalhau à brás (a Portuguese cod dish with finely chopped potatoes, eggs and olives, and a firm favourite of mine).
You can visit Faro’s islands on the other side of the lagoon. To my disappointment, ferries to the islands had stopped for the winter the day before I arrived, although I have heard that the islands are definitely worth visiting. I’ll go there next time.
I was up bright and early the following morning as I had a train to Tavira to catch; a town in the Sotavento Algarvio along the coast from Faro in the direction of Vila Real Santo Antonio. Before making my way to Faro’s beautiful train station, I went for my daily coffee and pastel de nata at the bakery around the corner from my hostel. Having sampled many a pastel de nata all around the country, it was definitely one of the best so far. When ordering in bars, cafés and restaurants in Faro, I was pleasantly surprised that nobody ever reverted to English, which can sometimes happen in Lisbon because as a capital city, it is quite international.
After a scenic forty minute train journey, I arrived in Tavira, a pretty town just down the coast from Faro. Situated on the Rio Gilão, a river that flows into the Ria Formosa lagoons, Tavira is a charming place with centuries of history. After exiting another beautiful Portuguese train station, I made my way into the town. As has become my new routine, I stopped for a coffee and admired the Ponte Romano (Roman Bridge, which is not actually Roman but interesting nevertheless) through the gently swaying leaves of the palm trees that adorn the river’s banks.
I then wandered the town’s streets where, as in practically all of Portugal, the pavement was calçada portuguesa, beautiful tiled and mosaiced streets that just gleam when the sun is shining, but that are also notoriously slippery when it rains. The tranquil town was full of white houses with orange roofs. It was incredibly hot but the gentle breeze alleviated the sun’s rays making for a pleasurable stroll around the town. The vegetation in the Algarve was markedly different to that of Lisbon. While a capital city and a small town are not necessarily comparable, I did notice more natural features in the Algarve, including bougainvillea, that typically belong to hotter climates. After all, the Algarve is Portugal’s southernmost region. I stopped at a padaria (bakery) for a sandwich and a freshly squeezed orange juice before walking up a hill, passing through stone streets and the cathedral before reaching the castle. Perched on the hilltop, the castle and its gardens boast some incredible views of the surrounding area.
Given that the sun was shining and the Algarve is famous for its beaches, I decided to spend a few hours at the beach on the Ilha de Tavira. Between towns in the eastern Algarve and the beaches there are lagoons that are only traversable by boat. I caught the ferry to the Ilha de Tavira (Tavira Island) from the riverside. After a fifteen minute journey through the lagoons that were sparkling in the October sun, I arrived at Ilha de Tavira. The beach was simply stunning. After passing some beach bars and restaurants and taking the path to the beach, the white sand and deep blue sea opened up before me and stretched for as far as the eye could see. The beach was practically empty, just me, the rhythmic splashing of the waves and the soft toasty sand beneath my feet. It felt like paradise. Just over twenty four hours prior to that moment I was in the hustle and bustle of the capital, and there I was, relaxing on a paradisiacal beach in the Algarve. After sunbathing and enjoying the moment, I walked down the beach and collected some of the beautiful seashells that were dotted all over.
After a truly wonderful day in Tavira and a relaxing time at the beach on the town’s island, I caught the train back to Faro and then got the coach from Faro back to Lisbon. I had a great weekend in the Algarve and would thoroughly recommend the towns that I visited. The eastern Algarve feels quieter and calmer than the western Algarve but is no less interesting. I would certainly recommend visiting the fascinating historical sights and idyllic beaches that Faro and Tavira have to offer.