This post delves into new territory by exploring Portimão in the Algarve region of Southern Portugal, a place that has captured my heart with its easy-going atmosphere and off-beat charm.
Portimão is very much a working town. It has its postcard pretty parts, its grittier parts, and a fiercely strong sense of identity linked to its industrial past, making it feel different from other more tourist-orientated parts of this highly popular region.
It’s an intriguing jumble of architectural styles; striking modern buildings such as the silver armadillo shaped arena sit alongside whitewashed 19th century factory worker’s cottages, all the while enveloped by the natural beauty of the rolling green mountains of the Algarve.
The Portimonense are proud of their heritage as an important centre for sardine canning and fishing, and have carefully preserved the distinctive red-brick smokestacks from the old factories, which have been incorporated into the fabric of the town as it has grown and developed.
With the factories long closed down, the smokestacks have now developed another important use; they provide the perfect place for Storks to make their nests and every single one is now inhabited by a family of these elegant, long-limbed birds.
Storks, sardines, fishing and fado (the traditional music of Portugal) are all motifs that can be found in the vivid graffiti and street-art dotted around the town.
The seafood in Portimão is almost indescribably flavoursome. More than just tasting freshly caught, it tastes like it’s still in the sea. The trick, says a local chef, is using sea water to prepare the fish before cooking it, which means it absorbs all the intense sea flavours and doesn’t need much seasoning beyond garlic, olive oil and lemon.
Locally caught Sardines, grilled the traditional way on charcoal and served with a tasty Algarvian salad (chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onions, oregano) make a mouth-wateringly simple and inexpensive meal.
As well as long, languorous seafood meals, another good use of time is to pause for a coffee (called a Bica) and a flaky and delicious Portuguese custard tart (Pastel de Nata) to watch the procession of tourists, fishermen, and other assorted local characters as you while away an afternoon in one of the town’s shaded squares.
Portimão is a great destination for those looking for a calm and fuss-free getaway. Come here to eat home-cooked food, for simple pleasures like strolling along the harbour or people watching over coffee and pastries, to use the town as a base for exploring the many fishing villages and beaches dotted along the Algarve coast and of course, to eat the best sardines of your life.
It’s a low-key and laidback place where you can enjoy the famously relaxed and friendly hospitality of the Portuguese. Throw in the affordability factor (travelling here, staying here and eating here) and you have the perfect ingredients for a restorative break that won’t break the bank.
Where to eat
Peixarada – The best seafood and friendliest service in town – Largo da Barca, Tel: 282 484 175.
Pastelaria Arade – A historic tearoom serving Algarvian sweets and pastries – Largo 1º de Dezembro, Tel: 282 422 087.
Look out for
The award-winning museum, Museu de Portimão, is housed in what was one of the main sardine factories and is a fascinating glimpse into the importance of the fishing industry for the Algarve region.
Beautiful Azulejos (traditional Portuguese tilework) found on the interiors and exteriors of many buildings.
Characterful graffiti and street art.
Top quality and inexpensive cheese, olive oil, traditional lacework, leather goods, wine and, of course, sardines!
Where to stay
There are a number of accommodation options available in Portimão and the surrounding areas ranging from Pousadas (small guesthouses) to self-catering apartments and larger hotels. Try:
Portugal is easy to get to from many countries, including Senegal. TAP, the Portuguese national carrier, has a direct flight from Dakar every day which takes 3.5 hours. From Lisbon airport you can hire a car, take a bus or a train approximately 2.5 hours south to the Algarve.