LESSON NUMBER one. Always check the end of the bed.
After a flight from East Midlands to Faro and a transfer car journey that took over an hour-and-a-half to the southwestern extremities of Portugal, I am ready for a shower. The water is luxuriously hot. Refreshed, I step out and select one of the two towels on the rail. Mmm, they seem small, like hand towels. In fact, they ARE hand towels.
I am in Pedralva (www.aldeiadapedralva.com), in the Parque Natural da Costa Vicentina, Algarve. This rural village, tucked away off the N268 between Bordeira and Vila do Bispo, was once home to a hundred or so locals.
During the past quarter of a century, however, the majority of families slowly drifted away to pastures new, leaving much of the village deserted; the narrow, cobbled streets and rows of whitewashed buildings slowly deteriorating.
By 2006, only nine of the original inhabitants had stayed the course, surrounded by fifty properties in various stages of disrepair. It was then that three enterprising individuals from Lisbon, having seen the potential of this forgotten village, formed a partnership.
For eighteen months, over two hundred village property owners and heirs were sought throughout Europe, in the hope of negotiating the purchase of thirty of the village’s houses. And so began a slow and often complex process of urban recovery in the planned transformation of this forgotten corner of Portugal into the hotel complex, Aldeia da Pedralva.
As the buildings have been given a new lease of life, staying as faithful as possible to their traditional state and installed with original, restored furniture, so some of the former villagers saw the wisdom of rejuvenating their own properties, turning them back into liveable accommodation and, in turn, helping restore the village to its once original state.
Aldeia da Pedralva opened to guests in 2010, many of the 24 houses having been turned into individual guest cottages, complete with one, two or three bedrooms, lounge area, bathroom, kitchenette, and some with private courtyard. By the reception area is a café/restaurant with outside terrace, a snooker table is housed in the bar area, and there is also a swimming pool on the edge of the village. I am aware of only one other similar village in Portugal, at Aldeias do Xisto, in the north of the country.
An on-site activity centre offers bike and GPS rental, and guests can participate in birdwatching, hiking, nature walks, scuba diving, fishing, and even dolphin watching, which is all to the good, as I happen to be here during Algarve Nature Week (www.algarvenatureweek.pt), which offers visitors the chance to explore the region’s natural world, with 90 outdoor experiences to choose from. The hub of the week, now in its second year, is the Passeio das Dunas in Quarteira, where local producers and outdoors activity companies gather.
Although the Algarve covers almost five thousand square kilometres, what many beach-goers do not see or realise is that the area stretches far beyond the sands into hidden protected natural areas, through forests, riparian corridors and estuarine systems; natural, diverse environments, each being of biological significance. These are prime areas of nature and biodiversity where eco tourism is able to create authentic, non-commercial experiences for the visitor.
Eco tourism is a growing factor in Europe, increasing annually on average by seven per cent. In the Algarve, its diverse environments and uniquely natural assets account for forty per cent of protected natural areas. Add to that good accessibility, and the region suddenly becomes an extremely attractive proposition for visitors seeking an alternative and genuine holiday experience.
After a blustery night, complete with thunder and torrential rain which woke me at about 2.45am, I doze until 7.30am before alighting the bed to take breakfast in the dining area. With inclement weather making it an unpromising start to the morning, I venture on to the quiet, country road which leads between Pedralva and Patrina, offering me a glimpse of silent, tree-strewn valleys.
I travel through Vila do Bispo to Cabo de S. Vicente, the furthest land point in southwestern Portugal. Coachloads of visitors are here, some crowding round the van where you can buy your last sausage in this country before reaching the next land mass of America.
My next stop is lunch near Amado Beach, a mecca for surfers with its high, rolling waves and sweeping, sandy beach.
Driving past wetland areas that remind me of rather forlorn rice paddy fields, I arrive at Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, where I meet a representative of Quimera Experience (www.quimeraexperience.com).
Leaving the soaring cliffs and secluded beaches behind, we venture through small pine groves and stroll by Mediterranean forested areas, following tracks that run adjacent to arable and pasture land where cattle graze.
The following morning brings better weather as a hike is planned on the Via Algarviana (www.viaalgarviana.org), from Picota to the village of Monchique.
In the distance is the town of Monchique, known for its natural heritage in the form of the Norfolk Island Palm (Araucaria heterophylla), classified as a monumental tree for its age, height and rarity.
Here in the Serra de Monchique mountain range, which separates the Algarve from the neighbouring northern region of the Alentejo, a find myself drawn to a peaceful, lush landscape of rolling hills, leafy woods and flowing streams, understandably referred to as the ‘garden of the Algarve’.
