The small coastal area of the Algarve (Litoral), where the majority of tourist activities are concentrated,
Tourist activities are concentrated along the coastal strip of the Algarve
The southern coast of the Algarve (Algarve Litoral) extends from the estuary of the river Guadiana on the border of Portugal with Spain for over 150 km to Cabo de São Vicente, the most south-western corner of the European continent. Travelling along this coast from east to west you will discover a range of diverse landscapes.
Endless broad and flat sandy beaches, separated from the hinterland by dunes covered with pine tree groves, stretch for more than 10 km between Vila Real de Santo António on the Spanish border and the beginning of the Ria Formosa. The nature reserve of the Ria Formosa is a unique ecological system rich in flora and fauna. The lagoons are protected from the open Atlantic Ocean by a chain of peninsulas and islands. The beaches are located on the sea side of the islands, most of them are only accessible by ferry from the mainland. The peninsula of Ancao, also known as Ilha de Faro, is the most western link in this chain of islands.
Further to the west – along the so called “Golden Triangle” up to Pine Cliffs on the outskirts of Albufeira - there are stretches of endless sandy beaches and sand dunes all set against the backdrop of red and yellow sandstone cliffs. The soft cliffs, covered with pine trees ~ the signature tree of the area, have been shaped by erosion. In between there are several smaller lakes, the largest one being the lake at Quinta do Lago, giving this world class resort its famous name (port. lago=lake).The western Algarve between Albufeira and Lagos is also known as “Rocky Algarve” due to the impressive limestone rocks dominating the coastline. Small romantic bays, hidden creeks and caves formed by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, accessible only by boat, are surrounded by rugged rock formations. This dramatic scenario is interrupted by several large bays with sandy beaches protected by dunes, stretching for miles, salty marshlands and lagoons, where varieties of bird species live in a protected habitat.
The so-called "Costa Vicentina", the western coast of the Algarve stretches for more than 60 km from Cape St.Vincent, the south-western most corner of the European continent, to Odeceixe on the Algarve-Alentejo border. The rugged rocks of the steep coast are broken up by small sandy bays. The landscape is still, generally unspoilt by tourism and rich in many different types of flora and fauna. The Reserva Biogenética de Sagres between Cabo de São Vicente and Ponta de Sagres has a unique ecological system, which attracts ornithologists from all over the world during the autumn.
Most of the larger cities of the Algarve are located on the Algarve coast. On the estuary of the river Guadiana you can find the municipality of Vila Real de Santo António. The prettiest town in the eastern Algarve is Tavira, surrounded by the extensive salt marshes of the Ria Formosa. Olhão, was an important place for the regional canning industry until the end of the last Century. It has a long fishing tradition and is a good place to buy fish and seafood. Faro, the capital of the Algarve region and the administrative district of Faro, is located at the western end of the Ria Formosa. As you come into land at Faro airport you can get an idea of this impressive landscape. Quarteira within the Golden Triangle of the Algarve is well known for its superb fish market. Albufeira, the internationally renowned tourist centre of the Algarve is surrounded by some of the finest beaches and a spectacular rocky coast. Portimão on the mouth of the river Arade was already an important harbour during the time of the Phoenicians – today it is better known for its busy beach at Praia da Rocha. The historical city of Lagos, Portugal’s window to the world during the Age of the Portuguese Discoveries, is located on the spectacular so called “Golden Coast” with the world famous rock formation of the Ponta da Piedade. On the westernmost corner of the Algarve you find the village of Sagres, closely linked to Henry the Navigator and his legendary school of seafarers. The daily fish auction at the harbour of Sagres is said to be one of the best places to buy fresh fish and seafood in Europe.
The fertile agricultural area between the Algarve coast and the hilly uplands of the Serra
The Barrocal area marks the transition between the small coastal strip and the mountains of the Serra. The geologic formation mainly consists of limestone and schist. A large variety of the regional construction material is made of the yellow limestone gained from the huge quarrels near Boliqueime, including masonry of gates, doors and windows that are typical for the architecture of the Algarve. This area is also known as the "beira-serra" (literally the mountain edge).
Most of the agricultural produce of the Algarve originates from this fertile area, particularly citrus and other fruits, vegetable and olives. Thanks to modern cellar technology also the viniculture, long-time languishing, has recovered since several years. Honey and almonds are also among the typical regional produce. Before the plantation of cork oaks had moved to the north into the Alentejo, the area was also an important centre of cork production. Until today Portugal is the largest producer of cork in the world.
The economical most important city in the Barrocal area is Loulé, well known for its busy municipal market hall and for its annual carnival procession. The golf and holiday resorts of Quinta do Lago, Vale do Lobo and Vilamoura, forming the so called “Golden Triangle” belong to the municipality of this prosperous town. The hinterland is rich of water, several creaks and rivulets raise in the surroundings of Tôr, Querença und Alte.
Other cities in the Barrocal are Lagoa in the western Algarve (Barlavento), the regional centre of viniculture, and São Brás de Alportel, a former wealthy centre of the cork industry. In the nearby Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo tiles and bricks are until today traditionally manufactured from the local red and yellow clay. This typical and popular construction material is sold under the generic name “Santa Catarina”.
Now doubt, the best known place in the Barrocal of the Algarve is Silves, situated on the upper course of the river Arade. During the five centuries of the Moorish period the city, at that time called “Xelb” was one of the cultural centres of the Iberian Peninsula. You can enjoy great views to the surrounding Barrocal landscape from the battlements of the mighty walls of the huge castle, a National Monument of Portugal. The Arade connecting the city with the harbour of Portimão on the coast was navigable at that point in time – today it can be only used by small boats.
The mountainous area, covering half of the total Algarvian territory of almost 5 thousand sq km
The northern part of the Algarve on the border with the Alentejo is called “Serra”. The hills and mountains of the Serra occupy 50% of the Algarve territory. They consist of two distinct geological formations of volcanic origin: shale up to 300-400 m and in the more elevated areas syenite, a kind of granite that is quarried near Monchique as Foiaíte.
The Algarvian Serra is important for the climate of the region. It forms a physical barrier against the cold winds blowing from the north and the lows from the Northwest, thus giving the Algarve coast an almost Mediterranean climate, with low annual rainfall and mild temperatures in winter. Furthermore, it is also a barrier for the misty winds that come from the South.
The Serra is divided into three different ridges:
- Serra de Espinhaço de Cão with a height of up to 300 m, located in the west near the Costa Vicentina
- Serra de Monchique located in the western Algarve with the highest elevation in Southern Portugal, Fóia (902 m)
- Serra do Caldeirão (Serra do Mú) situated in the central and eastern Algarve with a height of up to almost 600 m.
At an altitude of 485 meters, Monchique, the highest village of the Algarve, nestles between two peaks, Fóia in the west, and Picota (774 m) in the east. A few miles south of Monchique is Caldas de Monchique, a famous spa resort. Caldas was already well known in the time of the Roman Empire because of its warm, sulphurous water, bubbling up with a constant temperature of 32 ° C. The villages of São Marcos da Serra and São Bartolomeu de Messines (simply known as Messines) in the municipality of Silves are situated at the foothills of the Serra de Monchique.
From time to time, in years of extreme drought, large parts of the vegetation in several areas of the Serra are affected by forest fires, often caused by human negligence and even started deliberately.