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Introduction to holidays in the Algarve

The maritime province of the Algarve, often called the Garden of Portugal, is the south westernmost part of Europe. Its coastline stretches 160km (99 miles) from Henry the Navigator's Cape St. Vincent to the border town of Vila Real de Santo António, fronting once-hostile Spain. The varied coastline contains sluggish estuaries, sheltered lagoons, low-lying areas where clucking marsh hens nest, long sandy spits, and promontories jutting out into the white-capped aquamarine foam.

Called Al-Gharb by the Moors, the land south of the Serras (mountains) of Monchique and Caldeirão remains a spectacular anomaly that seems more like a transplanted section of the North African coastline than a piece of Europe. The temperature averages around 15°C (60°F) in winter and 23°C (74°F) in summer. The countryside abounds in vegetation: almonds, lemons, oranges, carobs, pomegranates and figs.

Most of the towns and villages of the Algarve are more than 240km (149 miles) from Lisbon. The great 1755 earthquake shook this area. Entire communities were wiped out; however, many Moorish and even Roman ruins remain. In the fret-cut chimneys, mosque like cupolas, and cubist houses, a distinct Oriental flavour prevails. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians all touched this land.

However, much of the historic flavour is gone forever, swallowed by a sea of dreary high-rise apartment blocks surrounding most towns. Years ago, Portuguese officials, looking in horror at what happened to Spain's Costa del Sol, promised more limited and controlled development so that they wouldn't make "Spain's mistake."

Algarvian beaches are some of the best in Portugal. Their quality has led to the tourist boom across the southern coastline, making it a formidable rival of Lisbon's Costa do Sol and Spain's Costa del Sol. There are literally hundreds of beaches, many with public showers and watersports equipment available for rent.

Since around 1965, vast stretches of coastal terrain have been bulldozed, landscaped, irrigated, and reconfigured into golf courses. Many are associated with real-estate developments or major resorts, such as the 800-hectare (1,976-acre) Quinta do Lago, where retirement villas nestle amid vegetation at the edges of the fairways. Most are open to qualified golfers who inquire in advance.

Many former fishing villages -- now summer resorts -- dot the Algarvian coast: Carvoeiro, Albufeira, Olhão, Portimão. The sea is the source of life, as it always has been. The village marketplaces sell esparto mats, copper, pottery, and almond and fig sweets, sometimes shaped like birds and fish. Through the narrow streets comes the fast sound of little accordions pumping out the rhythmical corridinho.

For motorists, the big news is that the final 62km (39-mile) stretch of A2 is open, linking Lisbon and the Algarve with more efficient access than ever. The road took a decade to complete and cost 5 million.

About the Author: For more information about holidays to the Algarve and a great selection of Algarve villa rentals please visit

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