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Discovering Portugal's Amazing Algarve

The Moors called it the Algarve, the land on the other side of the sea. They  sailed across the sea, conquered the land, and ruled it for half a millennium before succumbing to the Christian re-conquest in 1249. Nearly a thousand years later, the Moorish presence can still be felt from the turret of a strategically situated castle looking out over a town to the distant sea. It lingers in white latticed chimneys -- miniature minarets that stick up out of red-tiled roofs, in walls decorated with blue and white azulejos and pots of painted pottery, in groves of almond and orange trees leaning against hillsides terraced by stone walls, in the many names beginning with the Arabic “Al”.  Before the Moors, there were the Phoenicians and the Greeks, the Romans and the Visigoths – all attracted to the rugged waterfront and fertile soil of this strikingly beautiful land along Portugal’s southern shore.

Part of and at the same time apart from Portugal – rulers typically called themselves kings of “Portugal and the Algarve,” it was the place from which Henry the Navigator launched the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, sending caravels to explore the western coast of Africa as far south as Sierra Leone.

After his death, the Algarve’s economic importance diminished, and after the earthquake of 1755, most of its towns and villages were devastated. Accounts of this historic disaster focus on the far greater loss of life and property in heavily populated Lisbon, which prompted the philosopher Voltaire to speculate on an unfeeling and possibly absent God. But the earthquake’s epicenter was actually in the Algarve and the physical damage there most severe.

A place of quiet fishing villages and hillside farms, the region languished in obscurity until the post World War II period when the phenomenon of international tourism spurred recognition of its recreational potential. By the late 1960’s, an international airport in the capital city Faro was in operation. By the mid 1970’s, with Portugal emerging from the isolation of the Salazar years into the light of an open democratic society, the Algarve was on its way to becoming a major tourist destination.

Little wonder. Its attractions are manifold: long stretches of deep beaches of the finest white sand, a sunny climate of glorious spring or luxuriant summer weather, picturesque seaside and mountain villages that have largely eluded the homogeneity of franchised food emporiums and designer branches, vertigo-inspiring cliffs, fragrant with abundant thyme, that plunge downwards hundreds of feet to little coves lined with rocky, grotto-filled formations. And then there is the Algarve light, the sharply defined shadows, the molten golden bluffs, the brilliant whitewashed houses etched against a sky of cobalt blue.
Paolo Neves heads the Algarve Tourist Board - click to enlarge
Paolo Neves heads the Algarve Tourist Board
Paolo Neves is the son and grandson of fishermen; his family has lived in the Algarve for untold generations. From the window of his ninth floor office in Faro, the 34-year old president of the Algarve Tourist Board looks out to where he was born and beyond the shore to the little island where his grandfather lived and where he played as a child. Witness to and participant in the emergence of the Algarve onto the international tourism stage, Neves was a member of the Portuguese parliament at a very young age. But the lure of his hometown drew him back from Lisbon to assume his present position.

“Until the 1970’s, we did not have compulsory education in the Algarve,” he said reflecting on three decades of changes. “Not every home had electricity and running water.  Since then there has been much development. We may have some lost features that were special to the region, but the way of life now is much better. People from different parts of Portugal and other countries come not only to visit but to live here.”

Andre Jordan was fourteen years old when his family emigrated from Poland to Portugal after World War II seeking opportunity unavailable in a communist state. He and his father found such opportunity in 1972 when they acquired waterfront property some fifteen minutes west of Faro and began the building of Quinta do Lago.

From an area so undeveloped that donkey cart was the chief means of transportation when construction began, Quinta do Lago has evolved into a 2,000-acre resort community with four championship golf courses, riding trails, tennis courts, restaurants and shops, low density housing of luxurious villas and condominiums, and a single hotel that bears its name. 

