Where to stay
Bela Vista Hotel
A clifftop Relais & Châteaux property overlooking the Praia de Rocha. Aside from its stellar Vista Restaurant, the spa offers a ritual treatment using almond oils from nearby Monchique. Doubles from £320. 1 Avenida Tomás Cabreira, Portimão, 00 351 282 460 280, hotelbelavista.net
Jupiter Marina Hotel
New, well-appointed four-star close to the museum and port. The rooftop bar is worth a visit for its estuary views. Doubles from £110. 2 Estrada da Rocha, Portimão, 00 351 282 002 200, jupitermarinahotel.com
Across the river from Portimão, Ferragudo is quiet and residential. José Mourinho has a summer home there. The little hilltop hideaway, is neither B&B nor apartment but a bit of both. Doubles from £69. 12 R. Mouzinho de Albuquerque, Ferragudo, 00 351 916 542 351, one2seven.pt
Quinta dos Vales
The winery, one of the best in the Algarve, is inland and a few kilometres from Portimão. It has four elegant properties to rent. Doubles from £73. Sítio dos Vales, Estômbar, 00 351 282 431 036, quintasdosvales.eu
Portimão is a small town in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. Faro is the nearest major airport. Flights from the UK take around three hours. Currency is the euro. In August, the average high temperature is 27C and the average low is 18C.
Ryanair offer 22 weekly flights from London Stansted to Faro, from £75 return. Flights depart early in the morning. For an excellent airport hotel, check into the new Radisson Blu, a stone’s throw from the terminal. ryanair.com radissonblu.com
easyJet flies daily to Faro Airport from London Heathrow, from £160 return. easyjet.com
Visit Algarve is the official website for Algarve’s Tourism Bureau. Its packed with information to plan your trip. visitalgarve.pt
300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson (Harper Paperbacks, £16) tells the story of two women whose lives are drawn together when they uncover a dark truth about Faro’s shifting sea marshes.
To offset your carbon emissions when flying to Portimão, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 0.57 tonnes of C02, meaning a cost to offset of £4.24.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses, with a glass of wine, unless otherwise stated.
Opened as a local grocery store and kitsch diner, it’s become a fashionable Algarvian hangout. Nice petiscos that change daily. From £10. 60 Rua do Compromisso, Faro, 00 351 289 825 500
A lively wine bar with a tasty speciality of fresh goat’s cheese, honey, chopped walnuts and ground black pepper. From £16. 20 Rua de Montepio, Faro, 00 351 911 872 810
Café Brasil Marisqueira An easy-going seafood café, with an outdoor seating area, that’s popular with every social class and age group in the city. From £10. 36A Largo Dom João II, Portimão, 00 351 282 424 286, cafébrasilmarisqueira.com
Spectacular view and location at Prainha, just outside town. Very fresh, simple but well cooked local fish and shellfish. From £30. Aldeamento da Prainha, Portimão, 00 351 282 458 503, canicorestaurante.com
A Casa da Isabel
Patisserie and tearoom with the very top level of Portuguese sweets. The pasteis de nata are a dream. Tea and cake from £5. 61 Rua Direita, Portimão, 00 351 282 484 315
O Holandês dos Caracóis
A local eatery which does snails in half a dozen different ways and typical Portuguese family cooking. Small bowls of snails from £4 leading up to £14 for a kilo. 5 Rua Eng Duarte Pacheco, Portimão, 00 351 282 414 166
On the way to Portimão from Faro Airport, it’s a plush eatery with a big selection of petiscos. Individual portions from £4. Quadradinhos, Lote 52, Almancil,
00 351 289 394 699, paixarestaurante.com
Taberna da Maré
Near the old port, this cute bistro has inside and outside seating. Go there for the sardines – they’re better here than at other nearby bars. From £10. 9 Tv da Barca, Portimão, 00 351 282 414 614
Michelin-starred chef João Oliveira of the Bela Vista Hotel has a delicate, inventive streak that is rare. Even his unusual combinations come off beautifully. From £100. 1 Avenida Tomás Cabreira, Portimão, 00 351 282 460 280, hotelbelavista.net
It dates from 1892, when Alvor was a scruffy fishing port rather than a trendy holiday destination. Expect authentic Algarve cooking. From £15. Largo da Riberia, Alvor, 00 351 282 043 957
- A kind of seafood-flavoured bread porridge
- Cockle-like clams
- Salt cod
- Hot pork sandwich eaten with mustard or piri-piri sauce
- Fish stew
- Double-sided cooking pot, from which the national dish takes its name
- Horse mackerel
- Wreckfish (firm-fleshed kind of grouper)
- Marinated cooked fish
- Broad beans
- Black-eyed beans
- Bread, including the cottage loaf-style pão de cabeza
- Goose barnacles
- Cheese – goat’s and sheep’s varieties are popular
- Toucinho do céu
- ‘Bacon from heaven’ almond pudding
Food and Travel Review
Hotel Bela Vista overlooks the spectacular Algarve beach of Praia da Rocha. A fishing magnate built it as a bourgeois mansion in the early 20th century. Then it boasted the features to which provincial Portuguese industrialists aspired: panelled walls, a staircase of Brazilian hardwood and, outside, an imposing facade topped by an ornamental belvedere. Most desirable of all, it stood far enough away from Portimão’s wharf; the smoke from the canning factories, the mingled smells of tuna or sardines and the hooter which sounded whenever the boats came in.
