And this…’ said the proud Portuguese shopkeeper, ‘is our finest tin of sardines.’ In France you may be offered wine tastings at picturesque vineyards – or whiskies while touring Scottish Highland distilleries – so it seems only right that in the seafaring nation of Portugal you can enjoy different varieties of canned sardines. Even if it is in a corner shop next to the fish market.
The Conserveira do Sul shop and visitor centre (conserveiradosul.mystore.pt) near Olhao’s fish market is a delightfully eccentric way to discover there’s more to the Algarve than golf and sunloungers.
The owners of this popular brand of Portuguese tinned fish open samples of their range, tinned in various sauces, and let visitors taste them. The spicy garlic variety takes some beating.
High point: The squat lighthouse on the cliffs at Cape St Vincent
With lively resorts such as Albufeira, Lagos and Portimao, this southern coast of Portugal is famous as a good-value seaside holiday area. Less well-known are the sights of the old, hidden Algarve.
Fishing and seafood is a good start and helps make tourists aware of what the Algarve did before tourism. Today, among cruises to caves and rock formations, you can find trips in local fishermen’s boats. At Albufeira Marina, take family shark fishing trips (wishandfish.pt/family-trips), and at Alvor set off on fishing expeditions where you bring your catch back to a local restaurant to eat (seabookings.com/experience/half-day-fishing-in-alvor).
Less energetic alternatives include the Tuna Museum among the dunes at Barril Beach, Tavira, where you can learn all about Algarve’s lost tuna industry while eating fresh tuna, and Portimao Museum, housed in an old fish canning factory complete with its original production line.
Plenty of fishing still goes on so you’ll find fabulous seafood everywhere, including the locals’ favourite: the hearty ‘cataplana’ fish stew that lurks near the bottom of the menu in almost every restaurant. Look out, too, for exotic specialities such as ‘percebes’, or barnacles, served at little backstreet non-tourist restaurants, like Marisqueira Pardal in Sagres.
Other memorable Algarve eating experiences include the homely Ramires in Guia, which claims to have invented piri-piri chicken (restauranteramires.com) or specialities like eel stew or feijoada meat and bean casserole at the quiet village restaurant O Rio in Alcoutim (facebook.com/restauranteorio/).
The sleepy country town of Estoi, pictured above, in central Algarve
In between all that eating, you’ll find some of Europe’s best coastal walks. Try exploring the spectacular cliffs around Cape St Vincent at the very south-west tip of Europe.
To the north of the Cape’s squat lighthouse, paths lead across a series of wild, empty bays facing thundering Atlantic breakers. To the east you can walk along paths along sheer cliffs to Cape Sagres, a dramatic castle site (visitportugal.com/en/content/fortaleza-de-sagres).
The fort was built 600 years ago by the instigator of the golden era of Portuguese exploration, Henry the Navigator. Francis Drake once attacked the impregnable position but even he failed to breach the mighty walls.
Another memorable historic stroll is from the quaint old centre of the sleepy country town of Estoi in central Algarve up to the glorious Palace of Estoi overlooking it.
This local aristocrat’s romantic 150-year-old pink rococo mansion is now a luxury hotel that allows you to wander freely around grand public rooms and explore the formal gardens (slh.com/hotels/pousada-palacio-de-estoi).
Of course there’s a chance to eat here, too, and the colonnaded terrace is a sophisticated spot to enjoy full Portuguese afternoon tea with local docaria cakes (£18 for two people).