Algarve in February

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Third time’s a charm it would seem in us actually getting to Portugal.  We packed up the baby and the dog last weekend and we weren’t going to let sickness hold us back again. That’s how we stumbled into the Algarve, the southern most region of Portugal, in mid-February right when glorious springtime was taking hold. Quite by chance we were gifted with the extraordinary site of almond tree after almond tree in full snowy bloom all weekend long:

Almond trees February Algarve
Alas, our only picture of the almond trees that filled our roadside views.

Ah, glorious.

Aside from the almond trees throughout our countryside drives, our road trip had three important elements:  quintas, rural estates that offer accommodation similar to a bed and breakfast or AirBnB, vistas, as in seaside, mountainside, cliffside views, and tiles, oh the beautiful hand-painted and otherwise that lined the walls of the old towns and interiors.

Tiles and obsolescence in Tavira
Tiles, doors, and obsolescence in Tavira

All three of these were located in Tavira, our first stop, a beautiful little town close to the Spanish border. Our accomdation was the Quinta do Caracol where we stayed in the most beautiful 200 hundred year old farm-estate-turned-accommodation. Our gracious host, whose grandfather owned it when it was a farm, apologized for the oldness of everything, but obviously knows how to keep things beautifully intact, freshly painted bright blue and white for the oncoming season. She was also extremely helpful for understanding what to check out in the area and loves dogs, so that’s a win for anyone traveling with pets.20180216_181940-COLLAGE.jpg

Our one bedroom apartment was filled with little charms, from a jewelry box painted with a curly-legged dog to the curved window-like spaces cut into the walls. The grounds of the quinta were laid out like a little green refuge from the encroaching paved city, complete with a pool, guinea pigs, quail, and sweetly rushing fountains. We cannot recommend this place enough. Go to their website and see the 360 degree pictures of the rooms for a better idea of how lovely this little oasis is.Quinta da Caracol

The hostess informed us that the busy season began from Easter on, so we had a quiet twilight in which to explore the city the first night. In fact, it was so quiet, Penny was the only dog we saw.

Tavira by night
Tavira by night

We declined the offers for delicious smelling Indian dinners from ready waiters on the street and stood in line at Casa da Avó for takeaway instead. This little kitchen was humming with takeout orders and walk-ins like us, obviously the ordering-out capital of Tavira on this night.

Casa da Avo

While Cody stood in line and joked inside at the counter with the chefs when it was his turn, Penny stood rigid on the street. She carefully watched every person walk by, her ears pricked and meeting eyes, and trying to ascertain if each male leaving the restaurant was Cody or not. She received many a smile and air smooch from these take-awayers who confused her laser stare and satellite ears for any interest other than locating the missing member of our pack. But, reappear he did, and thirty-ish minutes later back in our apartment with the baby asleep, the salty kebab plates were well worth the wait. But, eh, don’t ever let me order orange Fanta soda again; it really is disgusting and I can’t put my finger on why.

Salty kebab plate at th apartment
I don’t even like fries and these fries were good.

Tavira by daylight was gorgeous and just starting to wake up on our brisk Saturday morning walk. We easily toured around the main sites of the city in less than a few hours, although I doubt we sighted each of the 25 churches within the city limits. If you’re able to go yourself, add the Roman bridge and the Castello to your list of visits and enjoy the beautiful obsolescence of various paint jobs around the city. What is it about old buildings’ decay that is so beautiful compared to fully intact modern buildings? My American-funneled-romanticism is at the bottom of it no doubt.

Tavira by day
Check out the castle, Roman bridge, Gilão River, church of Santa Maria, and the green train bridge that scared the bejeezus out of Penny.

Santa Luzia, a small fishing village only a mile and a half  to the south, provided a quiet setting for coffee and lemonade in front of the boats later.Santa Luzia on a February morning

Once again, Penny seemed to be the star of the show and the welcome party arrived in the form of three of the town’s dogs (possibly their only dogs??), who greeted and followed as if giving tours of their neighborhoods. By far the friendliest was also the most decrepit little-old-man-of-a-dog, who walked playfully alongside the ocean with us  until we eventually walked him back to his neighborhood on account of some labored breathing and an unsightly tumor festering in the sun. Then, keeping with the theme of Penny’s welcome, at the cafe where we sipped our lemonade and coffee, her constant sniffing was delicately welcomed by an older French woman who sat down next to us, proclaiming that she had two cats, who let Penny stretch out and take a nap under her seat. Smoochy faces and kissing noises from various other town goers, from a visiting football team to bicyclists made Penny even more of a welcome fixture in this little fishing village. She nervously accepted the accolades, though all the attention did make it difficult for her to keep her leash manners in check.

