Portugal’s southern district is the Algarve. The word means ‘the west’ in the Moorish dialect; as in west of Spain’s Andalucía, also a Moorish word from when the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula around 800 CE. They took over from the Romans, who had taken over from the Phoenicians, who had then been using Portugal’s ports as bases and had ruled the indigenous Celtic tribes. In time, the Moors, too, were pushed back into Africa by other Europeans, but their name for the region stuck.
Today, the Algarve has become extremely popular with European tourists. Its beaches are especially inviting. Not to be overlooked are the historical remains of those ancient peoples, as well as the current vibrant cultural music, food, arts and crafts. And if you are visiting, take your bike, or plan to rent one, as cycling is a great way to view some of the details missed when taking a car or other transportation. Stretching across the Portugal’s entire southern region, the Algarve is really two terrains; one morphing into the other. The main region, the littoral, runs the gamut from the hyper, seaside cities to sleepy rural villages; from tranquil orange and olive groves and vineyards to acres of high production glass houses; from modest white-washed, stone-built homes to fancy gated communities with green golf courses; and from huge shopping malls and sports arenas to Roman and Moorish ruins and 500 year old churches.
The Algarve’s other, lesser known and visited sections, are the foothills. They run parallel to, and just to the north. Their winding roads are almost free of traffic, and the towns, less touristy and cooler. You will also see more cork oaks growing on the hillsides and in the valleys, as the production of corks for wine bottles and other commodities, such as acoustic tiles and shoes, is an important Algarve industry.
For visiting on bike, the coast is certainly flatter, but with more traffic. If you have the time, and the weather is not too hot, biking in the moderate hills is great as you can experience the real Portugal.
To provide some direction for your initial cycle explorations, look to the Ecovia (http://www.ciclovia.pt/ciclovias/5algarve/1algarve/litoral/elitoral.php ). It is about 160 kilometre cycle/walk way, stretching from Cape St. Vincent, on the Algarve’s western end, to its eastern-most city, Vila Real de San Antonio, fronting the Guadiana River which divides Portugal from Spain.
The Ecovia follows mostly rural roads along the coastline, some of which are also parts of the southern link to the Camino de Campostilla, so you may encounter walkers. It winds through villages, and the sea-side cities. The Ecovia is best done on a mountain bike, as a number of the sections are dirt roads, or just barely paved, cobbled roads.
Karen and I have traversed the eastern section, finding the small roads – both paved and unpaved – most pleasant as they pass orange and olive groves, vineyards, commercial green-houses, and well-kept villas, quintas, and casas. Around Tavira, abutting its estuarine national park, the Ria Formosa, are many ponds where seawater is evaporated to collect salt, another important industry.
All the coastal towns have small fishing ports of one sort or another. One of these, near Tavira, is Santa Luzia which specializes in octopus. Clams and oysters are cultivated in the estuaries. Other communities send out their boats to catch a range of Atlantic ocean fish.
During three months in the spring of 2017, we were based in Tavira. It is a town of about 20,000, but decidedly less touristy than the more westerly Algarve cities.
For these three months, and knowing the numerous combinations of road surfaces from a previous trip to Portugal, I purchased a hybrid bike. At 290.00 Euros it was cheaper than renting a bike for the three months. And while I could not keep up with the numerous road bike riders on the highways, at least my butt did not get too sore on the rural roads where the pavement over the cobblestones is thin, or the pothole repairs leave a bit to be desired. Plus the medium width tyres provided reasonable traction on the dirt roads. And I encountered every type of surface as I explored over two thousand kilometres of both the littoral and foothills roads surrounding Tavira.
Enjoy the Algarve, and happy cycling.