Lisbon, the Alentejo wine region and the Algarve make for a well-rounded romp.
By Tim Johnson | April 19, 2021
It is a fine day to see the end of the world. Rolling out of Lagos in a small, open boat, the sun is fighting with the clouds, the wind at our backs, the sea rolling just enough to remind me that beyond the horizon is more endless ocean.
A moment ago, we left the protection of the harbour, my guide, Luis, waving to a family of squid fishing friends before we round the breakwater. Soon, our little craft will crash through, into the Garage, and also the Living room, and the Chimney, all grottoes along the way. But at this moment, Luis points to a far-off headland, noting the dark line of Cape St. Vincent and the surf town of Sagres. “Back in history, they believed that’s where the earth finished,” he says. “But we won’t go that far, not today.”
I’m in Portugal’s Algarve, which occupies the southern reaches of the country. Lined with beaches and cliffs, and hidden coves and historic towns like Lagos, it’s a region both compact and diverse—much like Portugal itself. Staying here in the country for several weeks, I have the chance to go deep, exploring three distinct areas, each one with its own character, personality, tastes and highlights.
It all starts when I land in Lisbon.
Perhaps Europe’s most underrated city, this capital city may lack the icons—no Eiffel Tower, no Brandenburg Gate—but brings surprises at every turn. The cobblestone core is easy to walk and I spend hours strolling down the gentle descent of Avenida Liberdade, the broad boulevard that bisects the heart of town, making random decisions about which small lane in Baixa to explore next. Many times, my journey on foot takes me to the waterfront, making my way along the Tagus River. The broad waterway is always busy with boats and live musicians provide a soundtrack, with the smells of little food stalls selling prego and bifana hanging in the air, all the way to the Tower of Belem.
Cork Oak & Grapevines
Alentejo province is one of Portugal’s largest wine-producing regions, best known for excellent table wines found in bars and restaurants all over the country.
After a few more days in the capital—one day, riding the yellow, 1930s-era Tram 28, screeching around corners, climbing hills and passing close to the Sao Jorge Castle, another ascending up the Elevador de Santa Justa—I head to the hinterlands.
First, a drive to nearby Alentejo. Making up fully one-third of Portugal, this region of castle towns and wineries is often overlooked. But it’s home to some of the country’s best wines and I reach the walled city of Evora after just 90 minutes in the car, crossing the soaring 25 de Abril Bridge and winding into the vine-striped hills, toward the Spanish border.
Evora was once home to kings and queens. Escaping the Black Plague, the Portuguese royal family made it their home for centuries. The small city still feels grand, filled with former palaces and grand churches, plus a creepy Chapel of Bones built with some 5,000 corpses, all of it ringed by a 2nd-century Roman wall. And, just nearby, on the way to the hilltop fortress of Monsaraz, you’ll find Ervideira, and owner Duarte Leal da Costa.
He’s a character. His adega has sunny views over the vines on three sides and the winery has been family run for generations. I taste several wines, including Portuguese classics like Touriga Nacional. “It is totally forbidden to plant this grape here, since 1991. So I planted it,” he says, with a mischievous smile, pouring me a sample of the full-bodied red, explaining that, legally, it can only be grown in the Douro region.
After a couple more tastes, he leads me down to where the magic happens, drawing directly from the tanks, and then, the barrels, in a few cases tasting one wine at three different stages in the aging process. The piece de resistance is his Conde D’Ervideira. Using the logic that wines recovered from shipwrecks are always good, he submerged a special blend in oak barrels in a lake for eight months. The result? Really nice.
“It is totally forbidden to plant this grape here, so I planted it.”
And finally, I find myself in Portugal’s deepest south, the Algarve. Famous for its beaches—and the massive crowds that flock there—this region, encompassing all of the country’s bottom edge, rewards those who search for its hidden mysteries. I walk castle walls in Loule and take a sunset cruise in Tavira. And in Lagos, after learning about the city’s long, proud naval history at the local museum, I climb into a boat with Luis.
First, we pass Praia de Batata—Potato Beach—named when a ship went down nearby, discharging its starchy cargo on the shore here. Then, we wind through the grottoes at Ponta da Piedade, Luis zooming the little boat through archways and into caves. Soon, we’re headed back to safe harbour. The edge of the world behind us, a warm dinner ahead—and I start dreaming about some fresh squid or maybe something meatier, paired with Touriga Nacional.
When You Go
TAP Airlines provides direct flights from Toronto to Lisbon. Their business class cabin includes lie-flat beds, as well as top-notch Portuguese food and wine. They also offer seasonal service to the Azores and connections beyond, to Europe and Africa.
In both Lisbon and the Algarve, stay with Tivoli. Their flagship in the capital is situated on Avenida Liberdade, with posh suites, a full-service spa and the rooftop restaurant and bar, Seen Lisboa, a place to “sin and be seen.” In the Algarve, all rooms and suites at the Tivoli Vilamoura have views of either the sea or the town’s vast marina, and Purobeach, their beach club, is the perfect way to spend the day on the sand, complete with cocktails and lunch.
To tour the grottoes in Lagos, book a tour with BlueFleet. Day cruises last a couple hours.