Set amidst lush rolling countryside and forests of umbrella pine, the estate borders Ria Formosa, a thirty mile-long tidal inlet of lagoons and salt marshes protected from the sea by a wall of sand dunes. At the same time, the entire coastal stretch is protected from development, having been designated a natural reserve in 1987. View of the lagoons from the bar at Quinta do Lago Hotel - click to enlarge
View of the lagoons from the bar at Quinta do Lago Hotel

We got our first look at Ria Formosa from a tableside window in the bar of the Quinta do Lago Hotel. It was six in the evening. We had arrived only a few hours before, and now Katya Bauval, the hotel’s beautiful English/Belgian Director of Sales and Marketing, was calling our attention to the estuary.

“See how the lagoon is filled with tidal water. There are all kinds of shellfish in there now. That’s why you see so many birds.” Indeed, flamingos, herons, all manner of water fowl were visible across the gardens of the hotel in the lagoon beyond. “The Ria Formosa is a haven for migrating and nesting birds. You’ll find some rare species there like the hens with red beaks,” Katya added. “But look at the lagoon when you’re having breakfast tomorrow morning. All the water will have been emptied out.”

The next morning we walked behind the hotel and across the gardens to the inlet. Katya was right; the tide was out and the lagoon was but a muddy basin.  But we followed one of two nature trails that take off in opposite directions from this point. In the distance, we could see some of the magnificent villas of the Quinta do Lago estate that border the wildlife sanctuary. Only 8% of the 2,000 acres are built on; a house can occupy no more than 20% of its land and be no taller than the height of the umbrella pines. But within these restrictions, each villa, though sharing Moorish details and stucco surfaces, was unique in design, landscaping, and use of native stone for retaining walls and intricate pathways.

We passed some serious birdwatchers along the trail, binoculars poised to spot a red crested porchard or purple heron or, even rarer, a purple allinule – the blue hen with a red beak Katya had told us about . A long wooden bridge branched off from the trail. We took it across the sand dunes. On the other side, a magnificent beach stretched as far as we could see.

The only hotel in the Quinta do Lago estate - click to enlarge
The only hotel in the Quinta do Lago estate
The five star-Quinta do Lago Hotel, a relative newcomer to the community, opened in 1988. It sits just at the edge of the wetlands, the last stop on the Avenue Andre Jordan which runs through the center of the estate, past six roundabouts that lead to golf courses, riding trails, residential streets, restaurants, even an upscale mini mall. 

Built into the hillside facing the Atlantic, the hotel appears to be part of the natural landscape, its multiple red roofs giving the effect of an Aztec pyramid, its guest room balconies looking out on gorgeous gardens in the foreground and a meeting of sky and sea in the distance. Within all is light and airy; great expanses of glass bring spectacular views indoors.

Brisa do Mar, the hotel’s Portuguese restaurant, faces the sea on one side and opens to a broad dining terrace adjacent to the swimming pool on the other. We signed on for one of its bi-weekly seafood buffets which featured a cornucopia of oysters, clams, octopus salad, grilled sardines, shrimps, codfish, and caldeirada, a wonderful fish stew layered with potatoes.  Entertainment that night was provided by a trio performing Fado. Although better suited to the dark, narrow streets of Lisbon than the cheerful Algarve environs, the haunting melancholia of the songs anchored the evening’s experience deep in the Portuguese ethos.

A Brazilian guitarist created a very different atmosphere strolling among the tables of the elegant Ca’ D’Oro.  Venetian glass fixtures and a menu that includes dishes served at the legendary Cipriani Hotel of Venice define this classical Italian restaurant.  Brisa do Mar is adjacent to the Quinta do Lago pool - click to enlarge
Brisa do Mar is adjacent to the Quinta do Lago pool
The Brazilian guitarist created a different mood in Ca’ D’Oro, the Venetian-inspired restaurant at Quinta do lago - click to enlarge
The Brazilian guitarist created a different mood in Ca’ D’Oro, the Venetian-inspired restaurant at Quinta do lago
We dined on a terrific combination of gnocchi and lobster, onion soup Italian style -- made with red onions, and the tenderest veal scaloppini. Our wine was Eesporão, a red from Alentejo, the region of rolling plains north of the Algarve. As great fans of Portuguese wines, we were eager to try a new vintage and this one, aged in oak with a ripe fruity flavor, did not disappoint.
We had been at Quinta do Lago for only a few days when we met General Manager Patrice Glogg who had been there for only a few weeks. But even in so short a time, the cheerful and upbeat hotel exec had injected a distinctive touch of creativity and whimsy by replacing the traditional flower arrangement in the lobby with a towering pyramid of local fruits, vegetables, and flowers. It proved a stunning attention-getter, provoking many a second glance and extended “ooh!” Patrice Glogg’s inspired pyramid of local produce and flowers - click to enlarge
Patrice Glogg’s inspired pyramid of local produce and flowers