The old seaport backing onto the Zona Ribeirinha, the mouth of the Arade River where the boats are tied up, has fought off the advances of property developers. It’s a tangle of cluttered, cobbled residential streets with few nods to mass tourism. Parked cars ride the pavements. Shops and cafés remain staunchly provincial. Vestiges of Portimão’s industrial past lie close to the surface. Storks perch on top of abandoned brick chimneys. Salt pans form a chequerboard beside the arches of the truss railway bridge across the estuary to Ferragudo. The cultural museum opposite the serpentine Jupiter Marina Hotel was once a canning factory.
A restored shallop, the Osiris, used to collect the catch from boats at sea and shuttle it back to the harbour so they could carry on fishing. Today it allows visitors to explore the caves below the Ponte da Piedade cliffs at Lagos or bob in the wake of dolphins.
According to the Bela Vista’s chef João Oliveira, Portugal has the best fish in the world and the Algarve has the best in Portugal. It’s a boast he believes he can justify: ‘The water here is 15C. In the north it’s only 10C. We have fish that are found off the African coast and in the Mediterranean, as well as from the Atlantic.’
Four days a week he goes to the market at seven o’clock when it opens. ‘I don’t go there looking to buy on price. I want the fish that are in season and in their prime. Why pay €25 (£22) a kilo for sea bass when I can find perfect cherne (wreckfish) or bonito?”
Fishmongers here own dayboats in Alvor, a village along the coast. They display skinned peixe porco (literally pigfish), meaty and snapped up by inhabitants in the know. Piles of mixed fish for caldeirada – stews – may include gurnard, monkfish, dogfish and conger eel. There’s John Dory, gilt- head bream, sole, mullet, mackerel, scabbard fish, cuttlefish, squid, octopus and several kinds of prawn.
After a morning’s skinning, scaling and filleting, they step outside to the Casa das Bifanas. The café wraps hot pork steaks fried in lard in chewy bread rolls, or bifanas. Smeared with hot piri-piri sauce or mustard, and with Silves beer to drink, they have a rustic appeal.
The last canning factory closed 30 years ago, but a handful of sardine boats still work out of the commercial port on the far bank of the Arade estuary. Joaquim Manuel Dias captains the Arrifana, the champion sardine boat that still plies its trade here. ‘When my sons decided not to become fishermen, it really broke my heart,’ he says. Sardines may be part of the nation’s identity, ‘The cleanest of all fish because they only feed on plankton,’ explains Dias, but their numbers continue to decline. His crew is winching five tonnes onto the quayside, one day’s haul from the purse seine nets he uses. To put things into context, Portimão and Ferragudo employed 27,000 workers processing the fish in their heyday.
There’s a right way of eating charcoal-grilled sardines, explains winemaker Rui Virginia over lunch at the excellent Taberna da Maré. The first step is to brine them in a salmoura for a few hours. The second is to put them on a slice of the region’s stretchy sourdough bread, so the oil seeps into it. Third, you peel off the skin to reveal the white meat. Fourth, eat it with fingers. Fifth, eat the bread.
After a few glasses of his Branco Grande Escolha, a 50/50 arinto-chardonnay blend, I understand why he is so passionate about the most minute detail.
At the turn of the millennium, other than its co-operative, the Algarve had no major wine of note. That’s changing quickly. Senhor Virginia’s winery at Barranco Longo, part of Lagoa DOP between the Algarve’s capital Faro and Portimão, is (together with the Quinta dos Vales, Quinta da Vinha and Quinta João Clara) developing wine beyond the ambition of ice-cold functional beachside quaffing. His oaked rosé – Aragonez and Touriga Nacional – would compete with the best Provençal varieties.
