The Algarve: not just sun, beaches and golf

Frank Partridge discovers a relic of traditional Portugal

The Portuguese soldier, rifle slung over his shoulder, leans against the iron railings and gazes across the Guadiana river. He is guarding the picturesque village of Alcoutim, his stare never deviating from the equally pretty village of Sanlucar on the opposite bank, which has been staring back, with equal intensity, for the best part of a millennium.

On the surface of the vivid blue water, the two villages appear scarcely different, but their reflections are deceptive. In Sanlucar de Guadiana, barely half a mile away, the church clock is about to strike noon. Here in Portuguese Alcoutim, it's 10.59am. Sanlucar is in Spain. The Alcoutim sentry's stare is unblinking, unmoving; his uniform is white, as are his gun, face and peaked cap. He is a plaster statue, and his eternal watch is testimony to the occasional disagreements that have arisen between the two Iberian neighbours, who often appear - to the rest of the world - to be mirror images of each other.

Both villages cling to the slopes of bare, rounded hills, their houses arranged like terraces of vines falling towards the water. Both are crowned by the remnants of once-forbidding fortresses - repeatedly damaged, rebuilt and damaged again as artillery fire periodically shattered the silence of the river valley.

Today, this tranquil spot feels as though it's on the edge of nowhere. In 1371, it was the meeting-point of two of the great powers of the Middle Ages, and it hosted a Vatican-brokered peace treaty. With their boats anchored mid-river, Fernando I of Portugal and Henrique II of Castile agreed to suspend hostilities, on condition that Fernando married Henrique's daughter. The treaty held for a while, but by 1640, the old foes were lobbing cannonballs at each other again. Only in the last century or so has it been safe to replace real sentries with symbolic ones.

Surprisingly, this rich mixture of history and natural beauty, a meandering morning's drive from Portugal's southern coast, belongs to the Algarve. For almost everyone who visits the province from abroad, the Algarve consists of the 100km strip of coast west of Faro airport, linked by a fine new motorway that gives rapid access to a string of resorts - Vilamoura, Albufeira, Portimao, Lagos - beloved of sun-seekers and golfers alike. Who can blame either group for never venturing inland? The sunshine figures are prodigious, and some golf links rank among Europe's finest. But a good map, a reasonable sense of direction and a determina- tion not to be seduced back to the beach admit you to an entirely different world.

Extricating yourself from the spaghetti junctions surrounding Faro airport may involve a few wrong turns, but if you keep the hills to the front and the sea to the aft, you should eventually find your way to Sao Bras de Alportel, the gateway to the Algarve's time-warped interior.

A century ago, Sao Bras was the cork capital of the world, surrounded as it was - and still is - by forests of the sappy trees, thriving on sun and lack of rain. Over time, the industry moved to central and northern Portugal, but signs of the town's former affluence can be seen in the façades of the larger houses, decorated with tiles, ornate stonework and cast-iron balustrades.

North of Sao Bras, the winding road to Alcoutim begins its climb into the sparsely populated range of hills that, in a sense, are a victim of their own success. Without them, the coast would be exposed to the high winds that blow from Portugal's hot, dusty interior, withering the vegetation in their path. The tourists would never stand for that. Bearing the brunt of the elements, this barren region, known as the Barrocal, has been abandoned by all but a few hardy souls in sheltered hamlets, using ancient farming methods to work the sharply sloping farmland. An isolated clump of olive or pomegranate trees is an event in itself.

Under the relentless summer sun, each house is a picture-postcard study. The whitewash, almost too bright for the eye to bear, is mercifully offset by splashes of colour: brightly painted doors, windows and flower-pots. In the heat of the day, the only sign of life is the statutory thin, sleeping dog that has managed to find a patch of shade. It's just the rural Portugal as you imagine it used to be, but presumed had long gone.

Deep in the hills, we spot another statuesque sentry at the roadside - this one, very much alive. A stork has organised a bird's-eye view of the landscape without having to leave the porch. He is perched on a bizarre assembly of moss, twigs and plastic bags constructed on the very top of a telegraph pole. Now and then, the mother and her brood of half a dozen chicks pop their heads out of the latticework to see what's going on. Hardly anything is. Less than two hours from the coastal bustle, this is a region of quite startling emptiness.

Eventually, the road drops towards Alcoutim, and the Algarve's north-west frontier. The statuesque sentry shares his look-out terrace with a smattering of locals enjoying barbecued fish in the sunshine. A chalked sign outside a restaurant advertises "English Breakfast", but there are few concessions to tourism: a tiny information centre; a couple of shops selling postcards and sun cream; a modest marina devoid of activity. The booth selling tickets for the passenger ferry to Spain is closed, but there is a free phone to summon the boat. Across the water, barely a third of a mile away, the peace is broken by a Spanish lorry changing gear up the hill, and the braying of a Spanish donkey.

Up on Alcoutim's high ground, there is little evidence of history left among the crumbling fortifications, apart from a small museum containing some archaeological finds from a region that attracted the attention of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Moors. The views alone are worth the climb, and trestle tables have been laid among the flower-filled battlements for picnickers.

From Alcoutim, the road follows the river south to the ocean, and the landscape undergoes a startling change. Everything is green and fertile, dense with orange groves, and almond and fig trees. The riverbank is lined with reeds and orange-topped cacti. In some villages, the reeds are still twisted into shape by basket-weavers, employing a method more or less unchanged since Alcoutim hosted peace treaties. Darkly clad groups of women, laden with baskets of herbs, thumb rides along a road that provides one ravishing view after another of the lazy, sun-dappled waterway.

The Guadiana is one of Europe's longest and most beautiful rivers, with a fascinating story. Rising in eastern Spain, it covers more than 800km, taking a brief excursion into Portugal before defining the border between the two countries on its final leg towards the Gulf of Cadiz. A few small pleasure cruisers ply this stretch, but for some reason the river is seldom promoted as an outstanding feature of the region. Perhaps the Portuguese perceive it as Spanish, and vice versa.

The consequence is that, unless some unimaginable catastrophe were to wash the Algarve's beaches away, the river - and the wilderness that leads to it - will remain refreshingly obscure.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Faro is served by many airlines from most UK airports. Carriers include TAP (0845 601 0932; www.tap-airportugal.co.uk); British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Monarch Scheduled (08700 405040; www.flymonarch.com); easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com); bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com); Flybe (0871 700 0535; www.flybe.com); and jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com).

The writer hired a car with Car Rentals (0845 225 0845; www.carrentals.co.uk). Seven days' rental from Faro airport starts at £105.

An environmental "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org) for a return flight from London to Faro is £2.90.

GETTING AROUND

The passenger ferry across the river to Sanlucar in Spain operates daily, according to demand, from 9am-1pm and 2-6pm. The return fare is €2 (£1.40).

STAYING THERE

Pousada de Sao Bras de Alportel, Paco dos Ferreiros (00 351 289 842 305; www.pousadas.pt). The converted country manor house has a swimming pool, tennis court, and panoramic views of the sea and hills. Double rooms start at €105 (£75), including breakfast. Between now and 30 June, this and other pousadas are offering three nights in a double room for €240 (£163).

VISITING THERE

Archaeology Museum, Alcoutim Castle (00 351 281 540 509). Opens daily 9am-1pm and 2-5pm. Admission is €2.50 (£1.70), and is valid for other museums in the area.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Algarve Tourist Board: 00 351 289 800 400; www.visitalgarve.pt

Portuguese Tourist Office: 0845 355 1212; www.visitportugal.com

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