“At the entrance of the hotel guests get their first impression,” said Patrice with a knowing smile. “You never have another opportunity to make a first impression.”

The thirteenth generation of his family in the hospitality business (“my aunt traced the lineage back to an innkeeper in 1537”), Patrice began his career in Switzerland. From there he went to Spain, France, Switzerland again, Morocco, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Egypt, Paris, the Caribbean, Monaco, South Africa and Switzerland yet again. “When I was approached to come here, I was not looking for a move. ‘I’m happy where I am, but let’s talk,’ I told them. We did and they convinced me I wanted to move.

“Why? They sent me here. The location is unique, the reputation of the hotel is incomparable. People are very friendly, very welcoming. And the company, while not interfering, gives you the support when you need it.”

Patrice Glogg, General Manager at Quinta do Lago - click to enlarge
Patrice Glogg, General Manager at Quinta do Lago
The company is Orient Express of the fabled train line which it continues to operate as a destination in and of itself. It also owns a collection of unique luxury hotels in locales as diverse as Peru and South Africa.  Quinta do Lago was added to the collection some years ago, and for Patrice, it was a perfect fit. “What attracted me to the Orient Express is that each hotel has its own personality. I purposely never worked for a chain because I want to run a hotel with its own personality, where you pamper the guest, where you personalize the service.  
The beautiful Katya, Sales and Marketing Manager at Quinta do Lago - click to enlarge
The beautiful Katya, Sales and Marketing Manager at Quinta do Lago
Manuel Ferreira Enes was called out of retirement to handle public relations for the Orient Express properties - click to enlarge
Manuel Ferreira Enes was called out of retirement to handle public relations for the Orient Express properties

“We have 140 rooms and 250 employees,” he continued. “People are available to deliver the service. The golf courses, the beach and water sports, the gardens are cared for by outside contractors. All our employees are here to attend to the needs of our guests. And our guests come back again and again. Between 55-60% of our clients are repeats. Tomorrow I have someone coming in for the 26th time.”

Many of the guests were golfers who traveled with their clubs, ready to get out on the green and tee off. With four 18-hole courses that are rated among the top 25 in Europe, Quinta do Lago is the largest golfing resort on the continent. It has hosted seven Portuguese Opens as well as many international tournaments. And the combination of beautiful scenery and excellent climate make golfing in the Algarve a pleasure any time of the year.

The azure Algarve sky looks down on the Quinta do Lago greens - click to enlarge
The azure Algarve sky looks down on the Quinta do Lago greens
Mario Barruncho knows every inch of the Quinta do Lago  courses - click to enlarge
Mario Barruncho knows every inch of the Quinta do Lago  courses
Golf director Mario Barruncho has been at Quinta do Lago from the very beginning. “I was born with a club in one hand and a golf ball in the other,” the diminutive pro told us with a conspiratorial wink. “When I was a kid I was working in a club in Estoril, a city along the Lisbon coast. I played very well and even thought of becoming professional. But by the age of 20, I realized that life was not for me. Then Andre Jordan called. It was heaven-sent.  He had heard about me. Would I run his new golfing resort?  I said yes immediately.”
At that time Quinta do Lago was known as ‘Quinta dos Descabecados’ (farmhouse of the smugglers) after the region’s reputation for tobacco smuggling. Conditions were quite primitive. Andre Jordan showed Mario around and asked him if he thought the area would work as a golf course. “I said it would be good,” Mario said. “And so we started to build. In 1974, after one year, we were finished with the 18-hole Quinta do Lago course and holes 1-5 and 15-18 of the Ria Formosa course. William Mitchell designed both. (Joseph Lee completed holes 6-14 of Ria Formosa in 1989.)  People began to buy lots and build houses.”

