Beyond the beach

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By Sarah Marshall

I'd blown into the Algarve on a cheap holiday flight buffeted by gales  coming, unusually, from the north east. "No good wind comes from Spain,"  warns my taxi-driver, quoting a popular local proverb, which has more to  do with patriotic pride than meteorological forecasts.

If Portugal is emphatically not Spain, the Algarve is not quite  Portugal. Firstly, it's separated from the rest of the country by a high  mountain range, the Serra De Monchique. What little rain there is - the  Algarve has more sunny days each year than California - falls between November and February. In the bone-dry summer months, it can seem as if the whole of Europe is  catching a tan on the magnificent sandy beaches of Albufeira.

In many people's minds, the region means two things - sunshine and golf.  But Algarve tourism bosses are on a mission to make their southern  province a year-round cultural destination. For those who seek tranquillity, it's good to visit out of season. In  spring, almond blossom creates fragrant snow clouds of white petals, and  orchards are bright with citrus fruit. It's easy to hire a car or  motorbike, and move around unhindered by August's intense heat and  traffic gridlock.

Travelling 50km westwards from Faro, popular resorts give way to  crumbling, iron-stained cliffs, and expensive private villas constructed  on land now protected from further development by strict planning  regulations. A discreet lane through a nature reserve leads to my hotel, the Suites  Alba Resort & Spa, owned by footballer Luis Figo. The place is  half-deserted and, wandering alone along the cobbled paths of the  brightly painted, low-rise complex, I feel as if I'm on a movie set. A brush with the past The place has history in abundance: The Moors were here for 500 years,  and the Romans before them.

At Silves Castle, I examine the recently  excavated ruins of a Sultan's harem, complete with eunuch quarters, a  tiny herb garden, a hammam, and the ladies' primitive but functional toilet. (Lavatories of similar design, I'm amazed to hear, were used in  Portugal until the 1950s.) At Lagos, from where the earliest European explorers set out to map the  rest of the world, you can still see the bases of the stone columns  which once formed Europe's oldest slave market, dating from the 15th  century. A small museum commemorates victims of the trade.

Simply sophisticated cuisine

Blending fine dining with local culinary traditions, there are several  restaurants in the region worth seeking out. At Veneza restaurant and  wine cellar (restauranteveneza.com) in Mem Moniz, I eat food 'as grandma  made it' - a deconstructed crab laid out nakedly and without pretension  on a platter, followed by a bean soup pungent with chorizo. If you eat  in the wine cellar, be warned: The ambient temperature is kept at the  convenience of the wines, not you, so bring an extra jumper. At Estamine (estamine.pt) on the uninhabited Ilha Deserta (Desert  Island) in the Ria Formosa lagoon and wetlands at Faro, gastronomy  combines seamlessly with eco-tourism. An exhilarating speed boat trip  ferries me to lunch at a wooden-decked restaurant powered by solar  energy, with fresh water recovered from the ground. The seafood-based menu is garnished using island herbs such as marsh  samphire. Ecologist Thomas Santos offers guided tours, explaining above  noise of the crashing waves how the island came into being and how  plants stabilise the dunes. The windswept beach is littered with pretty  shells, but Thomas only lets me take three, so I choose them with care.

Artisan arts and crafts

"Culture is more than concerts," I'm told by Joao Silvestre Ministro,  general director of Proactivetur, a Loule-based responsible and cultural  tourism consultancy. It's a phrase I hear more than once from  Algarvians, keen to protect their heritage. In 2010, a project linked artisans with contemporary designers to revive  interest in traditional crafts. Wandering the narrow alleyways of Loule,  you can admire groups of women weaving palm baskets, or watch a  coppersmith bashing the dents from a cataplana - a pot which gives its  name to the fish stew which is cooked in it. Practical workshops are  also available to visitors (in2south.pt).

Music for the soul

Culture is more than concerts, yet the region has an impressive live  music scene too. This is the third year of 365 Algarve, a  generously-funded arts programme that runs from October until May. On my  first night, I catch The Analogue Music Project, a jazz band from West  Portugal, playing to a chilled audience at the Quinta de La Rosa Winery  at Silves. Another evening, I travel to Sao Bras de Alportel, a small town north of  Faro, to watch a late-night cinema programme that would have kept even  the most obsessive film buff happy. Unfinished works by directors  including Henri Georges-Clouzot and Orson Welles set to live musical  accompaniment. The local cultural mafia are out in force, with hipster  beards in abundance. And for its haunting strangeness, I will not forget a dance work created  by Giacomo Scalisi and Madalena Victorino. At Monchique, a mountain  settlement of ear-popping altitude run by enthusiastic mayor Rui Andre,  who is also an art teacher, I am part of a mixed group of locals and  visitors who set out on a long walk to an abandoned hamlet. There, amid  stone ruins that smell of woodsmoke, we watch Eva Poro #1, an ambitious  piece featuring bare-chested men, dogs and horses. Perched somewhere high on a rock behind me, a lonely cellist plays and  sings her flamenco-inspired compositions into the deep silence. With the  light fading and a cold wind whipping at the cork trees, it is a unique  experience that will live far longer in my memory than noisy bars and  crowded summer beaches.

For more information on the destination, visit visitalgarve.pt. For details of the 365 Algarve cultural programme, visit 365algarve.pt.    

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