James’s only note of glory on this trip was the slightly derisive description of his baby carrier as an example “new fangled American stoof” by one British tourist. I declined to call out that the baby carrier is Scandinavian. But I will admit having a baby strapped to your chest garnered more looks here than anywhere else we’ve been.Quinta near Bolquime

Our next quinta was more rurally located, about midway between Albufeira and Vilamoura. We aggravated locals by taking the turns in their twisty road too slowly and climbed the steep driveway to large estate on top of a little mountain. Here, the almond trees beckoned and the crumbly earth and sharp grasses reached out. We were the only guests at this quinta, and it was run a little more like an AirBnB than a hotel. See above for the peaceful views we had each morning and evening. Penny soaked up the time in the outdoors, plunging her nose into any clump of green with the pure trusting naivety of a city dog that is unaware there there could be sharp teeth on the other side.

Penny in the Brush

We made our way to Vilamoura next, a decent sized resort town. Honestly, the only thing that really made us want to visit was to see why it was so glowingly described as “a very well organized town.” What does a very well organized town look like and why is that such an attraction, we wondered?

The answer: wide, predictably laid streets, big commercial types of restaurants, neatly spaced parking spaces, built in the last 30 years… A typical resort town, especially when compared to the ancient winding towns of regular ol’ Europe, is what “very well organized” means. It dawned on us that a well organized resort town would bring other benefits than an older European city for those in the market for a night club or boat trip. Meh, we weren’t interested in golfing, boating, or clubbing on this trip, so we could take it or leave it.

20180217_160737-COLLAGE

We had great service at the Spot pub where James and Penny were both doted upon by our waitress while we ate American sized burgers and baguettes (oh, btw, if you see “Philly cheese” on a sandwich description, it probably means cream cheese, not a Philly cheese steak). Then we narrowly avoided a parking ticket because well organized also means metered street parking we failed to notice! The waitress was quick to bag up Cody’s hamburger, I distracted the police officer with Penny’s cuteness and after Cody pulled the car back around we headed home.

An interesting aside: when stopping at the conveniently located Aldi in Boliqueime, it seemed all the visiting foreigners were there deciding which powdered coffee and which giant bottles of water to buy for the weekend. Fun tidbits of overheard conversation and culture clashing include one British man saying to to his wife, “It’s funny we have to go to Aldi for all this,” and the derisive snort I received from the French woman standing in line behind me as the cashier handed me my receipt for a signature. Yes, we Americans are in the stone-age when it comes to credit card security.

Turns out, we had to head back to Vilamoura the next day to get to the Roman ruins of Cerro da Vila where I’ve now read my single favorite phrase describing the Romans: “Besides keeping up with the local cults, the exacerbated religiosity of the Romans imposed….” Beautiful.

These ruins are well kept and open to the public for only 3 euros a person. As an ongoing site of excavation and cataloging, it’s a somewhat amazing experience to walk past the chambers, pools, and heating ducts of the ancient world and still be able to see the hideous 30-year-old, pink-pyramid-spaceship-inspired resort building creeping up across the road.

Cerro da Vila Collage
Mosaics, glass, old haunts, and ceramics

We wandered through the dead parts of Vilamoura (clubs and restaurants) after our trip to Cerro de Vila and made our way to the marina where all the breakfast-goers and early chocolate cake-eaters were strolling or dining. We joined the masses for a leisurely meal in the sunshine and made friends with a gray striped cat who as it turns out was only after my spilled eggs and James’s dropped snacks. This was the place for people watching in their plush Sunday recreation duds. We observed a little pom-pommed girl drive her pink convertible around pedestrians and bleary-eyed guys airing out after a night of clubs, and watched little kids try colorful rides for only one euro a pop.20180217_160536-COLLAGE

I myself won two rubber bouncy balls for a euro at a game of roadside pinball trying to keep James entertained. Oh, by the by, we wonder if James isn’t cut out for the work of a professional gambler when he’s older, seeing as how he loves to drop anything he holds as if he’s throwing a pair of dice.

We also tried to go to Albufeira on this February trip, but after so much time already spent in cities we gave up when no easy parking became available. Instead, we headed to the beach, going to what we thought would be a dog friendly local based on a website description. Disappointingly, this beach like so many others was not open to dogs, but one of our hosts at the quinta implied the laws were about to change so that dogs could go anywhere. We’ll have to come back when/if those take affect. But for this trip, instead of the water and the sand, we settled for breathtaking views of the blue-green ocean as seen from the raw cliff edge:

Beach and Boys
Beach and the boys
And for lack of a better ending, that’s exactly what I’ll leave you with, on a cliff’s edge in in the sleepy Algarve during the off season when everything is in bloom.
Praia de São Rafael
Praia de São Rafael in February = beautiful and quiet

The Itinerary Details:

Mode To and from Overnights Accommodation
Car Puerto to the Algarve, Portugal Tavira, countryside near Albufeira Quinta do Caracolother countryside quinta
Transportation Useful words on this tripEnglish                   =  Portuguese
Driving Hello, thank you Olá, obrigado
On foot orange laranja

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