Mario and his assistant Jose Capela took us on a tour of the two par 72 courses set among groves of umbrella pine trees, fields of heather, gorse and wild flowers and punctuated by four lakes. From his golf buggy, Mario pointed out villas backed up against the courses: the one owned by “Playboy Magazine” who uses it for a yearly photo shoot, the one belonging to a well known horse breeder, a prominent government official, a famous racecar driver.  Madonna, he told us, has a house here too.

At the 11th hole of Quinta do Lago, we paused  to admire a panoramic 360 degree view. We stopped again at Mario’s favorite, the 15th lake hole that is 220 yards over the water, to watch the waterfowl including the rare purple allinule. Mario hopped down retrieve a ball from the stream. He wishes he could play more often, he told us, but alas he has no time.

For the self-effacing director, it has been a life devoted to golf. “For many years I worked without a day off.  Now I am a grandfather so I want some time to spend with my grandson. Still I never get tired of it. I close my eyes and I can see all the ground of Quinta,” he told us. “I know every hole, every green, every tee.

“I moved down in 1974,” Mario continued. “My wife came two years later. Our son was born, grew up, and continues to live here with his wife and their little son. Our home is in a little fishing village. It is paradise – the weather, the people. Everything is close. City life? Forget it.”

Life in the small cities and towns of the Algarve, however, has its own charms. We discovered some of them the day we toured Faro in the company of three informed and delightful young women: the guide Alexandra Ramos, the historian Anabela Afonso, and the archaelogist Dalia Paulo.  We met at Faro’s highest point on a square outside of the baroque Carmelite Church just as the bells began to strike the noonday hour.  At one time, there was nothing in front of the church to block its view from the sea, Dalia told us, making its brilliant white exterior with windows and doors enlivened with gold and a pair of exuberant baroque towers emblazoned against the vivid blue sky a beacon for fishermen nearing the shore. Built towards the end of the 18th century when Portugal was enjoying the riches from its discoveries, the church contains a treasure of baroque and rococo art, abundantly decorated with gold.

From left: Anabela Afonso, Dalia Paulo, and Alexandra Ramos in the historic Café Aliente - click to enlarge
From left: Anabela Afonso, Dalia Paulo, and Alexandra Ramos in the historic Café Aliente
From there, we walked into Faro’s shopping center that begins at St. Anthony Street. Advertisements are muted in this central section where small shops and restaurants line pedestrian walkways paved with tiles set in geometric forms. Anabela suggested we stop for coffee at the historic Café Aliante. 

With its ornate plaster ceiling and turn of the century fixtures, this coffeehouse has been home to Faro’s intellectual and bohemian life for more than a century. The resistance movement against Salazar was centered here; it was the gathering place for refugees from Nazi-dominated lands. Among them was Simone de Beauvoir’s sister who escaped from occupied France together with her husband to Faro where they joined his mother and her husband, the well known Faro artist Carlos Philipe Porsirio.

Walking out of the pedestrian mall, Alexandra pointed out remnants of murals from Phonecian times and a bank built in 1926 that combines Moorish with Manueline elements. Manueline architecture and design which flourished during the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521) features reliefs in the shapes of twisted ropes, seaweed, and anchors and is found throughout Portugal and in many buildings in Faro. Looking up to admire them, we spotted an enormous nest atop a roof. On it sat a preening stork. Faro’s rooftops are filled with storks, Alexandra told us. At one time, they migrated to Africa for the winter. Now they stay around all year long. And indeed, the more we looked, the more we found.

