Algarve, Wine and sculptures at Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate, Estômbar

Wine and sculptures at Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate, Estômbar

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pic (221)As we approached the Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate on foot from Estômbar, we were greeted with the sight of life-size colourful bears doing handstands among the vines and a curvaceous red giantess standing on the top of a hill. We knew we had arrived. The estate is no ordinary winery, but also a renowned sculpture park, where the owner, Karl Heinz Stock, displays his and other artists’ grand sculptures of elephants, bears, hippos, birds and unfashionably Rubenesque dancers.

Many of the works are for sale and, for people who want to try their hand at making something in the arts-and-crafts-line themselves, workshops are held at certain times. Images of some of the sculptures have made their way onto the labels of the estate’s wine bottles, including the company’s logo of the Sirens from a work ‘Legends of the Seas’ by Fachraddin Rzaev.pic (117) We were happy wandering around the grounds on our own (although we did notice a group of visitors on a guided tour of the grounds), moving from one area of sculptures to another, past a barbecue area, a swimming pool and an outdoor eating area

I fell in love with the kissing hippos in a pond surrounded by blue, purple, green and red naked women floating on the water.pic (161) We finally arrived at an area of sculptures by Ivan Ulmann, whose work is prolific throughout the estate, which included small elephants painted to illustrate the parables which are printed on the accompanying information boards, such as ‘The Day an Elephant Crossed the Land of Plenty’, and another of my favourite sculptures in the grounds, the ‘Love Car’, an old car completely covered with mosaic tiles.

As we walked through the grounds we passed fruit trees with oranges, lemons and plums waiting temptingly to be picked.pic (136) Dotted around the 44-hectare estate we took a sneaky peek at some of the accommodation that can be rented, including a lovely villa, a cottage and apartments, and decided that it would make a wonderful location for a peaceful holiday, a wedding or a very special party.pic (176)

We discovered a large area of animal pens hidden away at one end of the estate, with geese, sheep and goats. The geese were noisy and keen to make their presence felt, while the group of sheep and goats were running around the grounds acting very camera-shy. We finally caught up with them in the orange grove.

But it was the wine that we really went to the Quinta dos Vales for, having already tasted a bottle of the Marquês dos Vales white wine at the Lagoa Jazz Festival. Vines have been grown on the estate since the 1980s, when commercial wine production in the Algarve began and vines can be seen growing for as far as the eye can see, including grape varieties such as Syrah, Verdelho, Aragonês, Arinto, Touriga Nacional, Castelão and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Quinta produces two labels: the aforementioned award-winning Marquês dos Vales and a new range of fruity, uncomplicated wines on the Dialog label (look out for the kissing hippos, elephants and bears on the labels). Finally we got to try some wines, opting for a solo tasting, which for the bargain price of €5 allowed us to taste four glasses of wine from the Marquês dos Vales label. A leaflet of tasting notes was provided. The glasses were arranged on an ingenious holder that allowed us to safely carry three glasses to the secluded seating area, where we sat back to enjoy the Duo White 2015, the Duo Rosé 2016 and the Elegant Grace 2012. The Duo White was a blend of Verdelho and Arinto grapes and was light with a citrus flavour. It was very refreshing on that hot day. The Duo Rosé was a blend of Touriga Nacional and Castelão grapes. It was pale pink in colour and had a strong floral perfume. It was a young wine with a slightly sharp flavour. The Elegant Grace was a red wine made of a blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Aragonês grapes. It was a light and acidic with a garnet-red colour. Finally, we were served a glass of the Licoroso Red 2010 made with Touriga Nacional grapes. This was a fortified wine with a cherry aroma and a smooth, berry flavour. It reminded of the cherry liqueur ginjinha that I have drunk and enjoyed in Lisbon. Luckily neither of us was driving, so we were able to enjoy all of the wines knowing a taxi would take these two tipsy people back to Carvoeiro.

Practicalities

Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate, Sítio dos Vales, Estômbar

Opening hours: October to April Monday-Friday 9am-6pm; May to September Monday-Saturday 9am-6pm. Entrance to the grounds is free.

Tastings (as of June 2017): a solo wine tasting is €5 for 4 glasses. For an extra €9.90 per person they will provide regional snacks such as bread, cheese, ham, pâté, and olives. A private tour of the winery and cellar costs €29.90, plus €6 per person for a guided wine tasting with bread and olive oil.

By public transport: the Faro-Lagos train stops at Estômbar railway station or the Lagoa-Portimão bus stops in front of the station. It is a 10-15-minute walk from the station. Follow the sign on the signpost opposite the station to Quinta dos Vales.

