If you want an active holiday, where you get the chance to see the real country behind the tourist destination, then you can’t do much better than the Algarve. Local guide and tour operator, Paul Beesley, explains why.
Portugal's southern Algarve region is becoming increasingly popular as a cycling destination, hosting a number of world-renowned on- and off-road events. But it’s also a fabulous place to enjoy a leisurely cycling holiday, and not just because we enjoy over 300 days of glorious sunshine a year.
Look beyond the well-known tourist spots and there’s an almost undiscovered world of weathered hilltop villages and agricultural landscapes linked by quiet roads and dirt tracks; ideal for cycling and mountain biking and allowing you the chance to explore the ‘real Algarve’ at a pace to suit you. In recent years local councils have joined together to develop a cycle route along the stunning coastline, for which this region is already famous.
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Paul Beesley began offering bike tours in the Algarve in 2004. Having worked in IT sales for a number of years, he had decided to make the move to Portugal for a healthier style of living. He had always enjoyed cycling and his love of the outdoors brought him to the Algarve, where he had holidayed for some years. He started by taking clients on half-day tours, showing them some of the...
Where else in Europe can you experience such a contrast in environments within such a small area and confine it all to one week’s holiday? From crystal blue lagoons, endless white sandy beaches, bustling market towns, cottage industries, sweeping vineyards, imposing mountains, reservoirs, unspoilt forest and open countryside, working farms and fishing villages. The Algarve really does have it all.
Here are some of the highlights:
The Algarve Coast
There is no doubt that the expansive sandy beaches and secluded bays of the Algarve's coastline are what draw the majority of visitors to this region. But if you take to your bikes and cycle from one end to the other, you get this and so much more.
It's possible to follow a coastal route of some 214km that links Vila Real de Santo António, on the Spanish border, with Cabo de São Vicente (Sagres) in the west. There is contrasting scenery and every day promises something different. You'll cycle through fishing villages, where you can taste local delicacies such as octopus, sardines and squid; ancient hamlets, with Roman ruins and uninterrupted views over sparkling blue lagoons; naturally protected areas, where the wildlife is abundant and you can spot flamingos, turtles and many other species of flora and fauna; dramatic, windswept cliffs, where you can enjoy amazing views over the Atlantic, as you head towards the westernmost tip of Europe, known as ‘the end of the world’.
And the beauty of a self-guided cycling holiday is that you can linger where you like and explore off the beaten track. Plus, with reputedly the freshest air in Europe, you will be sure to have a healthy appetite and a good night’s sleep!
The Eastern Algarve is known for its rural charm and this is where you get a taste of the ‘real’ Portugal. An enjoyable itinerary starts in Vila Real de Santo António, an interesting old town on the banks of the Guadiana river, on the border between Spain and Portugal. Following the dedicated coastal path, you’ll pass through the coastal resorts of Monte Gordo and Altura, the ancient hilltop village of Cacela Velha, the elegant Roman town of Tavira, and, finally, the bustling fishing port of Olhão.
Tavira and surrounding areas
Tavira is one of the most attractive towns in the Algarve, with a river running through the centre. It is home to more than its fair share of ancient churches, a castle, a Roman bridge and a market. It has a wealth of original little shops and cobbled streets, punctuated with pretty squares where you can watch the world go by. It also has its very own beach, which is a short boat ride away. There are plenty of places of interest to explore in the immediate vicinity, too.
Ria Formosa Natural Park
This is a UNESCO Heritage Site situated on low-lying coastline amidst a maze of lagoons, channels, salt marshes and islands. It is home to an abundant array of wildlife, and over 30,000 birds stop off here on their journey from Europe to tropical Africa. You can often spot kingfishers, hoopoes, bee-eaters, egrets, blue magpies, flamingos and many other species.
Once the Moorish capital, Silves is steeped in history. It's an enchanting town on the banks of the Rio Arade, littered with tiny cobbled streets, pretty tree-lined squares and is home to the best-preserved castle in the Algarve. In the summer Silves hosts one of the biggest medieval festivals in the region and people travel from miles around to soak up the atmosphere and sample the local fare.
Monchique is a beautiful market town high up in the mountains, surrounded by forest and with the best views across the Algarve to the coast. It boasts lots of lovely cafés and restaurants, where you can sample local delicacies such as Medronho (a locally made liqueur) and honey. There is also a spa just beneath the town, where people still come to soothe their aching limbs and to benefit from the curative natural spring water.
Sagres and Cape St. Vincent
Sagres is popular all year round with fishermen and surfers because of the western Atlantic waters. It's known as the place where Henry the Navigator planned his voyages in the Age of Discoveries. The town is also home to Henry’s 15th century fortress. Nearby Cape St. Vincent has a lovely lighthouse and the views from the point are simply breathtaking. It is the end of continental Europe and still often referred to as the ‘end of the world’!
Best times to go:
The climate in the Algarve is pretty good all year round, so there aren’t many months when you wouldn’t want to come. Spring and autumn are probably the best times, as you will mostly only get the odd shower and the temperatures are mild. Perfect cycling conditions. Plus, even if you start out one day and it is cloudy, the great thing about this region is that it is not hard to follow the sun and, the chances are, by lunchtime, the weather will have cleared up. Even in winter the climate is very mild, and many cyclists prefer the cooler months as we still get plenty of sunshine. For the more challenging rides, July and August may be avoided as temperatures do soar and dehydration can be a problem. But even in the height of the season, coastal routes can be pleasant as you get a cool breeze off the Atlantic most days.
The Algarvians do like their festivals, too! From Carnival and Easter in the spring, Labour Day in May, Portugal Day in June, to various sardine, seafood and medieval festivals throughout the summer - and chocolate, sausage and chestnut festivals in the Winter. Whatever time of year you come, there is likely to be something interesting happening en route.
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