Western Algarve in Portugal
This was the end of the world, The Western Algarve
In Portugal, where a limitless ocean flings wave upon powerful wave at the feet of dramatic cliffs that mark the edge of this continent; an ocean where terrible monsters were thought to lurk, ready to destroy any who challenged it.
It was here, near Cabo de Sao Vicente, that Prince Henry the Navigator rose to the challenge, where he built his fortress and trained his navigators; From here that he sent his ships, those valiant caravelles, on the many voyages known as the Discoveries.
They reached Madeira in 1420; the Azores in 1427; and the west coast of Africa in 1434. A souvenir of Africa -- the Rosa Albardeira -- blooms here each spring.
The Western Algarve was at that time the new frontier of the Ancient World, once Gibraltar's Strait had been conquered.
Historically speaking, western Algarve is prime real estate: Neolithic relics dating back to 4000 BC share the landscape with Roman ruins; Moorish fortresses bear silent testimony to their former occupants who ruled the land until the Crusades saw it become part of Portugal; and in 1587, after wreaking havoc on Cadiz and Faro, Sir Francis Drake came here to sack the fortress.
But it's not the history of the western Algarve that these days draws thousands of visitors.
Today most come for the marinas, the golf courses, luxury condos and elegant hotels that line the coast from Faro to Albufeira, and beyond.
They come for the restaurants, the great food, and miles of sandy beaches.
Toss in a relatively low cost of living, and the Algarve in Portugal makes a warm, attractive long stay and holiday destination.
By happy coincidence, late January and early February (when northerners are heartily sick of winter) is often the best time to visit. The Mediterranean flowers in shades of hot pink and yellow come into bloom, as do the almonds trees, in drifts of pink and white, highlighting the dark green of the umbrella pines.
Groves of oranges and lemons, heavy with ripe fruit, share the hillsides with winter-stark vineyards. Huge cactus and succulents add architectural interest. Cork oaks, olive trees and eucalypts climb the flanks of mountains that rise to the north and block the cold winter winds.
Charming towns and villages . . .
. . . their stuccoed and stone buildings a brilliant white against cobalt skies, hug the southern coast and hide in the hillsides. Early morning waterfronts fill with fishermen unloading the catch of the day.
At weekly farmers' markets, stall after stall is laden with all manner of goods -- fresh vegetables, cut flowers and plants, olive oils, live chickens, arts and crafts, and much else. Though shoppers throng, this area doesn't feel 'touristy'.
The few water parks are still closed, awaiting the intense heat and frenzied crowds of summer. You're hard pressed to find a souvenir Tshirt, much less a whole store. And many shops close for an hour or two in the afternoon.
But if, even so, you find yourself longing for a bit of peace and open country, then head west from Faro and Albufeira to Cabo de Sao Vicente, and roam the battlements, wander through fields dense with wildflowers and clamber the cliffs where the explorers once walked.
Look closely at those coppery cliffs -- flashes of color will prove to be cliff fishermen carefully navigating the narrow ledges where they perch to cast their long lines into the surf below. (Yes, sometimes they do fall, and no, they do not practice 'catch and release': somehow, tossing a sea bass a hundred or more feet to the rocks below defeats the purpose).
Stand on a cliff top and look down to where the Atlantic rollers relentlessly carve sandy coves from the shore, and sculpt fantastic pinnacles. Smell the salty spray that breezes carry high to the rock strewn plateau. Gaze west into the setting sun, and watch the sky turn a luminous orange red. Look to the horizon -- you can almost see those long ago caravelles.