Travel: Peaceful pottering in Portugal: The rape of the once-Arcadian southern coast has been halted, and aficionados are being enticed back by its modest charms

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WE'VE had our first breakfast on the terrace - fresh rolls, cheese, peaches and melon. We've made acquaintance with our resident lizard, and had the first swim in the private pool. We've ambled down to the low white

wall at the end of the garden where the bees commute between the wild flowers of the meadow beyond, to the roses, jasmine and sunflowers of our patch.

We've admired the view, little changed from the time before and the time before that - the orchards and vineyards, a sprinkling of small, cube-shaped villas. No more sea has been blotted out, the ribbon of towers and fairly high rises shimmering on the horizon hasn't come any closer. That's all right then.

Once upon a time the Algarve was an Arcadian traveller's tale, featuring 100 miles of empty golden beaches, backed by groves of fig, olive and cork trees, quaint villages inhabited by equally quaint fishing folk and farmers. Then it was discovered and 'Europe's best kept secret' leaked to the developers and everyone else ready to make a fast buck. The 1,000 visitors in 1965 became hundreds of thousands 20 years later. The abscesses of the Eighties followed, the concreting of Quarteira, Vilamoura and Albufeira. Could holidays be as carefree again? For a while, it seemed unlikely.

Fortunately the tale doesn't end there - due to a combination of recession and green conscience, the rape of the coast has been halted, and the Algarve's aficionados, lured for a while to less cluttered habitats, are being enticed to return.

For us, the Algarve had become a sort of hardy family perennial, the beaches less crowded than the Med, the sea less polluted, the lifestyle more casual, cheaper, and relaxed than anywhere except perhaps the Greek islands. So we returned, cautiously, and with mental maps of no-go areas.

Unusually, the coast nearest to the airport at Faro has suffered the least infilling. Its beaches are still clean and uncrowded, protected by salt-pans and sandy spits, where the wooden shacks selling the best fish dishes have only been minimally tarted up, probably because so few visitors can find them among the dunes, pine-woods and golf courses. Rumour has it that in its infinite wisdom the EC has introduced so-called hygiene conditions which will make these shacks in the sand illegal.

The ultra-smart new Quinta do Lago estate bristles with the facilities that earned it one of the World Top Six Resorts commendations in a glossy American magazine. It covers 2,000 manicured acres, though such spaciousness and Good Taste can create its own problems.

The genteel Dorking lady I met at the endearingly shabby Olhao fish market, haggling over a kilo of squid with a local whose ancestors could have sailed with Vasco da Gama, complained bitterly: 'Richard (husband) takes one car every morning to the golf course, and Sebastian (son) disappears with the other.' (Note, we now have the two-hire-car-family.)

'I can only get here once a week, and the supermarket is too far to walk to]'

The Quinta apart, our first coastal nesting zone stops fairly abruptly after Vale do Lobo, one of the Algarve's longest established complexes with a 27-hole golf course, the Roger Taylor Tennis Centre and the Club Barrington now providing squash, gymnasium and fitness centre, dance studio, to add a much needed winter dimension. It's much less smart than the Quinta do Lago, and the management always seem on the brink of revolution, but it achieves the ultimate success - consistent repeat business, in travel trade parlance.

After Vale do Lobo our coastal holiday map skirts the concrete wasteland of Quarteira, Vilamoura, the once oh-so pretty pretty Albufeira, Armacao de Pera, several Eldorado and Hacienda complexes and seemingly hundreds of Paddy's and Harry's bars and Chunky and Funky Chicken Worlds. Holiday prospects improve considerably round Carvoeiro and again around Lagos, which more than any other of the Algarve towns seems to have got its mix of local character and tourism about right.

West of Lagos and squeezed between rocky crevices are Burgau and Salema. Tagged 'unspoilt picturesque fishing villages' (more or less accurately), they are in the throes of being discovered. Much of the tourist development here is away from the centre, in apartments.

Perhaps our own best discovery has been the pleasures to be found away from the coast. The directions to the villa Armoeria, named after the mulberry tree in the garden, summed up its appeal. 'Drive down the lane,' they said, 'past the umbrella pine and through the vineyard. Stop before the peach orchard.' We did so, and found an old converted farmhouse with dark furniture and heavy shutters, where we spent a typical fortnight unsullied by great attractions, distractions, time-consuming culture or riveting sightseeing.

