A gem on the southernmost border of Portugal and Spain
Please keep in mind, my travelogues are more about sharing highlights than telling you what not to do.
I have happily lived in the Algarve for 3 1/2 years now. I have only visited Vila Real de Santo António once and that was for a quick walk through the centre. I have passed through this little town several times on my way to Spain and I have spent time in neighboring towns. So why did I finally come to this town for an extended stay?
I had recently booked an Airbnb for three days and consequently had the opportunity to see the place I had booked. I don’t want to share specifics because it wouldn’t be fair to the owner of the Airbnb; he did not know I would be stopping by. I will only tell you two things: first I think the dude is a raging alcoholic, and second, he smoked like it was crack. There were ashtrays everywhere and the place reeked of smoke. I cancelled my reservation as soon as I got home. I also convinced Airbnb to refund the service fee — something they rarely do.
I opened Booking.com looking at the same dates and the Pousada Vila Real de Santo António popped up on my screen and so, I took a closer look. I viewed the photos and decided this place might be to my liking. Swimming pool on the first level and another on the roof.
Beautifully appointed, friendly, a great location and the price was right. I even received an email that I could upgrade to a bigger room for a reasonable fee. I have always wanted to stay in a Portuguese Pousada and this was my chance. I have two terraces and one of the best mattresses I have ever slept on. Breakfast is included and it’s excellent. I was able to get fresh coffee in the early morning hours; something I much appreciate. Fabulous property. I think I’ll join their Guest Club for offers and tempting benefits. I should note their website is very nicely done (not all hotels pay attention to their site).
“The Pousadas of Portugal Group is an exclusive chain of 34 historical hotels many of which are considered to be amongst the top hotels in Portugal and are the very embodiment of the best that Portugal has to offer. Many Pousada hotels were formerly monasteries, palaces, convents and castles and have been beautifully converted to offer luxurious, elegant hotel accommodation, often in superb locations. These unique hotels are located throughout mainland Portugal and the Azores in either historical cities such as Evora, a world heritage site, or in rural areas of outstanding natural beauty or interest such as Geres National Park.”
A fabulous eatery. I have to be honest, I chose this restaurant because I liked the owners reply to a reviewer. Among many excellent reviews, one diner was not a happy fella, but I liked the way the owner dealt with him. What I found was a quaint, authentic, executed with love, spot on the river with beautiful artwork and lovely jazz. The husband and wife team who own this gem have created a winning dining experience that will delight your senses.
I had an all shellfish night, clams and then shrimp. Fresh, simple and delicioso!
The Pousada had a beautiful restaurant with a mediterranean inspired menu. A wood fired oven (rare in Portugal), made choosing dinner at the Pousada a no brainer and I was not disappointed. There were lots of other offerings and a many cocktail and wine selections.
A beautiful and inviting bar with delicious eclectic bar food (including British fish & chips that I didn’t get to try — too full).
The entire centre of Vila Real is closed to traffic. There are many touristy shops you’ll want to pass up, but then every so often you’ll see a unique boutique shop worth visiting. There is also loads of shopping on the Spanish side (Ayamonte). I got this beautiful bowl for four euros (perfect for a small salad or ramen):
There is a casino just a couple of miles away in Monte Gordo. I did go once to make a small donation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
There are two museums and I saw an ad for a show (in Portuguese) that was recently staged here. It was competing rap artists — I missed it by three days.
Just look across the river and you will see Spain. You can take an inexpensive ferry ride to Ayamonte or drive across the bridge that links the two countries. It’s a real treat. A one hour time difference (keep this in mind when you look at the ferry schedule) and paella. A completely different culture only minutes away.
Travel To and From
I took the train which was just over 10 Euros round trip from Faro. It’s an old rail system, but it works. You can, of course, also drive there. Another option is the bus from Faro which takes about 90 minutes; for me, not as comfortable as the train.
There was an evening market in the square in front of the hotel on my second night. I assume it’s a summertime, Tuesday evening thing. An exhibition on “sardine” artwork was delightful.
Let me end by saying that I could easily live here.
Stockholm coming up in a few weeks. They’ve got COVID-19 under control; looks promising. Lyon, France in September and London for theatre in October. I’m waiting to book November and December, but I’m looking at all of my options. I love these direct flights to different parts of Europe from Faro. I want to see what this virus will do to winter travel. I’ll be in five Asian countries in January ’22 and Cuba in February. Both of these trips were rescheduled due to COVID-19.
I wrote a blog about moving to Portugal three weeks into my relocation (May 2018) and thought it would be fun to make some revisions and add new observations (as updates):
Update: It is no longer true that Hotel Faro is my favorite spot in town for a cocktail. I’ve discovered Columbus Cocktail & Wine Bar, not far from Hotel Faro, you still get the view of the marina, but unfortunately you’re on the ground level. Cocktails are creative, delicious, and reasonable. Great indoor and outdoor seating. If you’re coming from a big city in the U.S., the UK, Italy, Australia, etc., you’ll be getting a bargain at 8 Euros a pop.
