Why I found Portugal the natural choice
There’s a lot more to the Algarve than golf clubs and coach parties, says Natalie Blenford
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The magnificent and largely unspoiled Western Coast of the Algarve
I had been in Portugal for less than 12 hours when I had my first pinch-myself moment. Five courses into an epic supper at Restaurant Arte Náutica near the beach at Portimao, I caught a glimpse of the starry sky. There, twinkling above me, was the plough. A few metres away, the calm waters of the Atlantic gently lapped the sandy shore.
And all around me was nature: palm trees, white sands, mysterious sounds from night owls and other birds. It was idyllic, and there wasn't a golfer, binge drinker or package holiday maker in sight.
This wasn't Portugal as I remembered it. I'd visited the Algarve in 2007, and whilst I'd had fun sampling the nightlife of Lagos and the swimming pool scene in Praia de Luz, relaxation evaded me. But second time around, Portugal was proving to be calm, inspiring - spiritual even.
As I sipped my third glass of home-grown vintage red wine and listened to a female singer belt out atmospheric, traditional 'Fado' songs, I couldn't help but wonder: just when did the Algarve get so chic?
The answer, according to the Algarve Promotion Bureau, is that it's always been this way. After all, this coastal region at the westernmost point of Europe has a complex heritage bestowed upon it by civilizations such as the Moors and the Romans. It's home to castles, churches, culinary traditions and natural wonders a plenty.
But it's also blessed with 200km of sandy beach and good weather, and as a result of the sunny climate, many holiday makers shun the Algarve's cultural treats in favour of golf courses and sun-loungers, only to return home with nothing more than a summer glow to show for their time.
I was guilty of this behaviour last time and as a result, I didn't exactly bond with the Algarve.
But when I was invited on a two-centre 'culture break' - four days packed with walks, food tastings and fast-track history lessons - I couldn't resist. The idea of learning a lot about a place in a short-time appealed to my inner academic. So, notebook in hand, I hopped into a minibus and headed out on the culture trail.
My first stop was Alcoutim, an old smuggling town on the eastern edge of Portugal. Dominated by Castelo de Alcoutim, a crumbling 13th Century castle, the town is in a commanding position on the bank of the river Guadiana and the natural border with Spain.
A short walk up the castle steps led me to a wonderful viewpoint. It took me a while to get my head around the idea that the river (and not a steel fence) happily divides two countries, but I happily snapped away to capture this unique view for myself. On one side of the picture: Spain. On the other: Portugal. And no passports required.
An hour later, it was time to eat, and this time my group and I were whisked off for lunch at the serene Guerreiros Do Rio River Hotel.
To get there, we had to jump in a speedboat and take a quick drive downstream. Amazingly, the skipper offered me the chance to drive the boat myself.
Now I'm not famed for my sense of direction, and up until this point, my only experience of sailing had been the time I played a sailor's girlfriend in an amateur production of Anything Goes. But I was on a culture trip so why not?
I took the helm and somehow managed to keep us moving in a straight line. But when it came to mooring, I had no clue, so I handed control back and concentrated on getting off the boat without falling overboard. No easy task when you've already had two glasses of Port and it's only one o'clock.
Once seated in the restaurant, the adventurous members of my group feasted on a hot dish of mixed seafood cooked in a copper pan - a Portuguese speciality known locally as 'cataplana' - whilst I filled up on fish stew and fresh salad.
It was the perfect warm-up to our afternoon's activity: a leisurely walk around the historic town of Tavira and a browse around the area's twenty-three churches.
This number might seem excessive for a small town, but in the 16th century, Taviran families used to build churches as a status symbol, simply to show the world how rich they were.
Today, these prominent buildings lend the area an elegant grace and their position on the edge of narrow, twisting streets lined with white houses, makes Tavira a very pleasant place to be.
Many of the houses are topped with distinctive, scissor shaped roofs, which adds quirkiness, and after a stroll through the classical gardens at the centre of town, I felt well and truly relaxed. That night, I returned to my double room at the super-luxurious Villa Vita Parc Resort and slept like a baby.
