The Best Kept Secret in the Algarve

Since reaching the Algarve, I have not been inspired to write as there is very little to write about. The coastline is, in places, spectacular, the churches are still charmingly decorated and the wine is still plentiful. However, the small fishing villages have been swallowed by towering apartments and hotels, the surrounding countryside converted into golf courses and urbanisations. There are also a lot more motorhomes, mostly full-timers flocking south and seeking winter warmth.

DSCF8258I venture inland, hoping to escape the crowds and find some history at Silves where a large, restored Moorish castle looks down upon the town and the river Arade. Unfortunately, the riverside parking has been taken over by full-timers and, despite reading that they had been regularly moved on in the past, and the fact that there is a perfectly good, cheap aire only a few hundred metres away, it seems as though the local council have given in and are creating motorhome services to meet the demand.

Further east, I stumble across the small village of Estoi. It even has dedicated motorhome parking and services. However, the parking spaces are filled with local pick-ups and the services are badly designed and no longer function. This seems to deter other motorhomers, who see the problems and then leave without even stopping to see the village, but not me. While Trixie gets gently massaged by the overhanging tree branches, I set off on foot in search of the local palace. The signs lead me on a rather circuitous route around the village and I begin to give up hope, but finally I find it, tucked away down a side street.

DSCF8344My outdated guidebook mentions the 18th century building and its romantic, yet neglected, gardens which feature mosaics acquired from the nearby Roman ruins of Milreu. What it doesn’t mention is that 5 years ago the palace became a luxury pousada. Originally built by a member of the Royal Court as his home, it was decorated in baroque style. Then, in 1893, it was bought by Francisco Jose da Silva, a bachelor pharmacist from Beja. He paid for its restoration and in May 1909 held a grand party to celebrate the completion. The gardens were always open to the public and he built a small theatre for the local community as well as helping the poorer inhabitants and offering a feast for all at Christmas. In 1926, having lived 86 years, Francisco died and he was buried in a tomb in the village cemetery. The palace was inherited by his family, while other bequests enabled a school to be built and the church to have an organ and a mechanical clock, similar to those installed in the palace. In 1987 the palace of Estoi was bought by the City Council of Faro and then later redeveloped as a pousada.

DSCF8330I’m actually quite glad that it is a pousada because at least it is open and the staff are happy for me to explore the gardens and the public rooms which still feature dark wood walls and beautifully painted ceilings. The bedrooms and spa are located in a modern, ugly, grey concrete block, topped with an outdoor infinity pool. It seems to conflict greatly with the pink plaster and statue-topped roof of the palace, but the original buildings have been restored well and the gardens are far from neglected and a delight to wander around with tiled panels, tinkling fountains, playful statues and the appropriated Roman mosaics.

DSCF8357On my way back to the parking, I discover a second hand bookshop with a large stock of English language books. Its run by a German called Dirk who raises money for a local children’s charity. Close by is a charming shop selling art, local pottery and cork products. It is a very new project for Virginie, who only opened 6 months ago, but her enthusiasm for the work of the local artists and craftsmen can only help her to be a successful business woman. Steep steps lead up to the main door of the church which has an interesting set of chapels with traditional and modern statues of the saints. When I finally return to Trixie I discover that a group of local men are having a petanque match in front of her while a couple of local women sit gossiping, wearing traditional skirts of the Algarve region. Village life at its best.

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