Algarve, Silves - a Moorish legacy

Silves – a Moorish legacy

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Silves Cathedral and Castle, Silves

Silves appeared to be asleep when we stepped off the bus on the riverfront road. As we walked along the riverfront past the market and the smoky outdoor-grill restaurants to the charming white thirteenth-century Ponte Romana (Roman Bridge), which crosses the River Arade, there was still nothing to dispel the thought that Silves was a pretty, but unexceptional small Algarvean city. Tour operators run boat trips up the River Arade from Portimão to Silves, but the water level was very low on the hot June day that we were there and I couldn’t see how a boat would make it as far as Silves (I later found out that the river is affected by the tide and boat trips can only run at high tide). The river played an important role in the history of Silves. The Phoenicians established a port there around 1000 BC, followed by the Romans (who named the city Silbis) and then the Moors, who turned Xelb (the Arabic name for Silves) into a thriving city of artists and artisans. The city lost its importance when the river silted up.

A short walk from the Ponte Romana we stumbled across some magnificent gardens, which raised Silves above the level of an ordinary small city. The Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad is a peaceful park with a tranquillity pool containing calming sculptures, created by António Quina in 2001, honouring the Arabic people who lived in Xelb during the time of Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, an eleventh-century governor of Xelb, by depicting scenes of their daily life. The statues are incorporated into the reflective pool and the pastel colours of the marble and stone of which they are made blend with the water, making them look like reflections. There are two seated figures, one of whom could be Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad (who was also a poet and is considered to be among the best of the Andalusian poets), observing the other figures. Placed in the water are tablets made of steel with Arabic writing engraved on them. The whole scene is very meditative. Further in the tree-lined gardens are fountains and benches. Apart from someone walking their dog, surprisingly there was no one else about.

From the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad we climbed a steep cobbled street to discover Silves’ Moorish past. Silves today is a complete contrast to the Silves of the 11th century, when it was the capital of al-Gharb, the Arabic name for the Algarve region which was under Moorish rule from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. Xelb was a walled city with an outer wall protecting the centre. We entered the historical centre through a very narrow doorway, the Torreão da Porta da Cidade (Turret of the City Gate), a surviving section of the twelfth- or thirteenth-century outer fortification, which leads from the Praça do Município, a charming square which houses the city hall and still has a pillory at one end. Once we passed through the Torreão da Porta da Cidade the noise and bustle contrasted with the peacefulness of the riverfront. So, this is where all the tourists were!

It was a short walk to Silves Cathedral. Built on the site of the former Grand Mosque in the thirteenth century, it is an austere building, cool and dark inside with rose-pink granite columns. The cathedral was the bishopric until 1577 when it was moved to Faro. It still has tombs of former bishops, along with crusaders who died during the battle against the Moors.

From here we walked to Silves Castle, with its distinctive red sandstone walls, which can be seen from miles away and which is one of the best-preserved castles in the region. During the Moorish period the castle housed the governor of city, including the aforementioned Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad. There is not much evidence of the castle interior left, except for a huge vaulted water cistern, intriguingly named Cisterna da Moura Encantada (Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl) after the legend that at midnight on the festival of St John a Moorish princess who has been put under a spell appears in the cistern in a silver boat with golden oars looking for the prince who can break the spell. At the entrance to the castle is a large statue of King Sancho I, the Portuguese king associated with the Christian recapture of Silves from the Moors. In 1189 he gathered an army of Portuguese soldiers and crusaders to invade the city. It is believed that the population of 30,000 took refuge in the castle and managed to survive due to the water in the cistern. Eventually, when the water ran out, they agreed to meet with King Sancho I, who promised they would be safe if they allowed the city to pass over to his control, but he had also promised the crusaders the spoils of war and they ransacked the city, killing 6000 Moors. Although the Moors won back the city in 1191, they been weakened to the point that the city fell to the Christians in 1249. On a lighter note, from the castle walls we got wonderful views of the surrounding fields of orange, almond and carob trees; all of which are a legacy of the Moors. Silves celebrates its Moorish past every year in August when it holds a Medieval Festival in the historic centre, the streets leading from there and the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, which lasts 10 days and includes parades with people dressed in Moorish costumes, jousting and street entertainment, market stalls and street food and even a banquet in the grounds of the castle. A fee to enter the historic centre is charged on these days, but I am told it is worth it.