Whoever said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” did not live in Portugal. I knew some things would be different and in fact, I looked forward to change. In truth, I haven’t even been here three weeks and I hesitate to start complaining, but heck, it’s my nature to piss and moan so why wait.
I purposely decided not to purchase a vehicle for several reasons: 1) I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint, 2) I was hoping I’d get more exercise by walking, and finally, 3) I figured I could save a little money (more in the bank for food). I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying the Faro bus schedule. It’s complicated, convoluted and I have no idea where buses end up in the city. There are at least 10 different bus lines very close to my building, but I can’t figure out how to get from A to B. So I decided to go to the mall Saturday. The schedule clearly said that the number 5 goes to Forum every 30 minutes on Saturday. I took my time and meandered over to the bus stop; there I sat for over an hour. You guessed it, no bus. The good news is that Uber is cheap and a car arrived in minutes to whisk me off to the mall.
Update: I continue to be frustrated by a limited bus and train schedule; however, I’m still committed to reducing my carbon footprint; now more than ever in fact. I have finally figured out the schedules, and I’m using Bolt and Uber more often. I figure it’s a compromise and it gets me there most of the time. I am renting a car for the month of November in order to do some things that I have not been able to do without a car. For example, I rented a little place on the beach and I’ll need a car to make it work. I’m more excited about having wheels than I should be.
Intervalo is intermission in Portuguese and if you love film, be prepared. I recall now that this same thing did happen to me in Spain a number of years ago, but frankly, I wasn’t expecting it and I was startled. I was watching a dumb American film at the mall last week and the film stopped mid-scene for an “intervalo.” Although it is clearly a minor issue, I have several problems with it:
If you’re going to have an intermission, why do it in the middle of a scene?
Part of the excitement of a film is anticipating what is coming next and I’d rather not have interruptions. Holding it in because the film is that good, is a good thing. It’s two hours and easy to prepare for, no?
Because I had time to kill, I felt compelled to purchase a snack and although candy at the movies is a lot less expensive in Portugal (1.25 Euros or $1.55 for a pack of M & Ms), I don’t need the calories.
I’d rather not be thinking, “I like the way we do it in the States better.”
I guess I needed the comfort of an American film as part of my adjustment to a new home abroad. It worked, I felt better, and I don’t see it happening again anytime soon. Update: COVID-19 has changed the way we live and the intervalo has gone away. I guess they’d prefer you stayed seated and not have everyone getting up at the same time. I kind of got used to it, but I’m hoping it’s gone for good. The mid-scene break was annoying.
The good people of Portugal do not pick up their dog’s poop! I’m serious, I have to look down everywhere I go. After living in Maine where you rarely see poop on the ground, this has been difficult to deal with. Poop bags are on every other lamp-post and they still don’t pick it up. What makes this insane is that the Portuguese recycle everything. There is a bin for just about every kind of trash and people are psychotic about sorting it, but they leave the dog shit right there on the sidewalk. If it kills me I’m going to be THAT guy that calls out every pet owner in Faro who doesn’t pick up their dog’s poop. Update: Nothing has changed and I’m even more frustrated by it. I step in poop at least once a month. I think this is my 10th blog on this shitty subject.
Gyms don’t open until 9:00 a.m. and they’re closed on weekends; now how silly is that? People here do not workout before work. Back home, gyms were full by 6:00 a.m., and how can they be closed on weekends? Isn’t that when you catch up on workouts you may have missed during the week? Perhaps it’s when you extend your workout a bit? I’m a big believer is providing employees a good quality of life, but as far as I’m concerned, if choose to be employed in a gym, you should expect to work weekends; sort of like restaurants and grocery stores. Update: Well over a year ago I was touring a new gym close to my home. I was unhappy with the set-up; there was very little cardio equipment and not a lot of free weights. It was the kind of gym where you mainly work with a trainer — expensive and not for me. I left the gym and a young Portuguese man who had also done a tour, spoke to me in English. He told me that he could tell that I was unhappy with the gym’s set-up. He shared his thoughts on Centro de Ferro, a gym I had not heard of (gyms do not advertise here). I went to check it out that very day and I’ve been a member ever since; just renewed recently for 80 Euros less than last year and it was already reasonable. They open at 6:30 a.m. and they are open everyday except Sunday. It’s large and clean and for the most part, I like the clientele. All of this makes a huge difference in my life. This gym has been open since the end of the lockdown, however, my old gym never reopened. Had that Portuguese fella not told me about Centro de Ferro, I’m not sure I would have ever found it. This is why “they” say there are no coincidences — Nuno (his name) does not represent or work at Centro, he was just being helpful. I’ve thanked him many times.
