Portugal’s Algarve is famous for its allure, with its golden beaches, sandy islands and breathtaking coastline of bays and cliffs. But there’s more to this region than sunny shores. It’s also heaving with history.
The Algarve has been a tourist favourite since the 1960s and there are a number of bland holiday properties on its beachfront, but its attractions inland include castles, cathedrals and cultural references that will enchant as well as educate.
Faro is the Algarve’s best-known city. History here is written in the Roman ruins at Estoi, the 8th century Moorish-influenced village of Albuferia and the Se Cathedral, damaged and restored several times over its lifetime.
Surrounded by the ruins of ancient city walls, the streets of the Old Town are peaceful by day, and buzzing by night. Parts of the Se Cathedral were constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries, but it has been a site of activity for two thousand years, since the Roman’s constructed a forum here. The cathedral’s main doorway, Gothic tower and two chapels remain from the original construction, but parts of the interior were damaged by fire when British troops ransacked the town in 1596. The interior was replaced over many years and there is some wonderful 17th and 18th century gold leaf gilding to be seen inside. In 1755, the cathedral was once again damaged when Portugal was shook by an devastating earthquake, but the building endures and now offers fine views across the city to anyone who scales its tower.
The city walls date from the 8th century, when the original defensive Roman walls were reinforced by Moors, who held the town for almost 500 years. Influences can still be seen in the arches at the entrance points to this historic centre of the city.
New walls were built in the 17th century, as defence against the 19th century Wars of Restoration and several churches and other structures are integral to the walls, such as the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Repouso at the Arco do Repouso. Arco da Vila is an impressive and ornate neo-classical archway, where remains of the Moorish wall can also be seen.
The old town is full of charisma, and nowhere more so than the picturesque Largo do Carmo, a square of open-air restaurants and tourist attractions surrounded by grand baroque houses and monuments. At the centre of the square is the ornate Chafariz do Carmo fountain, once the main source of water for this district, and you’ll find shade under ancient jacarandas trees, which fill the square with beautiful lilac flowers when in bloom.
The square overlooks the ruins of the Igreja do Carmo church, a permanent and chilling reminder of the 1755 earthquake that devastated Portugal. When the earthquake struck, hundreds were congregated within the church to celebrate the feast of All Saints, and were killed when the roof collapsed. Fires ignited from candles kept the site burning for days
Estoi is a pretty little town close to Faro, and home to one of the Algarve’s finest 19th century Rococo-styled palaces, the Palácio de Estoi. Painted a distinctive pink and surrounded by beautiful gardens, the palace has been converted into a luxury hotel, although non-resident guests are free to explore the decorative palace grounds.
The Milreu Roman Ruins contain some of the best preserved Roman remains in the Algarve, and it’s possible to see mosaics of the luxury Roman villa’s bathing complex here. It’s worth noting that this attraction closes for lunch.
Once you’ve slaked your thirst for history, why not head to Ilha Deserta for some relaxation in a paradise where time stands still. The name Ilha Deserta translates as deserted island, and it truly is deserted at night, when staff from the island’s only building (a restaurant) also leave. Pristine white sands stretch for about seven kilometres and the island can only be reached by boat, through crystal clear waters, meaning there’s little change and little impact on nature. There’s not much to do on this quiet stretch of paradise which makes it the perfect place to submit to the allure of the beautiful Algarve.