28 Apr 2016 1951
Paul Bernhardt {Photographer & Writer} www.paulbernhardtphoto.com
#events #experiences #nature

From coast to country

"Do you know why honey from the Algarve is the best in Portugal? It’s because our bees have over five hundred different wild flowers to choose from. Look! See what I mean.”

Vitor, our driver-guide, slowed the jeep as we rounded a bend on the road to São Brás de Alportel. To our left, a mantle of fantastically bright and colourful blooms embroidered a patch of sloping land, illuminating the hillside with flecks of yellow, pink and blue. Even against a leaden sky that threatened rain, the meadow dazzled in its vibrancy.

"To ignore the interior is to miss a beautiful part of the Algarve,” Vitor added after we’d picked up speed again, "and at this time of year there are flowers everywhere!”

We were heading into the barrocal, a region he poetically described as "the area nestling between the mountains and the sea.”

Vitor had collected us at the Hotel PortoBay Falésia, a smart four-star property located on the outskirts of Albufeira and set overlooking the Blue Flag-awarded Praia da Falésia, a golden band of sand almost 6 km in length flanked by tawny-hued sandstone cliffs.

The hotel was hosting its annual Algarve Nature Week. Designed to showcase the region’s remarkable diversity of flora and fauna, its cultural heritage, maritime tradition and mouth-watering gastronomy, the programme offered jeep safaris, walking and bicycle tours, boat trips and river cruises.

I’d opted for the ‘Flavours & Traditions’ jeep tour. The itinerary would take us though a rolling, pastoral landscape before heading into the remote Serra do Caldeirão, a hill range studded with holm oak and cork oak that meets the heights of the Alentejo.

Flavours and traditions

Earlier we’d paused for coffee at a cosy little place called Tesouros da Serra. The café specialises in homemade cakes, biscuits and pastries – rich, sweet and devilishly tempting.

We were still licking our fingers as we arrived at Novacortiça, a cork factory sited a few kilometres southeast of Alportel, Portugal’s "cork capital”.

The facility, a thriving family-run business, manufactures natural cork discs, an essential component of wine and champagne cork stoppers.

Gilmar de Brito greeted us warmly before ushering us into a showroom. His introductory talk was light-hearted but highly informative and chronicled the entire cork manufacturing process, from bark to bottle.

"It takes 25 years before cork bark is ready to harvest,” he explained. "It’s then another nine years before the next harvest. Working with cork is a long-term investment.”

The tour included a visit to the factory floor. Gilmar led us past a bewildering array of clattering machinery, a reverberating production line where stripped bark is boiled, trimmed and shaped. The din was incessant.

After tumbling off a conveyor belt like determined lemmings, the discs undergo a final, cursory check by practiced eyes for any imperfections. Collected up on huge tray, they resembled oversized Digestive biscuits perfect for dunking in a mug of steaming tea.

By mid-afternoon the heavens had opened and rain was falling steadily as Vitor motored towards the village of Salir.
On a clear day you’d be rewarded with a dramatic panorama across the hills and the distant coast. Instead, low scudding cloud and a vaporous mist veiled our eyes from anything resembling a view.

Unwinding the passenger-side window half an arm’s length, I gulped the moist air and savoured the rich musky aroma of sodden earth. Rather than dampen my spirits the inclement weather brought with it a curious sense of isolation and a communion with nature. The diluted landscape had taken on an ethereal quality, where form and texture dissolved into a monochrome wash.

On their own, the ruins of Salir’s 12th-century Moorish castle are not much to look at. But the clever integration of a museum, built over the excavated site of a once thriving Islamic community, has elevated this rural backwater to one of the region’s must-see cultural attractions.

The gallery features a glass floor and we could easily trace the foundations of a street and a number of dwellings. A storage silo hollowed in the limestone was clearly visible. I pondered the scene and tried to imagine life in the Algarve 800 years ago.

And then an amusing episode broke the spell. Apparently taking advantage of the opened door, a young cat had followed us through the entrance, no doubt seeking sanctuary from the wet.  The bedraggled feline, a tortoiseshell with eyes like emeralds, nuzzled up to the guide’s ankles effectively halting, mid-sentence, his description of a rare and unusual exhibit – a funeral tablet inscribed in Arabic and dated 1016. We all laughed and took it in turns to fuss over the furry gate-crasher before she sauntered away, tail up and purring, to warm up in a corner near the window. Our history lesson concluded, Vitor fired up the jeep for our final rendezvous on the ‘Flavours & Traditions’ tour – a visit to a traditional Algarve farmhouse.

Quinta do Freixo provided us with another excuse to sample homemade fare.

We’d gathered in an outhouse, congregating on a cobblestone floor. Antique farming tools and wickerware baskets decorated the walls to lend the room a quaint, yesteryear appearance.

As a welcome gesture, a strong velvety liqueur distilled from the carob bean was eagerly accepted, the taste a marriage of chocolate and date. 
Arranged across the bar stood a row of jams – pear, fig, pumpkin, blackcurrant, strawberry, orange, tomato… a regiment of fruit preserve in pots waiting to be inspected.

It was a spoon-licking moment, and I tasted everything on the table. The orange and fig won my vote, but I’d smother any of them over hot buttered toast.

On the way back to hotel, Vitor made a quick detour. "I want to show you something special,” he declared, steering the jeep off road and along a waterlogged track. He followed the edge of the meadow and pulled up in front of the verge. "There,” he pointed, "what do you see?”

Outlined against the drizzle was the mighty girth of an olive tree, its thick tentacle-like roots cork-screwing into the earth like some prehistoric helter skelter. "That tree is reputedly 1,200 years old,” Vitor announced humbly. 

We all took a moment staring into the past before Vitor turned back to meet the road. Behind us the venerable tree stood in silence, its gnarled and ancient bark glistening in the rain.

Part II

Read here . ..
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