Shocked, stunned, bewildered, and frustrated, that I have not received a single piece of Portuguese mail in my mailbox. I’m getting packages from Amazon and even a couple of forwarded pieces of mail from the U.S.; however, no Portuguese mail. Perhaps the post office knows I can’t read the mail anyway. My bank here will not allow me to change my U.S. address until I show them an official piece of mail with my new Portugal address. Considering I have owned my condo for over four months, it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my AARP junk mail. And by the way, I don’t have a U.S. address Mr. Banker. Update: Since writing this, I do receive Portuguese mail, however, not much of it. There are occasional flyers for stores, but for the most part, the Portuguese do not do junk mail; perhaps businesses are not permitted or maybe, it’s just too expensive. Either way, I like it this way.
So what I am about to share is very embarrassing: my attorney contacted me and said, “Have you checked your mailbox?”
I was extremely insulted and fired back, “Yes, of course I checked my mailbox.”
I was shown my mailbox on move-in day and used my key and the mailbox opened. I thought, “Good the key works,” and I have been checking the mailbox everyday since; as I shared earlier, no mail. Last night I met the head of the condo association in the lobby.
She said, “I will put all this in your mailbox,” and looked to her right.
I thought that was odd because my mailbox was on the left. Well, today I went to the mailbox she sort of turned to and alas, it was my mailbox. I have been checking the wrong mailbox for three weeks. How my key worked on another person’s mailbox, I haven’t a clue. Further, how is it that my neighbor has not gotten any mail? So now you know what it might be like living overseas. Update: I’m still embarrassed that this happened.
My quest to find San Marzanotomatoes has begun. I started cooking with these delicious Italian canned tomatoes over 25 years ago after taking a cooking class with Grace Balducci in New York City. They’ve been readily available to me throughout the years — that is until I moved to Portugal. It doesn’t make sense being that I am so much closer to Italy than I have ever been. I’m sure it has something to do with Italian migration to the United States and other countries. I know that I am fussy about ingredients, but if I have to take a train to Italy to find my tomatoes, then that’s what I’ll do. If you’re reading this and you know a place in or around Faro (75 kilometer radius) that sells these tomatoes, I’d be happy to end my search. Better yet, it’s a good excuse to travel to Italy soon. Update: A French grocery chain took over two of the main grocery stores in Faro. The canned tomatoes they sell are not San Marzano (the absolute best); however, they are a close second. The only time I can truly tell the difference is when I make pizza. I also use the beautiful fresh tomatoes grown in Portugal whenever possible (still not as good as San Marzano). A fact is fact.
There are no Walmart stores in Portugal, however, we do have Chinese discount stores. You can expect to find just about anything other than food (save for American candy) at these stores and they are everywhere — like Rite Aid in the U.S.. You have to be a discerning shopper, because no doubt, some products will fall apart before you take them out of your shopping bag. If I’m going to be honest, most products I have purchased at these stores are a great value. For example aluminum foil: most of it is crap no matter where you buy it — the brand I always purchased in the States is not available here — our local grocery store has a decent size roll for a little over four euros. Four euros is a lot of cash for foil and that’s why a one euro roll of foil at the Chinese dime store works for me. I double it up and still save money. And this is how I spend my time. Update: I have since found decent foil at a decent price at the French supermarket. I love Auchan (the supermarket) and I’ve become hooked on many of the products. If you don’t shower or bathe with French soap you’re missing out — less than a Euro a bar, oh, la, la.
Martinis are hands down my favorite cocktail. It’s the combination of the amount of alcohol, the three olive garnish (considered a snack), and the classic martini glass it’s served in. I’ve been ordering martinis since it was legal for me to imbibe. Well, it’s a bit of a problem in my new home country. The Portuguese drink an aperitif bottled by Martini,Martini is a brand of Italian vermouth, named after the Martini & Rossi Distilleria Nazionale di Spirito di Vino, in Turin. I ordered a Martini straight up on two occasions and I was served this vermouth chilled — not what I wanted. I have found a couple of places that serve it just the way I like it; however, I’m still looking for a bar with the glassware I prefer. These are the things in life that truly matter and I am not above bringing my own glass to a bar.
Pictured: the perfect martini!
Update: Hotel Faro makes a great martini, in the correct glass, and you get a great view of the marina as well. I believe I pay eight Euros. It will do just fine.
Finally, life in Portugal has far exceeded all of my expectations. I will probably mention this often, but the people are welcoming and wonderful, the weather would be hard to beat and the food is in some ways, almost too good. I love knowing the differences one experiences when living somewhere abroad; hence my reason for sharing.