From the castle it was a short walk to the Archaeological Museum. The museum contains a variety of objects found in the Silves area dating back to pre-historic times. The highlight is a well-preserved well dating from Moorish times, around which the museum has been built. It was only discovered in 1980 and is the focal point of the museum. After a much-needed cool drink in a small café in Largo Jerónimo Osório, near the cathedral, we walked back down Rua do Cemitério past the entrance to the municipal cemetery, heading to the eastern outskirts of the city, where we discovered a large cross on a piece of wasteland on the side of the N124. The Cruz de Portugal (Cross of Portugal), which depicts the crucifixion of Christ and the descent from the cross in a mixture of Gothic and Manueline styles, is a late-fifteenth/early sixteenth-century symbol which was placed on routes of pilgrimage. It is believed to have been donated to the city by Manuel I as a thank you for interring the body of João II at Silves cathedral before his body was taken away for burial at Batalha. Not realising how far from the bus terminus we were we had a hurried walk back to the riverfront road to catch our bus back to Lagoa, which I’m pleased to say, we caught!

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Cruz de Portugal, Silves

Practicalities

Silves can be reached by bus from Albufeira, Armação de Pêra, Lagoa and Portimão – the bus terminus is near the market on the riverfront – and by train from Faro and Lagos (the Algarve line) – the railway station is 2km south of the city.

Silves Cathedral (Sé de Silves), Rua da Sé, Silves. Open to the public Monday to Friday 9am-5pm (except public holidays).

Silves Castle, Rua do Castelo, Silves. Open April, May, September and October 9am-8pm; June to August 9am-10pm; November to March 9am-5.30pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance costs €2.80 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.

Silves Archaeological Museum (Museu Municipal de Arqueologia de Silves), Rua da Porta de Loulé, Silves. Open daily 10am-6pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance €2.10 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.

(Times and prices as of June 2017.)

A tuk-tuk and a vineyard, Algarve

A tuk-tuk and a vineyard

pic (331)pic (345)The tuk-tuk tour was a birthday treat for Neil and to make it extra special I booked the tuk-tuk wine tour, which included wine tasting with snacks guided by a wine specialist. After a false start earlier in the week, which I shall gloss over, Vasco Chaveca, the owner of Allgav-TukTuk himself, picked us up from outside our apartment in Carvoeiro and drove us to a lovely winery located between Lagoa and Silves. The drive to the vineyard was pleasant, with a cooling breeze coming into the open-sided tuk-tuk and as there was no engine noise we were able to chat easily to Vasco, who was an affable chauffeur. Vasco formed the Portimão-based company in 2013 and in 2016 the company was named the Tour Operator of the Year – Algarve in the Luxury Travel Guide Global Awards.

We arrived at the Quinta do Outeiro, the home of Paxá Wines, and were met by Nídia, our host and guide, and were briefly introduced to the owner of Paxá Wines, Tiago Lopes. The company was founded in 2007 by Tiago’s father, Joaquim, who turned the former citrus grove into 13 hectares of vines, using 12 grape varieties suited to the rust-coloured clay and limestone soil. Wine has been produced in the Algarve region since before Moorish times and the company’s name, Paxá, (Pasha) is recognition of the Moorish heritage. Until the 1980s it is fair to say that Algarvean wine was not good. The main grape variety of the region was Negro Mole, which made an unpalatable red wine best suited to pouring on salads. However, Algarvean wine producers are now growing different grape varieties, such as Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Arinto and Crato Branco, and are skilfully blending them into quality wines.

After a tour of the small production area, where until last year the team of seven labelled the bottles by hand, we walked through the vineyards, learning that only three permanent employees look after the vines, although contracted workers are taken on to help with the harvest in August.

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Finally we entered the old farmhouse, which is now a tasting room and display area where the company proudly displays awards that their wines have won at various wine shows. A table was laid out with appetizing snacks and we were given a leaflet with tasting notes. We began with a glass of Quinta do Outeiro Tinto, a light red made of Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Aragonez and Trincadeira grapes. It was fruity with soft tannins and was very pleasant to drink on its own. We then tried it with a crispbread spread with pork pâté which the wine complimented, cutting through the richness of the pâté. Next we tried a Paxá Branco, a wonderful citrus white wine, launched in February 2017, made with Arinto and Crato Branco grapes. This was a light and refreshing wine, perfect to drink on its own on a hot day. To go with this we were offered a crispbread spread with a mackerel pâté. The wine worked perfectly with the rich fishy flavour of the mackerel. The third wine was the Paxá Tinto, a dark red wine made of Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz grapes. It was a wonderfully smooth, berry-flavoured wine, which I could see myself drinking in the winter. To accompany this we were offered dark orange-flavoured chocolate. I don’t have a sweet tooth and for me the chocolate didn’t work with the wine, which I was happy to drink on its own! The winery also produces several Reserve wines and limited editions, included an intriguing oak-barrelled Viognier.

