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.



Faro is served by many airlines from most UK airports. Carriers include TAP (0845 601 0932;; British Airways (0870 850 9850;; Monarch Scheduled (08700 405040;; easyJet (0871 750 0100;; bmibaby (0871 224 0224;; Flybe (0871 700 0535;; and jet2 (0871 226 1737;

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

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


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).


Pousada de Sao Bras de Alportel, Paco dos Ferreiros (00 351 289 842 305; 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).


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.


Algarve Tourist Board: 00 351 289 800 400;

Portuguese Tourist Office: 0845 355 1212;

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
Arts and Entertainment
As Loki in The Avengers (2012)
filmRead Tom Hiddleston's email to Joss Whedon on prospect of playing Loki
voices In defence of the charcoal-furred feline, by Felicity Morse
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star