The Algarve is the Southwestern tip of Europe surrounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and separated from Europe by the Spanish Border. It has 100 miles of coastline, soaring cliffs, golden beaches with pounding surf or gentle waves and endless sunshine. It is a mix of whitewashed villages, Medieval Castle Towns, fortified walls and rolling hills planted with olive trees, citrus, and grapevines and covered in wildflowers. Even though it is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Climate is Mediterranean.
Rich in history, the Algarve has survived many occupations and seen a multitude of conquering armies take over their lands going back three thousand years when the Phoenicians established Trading Posts. Next came the Carthaginians followed by the Romans, the Visigoths, and the North African Moors who arrived in 1711 and stayed in control for five hundred years. This was the longest occupation and left an indelible mark on the landscape, architecture, and culture of Portugal.
The Algarve has something for everyone and having recently visited it seems like everyone has discovered The Algarve.
TOURISM IN THE ALGARVE AND THE RYANAIR EFFECT.
Tourism is not new to the Algarve. The British have been coming here since the 1960s. When I lived in the UK in the 1970s and ’80s, the Algarve was already popular with”Brits” escaping their winters for the sunny shores of the Algarve. Ryanair was the leader in providing cheap flights from various airports in England to Faro Airport in the Algarve.
In 2008 when the Portuguese economy hit a low point, a delegation from the Portuguese Government led by entrepreneur Mario Ferreira of “Douro Azul” met with Ryanair to incentivize them to increase their budget-priced flights to the Algarve. The result of this meeting was an instant increase in tourism that injected a jolt of cash into the sagging Portuguese economy.
Mario Ferreira was well suited to this task. Anyone who has visited Portugal will recognize the name “Douro Azul”. Mario Ferreira its CEO, is a businessman who came from “nowhere” with a dream to build a major tour company. Beginning with one little ship that carried 130 passengers, Douro Azul now includes almost everything that sails on the Douro River, (most notably in Porto and the wine country), land and aerial tour companies, a well-networked bus company, hotels, resorts, inns, vineyards and anything one sees with the name “Douro Azul”.
The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.Samuel Johnson
Today waves of tourists have taken advantage of Ryanair’s inexpensive fares, as well as other budget airlines that entered the mass market connecting the rest of Europe and abroad to Portugal. I checked the Ryanair rates today and for 17 Euros each way, excluding baggage fees, it is possible to fly to and from the Algarve from a number of British airports.
In the early days, self-catering holidays were a great attraction. Although all-inclusive holidays are still an important segment of the tourism industry, there is now a choice of accommodations ranging from designer hotels to humble Bed and Breakfast Inns, sophisticated international restaurants to informal little places serving typical Portuguese food plus the full gamut of tours.
To attract another level of tourist, there are at least forty world-class golf courses built along the oceanfront and inland in The Algarve with spectacular views designed by names such as Jack Nicklaus, Sir Henry Cotton, Martin Hawtree and Joseph Lee, all internationally recognized golf course designers.
Many of the towns on the Algarve have been overrun with mass development of condos and gated communities, luxury shopping malls, international restaurants and Marinas catering to expensive yachts. When I decided to visit The Algarve, I looked for a smaller more authentic town, that was not overbuilt or overrun with foreign tourists but due to the burgeoning tourist industry, it was difficult to find.
In early April, I set off for Portugal and chose a small town called Carvoeiro that has a permanent population of about 3,500 people. Carvoeiro was also well positioned so that I could take day trips to different towns up and down the coast.
Originally a Portuguese Fishing Village, Carvoeiro has seen its fair share of invasions and occupations dating from Roman times and still has the remnants of one fortified wall, the 17th Century Fort of Senhora da Conceicao as well as vestiges of its long Moorish occupation.
It had remained fairly unchanged for hundreds of years until about the 1980s when tourists began to discover this unique little village that was in a time warp. In the beginning, the tourists were mainly English retirees, looking to escape the English winter and enjoy the sunny Algarve climate. Over the years, with the increase of flights from the UK and other European airports to the Algarve, tourism surged and Carvoeiro was “discovered”.
More holidaymakers arrived, including some who loved it so much, they bought the property and joined the local community making this their permanent home. There are now a significant number of ex-Pats, some permanent and some part-time, living in Carvoeiro who meet one another regularly at the Tennis Club, which is the hub of ex-pat social life.
The Authentic Center
The center of the village has remained authentic with low rise buildings, narrow streets and cobblestone sidewalks. There are no major chains or branded stores and no fast-food restaurants. It has a one-way street entering the town and a one-way street leaving the town and the sidewalks are cobblestoned. Traffic is slow because the road is only wide enough for one car. Parking is at a premium.
There are the usual tourist shops selling souvenirs, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, a couple of small supermarkets, artisan ice cream shops and a disproportionate number of real estate offices. In the last few years, the town has seen change with more and more international visitors. Recently a new bakery and coffee shop opened its doors with baked goods to rival any I saw in Lisbon and Porto. With the influx of tourists, there are new hotels. B and B’s, shops and homes of every description, large and small, but they all have to conform to the local architectural codes.
By the time I arrived in Carvoeiro, I had been awake for about thirty hours, taking three flights to get there plus a drive from Faro Airport to Carvoeiro, driving a car with a stick shift and using a GPS supplied by the rental company that worked just long enough to get me to my destination. I had no idea of road conditions and found a well-developed road system with clear road signs.