As stunning as it is, the area has been somewhat overlooked by tourism, visitors instead drawn to the attractive coastal resorts. No doubt, with the help of Algarve Nature Week, that view will change as more will hopefully venture to appreciate the breathtaking scenery and irresistible charms of the region. For nature is one of the most recent products to be developed by the country.
From the granite surface and shrubbery of the peak, the trail leads through tree-lined avenues, by picturesque hamlets and past amazing plantations of cork oak (pictured above), chestnut and pine trees. Age-old traditions are upheld in these parts, with families of long standing tending to their cork harvests, terraced vegetable plots or citrus groves. Nestled between the peaks of Fóia and Picota, we arrive in the hillside town of Monchique with its cobbled streets and whitewashed houses.
The next morning I travel to Fuseta, a former civil parish in the municipality of Olhão, to take a boat ride to discover and enjoy the diversity of islands, villages and beaches in the Natural Park of Ria Formosa (www.passeios-ria-formosa.com).
This system of lagoons and islands stretches for 60km along the Algarve coastline from west of Faro to Cacela Velha, and encloses a vast area of sapal (marsh), salinas (salt pans), creeks and dune islands. The diversity of eco-systems hereabouts attracts a varied range of animal life, and is one of the most important areas for aquatic birds in Portugal, hosting on a regular basis more than 20,000 birds during the wintering period.
Passing through the huge lagoon in front of Olhão and across the Barrier Islands of Ria Formosa, we head for Farol Bay and the landmark Santa Maria Lighthouse, one of three lighthouses in the Algarve. Sailing through the labyrinth of canals, islands, marshland and sandy beaches, we disembark for a brief tour of Culatra.
The impressive lighthouse which dominates the scene was built in 1851. Tourism is one of the main resources here, with daily ferry arrivals. I am told that it is more expensive to rent accommodation in Farol than in a 5-star hotel on the mainland, such is the village’s popularity.
Due to its shallow waters, the lagoon is a nursery in which several oceanic species spend their early stages of life. As some are of high commercial value, shellfish farming, which is highly labour intensive, is an economic activity in the tidal flats.
Classified as a Natural Park in 1987, the Ria Formosa encompasses an area of about 18,000 hectares, and is protected from the sea by five barrier islands and two peninsulas. The magnificent area extends along the leeward coast of the Algarve through the municipalities of Loulé, Faro, Olhão, Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António. Elected as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal, the Ria Formosa is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary places I have ever witnessed, not only for the constantly changing landscapes due to the continuous movement of winds, currents and tides, but also because of its uniqueness.
It is here that we visit Nova Cortiça S.A.(www.novacortica.pt), which is principally involved in the manufacture of natural cork discs that go to make champagne cork stoppers.
Late afternoon, and we check in at the Hotel Vila Galé Albacora (www.vilagale.com/en/hotels/algarve/vila-gale-albacora), where we are overnighting. Set in a converted tuna fishing camp near the river on the edge of the Ria Formosa National Park, the hotel is 4km from Tavira Castle. The old fishermen’s houses were converted into rooms, and offer a warm decor. There is an outdoor pool with a bar, and a spa with an indoor pool, a sauna and a Turkish bath. The eco-hotel has received awards and recognition for its sustainable environmental practices, and where activities related to nature tourism is a major strength.
Leaving the hotel, we begin a leisurely cycle ride (www.megasporttravel.com) from the hotel grounds, through the historic town of Tavira, to Barril Beach.
Our route ends at the gateway to the Praia do Barril, an idyllic beach situated on the sandbar island of Ilha de Tavira, close to the village of Pedras D’el Rei. Once home to a small tuna fishing community, the original dwellings have been converted into a variety of restaurants, cafés and shops. Lining the sand dunes of the beach are the anchors that were once used by the tuna fishing fleet. This unique rusting memorial is known as the Anchor Cemetery. Barril Beach is connected to Pedras D’el Rei by a miniature railway that was once used by the fishing fleet to transport goods between the community and the main road. This railway has since been converted into a popular tourist attraction that transports visitors to and from the beach. The journey is a little over 1km, and a return ticket costs €2.00.
The few days that I have spent in the Algarve have proved a real eye-opener, showing me that the region is not merely about sun-kissed beaches and golf. Algarve Nature Week has proved that. Yet again, the latter is not simply about nature itself and Algarve’s natural assets, but also about the history, the people, the culture and lifestyle of a region with a multitude of stories to tell.
Head inland a few miles towards the Serra do Caldeirao above Loulé, for example, and you will discover traditional villages where artisans are busy at work, and welcome tourists to join craft workshops such as working with sheep wool (www.proactivetur.pt). With its natural beauty and incomparable climate, this land of contrasts is simply primed to be discovered.
All images © Michael Cowton Photography/Essential Journeys