Winter s thrills in the Algarve
Algarve: The old town walls at Lagos. Picture: Steve McKenna

After touching down at Faro, the gateway to the Algarve, most travellers rush off the plane and head west, to the golf courses, sandy beaches and bustling resorts of this scenic, but heavily developed, region of southern Portugal.

I buck the trend and veer east, to the sun-baked and deliciously photogenic town of Tavira. In a country bulging with places of historical importance, Tavira has a special spot in Portuguese folklore.

It was here, in this old Roman settlement, in 1242, that Christian armies defeated and expelled the Muslim Moors. Six centuries earlier, the Moors had stormed across from Africa and begun to dominate the Iberian peninsula (the Algarve derives from the Arabic word "Al-Gharb").

The catalyst for this decisive battle was the Moors' ambush and murder of seven Christian knights. The knights' tombs are housed inside Tavira's Santa Maria church, a building whose clock tower was adapted from a mosque minaret and which neighbours the town's hill-top Moorish castle.

Lording over Tavira, the castle grants stirring views from its ramparts: a maze of pretty, sloping, cobbled streets, lined with Baroque churches and whitewashed houses, tumbling down to the palm-studded banks of the River Gilao, which threads into the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

After a pleasant and only mildly thigh-straining morning of ambling and sightseeing, my sister and I enjoy a grilled seafood lunch and Borba wine (from the Algarve's neigbouring Alentejo region) beside the Gilao. After coffee and cake, we hop on the train to the other side of the Algarve - and to Lagos, the launch-pad for Portugal's golden Age of Discovery, an era that came two centuries after the Christian Reconquest and was pioneered by the great Henry the Navigator.

On Lagos' breezy Praca do Infante, a square facing the city's 16th-century crenellated walls, we find a statue of Henry. In 1415, the 21-year-old prince, son of King Joao, led a fleet from Lagos to seize the Moorish trading hub of Ceuta on the north African coast.

The Portuguese went on to find, and claim, the Madeira Islands, the Azores and, later, Cape Verde, before Henry's protege, Gil Eanes, became the first person to sail beyond Cape Bojador and return. Overcoming this headland, on the Western Sahara, was a feat as ships had frequently fallen foul of its violent Atlantic waves, sparking mythical tales of sea monsters swallowing ships and the sea being so hot it would boil anything in its path.

Ripe for casual exploration, Lagos has a beguiling web of twisting streets, sloping alleys and stone staircases. We browse family-run fashion boutiques, examine bottles of port in an artisans' store and ogle the opulent, gold-leaf-clad interior of St Anthony's church.

We marvel at the giant walled mosaics of azulejo (glazed, intricately decorated tiles) as the buildings' inhabitants gaze down from their wrought-iron balconies, then we sit in a cafe packed with wizened old Portuguese men in once-smart suits and hats, trendy teenagers sporting Cristiano Ronaldo hairstyles, young families and lady pensioners nattering over pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and bicas (espressos).

Beside the town's attractive harbour-front promenade, we find a fortress with an intriguing discoveries-themed museum. Under Henry, we learn, Lagos became expert at churning out caravels - agile sailing vessels that were easier to manoeuvre than the standard clunkers.

Historians believe that although he wasn't much of a traveller himself, Henry sponsored myriad voyages from his armchair and his legacy influenced other great maritime figures, notably compatriots Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan and, of course, Columbus and Cook.

Nearby is an old customs house that, in 1444, hosted Europe's first market for African slaves. Now it's a modern art gallery that reflects on its dark past. While gold and lust for spices fuelled exploration, Portugal became embroiled in this lucrative business under Henry's watch (though he later forbade the kidnap of Africans for slavery).

It's tough to get to Africa from Lagos today but small schooners drift from the town's harbour and flashy new marina for tours of the stunning Algarvian coastline.

Secluded coves, grottoes and rock pools abound, while eroded sandstone cliffs and outcrops evoke Victoria's Great Ocean Road, though the water here is even clearer, calmer and greener. As we admire the scenery, an Australian couple pull up on bicycles, lock them, then descend to Praia Dona Ana, which they have to themselves. They look pretty happy about this.

From the cliffs, we can almost see Sagres, at the wind-swept western tip of the Algarve, where Henry ran a navigation school for talented map makers, geographers, astronomers and sailors.

Like Tavira, seafood restaurants, serving grilled sardines, shellfish risottos, salted dried cod and boiled prawns, are Lagos' forte and we find a cosy little nautical-themed number - O Cantinho do Mar - down a quiet side street off Rua 25 de Abril.

The bubbly waitress tells me it's one of the few buildings in Lagos to have survived the earthquake that devastated Lisbon and southern Portugal in 1755. She shows me the chunky old door pillars as proof of its fortitude.

Surrounded by wooden model ships and lighthouses, fishing nets, lifebuoys and lanterns, I enjoy a platter of grilled fish, mainly sea bass and bream, while my sister raves about her tuna steak.

The great thing about the Algarve is that it's a year-round destination. I've been during the height of summer, when it was scorching hot and buzzing with people. In winter, it's milder (18-21C by day) and much more sedate but perhaps even more charming.

Either way, you're on to a winner here.


• Tavira is a 40-minute ride from Faro's railway station; to get to Lagos (two-and-a-half hours west), you must change at Faro. See for timetables and fares.

• Pousada de Tavira is set around the tranquil courtyard of a 16th century convent, close to Tavira's riverfront; rooms from about 136 Euro ($168) a night.

• In Lagos, the Tivoli Hotel has twin/doubles, with breakfast, from about $60 off-season - rising to about $185 in August.

• For more information, see

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save