Saturday, 17 July 2010

Along the Algarve Coast - Portugal I

What summer would be complete without a week on the beach?
My wallet was looking unhealthily skinny; Sharm El Sheik and Maldives are off the list.
Algarve, in southern Portugal boasts a long stretch of beach, affordable standard of living and fresh seafood. Flight booked.
The flight landed in Faro. From the airport we took a bus to the city centre, where we changed for another (air-conditioned, thank god) bus that goes along the coast.  I didn’t see much of Faro, but I could hear my parents say it looked identical to Macau.  As the bus left the compact city, we passed other resort hotspots, such as Quarteira and Vilamoura. And Albufeira was the last stop after the 90-min journey, which could have taken longer as there were a fair number of stops along the way. The bus terminal was on a hill, and instead of waiting for the local bus, I persuaded James to walk down to the town centre. I was so convinced Albufeira was tiny. 
Yes it was small, but not quite as small.
It wasn’t just sunny. It was skin-grilling.
We followed the signs along the main road for 20 minutes, and saw a complex with McDonald’s and KFC’s and a main road with heavy traffic. We could also see a tiny bit of the sea between two hotels. Since our hotel was supposed to be a doorstep from the beach, we knew we were heading the right direction. Before trotting on, I needed a fat cola. Who would have thought the first restaurant I use is McD’s in the seafood-rich Portugal.
Another 20 minutes later, we were standing at a viewpoint overlooking the vast blue sea. Ah….

Down the escalator, we walked into the street behind the first row of hotels. No sign of “Sol e Mar” but we came to a square lined with bars and restaurants. After buying some ice lollies, we went up one of the alleyways at one of the corners, all lined with more souvenir shops, and came to a tunnel that led to the beach. On the side of the tunnel were stairs to “Sol e Mar”. Yes it was a doorstep from the beach.
When it comes to star ratings in European hotels, I have gotten used to knocking 2 off for more realistic expectations. So the 4-star hotel wasn’t too bad. The room was clean, spacious and air-conditioned, with a balcony and a massive sea view. We got into our beachwear, picked up some sunscreen, and were sleeping under the sun in no time. 3 hours. I browned.

We chose one of the sea-facing restaurants and took a table outside. I tried the local speciality “Cataplana”, which was a shellfish and monkfish stew cooked in a special container, served with rice.  It was a very rich stew, so I couldn’t taste the freshness of the seafood. James opted for turbot with new potatoes. The fish was moist and flaky as it should be, skin slightly crisp on top of a thin layer of fish oil. Delicious.

As the sun was beginning to set, it got breezier and cooler. We walked along the beach back to the hotel for some extra layers. The streets were still lively after dark; performers in the square and bars with live music. James had a passion fruit smoothie and I had a hot chocolate in a frutti bar before calling it a day.
Beautiful day started with breakfast by the sea. We bought 2 float beds; one yellow long bed for 5 Euros, and the other was a single seat sofa for 12 Euros. We then spent the entire day floating on the sea. Actually, I did. James spent half the day getting on the float bed, the other second half either paddling himself towards the shore, or trying to stay on it.

Lunch was at one of the restaurants in the square, where sardines and piri-piri chicken dishes were sold for as little as 6 Euros. I was never a fan of sardines, and this didn’t change my mind. Even though I could remove the majority of the fish bones in one pull, there were still the occasional few that pierced my tongue. James had calamari, which wasn’t special either.

Back to the sea.

For dinner we popped into a more discreet alleyway lined with more restaurants, hoping to find a more authentic meal. I wish I could say I found it. The Portuguese version of paella was pretty bad, no aroma of saffron, nor did the flavors from the shellfish infuse into the rice. James’s arroz de la mer was the same as the Cataplana, but without the copper container. Hmm.

A puppet performer was dancing an alien to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Thriller, we sat in a café for a Belgian waffle with ice cream afterwards.

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