The winter months are a great time to visit southern Portugal and Spain, in my opinion. The Algarve, for instance, is one of Portugal's most popular tourist destinations, but in January, it felt like I had it all to myself.
During the high season, southern Portugal's population triples in size! The beaches are packed and the small gorgeous towns are bustling. It is also very hot! But, in January, needing to flee Germany's dark grey winter, I needed sunshine and a peaceful ocean view...and I got it, and so much more, in the Algarve.
Castro MarimThe towns in Portugal's deep south-east, as the coastline makes a beeline in towards Spain, the simple, yet detailed houses, reminded me a lot of Andalusia. There is a laid-back feeling among the people, but with the undertones of hard work and little money to spare. As a visitor, an outsider, I wanted to stay longer; wishing for more time to get know the locals' lifestyle better.
Whenever I visit southern Europe, I am struck again, but how rich, complicated, and bloody Europe's history is. In the southern towns and cities, there are still so many signs of the past; conflicting influences noticeable around every corner, often preserved in beautiful homages to another time.
Like most of Europe, the Romans were here for a long stretch, after the Phoenicians, but then the Moors took over in 716AD and influenced everything from design and architecture, to food and music.
I had the good fortune of exploring the area around Castro Marim by bike, which is the mode of transportation I would highly recommend for this entire region. Bike rental is inexpensive, and it lets you inhale and absorb so much more of what the Algarve has to give, than if you experience it by car.
In the flat areas of the coastline, where the jagged cliffs farther west have smoothed out into sandy dunes and grassy knolls, there are huge salt ponds where sought-after sea salt is cultivated - all kinds, from the most expensive chef-quality all the way down to the least expensive street salt-quality. Flamingos love these ponds!
A huge bonus when you visit in January; southern Portugal starts the year off right, with spring! The almond and carob trees were already budding out, orange and lemon trees were heavy with sweet-smelling fruit, and the fields were full of springtime blooms. It was heaven for this sunshine-starved girl.
FaroMy favourite of the towns I was able to visit, was by far Faro, Portugal's southern-most point. Pretty much Faro's entire old city is covered with Portugal's famed azulejo tiles. The ground, the walls, the doorways, the stairs...intricate, colourful, mosaics of these small painted, tin ceramic tiles make every surface a focal point.
These small tiles actually have a very functional genesis. They were, and still are, used as a way of controlling temperature; keeping rooms cool during the many scorching months. The Moors used the tiles to cover entire walls as a way of satisfying their belief that empty spaces are to be feared. While the Christians began using them as decoration for altars and cathedral floors. Nowadays, azulejos are an intricate and normal part of Portuguese culture, and are incorporated in even the most simple of homes.
TaviraA few kilometres east of Faro, lying almost 200 kms exactly west of Seville, is the town of Tavira. Nestled on the coastline, it was also nearly completely destroyed by the 1755 earthquake and resulting tsunamis that destroyed much of the Algarve, along with Portugal's capital, Lisbon. Because of their proximity to Spain, these coastal towns were rebuilt very quickly in order to show strength; ensuring that Portugal's south-eastern neighbour doesn't entertain any ideas of expansion.
What I found fascinating about Tavira, was its doors. I love windows and doors throughout Europe, and I always take a million photos of them when I'm exploring a new place. I believe that they really are the 'window' to how people live, and even without knowing what lies behind them, you get an impression of a culture by what their doors and windows look like.
These doors in Tavira stood out for me, with their somewhat creepy, child-like hands hanging from them, so I wanted to share them with you. Honestly, I'm not sure if there is a traditional meaning behind these hands, or if it's just a trendy, fun thing. These doors weren't anywhere close to each other and were on distinctively different buildings, so I'm not sure what, if any connection there was between them.
Even the town's run-down corners are beautiful, which I hope doesn't come across as patronizing. Like with every town or city, the less-polished bits teach you much more about a place than the slick, freshly-painted parts...in my opinion. Of course, I'm just looking at them from the outside.
AlbufeiraApproximately the same distance away from Faro, as Tavira is, but to the west, Albufeira is a very popular destination in the Algarve.
Here is where the Atlantic coastline becomes very cliffy, jagged and full of exciting panoramas (or so I've been told). Unfortunately, I didn't have that much time to explore the coastline but the next time I will venture out onto the water and head west towards the open sea. Seeing the ocean's rough handling of the shoreline, and the enthralling cliff formations, is something that is surely not to be missed. Next time!
And at the end of the day, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience this place; blessed to have the time to write and relax, even if just for a week....soaking up the sunshine and ocean views. Thanks Portugal...I'll be back.