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A rugged coast and a laid back vibe: The Algarve


If Florida had secret beaches guarded by limestone cliffs, vineyards sliding down to 900-year-old stone walls, lovely, zig-zagging cobblestone streets, and Roman castles, it would be the Algarve.


The southwest corner of Portugal is a beautiful place, even in the off season. But you must accept the ubiquitous couples and small pods of Western European retirees and vacationers – mostly Brits and Germans, it seems - who either settle here in their old age because of the low taxes, or vacation here because of warm weather and cheap airfares. It would be easy to thumb our noses at these interlopers if we weren’t, well, them. Truth be told, it’s kind of handy that most of the menus have English translations.


When visiting a place like this, it can be difficult to resist the pull of the tourism industrial complex. You wind up following the other visitors to all the places that make for good photos. But one way we at least try to blend in is a with website called ToursByLocals. It hooks you up with folks you can hire to show you around. It hasn’t let us down in other cities, and didn’t in the Algarve.


Having had a great experience in Ireland with a foraging tour, Mary put that word in her Algarve search, which is how we found Edoardo Vincenti, an Italian living in Portugal, and a trained forestry engineer. When he isn’t giving tours, he raises Carob trees and enjoys the laid-back vibe of Southern Portugal.


Edoardo told us he worked on many forestry projects all over Europe, until he realized “that my only happiness was my next pay increase. That is no way to live.”


We told him we’d be there a few days, and wanted to get the lay of the land, find a few good hikes, and learn a little about what the place was really like. He did all of that. And when it was clear we actually were interested in learning about some of the native trees and plants, he was happy to oblige.


Portugal seems to be teeming with native herbs, and every walk we went on, even in rocky terrain, seemed to be delightfully aromatic. Edoardo pointed out fennel, sage, and something called sea asparagus. He also showed us a cork plantation, where we got out of the car and examined a cork oak tree up close. This is a staple crop in Portugal, where natives are fighting the trend of winemakers switching to synthetic corks and screw tops.


“We say that if the wine has no cork, it is not worth more than one and a half euros,” Edoardo said. “That’s the cost of the bottle and the cork.”


The cork comes from the bark of the tree, which is stripped at harvest time and taken to processing plants. It’s used for bottle stoppers, of course. But it also makes excellent insulation for building projects, and is used in everything from handbags to shoes.


Cork farming is not for the impatient. Once harvested, it takes 11 years for the bark to grow back so it can be stripped again. And a newly planted cork oak tree takes 35 years to yield its first crop.


“The farmers say they plant the trees for their grandchildren,” Edoardo explained, adding: “If you have 200 hectares of cork trees, you are rich. No need to work.”


He also pointed us in the direction of a long and winding cliff walk, which we tested the next day. It runs along the coast for miles, and we picked it up a short walk from our villa. This is a coastline that is changing often, as large cliffs of limestone give way to the ocean. So we were careful not to get too close to the edge. But we walked for about a mile, past one breathtaking view after another, until we found a bench where we could enjoy the bread and cured ham we’d brought.



On the way back we spotted the top of a large ladder, the only way down to a beach that was otherwise accessible only by boat. It seemed sturdy enough, so we gave it a try. We were rewarded with a ground-level view of the cliffs, and the joy of taking our shoes off and putting our feet in the water. Someday we will be too old to climb down ladders like this. Not today.


Edoardo had told us the day before that “it is good to put your feet in the ocean.” He said it in a way that communicated that he didn’t simply mean it would be “fun” or “feel good.” He meant that is actually good, as in, good for your health - he didn’t specify mental or physical. I have been putting my feet in oceans since I would walk, and I think I already knew this. Somehow it felt comforting to hear someone say it.


Anyway. Edoardo was right. It was good for us, as it always is.


A highlight of Algarve is the food. Edoardo took us to lunch in the seaside town of Ferragudo. He past the cafes that were filled with tourists, toward a few restaurants along the wharf.


“The first one was not open,” he said when he returned. “But the second one is open, and I have checked the fish.”


It’s the Portugeuse tradition to display the fresh fish at the front of the restaurant, in large displays over ice. In our case, the waitress at Restaurante Sueste also brought out a tray of freshly caught fish for us to select. Mary and I shared a golden bream. Edoardo chose a red mullet.


Moments later I looked out the window over Mary’s shoulder and saw an older man preparing and cooking fish on a charcoal grill outside the restaurant.

“Is that the person cooking out food?” I asked.


“Yes,” Edoardo said.


I walked out to investigate, and chatted with a man who called himself Renatu while I watched him clean, gut, scale, and cook my fish.


“Is fresh today,” he said of the fish. “All you need is a little salt.”


I have had many happy and delicious seafood meals prepared with spice combinations, sauces, and fancy techniques. But this meal was a case study in the primacy of the freshest possible fish cooked – not overcooked - over a simple charcoal fire. It was wonderful.


We are staying in a two-bedroom villa a short walk from – and with a nice view of – the ocean. It has a sweeping terrace off a large, marble-floored living room. And it was an off-season bargain at $160 per night.


Perhaps most importantly, it had laundry, which we badly needed heading into our third week on the road. After discovering that there was a washer but no dryer, we found the laundry rack and hung our clothes in the sun. We enjoyed the freshness of sun dried clothes so much that we're considering putting up a clothesline back home. But I'm not sure we can replicate the effect of the Algarve sea breezes.


On to Lisbon.











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2 Comments


I was super lucky to meet you and spend time together.

You are a cool couple, easygoing, open-minded and curious.

Please call me when you are in Algarve again.

We'll put feet in the ocean together!

Your local friend,

Edoardo

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Me mom always said “Salt water cures everything”

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