It would certainly go with the cataplanas that combine meat and shellfish. The iconic lidded cooking pot that seals like a clam lends its name to the national dish. Great for simmering, it isn’t ideal as retired fisherman Belchior Rocha will tell anyone prepared to ask him, to treat amêijoas (delicious cockle-sized clams): ‘Cook them in olive oil and garlic until they just open. Any longer and they’re like plastic.’ He gathers his from the flats at Alvor where he digs into the mud with his short-handled hoe, or sachola, to unearth them. You can tell where the biggest ones are by two small blowholes on the surface. Zé Morgadhino, one of half a dozen eateries on the foreshore, sells them. How to tell whether they are perfect? The meat should fill the shell. If it looks shrunken, it’s not fresh or has been overcooked.
Chef Oliveira serves a single clam flavoured with ginger and lychee as an amuse bouche. Next to it is a sprig of deep-fried sea lettuce. He isn’t bothered, he claims, by current restaurant trends: ‘The world is my kitchen. I want to find the best way of cooking the best ingredients.’
Oyster coated with hollandaise and a sprinkling of summer truffle, langoustine with cauliflower and two kinds of samphire, John Dory, fish roes and wild mushrooms add up to a tasting menu that lets diners enjoy what’s on the plate without having to deconstruct it. Only blow-torched carapu (horse mackerel) raises the bar from delicious to ‘thinking man’s fish’. He matures a kind of garum from the heads and trimmings for several weeks, adds the liquid to a vinaigrette of brown sugar, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar and steeps the fillets in it.
Caniço at Prainha belongs to the ‘and now for something completely different’ school of restaurants. To reach it there’s a lift burrowing through a sandstone cliff and then a passage along a tunnel. The view – sea, rocks and a paper handkerchief beach – are what people dream of on cold winter nights. The seafood, too. Slabs of grouper, pink fresh shrimp and any large fish that can fill a plate or that the waiter can carry make it an always-crowded spot. In high season, the sheer crush might make an agoraphobic hesitate before booking a table, but it would still be worth it. Its portions share little in common with petiscos, Portugal’s answer to tapas. Served in bars or cafés, they can vary from a few azeitonas britadas (green olives mixed with herbs), to fried pig’s ears, black-eyed beans in oil and vinegar or any of the many recipes reserved for bacalhau (salt cod).
At the Café Brasil Marisqeira in Portimão, 100g of percebes (goose barnacles) from Sagres are dished up with buttery toast. The trick is to hold them by the shell with one hand, strip the leathery skin from the stalk with the other by twisting it, and bite off the tasty meat underneath. If Benefica is playing Sporting Lisboa and you are with friends, a kilo with a bottle or two of alvarinho from the north will last the first half. For the second, drams of Medronho – firewater made from arbutus fruit – will help you survive extra time.
In another side street O Holandês dos Caracóis competes with small parti-coloured snails. Customers drop by the bar after work and pick their way through a plateful. In homes people spear them with the spiny tip of an aloe vera shrub. Here, they use toothpicks. Extracting the gastropods from their mobile homes is easy. After being boiled with herbs, their heads and eyes seem to peek up at the eater.
‘The sweet-toothed Portuguese cannot face the day without cakes and desserts,’ wrote Edite Veira in The Taste of Portugal. ‘Each town or village seems to have its own specialities.’ At patisserie A Casa da Isabel, every one of self-taught baker Isabel Ramos’s sweetmeats has its own character, right down to the buttery puff pastry of her pasteis de nata (custard tart).
Daughter Sarah, who works alongside Ramos, admits that some of their egg yolk-based cakes are classics that took shape in convents. Others were collected from friends, ‘But we try,’ she says, ‘to do things our way. The carob cake is ours. The Isabel cake started as a mistake. In the mornings customers come to our shop to drink coffee and eat a small tart. In the afternoon they prefer a cake with tea.’
The menu divides into regional specialities: tarts and cheesecakes, sponges, and tortas including a dramatic meringue swiss roll and toucinhos do céu. The latter, translating as ‘bacon from heaven’, originated with the nuns. The basic mixture blends ground Algarve almonds, eggs and sugar. Casa Isabel makes the traditional version named after Soror Mariana, a nun famous for her love letters, but also ones with a twist: fig, sweet potato and amaranth.
Açorda de camarão has the texture of mashed potatoes. Like an old-fashioned stuffing, it’s made with stale bread. ‘Tourists don’t often like it,’ the waiter at Zé Morgadinho tells us. They prefer the pizzas on offer on Alvor’s main drag. Nobody, least of all the polite Portuguese, would blame them. It belongs to a time when the villages weren’t paved and children went barefoot. It does, though, have a past and, for those with a palate, the echo of a vanishing culture.
The sandy expanses of the Praia de Rocha may be what bring millions to the Algarve every year. Yet it only takes a little scratching with a metaphorical sachola to find the gems that lie just beneath the surface.
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