Our walk brought us to the old walled section of the city accessed through the horseshoe shaped Moorish arch. At one time, it was the entrance to the city from the sea. An image of the Virgin Mary on its inner wall was, according to legend, thrown into the sea by the Moors. Consequently the sea ceased producing fish; the land ceased producing fruit. The Moors  reconsidered, recovered the image, replaced it on the wall, and all has been well ever since. Archway in the old section of Faro - click to enlarge
Archway in the old section of Faro

Portions of buildings in this old part of Faro survived the earthquake’s damage and were subsequently rebuilt. The cathedral, once the city’s principal mosque, is one example. So is the church/convent of the Lady of Assumption which today is the archeological museum. Among its treasures is a Roman mosaic maybe thirty feet long and five feet wide depicting the god Oceanus that is believed have been the floor of a fourth century public building in Faro. Dalia’s enthusiasm for such recovered antiquities was contagious. She brought us to her worksite in the museum and we peered down the two deep pits where she and her colleagues are unearthing other remnants of the Roman city that existed here from the 3rd century B.C. to the fifth century A.D.

Until the Jews of Portugal were exiled in 1497, a Jewish community existed in Faro as well, Anabele told us knowing of our work in Jewish life and culture in medieval Iberia. Thus far, the most concrete evidence of its existence is a notation in the journal of the convent’s abbess. The first document printed in Portugal was made in Faro in 1487 by a Jew named Samuel Porteira Gacon, but it resides in the British Museum.

After the earthquake, the Jews were invited back to help rebuild the economy. A prosperous community evolved in Faro, but today its only reminder is a gated cemetery whose graves date from 1838 to 1932. Restored in 1992, it is lined with eighteen trees in honor of Aristides de Sousa Mendes who as the Portuguese counsel in Bordeaux saved thousand of Jews fleeing Hitler by issuing transit visas through Lisbon.

Jewish Cemetery in Faro

Unexpectedly we found another remnant of medieval Jewish life in Silves, an enchanting city on the Ariade River which from time immemorial had been the favored route to the interior of the Algarve. Watched over by a looming Moorish castle of red limestone, Silves had been the capital of the Algarve, and its small but stunning gothic cathedral, begun in the 13th and completed in the 15th century, survived the earthquake. 

So did a small building just down the hilly street which today houses the art studio and shop of an Irish/English couple Kate Swift and Roger Metcalfe. After buying the building and beginning its renovation, they noticed a small indentation on the doorpost where a mezuzah, the little case containing a handwritten scripture from Deuteronomy and a fixture on a Jewish home, once hung.

Views from and in Silves - click to enlarge Views from and in Silves - click to enlarge

Views from and in Silves

The art studio in Silves and the indentation in the doorpost where a mezuzah once hung - click to enlarge The art studio in Silves and the indentation in the doorpost where a mezuzah once hung - click to enlarge

The art studio in Silves and the indentation in the doorpost where a mezuzah once hung

This small discovery brought to mind something Paolo Neves told us: “Other nations speak of conquests. In Portugal we speak of discoveries, of finding new places and new ways to reach them.” Visiting the Algarve is in itself manifold acts of discovery. Contrasts abound from quaint fishing villages to modern marinas, from medieval stone houses to 21st century resorts, from abundant natural beauty to significant historical sites in a region that attracts an international crowd yet maintains its own unmistakable culture.

And not least is the pleasure of discovering the people of the Algarve. “I find there is something about the Portuguese people that is very welcoming,” Katya had said. “And they don’t take tourism for granted. I’ve been in places where people are treated with a condescending attitude by people who work in restaurants. The people here are authentic.”

Hotel Quinta do Lago
8135-024 Almancil
Algarve, Portugal

Phone: 351 289 350350

 Photos by Harvey Frommer

Travel Notes

Shops selling handmade pottery and tiles line the Algarve roadsides. Olaria Algarve Pottery was begun forty years ago by an Irishman, Patrick Swift and a Portuguese artist Lima de Freitas in an attempt to revive the local ceramic industry. Today it is run by Patrick’s daughters. They employ local artisans who can be seen at their potters’ wheels decorating vases, dinnerware, and other decorative items in traditional Moorish and Portuguese design.

Freitas & Swift, Lda. Olaria Algarve Pottery
E.N. 125
Porches 8400 Lagoa
Algarve, Portual

Phone: 282 352-858

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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