Update: I have been exploring Portugal as a resident for three years now. There are so few negatives to being here that I think it’s more important to focus on the positive (not necessarily most positive to least positive):
Travel — Being in Europe positions me closer to many countries making travel easier and more affordable. Budget airlines such as RyanAir and EasyJet are normally (sans COVID-19) easy to book and if you can travel light, very inexpensive. TAP (Portuguese airline) is an excellent way to travel to and from the U.S. and all over Europe.
Value — It seems more like products are priced according to their true value. I’m fairly certain less money is spent on marketing and distribution. I hesitate to state this, however, sometimes I feel like the quality is superior (e.g., Portuguese cotton, ceramic tiles). Conversely, there are non-American made products here that are poorly manufactured. If you’re a good shopper, you can get the best of just about anything.
People — I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: Portuguese people are lovely in just about every way — sorry I will be generalizing. I love how they treat people; I love how they care for their elderly; I think the decriminalization of drug use is humane and compassionate; social democracy works and is embraced; people like their privacy and do not get in your business; they are usually calm; riots are few and far between; crime rates are extremely low; “live and let live” is the cultural norm. Since I’m keeping my notes to the positive, I won’t talk about gay men here.
Food — fresh, beautiful, affordable food at the markets (all markets). Portuguese restaurant menus can be tired and ordinary. The traditional dishes are good, however, most of them are not very complex and way too easy to make. There are a few excellent Portuguese restaurants, but you have to look for them and sometimes travel quite far to experience them. I’ve been here almost three years and I would say that I now know of a dozen exceptional Portuguese restaurants in Portugal. Unfortunately, Portuguese people enjoy their own food; therefore, finding variety outside of Lisbon or Porto, can be difficult. There are very beautiful seaport towns here that can use some ethnic variety in their offerings. Faro now has a good ramen restaurant and an excellent burger spot. I’m waiting for Korean, Thai, Moroccan (it’s so close), African variety (also so close), Malaysian, etc. If you live practically anywhere in the U.S. these days, you are accustomed to variety and excellence.
Safety — I have never felt safer in my life and I mean that in every way. I have been very impressed with the handling of COVID-19 and although you do not see police officers everywhere, you know they are close by and keeping you safe.
Weather — the Algarve weather is near perfect, nearly all year round. Winters are mild, spring is pleasant and the air is fragrant, summer is warm but dry, and autumn is cooler and breezier. With 300 or more days of sunshine a year and no tornadoes or hurricanes, it would be ridiculous to complain.
My apartment — It didn’t cost me an arm and a leg and I have a magnificent view of the Ria Formosa: Classified as a Natural Park in 1987, Ria Formosa encompasses an area of about 18 000 hectares, and is protected from the sea by 5 barrier-islands and 2 peninsulas: the Peninsula of Ancão that the locals call Ilha de Faro, the Barreta Island also known asIlha Deserta, the Culatra Island (where the lighthouse of Santa Maria is located), the Island of Armona, the Island of Tavira, Cabanas Island and, finally, the Peninsula of Cacela. This awesome area extends along the leeward coast of the Algarve through the municipalities of Loulé, Faro, Olhão, Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António. The Atlantic ocean can be seen just beyond the Ria. The view out of the back of my apartment are beautiful homes, gardens, and mountains. I live on a wide, tree-lined cobblestone avenue; filled with gorgeous architecture. I have a public park across the street from my building (for Paco), numerous cafés and restaurants, schools, a dog run, churches, and a magnificent convent with breathtaking grounds. Why would I ever leave?
No vehicle — Reducing my carbon footprint has been my personal crusade. I know I can only do so much to save the planet, but I have to do something. I walk more more because I don’t have a car and I am burning calories and saving money. Admittedly, it’s not always convenient; however, convenience is overrated and the lazier option. I miss having a car, but I do not miss looking for parking or paying for gas. I’m a stubborn fella; sleeping with less guilt is essential for my peace of mind.
Admittedly, I am tempted to provide a list of my favorite places in Portugal to visit. I have blogged about many of these cities and towns and you can access these blogs (see table of contents). There are “top of my list” spots that a traveler should not miss: Lisbon, Madeira, Porto and the Algarve. There you will find natural beauty, history, excellent cuisine, vineyards, great architecture, value, and something for everyone. As with everything in Portugal, people are extremely humble and the country is only minimally promoted to the rest of the world; perhaps it’s intentional.
Photos, starting at the top of the blog and up to here:
Sitting on the roof deck of Hotel Faro in the marina (Old Town). It has become my favorite watering hole.
The view from the bus stop outside my apartment — Avenida 5 de Outubro. Strangely there is a good deal of exotic vegetation on this avenue, but you don’t see any of it in this photo. Palm trees, succulents, etc. This is a roundabout which saves me from hearing honking horns and keeps the traffic moving. A large public park is on the other side of the avenue.
The back of a ceramic tile shop in Olhao. I met the ceramic artist after purchasing a tile wall piece I’m excited to have plastered to one of my walls. I’ll post a photo when it’s done.