'The only thing that isn't bland about the Algarve is the smell of sardines over charcoal,' grumbles one exasperated holiday rep transferred here from the Costa del Sol where she'd made a killing selling excursions. 'Here, the holidaymakers have either been before and want to sit in their villas all day, or they're planning how they're going to fill up their homes with the tiles and scallop soap dishes plus all that other Portuguese pastiche.'

True, first-timers usually grind up behind the coaches to the fairly pretty hill-town of Monchique via the thermal Spa of Caldas, buy over-priced souvenirs and consume the almost obligatory mountain ham and chicken piri-piri in the mountain inns. They could get twice as much for half the price and ten times better at the barn-like restaurant of Guia, even though it looks like a building site, and there are few other than Portuguese at the tables.

For end-of-the-earth addicts, Cape St Vincent has the gaunt grandeur of bleak-cropped headlands and raging seas, and the ghosts of the sailors that Henry the Navigator sent out from his training school at the now shabby little Sagres nearby. But if there are few sights really to stir the pulse - the earthquake of 1755 saw to that - we've found modest treats which reward occasional bouts of pottering and browsing, though with typical Portuguese reticence they rarely flaunt their wares.

I swear the wizened old ladies who sit outside the little church of Sao Laurenco have been knitting the same sweaters for 20 years, but neither they nor anybody else have been able to tell us about its splendid interior of blue and white glazed azulejo tiles, dated 1730, showing the life of St Lawrence. We never even managed to locate keyholders for the Tavira churches, but the elegance of the classical buildings, the spires and ramparts that straddle the river Gilao, is rare in the homely Algarve.

They certainly make it easier to imagine the region's former prosperity than Silves, the former Moorish capital, whose haunting battlements are just about the only remnants of its history - the city was repeatedly sacked by the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries, though it was once described as 'stronger and ten times more remarkable than Lisbon'.

Many of its gifted Moorish artisans fled to Loule, where their descendants still turn out handicrafts - baskets, pottery and copperware, particularly the cataplana, the original pressure cookers that combine clams and pork in one of the tastier local dishes of the same name. That's a trip worthy of a good browse, especially for the Saturday market, when the ladies in black arrive with their honey, herbs and buckets of olive oil, setting up their stalls in the alleys, nooks and crannies of the old walls and Gothic precincts.

With the car laden with food, we return to our villa to plan the details of our afternoon and evening. It will probably be more of the same: a swim in our pool, reading on the patio, and spending a couple of hours deciding which sardine restaurant is best for dinner. We could play golf or tennis of course - there are courses and courts galore for those seeking healthy pursuits, which, alas, we don't.

'We didn't do much really,' I find myself apologising half-guiltily to adventurous friends. On the other hand, it's pleasing to find the Algarve can still be comfortable, cheap, and a pleasant place to do nothing in. J C


GETTING THERE: scheduled flights with TAP Air Portugal (071-839 1031) and British Airways (081-897 4000) to Faro, run daily. SuperApex fares are from pounds 184- pounds 249 return (must stay Saturday night, maximum stay from one to six months depending on fare); charter flights to Faro cost about pounds 135- pounds 185 return.

Car hire: between pounds 55 and pounds 99 for three days or pounds 100- pounds 195 for a week, depending on the size of car and the dates. Many villa companies include car hire in their package prices, or offer reduced rates.

STAYING THERE: pounds 20 to pounds 30 per double room per night in a one- or two-star hotel; a three- star hotel will cost between pounds 30- pounds 70; four-star, pounds 60- pounds 100.

TOUR OPERATORS: villas and apartments are the most popular on inclusive holidays. Specialist firms include: Caravela Tours (071-630 9223); Meon Villas (0730 268411); CV Travel (071-581 0851); Travel Club of Upminster (0708 225000). A sample package: Caravela Villas with the Travel Club of Upminster will cost pounds 294- pounds 354 a week

per person, flights included.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22 Sackville St, London W1X 1DE (071-494 1441).

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