Off the Grid: Travel Series Part I, Faro Portugal

Praia Do Tres Irmãos, Faro, Portual, The Algarve

The Algarve is a popular summer escape in Southern Portugal, most famous for providing a wide variety of Atlantic water beaches albeit rocky or fine sand, heaps of tourists, of those many footballers and their wives, and more commonly in the last few years, golf courses and resorts. However, it still remains the best kept secret in comparison to the mania which is Spain's Costa del Sol. For this reason my travel buddy and I decided to head over the border and check it out for ourselves, hoping that September would be less of a cluster-mess. To our surprise we found even more solidarity that we expected and we were able to hone-up on our miserable Portuguese and emergency preparation skills (I practiced driving stick shift in our rental car, should we ever need the automatic-American trained driver to step up).

Lodging: We found a sweet British couple that runs an eco-hostel within close distance of the Faro airport, Quinta Stuart. It's built in a chic camping style and is secluded from the crowded overrun beach towns. We were surrounded by fig trees and could see almost all the stars of our galaxy at night. More importantly their passion for permaculture and interest in offering an alternative to travelers gave me hope that the tourism industry has ambassadors for change.

Another option, less rustic, although also ecological with a bit more of romance, as well as on my wish list for next time, is Casa Beleza do Sol in Tavira. The property and rooms look gorgeous and the sun must reflect beautifully through the windows onto the light-washed wood panels.

Budget: By no means do I want to classify southern Portugal as cheap. I hate when travel hosts go to foreign countries and scream into the camera after purchasing something, "wow, $2 for _____, that is so cheap!" After a recent trip to Switzerland, we have come to the understanding that everything is relative. I am also a hunter of deals, so for a computer nerd and an unemployed foodie, Portugal provided us with a nice getaway without going home to weeks of ramen noodles. The Algarve offers something for all, no matter what level of expenditures you aim to keep.

What, Where, How: As always my primary agenda revolved around food, eating the local dishes and finding people in town who did it best, with zeal and pride for their creations. For us, a rental car was imperative so that we could wander the hills, find the hidden beaches and stop whenever the hunger set in. Portugal is a long thin state, meaning that you can easily drive from the eastern boarder to the western most point of the continent in roughly 2 hours. International flights fly into Faro, but the area is also well served by train, for example 5 hours from Lisbon.

Eating: Pastries- My mouth waters just thinking about them. Most famous is the mythical pasteis de nata, a Portuguese specialty of baked cream custard. Also high on my list was God's bread, pão de deus.

You will see bakeries, pastelerias, everywhere; a meeting place to have coffee (which they say tastes better than in Spain, and they may be right) or to-go lines for baked goods and bread. Pretty much you can't go wrong, eggs, coconut, butter and sugar, make up most of the treats and they are all - in my humble opinion - fabulous. However, we enjoyed the amiability and taste of the pastries at Pastelaria Bispo in the small town of Estoi.
For lunch, try not to get too caught up sun bathing and frolicking in the waters of Praia Do Tres Irmãos, Three Brothers Beach, or you will miss the Portuguese mealtime. Important to note that the locals sit down to eat around 12:30 and finish around 14:30.
A lucky "wrong" turn down a long dirt road, landed us in the parking lot of Quinta do Mel, a hotel/restaurant/lounge/tea room in Olhos d'Água, a beautiful setting sprinkled with green pockets and wheat coloring. The area is relatively flat, and the wide open skies remind me of what one may come across in the American plains. I recommend sitting down on their sofas overlooking the countryside, sipping local brews such as their fermented mead and munching on some of their specialties - appetizers of cottage cheese with pumpkin and almond jam or rosemary bread bruschetta. Many of their ingredients are supplied by farms within walking distance and are sold for take-away inside their shop.

After your meal take your time to digest and meander through the very orchards you just read about in the menu; carob, avocado, orange and lemon trees will line your path. Likely the only person you will encounter is the local shepherd with his flock and sheep dog. Exchange an olá, hello in Portuguese, and breath the clean air, content that you have discovered the true and natural culture of the Algarve.


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