Our visit had come to an end, so we climbed, slightly tipsy, back into the tuk-tuk and Vasco drove us back to Carvoeiro following a different route to the one we had come in from. We said our goodbyes and spent the afternoon in a happy haze.

Practicalities

We booked the tour through the Allgav-TukTuk website www.allgav-tuktuk.pt. A two-hour tour with wine tasting costs €40 per person (as of June 2017) and a three-hour tour with snacks costs €65 per person.

Paxá Wines is located at Quinta do Outeiro, Sítio do Lobito (between Lagoa and Silves). Website: www.paxawines.pt

Algarve, Alvor

Alvor

 

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Fish market and harbour, Alvor

Alvor is a pretty little fishing town which is popular with tourists, as opposed to many of the other former Algarvean fishing villages, which are tourist resorts that are popular with fishers. It may be a small difference, but it is an important one, as Alvor has retained its charm in a way that other places on the coast of the Algarve haven’t. Not surprisingly, Alvor is famous for its fish restaurants on the waterfront over-looking the fishing boats in the River Alvor estuary. The anchor pattern in the cobbles here reflect the fishing tradition, while a statue, Homenagem ao Pescador (‘Homage to the Fisherman’), sculpted by João Cutileiro (who also sculpted the statue of King Sebastian in Lagos) in 2000, acknowledging the importance of the local fishermen, is in front of the nearby fish market, where fishermen sit and play cards.

After walking around the Alvor Nature Reserve we decided to explore the town further. A walk up the pedestrianised Rua Doutor Frederico Ramos Mendes, Alvor’s main restaurant and bar street,

leads to the Manueline Igreja do Divino Salvador (Church of the Divine Saviour), built in the early-sixteenth century. The arch around the front door is a wonderfully extravagant example of Manueline style, with carvings on the arch in the shape of plants and a giant octopus tentacle making up the final arch. Inside the church the highlights for me were the ornate altar, two Rococo-style azulejo panels depicting the Last Supper and Jesus washing the feet of the Disciples and several depictions, in stained glass and sculpture, of Nossa Senhora da Boa Viagem (Our Lady of the Good Voyage) holding a child in one arm and a boat in the other.

From here we walked up Rua 25 Abril, a narrow street with traditional whitewashed houses, to the Praça da República, a tree-lined square which I suspect is the real heart of Alvor, where local older men sit and chat. In one corner of the square is the small Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy).

A short walk south of the square are the remains of a former Moorish castle, dating from the time when the town was called Al-Bur. The castle was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and the surviving castle walls now shelter a children’s playground.

As we walked back to the car park a man offered to sell us a bag full of freshly caught razor shells. It seemed a fitting end to our visit to Alvor.

Capela da Nossa Senhora da Rocha, Porches

Capela da Nossa Senhora da Rocha, Porches

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The enchanting Capela da Nossa Senhora da Rocha (Chapel of Our Lady of the Rock) on the promontory that extends from the mainland into the sea like a slice of cake, is so picture perfect that it looks like part of film set and I almost expected to see Meryl Streep running along the path towards the chapel after singing ‘The Winner Takes it All’ (as in the film version of Mamma Mia!). The promontory, with the gold- and bronze-coloured rock and the small whitewashed chapel on top, is one of the most photographed images in the western part of the Algarve and, not surprisingly, is a setting for fairy-tale-style weddings. It is best seen from the cliff path above Praia Nova to the west of the promontory, with the sweeping expanse of the beach to the east of Armação de Pêra, which goes all the way to Albufeira, in the distance. From here the chapel looks like a decoration on a slice of wedding cake.

The chapel is a small, squat, whitewashed building, the simplicity of which looks stunning against a blue Algarvian sky. It has a short, hexagonal, broad-based steeple with a simple cross on the top and a single bell to the side of the steeple. There is a small porch with azulejos (patterned tiles) on the walls and an azulejo cross above the porch on the outside wall of the chapel. Behind the glass doors at the back of the porch is a small shrine with a carved wooden panel depicting the Madonna and Child, painted in blue and gold, above a small altar. The azulejos in the porch continue into the shrine. Opposite the shrine is a square, brick niche, used for votive candles, which overlooks the sea and the cliffs behind. From the other side of the chapel you can look down onto the tiny beach, Praia Senhora da Rocha. If you are on the beach, there is a tunnel through the rock which provides easy access between Praia Senhora da Rocha and Praia Nova. The promontory is thought to have been used as a fortress dating back to before the eighth century, but it has been destroyed over the centuries by erosion and rock falls, which continue to this day, evidence of which can be seen in the fissure on the tip of the promontory, giving a sense of transitoriness to the scene.

