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Portugal’s secret coast: vacation attractions in the western Algarve

 A 10th century Moorish fort within a fort at Castro Marim, Portugal.  Cultural travel in the Algarve of Portugal.
A 10th century Moorish fort within a fort at Castro Marim, Portugal. Cultural travel in the Algarve of Portugal.
©Stillman Rogers Phography 2013

Sagres, on Portugal’s southwest corner, proves that the Algarve is a lot more than just a pretty beach. This less-known western Algarve combines all the ingredients we look for in a vacation: beautiful landscape, beaches, plenty of sports options, a fascinating culture and an interesting history.

The edge of the world at Cabo Sao Vincente at Sagres
©Stillman Rogers Photography 2013

The Algarve speaks your language

The fact that it’s a foreign country adds spice to that mix, especially since it’s one where English is the widespread second language. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t speak it, at least enough to answer your questions and point you on your way. You’ll have no problem communicating but you might be more comfortable if you studied a quickie CD language set from your local library or get a Portuguese language app.

The land of the Algarve

Stretching from Vila Real de Santo Antonio on the Spanish border to Sagres and the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Algarve is the southwest corner of Europe. The towering stone cliffs that distinguish the south western shore of Portugal south of Odeceixe end abruptly at Sagres as the Atlantic cuts east toward the Mediterranean. Stunningly beautiful golden sand beaches lie in coves below the cliffs all along this southern coast. Stretching inland is a plain that gives way to mountains that form the border between the Algarve and the Alentejo to the north. It’s a dry, craggy land with farms and orchards, herds of sheep, cork oaks and vineyards, where the sun shines almost 300 days a year.

It’s easy to see the whole of the Algarve while staying near Sagres, as it’s only 137 km (85 miles) to the Spanish border; the Alentejo to the north, is only about 60-80 km ( 36-48 miles) away. There are several good options for lodging near Sagres, some right on the beach at Martinhal.

Things to do: culture and history

History runs deep in the Algarve soul, and you’ll find reminders of it wherever you go here. Excavations have shown settlement in the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, followed by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, and in the 2nd century BCE, the Romans. They ruled until the Visigoths trounced them in the 5th century CE, and they in turn were driven out by the Moors in the 8th century. These Arabian invaders from North Africa brought with them the Muslim faith and North African culture and cuisine. Moorish culture prospered until the reconquest in the 12th century. Three centuries later Prince Henry the Navigator, son of Portuguese King João I, settled here, making Sagres the birthplace of the Golden Age of Exploration.

You’ll find bits of this past everywhere. Standing megalithic stones can be found in Raposeira and a fallen one near the beach at Ingrina. Near Portimao are the 3rd century BCE megalithic ruins of Alcalar at Mexilhoeira. Catch up with the Romans by visiting the ruins of Vila de Luz at Pria de Luz, Cerro da Vila at Vilamoura and farther east the ruins of Milreu near Estoi.

Stand on the cliff overlooking the harbor at Sages to see where Prince Henry gathered his sailors to perfect the art of navigation, then go to the fort at Cabo São Vincente where they studied maps and astronomy on the cliffs towering over the Atlantic. At Raposeira visit the ancient ermida, a hermitage chapel where the Prince prayed.

On the coastal road, look for Forte Almendana, the ruins of a 17th century fort overlooking the sea. Castro Marim has two large and surprisingly intact fortified castles. Prince Henry served as head of the Order of the Knights of Christ (successor to the Knights Templar) at Castro Marim, and parts of his castle date back to Moorish times. The other, Forte São Sebastião, was built in the mid-seventeenth century by King João IV during a war with Spain.

Getting to the Algarve

Regular flights from Logan airport in Boston fly to Lisbon. SATA, the airline of the Azores has direct Boston-Lisbon flights during the summer but also has flights to Lisbon via Ponta Delgada Azores. The Azores stop is a welcome break and chance to stretch your legs in mid-flight.

Direct trains connect Lisbon to the Algarve, but the easiest way to get the western Algarve is to rent a car in Lisbon and drive. From the airport ask instruction to Vasco da Gama Bridge and stay on the A 12 to IP 1 south and follow it to its end. Follow the A 22 (also IC 4) west, and at Lagos take N 125 to Vila do Bispo and follow signs into Sagres. The trip is about 3½-4 hours. A bit longer, but a beautiful drive is to follow the coastal route south through Setubal following the coast south. To take the train from Lisbon take a bus or taxi to the train station and buy a ticket to Tunes (about 3½ hours); arrange for your hotel to pick you up or for a rental car there.

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