Alentejo, Lisbon and Western Algarve [2011]

Bougainvillaea shading the entrance to a typical small house in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal.

es, we exchanged one heatwave, in the UK, for an even hotter week in Portugal. Fortunately, we had an airconditioned car and were visiting places that had an off-shore breeze to temper the heat — over 30 degrees in October? Our initial inspiration for revisiting Portugal, other than celebrating birthdays, was the reintroduction of direct full-service flights from Manchester to Lisbon on TAP. However, how long this service will continue with the less than fully load plane both ways remains to be seen. However, it was a great mid-morning flight out, we picked up our car, a very nice Opel Astra diesel estate model, with a press-button parking brake that needed a bit of getting used to and 'econo' engine that dies at stops to save fuel, and we hit the Vasco da Gama bridge across the Rio Tego [Tagus] to our first stop at the Pousada Alcacer do Sal about 45 minutes south of Lisbon.

Pousada in Alcaçer do Sal, Portugal.

We've waxed lyrically about this conversion of a very derelict castle and convent into a pousada hotel with fabulous public spaces and big standard bedrooms previously; this time we had the opportunity to chill out round the pool, that we shared with some SAGA holidays visitors. We also talked to the owner of a small bar halfway down the hill from the pousada who spoke accentless English that he had perfected in Tonbridge Wells!Again we had the fixed price meal, the Hunter's Special Menu of regional specialities, that was absolutely excellent and eclipsed the offers from the other Pousadas on this trip. A great first night of the trip.

At Alcacer we picked up our Pousadas Golden Age Pass of five vouchers to be used for our subsequent accommodation nights, a great deal for the over 55's!

The surfer's beach at Praia do Tonel, Sagres, Portugal.

Every bar and restaurant in Portugal offers Sagres beer, but it's not brewed in the eponymous town, located near the most western point in Europe: Cape St Vincent. This is the most undeveloped part of the Algarve and it took us a few hours of motorway and regional road driving to reach it from Alcacer do Sal. Fortunately the roads we traversed in Portugal had hardly any other vehicles on them, so this was a relatively easy drive. The later part of the route takes one through the Park Natural do Sudoeste Alantejano Costa Vicentina, so there is very lttle development of the wild west coast popular with surfers and bird watchers too.

The Pousada Infantes in Sagres is perched on a clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Praia da Mareta beach. It's a relatively modern building with good facilities: all rooms have a small terrace, although the acid colours of the fruit theme decoration could be toned down for our taste. The pleasant public rooms have photographs of ocean going yachts and tapestries celebrating links to Prince Henry the Navigator and sea battles involving Drake, Napier and Nelson. On our first evening we walked into the main street of town to check out the restaurants and also wandered down to the Praia da Mareta beach, ostensibly for a drink, but at the O Telheiro do Infante the wine was so reasonably priced that we ordered plate of sardines too. These came with an excellent salad and boiled potatoes in butter — we didn't need a meal after that! Wandering back we happened upon the recommended Dromedary bar/cafe that offered a good line in cocktails that rounded off the evening.

Next day we  walked to the other beaches around the town: Praia da Martinhal that is the main fishing port for the area, with a recommended fish restuarant that we considered a bit overpriced; then across town towards the 'fortaleza' that contains the famous wind compass and down to Praia do Tonel, a visually stunning beach of fine sand under crumbling cliffs, then back to the Praia da Mareta for a well deserved drink after walking for nearly three hours. On route we noticed that there was a bird watching event focussed round the small school building: 2nd Festival Observacao de Aves, that attracted a number of 'twitchers' and the recommended small restaurant: A Grelha, that we returned to that evening and had an excellent meal of large prawns in a coconut flavoured sauce.

Ideal house Sagres

Sagres is more a big village than a town, with a lot of spaces between the properties, very different from our next stop at the far eastern end of the Algarve, Tavira. We drove on a slow road from Sagres to Lagos before we hit the motorway for the main journey behind the built up coastal strip of the main Algarve vacation towns, only stopping at Silves, a town with a moorish castle and narrow streets.

Tavira is a town that evolved around the Roman bridge across the Rio Gilao. The traditional industry was based on the salt pans between the town and the sea; today it has made the most of it's location with very attractive riverside gardens and public areas, bars and cafes and restaurants specialising in the seafood of the area. The Pousada Convento do Graca is an unmissable bright yellow ochre refurbishment of a 16th century convent with contemporary additions and an attractive garden and pool, just a few minutes walk from the Roman bridge. It's also within the old town walls that also conatins the castelo, three big churches and the Palacio da Galeria, an 18th century building housing the Municipal Museum and temporary exhibitions.