The five-star hotel is set in 54 acres of manicured parkland on a rugged clifftop near the town of Armacão de Pera, and with its eight restaurants, five bars and jaw-dropping complex of outdoor pools and gardens, it was the perfect place to refresh my tired body and mind.
Then next day, I woke early and headed off to Silves, a small town inland from the Algarve's coast, which is home to the historical Silves castle. As someone who loves Masada for its rugged, ancient beauty and inspiring position in the Negev, I didn't expect to be awe-struck by Silves castle, which is initially humbler and less visually impressive than its Israeli counterpart. But the castle is billed as the most beautiful military monument left from the Moorish period of Portuguese history, and once inside the castle I began to understand why.
Although little remains of the buildings, the Moors constructed in the fourth and fifth century, the castle was restored in 1940 and the restoration takes you back in time to give an impression of what the castle looked like when it was fully intact. It's full of visual contrasts. One minute I was looking at a solid wall of red sandstone brick; the next I was walking through an ornate, gothic doorway that wouldn't be out of place in an art gallery.
A large cistern is one of the only original features that does remain and according to our guide, it has a romantic history of its own. Named 'El Moura Encantada', legend tells that you can hear a Moorish princess mourning her beloved at this well, where he allegedly committed suicide.
It was all very moving, and after so much history I craved a little me-time. Thankfully, our next stop was Sera de Monchique, a spa town up in the mountains, dominated by verdant green landscapes, natural waterfalls and stunning viewpoints.
Apparently, the Romans used to bathe in Monchique's mineral-rich waters to fix all kinds of ailments and today, the magical waters are accessible via the spa at the cosy and homely Villa Termal das Caldas de Monchique Spa resort.
The resort offers a range of medicinal programmes with names such as 'Wine Therapy', 'Body Slim' and their flagship programme, 'Seven Days of Wellbeing'.
Sadly, I didn't have seven days to spare, but during my overnight stay I did find time for an hour-long 'Thermal Circuit', which gave me access to the spa pool, steam room, sauna and gym for just fifteen Euros.
My skin was super-smooth after a session in the spa, but it was whilst walking though the hotel's grounds that I stumbled upon its best-kept secret: a beautiful, tranquil garden that's accessible only via lock and key to hotel guests.
As the garden's heavy door creaked open, a world of beautiful trees, birds and butterflies revealed itself, along with two outdoor swimming pools.
The water wasn't quite warm enough to entice me in, but the flora and fauna was in full bloom and the timber decking provided the perfect setting for an impromptu afternoon nap.
Later that day, I borrowed a mountain bike and went off to explore the stunning countryside around Monchique. I saw waterfalls, wildlife and met a lovely Swedish couple who now run the cute Restaurant Rouxinol near the hotel.
They told me trade has been slow this year, thanks to unseasonally heavy rain, a poor exchange rate and now, no doubt, volcanic ash. But as I sat sipping a bica – Portuguese espresso – sun dappling over my face, I couldn't help but feel content.
In four days I'd done a little bit of everything, from star-gazing and cycling to sightseeing and journal writing.
I'd tried Portuguese delicacies, roamed around castles and seen more beautiful sights than I expected to. It hadn't been a high-octane holiday, but for a relaxing, cultural back-to-basics mini-break, the Algarve had more than delivered on its promise.
Low fares airline Monarch (www.monarch.co.uk; 08719 40 50 40) offers flights to Faro from £48.50 one way or £85.99 return. Seven nights at the five star Villa Vita Parc Resort (www.vilavitaparc.com) from 670€ (£581) per person sharing a double room. Termas de Monchique Spa Hotel (www.monchiquetermas.com) offers double rooms with breakfast from 115€ (£100) per night. More information on the Algarve at: www.visitalgarve.pt.
● The Algarve capital, Faro, was a famous centre of Hebrew printing in the 15th century.
● Samuel Porteira published Portugal's first printed book there in 1487, a Hebrew edition of the Pentateuch. In the 1860s, Jews from Morocco and Tangiers settled in Faro and just before the First World War Russian and Polish Jews arrived.
● In the absence of a Synagogue, Faro's Jews now pray at Faro's 19th century cemetery, which was restored in 1993.