Winter self-drive - Portugal’s Algarve (Second of three parts)

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 46 of the April 2019 issue.
As in many towns in the Algarve, Lagos features calçadas, or mosaic stone-tiled walkways. Photos by Randy Keck

The 2-night stop that my wife, Gail, and I made in the tiny village of Salema in southernmost Portugal revealed something unexpected: just how closed down certain parts of the Algarve region can be during the winter off-season.

Dinnertime at the only restaurant open on a Tuesday night in Salema in late November 2018 revealed a spattering of British expats who have occupied parts of the Algarve coast as both part-time and full-time residents.

Among the Brits, mostly seniors, whom we encountered regularly throughout our Algarve journey, it seemed that most of the full-timers truly believed they had become locals, despite the fact that few had bothered to pick up even rudimentary Portuguese-language skills.

'Round and 'round we go

Generally, I am a fan of roadway roundabouts. However, on some of the primary thoroughfares in the Algarve, such as the N125 that runs along most of the coastal strip a few kilometers inland, we came across roundabouts every quarter mile or so in the more built-up areas.

This kept Bridget, the voice of our primary GPS, frantic with instructions, and I got plenty of downshifting exercise with our 6-speed, manual-transmission wagon. If we lived there with such a vehicle, I might go through a clutch every six months.

For our longer excursions from our coastal base, we made our way inland to the super-efficient A22 motorway toll road, which runs from Lagos in the western Algarve to the Spanish border.

The expansive beach-and-sea view from our apartment balcony in Quarteira — the Algarve, Portugal.

While everyone seemed to complain about the tolls, utilizing the A22 proved a blessing, allowing us to connect to some of our day-trip destinations in a third of the time it would have taken on the N125, which is the the primary west-to-east roadway that runs virtually the full length of the Algarve but closer to the coast and through the primary population centers.

Our detailed Marco Polo "Algarve" map was a helpful backup to our GPS.

Exploring Lagos on foot

From our Salema base, we explored the nearby city of Lagos on a day trip.

In our pre-trip research, we learned that when visiting the Algarve on a self-drive basis, it's best to search for free parking lots, as the parking-meter exercise can be more than a little confusing for visitors and easily result in parking fines. Free lots are generally a bit removed from the city cores but are usually within walking distance.

While not the most scenic destination in the Algarve, Lagos does hold some appeal for history buffs, with a few buildings dating to 1445, including one complex that served ingloriously as Europe's first African slave markets.

Wandering the backstreets can reveal some finds, such as the Church of San António, and no shortage of places to enjoy a coffee and pastel de nata, the must-try traditional Portuguese custard tart pastry.

A short walk away, on the town's seafront, is Forte de Ponta de Bandeira, a 17th-century fort that provides great photo opps and is well worth a visit.

Lagos also provided our first introduction to the impressive, traditional calçadas, or stone-tiled pedestrian walkways, found literally everywhere in the Algarve. The amount of manual labor involved in laying these light-hued, multicolored limestone and basalt tiles is, in itself, mind-boggling.

Quarteira beckons

Gail and I were anxious to move on to the town of Quarteira to settle into our carefully selected beachfront apartment for badly needed R&R.

In the winter season, the Algarve region is full of rental-apartment bargains, due to the expansive inventory available. We needed only a one-bedroom apartment and had rather unlimited choices from VRBO ( listings, most ranging from 50 to 90 (near $57-$103) per night.

Costumed performers on stilts at the Quarteira Christmas pageant — the Algarve, Portugal.

We limited our search to those near the beach and with a direct ocean view, a good-size balcony and secure parking. My being in the travel industry, leading group tours and doing press visits regularly, I am never in one location for six nights. For me, this rare residential experience would be Valhalla.

In a truly magnificent setting, our ninth-floor, fully equipped one-bedroom apartment was an off-season bargain at just under 80 per night. The expansive view extended from the beach promenade below far out to sea. Sunrises were full of translucent light, and the setting sun on the sea each evening was an explosion of color on the broadest of palates.

We studied the habits of the fleet of small fishing boats on the horizon day and night. Their bounty would stock fish markets throughout the Algarve. After darkness fell and their lights came on, we counted as many as 45 of these small craft toiling in the peace of the night. The serenity was simply magical.

Upon arriving at our apartment, it was important to solve the underground-parking-garage equation, as the entrance and exit allowed only a few inches of clearance on each side of the vehicle. We quickly learned the how to's by observing the maneuverings of our Portuguese neighbors.

The first day, we found the closest supermarket and began to utilize our fully equipped kitchen for preparing breakfast as well as some other meals. Certainly, no restaurant could provide a better table view. Having morning coffee on our balcony was truly addictive and is perhaps what I now miss most.

For the details on our apartment, see VRBO listing 8750551.

Resident wanderings

In Quarteira, we happily morphed into everyday life, one morning spending several hours mingling with residents at a Christmas pageant in a small park across the street. This colorful, festive family affair — complete with a plethora of homemade baked goods, not to mention elves and fairies making their way through the crowd on stilts — provided a true initiation into the town's holiday lifestyle.

Another day, the portable, inflated-archway finish line of an annual 70-kilometer off-road bicycle race was directly in front of our building on the beach promenade. I chatted with several of the riders, who invited me to participate if we were back in the Algarve the following year. Hmm, just maybe.

One morning, Gail and I rented bicycles from a shop close by, riding along the Quarteira promenade to neighboring Vilamoura, a beautiful, perhaps almost too-perfect upscale resort village with a huge marina adorned with high-price-tag pleasure craft. Vilamoura also offers many kilometers of dedicated off-road bike and walking trails.

The setting could have been a "cut and paste" from a French or Italian Riviera resort. It was visually and vibe-wise a total contrast to our neighborhood lifestyle next door in Quarteira and felt somewhat sterile by comparison. At the finish of our ride, I was happy to get home to real life.

Cheese booth at the Quarteira weekly market — the Algarve, Portugal.

En route to Vilamoura, bikes in hand, we visited the Quarteira flea market, held the first Sunday of each month in a large, open lot one block back from the beach promenade, near the tourist office. (The previous Wednesday, in the same location, we enjoyed visiting the weekly market, which featured an expansive array of mostly organic fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs.)

At the Sunday flea market, Gail found a couple of must-have treasures, and we sampled the tasty medronho (fruit brandy) and ginja (cherry liqueur) for which the Algarve is famous.

We had met a couple of friendly, vagabond transplanted Germans and their small dog at a beachside café near our apartment and seemed to keep bumping into them everywhere, including at the flea market. They introduced us to some of the regional delicacies at the end of the market day, when those attending often crowd together with vendors to toast life with homemade vino tinto, hams, cheeses and breads. We were really starting to feel like we belonged.

I'll wrap up this 3-part series next month by taking you to the nontouristy side of the Algarve, also suggesting strategies for anyone contemplating a self-drive off-season Algarve visit.

Contact Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350,