I was on the main freeway going from East to West, the A 22 with several Toll entries and exits. There was a mechanism attached to the car and every time I entered a Toll Road, it would make a “ping” sound indicating I was automatically being charged the toll fee. It is not inexpensive to drive a car in Portugal. Gas costs almost twice as much as it does in the US and the tax on gas is 60% of every liter. There are also excellent Gas Stations along the route that in addition to filling the gas tank, provide a place to stop and get a cappuccino or a light meal.
The drive took about fifty minutes to reach the town but the directions I had been given were sketchy and it took almost as long again to find the place where I was to stay as it did to get from Faro airport to Carvoeiro. Arriving very weary, after several detours and one way systems I was faced with three almost identical apartment buildings and each one had an “apartment D” which was where I would be staying.
Trying to identify which Apartment D was to be my home, I found a British neighbor tending her garden. Not only did she identify the apartment, but she helped me wheel the luggage to the door and opened the lockbox to retrieve the key with the code I had been given. In this age of Air bnbs and VRBO’s, no one is present to meet you, help with the luggage or give you the lay of the land. It was late afternoon and the apartment was dark. I tried to open the shutters but they resisted and I was too exhausted to persist as I knew I still had to find the Supermarket before it got dark. My neighbor said: “Just go out of the village, the same way you came in and on the road to Lagoa you will find the Intermarche”. I had no idea which way I had come in or where Lagoa was, but miraculously found the Internarche Supermarket.
Next morning, waking in the dark, I groped my way to the shutters and all was revealed when I managed to open them. The Apartment was suddenly flooded with light as the view came into focus against a blue, blue sky. Looking straight ahead I could make out a small beach enclosed by massive cliffs and while I was not “on the water”, I could see the ocean, plus rows of little whitewashed houses with identical chimneys extending above the roof line. This is a leftover design feature from the Moor’s occupation and it was only later that I learned the chimneys were obligatory as was their design and they are typical of the region.
From the other side of the apartment, the view was totally different. It was very rural, rolling hills, with stone walls separating the terraces such as one only finds in Mediterranean Climates, with rambling grapevines, orange, fig, olive and almond trees planted informally and fields covered in yellow daisies. I had forgotten how beautiful the Mediterranean type landscape can be, rustic and peaceful in perfect harmony with nature. There was an eerie silence with no traffic sounds that was disturbed only by singing birds and barking dogs. The silence was so powerful and unexpected, it took a few days to adjust to it.
Radiating out from the small village were narrow, winding roads that echoed the coastline before finding their way into the hills, with spectacular views of the ocean and the magnificent limestone cliffs that seemed to enclose the little triangular beach and protect it. The cliffs were majestic and heavily eroded from years of water and wind burrowing holes into them, creating tunnels and caves. The ocean is exceptionally clear and one can see the fish swimming in the water.
In addition to lazing on the beach, there are water sports, kayaking, sailing and snorkeling and two more beaches that can be accessed easily by boat, the Praia da Marinha and the Praia de Vale de Centgranes. The hills are completely built-up covered in small hotels, holiday homes, and informal little restaurants. To one side of the beach are smaller homes, and to the other, with wider roads, one finds Estates and larger homes with gardens. All have spectacular ocean and cliff views. There is a uniformity in the style of architecture and the homes are mostly whitewashed. The North African chimneys mentioned earlier are to be found on all the houses and are a defining feature.
Until recently the majority of visitors were English speaking but this has now changed as there are Scandinavian, German, Italian and a lot of French arriving in this little town. Tourism is a very important part of the economy and the local Portuguese want to welcome their visitors and be able to communicate with them in their native tongue. Nearly everyone speaks English which is a compulsory subject in school. German is also spoken by many people because the Germans have been visiting for many years. The Scandinavians speak English but the recent arrival of the French in large numbers has surprised everyone and caused quite a stir as very few local people speak French – so now there is an urgency for them to learn French in order to welcome the French.
Tourism has created many jobs, especially for women who did not traditionally work outside the home and there is universal gratitude for the improvement in people’s lives heralded by the growth of tourism. Being on the receiving end of Portuguese hospitality, in my experience, these are some of the most genuine people in the world, hardworking, friendly, welcoming and appreciative of this latest “Foreign Invasion”.
THE BEST BEACH AND SMALL TOWN IN EUROPE, 2019.
In January of 2019, Carvoeiro was voted “The Best Beach and Small Town in Europe” by the website “Europe’s Best Destinations” using a survey of 12,840 people that included travelers from 129 countries. This award had an instant effect on Carvoeiro placing it firmly on the tourist map, causing Real Estate prices to spike 19% in January of 2019, yes, 19% in one month.
The population of Carvoeiro is about three thousand five hundred permanent residents. It has a disproportionate number of Real Estate Companies, namely thirty-five to cope with sales and rentals, which is a clear indication of the demand for accommodation. Originally the Real Estate Companies were all well run small local operators, but the “big boys” like Sothebys International, Winkworth and Remax Portugal with overseas connections in their home countries, have moved in trying to capture some of the profits, especially with the estates and larger homes.
With all this development. I wonder how long Carvoeiro can retain its small-town charm.
Even though salaries in the larger cities are higher, if you ask any of the local residents living in Carvoeiro if they would ever move away, to the last one, the reply was always,” This is a little piece of Paradise, why would I ever move !!”
And I have to agree. It is one of the most charming, beautiful small towns in Europe, a little piece of Paradise. If only it was closer to where I live, I could spend part of the year in this idyllic place. If only……………..