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The Algarve

Portugal

Think of The Algarve and you think of sunshine and relaxing holidays on golden beaches in calm sea waters, sampling the delights that this wonderful region of Portugal has to offer. West Algarve is Europe's sunniest spot, where the finest beaches and weather on the continent meet traditional historic Portugal.

Situated on the extreme South of Portugal, this part of the territory was the last to be conquered from the Moors by the Portuguese king in 1292. Traces of the Moorish presence are still seen in its unique architecture - terraces, chimneys and whitewashed houses.

In the northern part of The Algarve, the hills of Espinhacao de Cao, Monchique and Caldeirao shelter the coast from strong winds. This brightly coloured region, with its fig trees, orange groves and almond trees in blossom, is also the most verdant and fertile.

The southern coastline consists of a long stretch of fabulous sandy beaches, broken up by extraordinary rugged cliffs and fantastic grottoes. The seemingly endless coastline includes some of the world's most beautiful beaches. If you fancy an action-packed holiday, The Algarve caters for all holiday makers with every water sport imaginable, but by venturing just a few miles inland, you can also lose yourself in the heritage and history of The Algarve.

The provincial capital of The Algarve, Faro is a thriving university town. While not a resort town, here you'll find a maze of twisting lanes and ancient buildings. The marina is well worth a visit and the ancient town of Estoi is home to a splendid Palace.

Best of all is the old walled town with its quiet, cobbled streets and its 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings. Here you will find the Manuel Bivar gardens, at the enclosed end of which stands the imposing Vila do Arco. Go through the archway and you are immediately in the old quarter where you'll find a wonderland of antiquities. The most lavishly adorned of Faro churches is that of Nossa Senhora do Carmo. It is also the spookiest. It has a bone chapel with the skeletal remains of 1,245 former monks. An inscription over the doorway translates to 'Stop here and think of the fate that will befall you'.

Lagos is the most historically interesting coastal town in The Algarve. Its fame derives from its association with Portugal's 14th and 15th century Age of Discovery. Enclosed within 5th century walls, with its Manueline window, are the magnificent churches of Sao Sebastiao (Renaissance portals and 17th-18th century tiles), Santa Maria of Misericorida (16th-19th centuries), Santo Antonio (Baroque) and the very old Sao Joao Hermitage (8th-9th centuries).

It was here that Henry the Navigator had his vessels built and victualled for the voyages of exploration down the coast of West Africa which ultimately led to the sea route past the Cape of Good Hope to India.

Silves is at the heart of one of Portugal's best citrus growing areas. Although now an agricultural centre, its fascination for visitors is historical. The town's two most visible buildings, its red sandstone castle and the cathedral next to it, are reminders that in medieval times this was the most strongly fortified and most strenuously fought over place in The Algarve. The Romans had a secure settlement at Silves, but it was the Moors who built it into a fine, prosperous town with gleaming minarets and bazaars brimming over with merchandise.

Albufeira, once a peaceful fishing village, retains its narrow streets in the old town and whitewashed houses perch over a charming beach where you can walk amidst colourful fishing boats ornamented with eyes, animals and stars. Shops, bars and restaurants fill every corner, but there are is also the old castle, the buildings which still preserve Moorish arches and interesting churches.

The highest part of The Algarve, the mountainous area of Monchique is quite unique. Look for the famous thermal spas of Monchique and Foia (902m high), overlooking the hills and the ocean. Between Monchique and Portimao is the village of Caldas de Monchique that was developed in Roman times as a Spa. Here a visitor can try the curing elements of the sulphur smelling hot spring water that emerges at a constant temperature of 32 degrees Celsius.

Away from the crowds and the bustle of the tourist centres along the coastline of Algarve, the lovely town of Alcoutim lies near the Alentejo and has a natural border with Spain formed by the river Guadiana. A winding road that runs alongside the river offers superb views of the countryside.

In the north-west of The Algarve you can find some of the most spectacular sea-side scenery in the province. Travelling north from Aljezur via Rogil, you eventually reach Odeceixe near the border with the Alentejo.

Aljezur is an ideal location from which to explore the wonderful beaches of The Algarve's west coast and is overlooked by a Moorish castle from the 10th century. However, the beaches are the big attraction in the area. They are all fabulous from the easily accessible and well-populated, to small coves and isolated rocky inlets - the choices are seemingly endless.

Vila do Bispo - Sagres is another 'living' museum. It was here that five centuries ago Prince Henry set up a school of navigation, which played a crucial role in the Portuguese Discoveries. Apart from the Nossa Senhora da Graca Hermitage, you can visit the magnificent Fortress (originally built in the 14th century, and later altered) and the 15th century Rosados-Ventos (a 43m diameter compass rose). Nearby, on the extreme south-western tip of the European continent is Cabo de Sao Vicente (Romans' Promontorium Sacrum), opening on to a vast horizon of sea and sky.

The Algarve is simply a golfer's dream. There are dozens of golfing choices with every type of experience you could imagine, from the quaint Parque da Floresta, a course built on hillsides and over uneven ground with views over a fishing village, to the Millennium Golf Course, re-created in 1999 by well-established UK golf architects Hawtree and Sons.

Apart from a very high quality, international cuisine that stems from the expanding tourism industry, The Algarve also offers delicious regional dishes featuring everything from seafood, snails, pork meat, 'cataplana' clams, and spicy sausage to roasted dried octopus and fresh cuttlefish. Special attention should be given to the fig pastries for which many of the region's towns are famous. You should taste the Lagoa wines, internationally famous, as well as those from Lagos and Tavira. A taste of some of the various regional liquors is an adventure in itself.

The Algarve really is a European paradise, and for that reason you want to make sure you get to know it properly.

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