The cloisters where breakfast is taken at the Pousada in Tavira, Portugal.

The Pousada has beautiful public areas, but the basic rooms are located on the 2nd floor and although more than adequate, seem a bit cramped by Poudada standards. The attractions of Tavira are a magnet for visitors looking for a less built up take on the Algarve, so there are lots of dining options, particularly along the riverside. We followed a recommendation to the Restauranye Bica where we had a wonderful meal of big prawns in shells and excellent lamb chops, plus one and half bottles of very good wine for 34 euros. It was so good we went there twice!

The main pool and garden of the Pousada in Tavira,  Portugal.

To give us a break on our return to Lisbon, we arranged to stay a night at the Pousada Sao Francisco, a huge 13th century convent in the centre of the city. To get there we hit the motorway again to just a few kilometers from the Spanish border and then turned north on a regional road that was virtually deserted apart from us, only stopping off at Mertola a hill-top town that has Roman and Moorish roots and tortuous narrow roads round the castelo where we got horribly stuck in a one way system. Onwards to Beja, the countryside became flatter and we could see the city across the landscape, but getting to the Pousada through the busy streets proved tricky, even though we had visited before.

The church, originally a mosque at Mertola, Portugal.

The scale of this pousada is enormous, with a central interior space that was once the convent church, with huge cloisters and numerous public spaces; the guests rooms are not large and look a little tired with some fittings in need of care, but the big garden with large pool and tennis courts are a great asset in the middle of the city. Beja has had some public funds spent on improvements with pedestrianised shopping streets and refurbished public spaces. We were looking for recommended restaurants and found a few, but also happened upon the Wine Bar  45 on Rua Dr. Aresta Branco, where a very friendly gentleman offered us a potent welcome drink of a Portuguese version of Sangria and a well priced selection of tapas and an excellent bottle of rose wine. We later followed a recommend for bargain roast chicken Churrasqueira O Alemao, which was excellent and incredibly cheap for a full meal.

Finally, to allow us to get the only TAP flight back to Manchester at 8.00 am, we had to return to Lisbon and stop overnight. Rather than go directly to our hotel: the Sofitel Lisbon Liberdade, we decided to investigate the beaches to the south of the city. So we took a detour from the hectic motorway just before the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge over the Rio Tejo to the 15 kilometers of the Costa de Caparica beaches. Unbeknown to us it was a public holiday and the beaches were heaving, but we did a walk in the shallows for couple of hours and the breeze off the ocean kept the temperature down.

Getting back to the motorway and across the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge to Lisbon city centre was a battle of nerves with local drivers, but we found our hotel on Avenide da Liberdada, the beautiful main thoroughfare through the city. The Sofitel Lisbon Liberdade hotel staff were very helpful in retrieving our car and parked it right in front of the hotel entrance. Although small, the room was lavishly appointed with extra soft beds, Jaques Delorme bathrobes and thick sound absorbing curtains; only the black and red 'art' detracted from the opulence we enjoyed so briefly, having to leave before 6.00 am for the airport.

View over the centre of Lisbon from Parque Eduardo VII, the castle is to the left and Rio Tejo [Tagas] in the background.

During the late afternoon we wandered up through the trees along the Avenide da Liberdada to the Parque Eduardo VII, stopping off for a few drinks in either direction at the small kiosks on the wide pavements of the Avenida and in the park. We then wanted to go to the Barrio Alto for a light meal in a wine bar we had investigated on a previous trip and took a route that looked direct on the map, but proved a bit longer than we thought. The most popular area of bars and restaurants was a lot more popular than when we visited about the same time of year two years ago. However we found our bearings and had an excellent meal at Restaurante Alfaia in the corner of Travessa do Queimada and Rua Diario de Noticias and then wandered back to the hotel via the more direct route along the route of the Elevador da Gloria funicular that took us almost to the door of the hotel. Our early start did not allow us to indulge ourselves in the luxury beds, but we got to the airport in plenty of time and back to a rainy cold Manchester.

Although our schedule did not allow us to unpack our suitcases at any of the locations we stayed at, we really enjoyed our visit to the Algarve, Alentejo and Lisbon and could envisage visiting Sagres and the far west at this time of year in the future.