Portugal Chronicles, Part 1 of 3: Albufeira
Portugal, the birth place of famous sailors and explorers, great food, amicable people and the land that gave the world a famous fortified wine call Port. This country, which has the oldest border of Europe, with a mild climate (they claim to have 3,000 hours of sunshine per year), 850km of wonderful beaches bathed by the Atlantic Ocean and one of the finest cuisines in the world, featuring delicious and fresh seafood is a perfect vacation/holiday destination all year round. Alexis had a work event in Albufeira, a municipality of the Faro District of the Algarve region so I decided to tag along. You know, I simply couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the home country of Vasco de Gama or have the experience of doing some Porto tasting in the Douro Valley. His work event lasted only 2 days, which we spent separately and then we added a few more days in order to visit Lisbon, Sintra and Porto. This is the first post on my series “Portugal Chronicles” because I have so much to say!
Part 1: Albufeira
I booked a one way ticket with EasyJet from Basel, Switzerland (BSL) to Faro, Portugal (FAO) and a return ticket from Porto to Basel. I arrived in Faro at 8:30am. Alexis was with his team and he left in a different flight. Because it was a work related event, I decided to stay in a different hotel. I picked my rental car from Hertz and drove 40 minutes to my hotel in Albufeira. To be honest, I was a little nervous in the beginning as it was my first time driving in Europe. But it turned out to be a great experience. I prepared for the trip reading articles about Portugal online, listening to Rick Steve’s pod casts and watching YouTube videos. I read that Portugal is one of the most dangerous countries for drivers in Europe, but I did not find that to be the case. Another thing that really surprised me was the traffic or lack of. I didn’t encounter any traffic jams or problem finding parking. Perhaps because October is considered to be low season. But whatever the reason maybe, it made my driving experience a pleasant one. I’m ready to do this more often.
I didn’t plan much for the first 2 days. I just wanted to relax, explore the old town, go to the beach, eat local food and do homework for my German class… wait, I guess that’s a plan, right? My hotel was located only 4 minutes by foot from the Old Town and Peneco Beach (Praia do Peneco). I loved walking in the cobblestone streets while stopping a the local shops.
Gastronomy My favorite part of Albufeira was without any doubt the food. I have never tasted so fresh and delicious fish before, and I come from an island in the Caribbean! The fish was fresh and with a buttery taste. The dishes were not elaborated and most of the time simply seasoned with lemon, salt, pepper and olive oil. Day 1
Lunch: Restaurante A Ruina
The view from this restaurant is amazing as it is located right at Praia dos Pescadores. When I arrived I had the option to sit outside, but that section was crowded. I asked the host if there were any other areas with better views and he recommended to go to the top floor. After climbing a series of stairs, I found a gorgeous terrace where I could felt the ocean breeze and admire the beach. The waiter asked if I wanted to see the menu. I thought he was going to bring me an actual paper menu, but he asked me to follow him instead. He took me to the counter, where they had their daily menu displayed: fresh seafood. Octopus, shrimp, calamari, dorado, etc. My choice was “salmonete” and Luis proceeded to clean, season and grill it. It was served with vegetables and of course , with a very cold beer. Carlos, Luis and Rafael were very helpful and even invited me to take pictures with them behind the counter.
Dinner: Restaurante Os Arcos
Seriously, the best fish I’ve ever had is from Restaurante Os Arcos. It was funny because I arrived at 7pm on a Tuesday, and the restaurant was empty, except for the owner (Jose) and 2 employees in the kitchen. I thought that was strange for a restaurant rated #2 of 575 restaurants in Albufeira. I was hesitant in the beginning but I stepped inside and asked if they were open. I asked if they had a place for one. Jose looked around, pointed at a table next to the entrance and handled me the menu. While I took a glance at menu, people started to enter asking for a table and Jose turned them away because the whole restaurant was booked for the night! I guess I was lucky. People asked to make reservations for the next night. By the time I left he already had Wednesday, Thursday and Friday all booked, so yes, definitely this is a popular place to eat. Make reservations in advance if you plan to visit, especially if is a big group. I asked Jose for a recommendation and he said they had a fresh dorado (mahi-mahi) not listed on the menu that was very good. I was immediately sold and ordered what the expert recommended. So glad I did! That fish was so tasty, my mouth waters just thinking about it. The fish came with vegetables and potatoes.
I had to have dessert at a place like that, so I asked, once again, for Jose’s recommendation. He said they have “something” similar to crème brûlée. It was delicious! It had a chocolate filling and served with a biscuit. I asked Jose for the name and he said it had no name as it was the chef’s recipe, but they sell it as “something similar to crème brûlée or crema catalana. I’m not sure if I’m happy I tried it because now whenever I crave it I will have to travel all the way to Albufeira to have it. The service here was outstanding and the food exquisite.
Day 2 Brunch: Local bakery I liked Albufeira, but despite the fact I visited it during low season, I felt as if it was crowded with tourists, mostly British. Most of the menus in the restaurants were in English and some places took pride on offering a “traditional English breakfast” for 15€. But what do the locals eat for breakfast? That’s what I want! The next morning I decided to walk away from the places in the main center or along the beach. I found a local bakery where I heard people speaking Portuguese and drinking coffee. Eureka! I had a “tosta mista” which is basically a grilled cheese with ham, a cappuccino, a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice and a generous portion of walnut cake, all for 8€. I liked it so much I went there 2 days in a row. I stayed for almost 2 hours. While doing my homework and listening to the conversations of the locals.
Dinner: Riviera Pastelaria
I was so full from my brunch that I didn’t eat until 6pm. I went to Riviera Pastelaria, a local bakery because their cakes have great reviews and since I am a self-proclaimed cake connoisseur, I had to try them. I was hungry and craving some food first. The server recommended “Bife de Vazia c/ molho a Riviera”. It was a steak served over potatoes with a creamy sauce and an egg on top. OMG, it was delicious! After dinner I had a decadent almond cake with a creamy filling. I highly recommend this place.
I’m not a big fan of beaches or getting in the water, but since I was in the Algarve it was a must to go see some of Albufeira’s beautiful sun-kissed beaches. I saw 4 of them: Praia dos Pescadores, Praia do Peneco, Praia da Falésia and Praia Santa Eulália. I’m going to be perfectly honest and this is my own personal opinion. To me all of them look almost the same, some have more impressive rock formations than others and in some you need to be more careful because of the high and dangerous cliffs, but other than that you can catch a beautiful sunset, get a nice and golden sun tan or simply admire the beauty of the Atlantic from any of them.
I have to say the old town is very lively at night, at least for my standards. I felt very safe walking solo around the town during day and night. I think any woman traveling solo will feel the same, but like in any city we need to use common sense and avoid dark streets, etc.
At night live music can be heard coming from the square or plaza. The square is full of artists and musicians entertaining the tourists. The weather was absolutely perfect, it stayed in the 70s and it was October. Locals said it was very rare to enjoy such weather in October and told me to not expect the same warm weather should I return to the region during the same month or season in the future. I really enjoyed my time in Albufeira. It was time I spent with myself, studying for my German class, people watching and savory local delicacies. I even had time to get a much needed haircut at a local salon for only 24euros. But Although I see myself visiting Portugal again in the near future, I don’t think I would return to Albufeira any time soon, mostly because I’m not a beach person and this region feels like a beach resort to me. I crave more history, which is what I found more in Lisbon and Porto.
More details about those places in Part 2 & 3 of my “Chronicles About Portugal”.