Practicalities

Buses run to Senhora da Rocha from Portimão via Lagoa and from Albufeira via Armação de Pêra. There is approximately one bus an hour between 7.30am and 7.30pm.

Sítio das Fontes, Estômbar

Sítio das Fontes, Estômbar

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Nestling on the outskirts of Estômbar, only 10km from Carvoeiro, is the lovely public park and nature reserve, Sítio das Fontes. It is situated along the River Arade and has a number of different habitats ranging from scrubland to marsh and salt marsh. Along with this is a variety of flora and fauna that can be found in these habitats, in particular a large variety of birds and waterfowl, although on the day I visited, either it was my lack of observation skills or the birds were keeping away, but I didn’t spot anything unusual. This part of the River Arade is very pretty and is particularly attractive at sunset.

Sítio das Fontes means ‘place of the springs’ and the clear, clean water of the springs has created an area that is perfect for swimming in. On a hot summer’s day local families come to the park to have picnics in the large picnic area, which is set out with picnic tables and barbecues. In the past the area had a tidal water mill and there are still vestiges of this past, including a weir and a water tank with its distinctive metal wheel, which was used in the past to irrigate local fields and orchards. The former mill house is still standing and the whole scene is very photogenic.

The park is often used for cultural events and overlooking the river there is a small amphitheatre which is put to good use in June when the annual Lagoa Jazz Festival takes place. In the nearby Interpretation Centre various exhibitions are held. Unfortunately the day I went (26th December) it was closed and I was unable to see the ‘Algarvios’ exhibition by one of my favourite local photographers, Vitor Pina.

The Sítio das Fontes Municipal Park is accessible and easy to walk around, being on the flat and having a dirt path all the way round (to walk around the whole park takes about 45 minutes). As a result it is very popular with dog walkers and joggers. It is a great place to exercise and the local council have even gone as far as to install exercise stations at intervals throughout the park.

Very little has been written about this park in tourist literature and therefore very few tourists even know of its existence. Maybe the locals prefer it this way! Sítio das Fontes is a perfect place to relax and be at one with nature, but don’t tell everyone!

Practicalities

Sítio das Fontes Municipal Park is 2km north of Estômbar. Public buses and trains stop on the EN125 in Estômbar, but there is no public transport to the park. There is a car park at the entrance to the park.

Opening hours: 15th April-15th October 7.30am-8.30pm; 16th October-14th April 7.30am-6.30pm.

Algarve, Santa Swim, Armação de Pêra, Christmas Day 2016

Santa Swim, Armação de Pêra, Christmas Day 2016

 

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Standing on a beach on Christmas Day in nearly 20°C heat wearing nothing but a Santa suit over my swimming costume was a first for me, but this year I was spending Christmas on the Algarve and joined a group of 50 or so similarly dressed people to take part in the annual Santa Swim at Armação de Pêra. As the Portuguese celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, when they have the traditional family meal (consoada) and go to midnight mass, Christmas Day has a more relaxed feeling about it.

The Santa Swim has been a regular event at Armação de Pêra for 13 years and is organised by the Holiday Inn Algarve to raise money for local charities (in total €800 was raised for the two charities Espaço Amigo and A Gaivota). Most people (a mixture of local Portuguese, ex-pats and some tourists) came dressed in the felt Santa suit that can be bought cheaply from a well-known online shop. For those who hadn’t got a Santa suit the Holiday Inn were selling Santa hats for €1. Once everyone had arrived, we all formed a circle and sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ in English and ‘A Todos um Bom Natal’ in Portuguese. After the customary group photo we all ran into the sea. There was no pressure to go all the way in – the aim was for part of you to get wet. Some brave swimmers did go for an actual swim, while the majority, like me, were happy to let the water come up to our knees. The sea was a little rough near the shore and there were a few people who got wetter than they had planned, but luckily no one was hurt. There were some expert paddle boarders from BlueXperience (cunningly disguised as Santas) on hand, along with the maritime police, in case there were any problems. Surprisingly, the sea didn’t feel much colder than when I have been swimming in September – it’s the Atlantic and it’s always cold! I can’t think of a better way of working up an appetite for Christmas dinner.

Watch our video here.

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