Restaurant roundup

Babala: Nakapaglalaway.

For the last of my Portugal roundups, how could I not blog about the food? Though peri-peri chicken was half of the dynamic duo that drove me to the Algarve (the other half being ‘over a hundred beaches), Marlon and I found way more than we bargained for. I’ve decided to classify our culinary outings into five categories; it must be all the doctoral dissertation reading I’ve been doing lately.

1) Tasteless tourist traps. The Algarve is a mixed bag of culinary offerings, and the lazy foodies who don’t reach deep enough into the bag get the chaff up top. It’s the easiest to find if you’re not a local, but it’s certainly not the best. I only bring this up because Marlon and I had a nightmarish peri-peri chicken in Lagos’ picturesque old center. The moment I saw the huge serving of fries that came with it, I dreaded the worst—a fear that was confirmed with my first bite of dry, flavorless chicken. After that day I vowed never to take the easiest option when it came to finding a meal.

2) Transplanted expat cuisine. A significant distance up the culinary ladder are restaurants opened by the many foreign retirees that have made the Algarve their home. I lost count of how many listings for British-owned restaurants I saw.

Don’t get me wrong, the food can be really good… like Kathleen’s home cooking at The Village Inn in Estombar, where we had dinner the night we arrived. And where we saw the biggest-ass glass of port ever.

Restaurante No Patio, owned by a British chef, also gave us a great meal at a good value. It was tucked into a narrow side street away from the Lagos town center.

Let’s be clear: it wasn’t British cuisine, haha. The menu was a mixture of international dishes using local ingredients, paired with some great Portuguese wines.

Zero complaints about the quality of the food; in fact, both restaurants offer excellent meals. It’s just that I didn’t come to Portugal craving for food cooked by a Canadian and a Brit.

3) Peri-peri perfection. The vile peri-peri imposter I forced myself to eat in Lagos triggered an obsession with finding the genuine article. Going online after a few days without Internet access, I found numerous discussions that revealed the reality that peri-peri is actually not an Algarve specialty. Nevertheless, I managed to satisfy my cravings by downloading directions to O Jorge, a snack bar (what must be the Portuguese equivalent of Singapore’s kopitiam) in a residential neighborhood in the town of Albufeira.

O Jorge fulfilled my cravings on every level. From the little old men just hanging out and smoking by the door, to the big ol’ Portuguese mamas cooking in the kitchen, to the juicy chicken clothed with spice and smoke… this was authentic Portuguese goodness.

The owner noticed us enjoying the chicken so much that he gave us a big extra helping of the peri-peri sauce, which is basically chili oil. He also agreed to bottle a little for us to take home.

We had to leave it at the airport though, which both of us got really upset about. We didn’t talk to each other for a full hour until we both realized it was pointless to fight over chicken drippings.

4) Spectacular seafood. While peri-peri chicken may not be an Algarve specialty, seafood most definitely is. Before it became a retirement boomtown, the Algarve was all about fishing—and still is in many towns.

At a restaurant overlooking Praia da Rocha in Portimao, I had cataplana, a hearty seafood stew served in a big domed dish. My favorite ingredient was the tiny baby clams that were so juicy and sweet.

Grilled sardines are an Algarve specialty, and we had them at a harborfront restaurant in Portimao. They’re tasty, rubbed with coarse sea salt and grilled, but I found the many fine bones made them difficult to eat. Still, the sardines are much bigger than the canned kind we usually get, and were reasonably priced.

We drove west to the fishing village of Salema, where one of our best meals was in a small shack facing the sea.

Everything we had at this place was awesome. From the sangria tinta (sangria with red wine), to the octopus salad we had as a starter…

… to the seafood rice we had for our mains. Somewhere between a paella and a risotto, this dish alone was worth the drive.

On our very last morning in the Algarve, we drove circles around the town of Quarteira before finding La Cabane, a restaurant highly recommended by the travelers on Tripadvisor. The meal we had at La Cabane tied with our Salema meal as the best of the trip.

A steaming, flavorful broth of garlic, clams, lemon and parsley…

… a big pot of monkfish rice…

… and the best freaking bacalao I’ve ever had in my life. It had a thick, salty crust from being dried in salt, but was fat, tender and juicy at the same time.

The sizzling olive oil with garlic that we were encouraged to drown it with probably helped, too.

As did the cold, refreshing pitcher of sangria branca (sangria with white wine).

What a great way to say goodbye to the Algarve: by taking home a wonderful culinary memory.

4) A taste of home. Ironically, our furthest-flung meal was where we were surprised by the familiar, reminding us of the intertwined histories of the Philippines and Portugal. At Jardim das Oliveiras in Monchique, way up in the mountains of the Algarve, we ordered a few random selections from the menu of the day.

Our starter, the carne asada, was only slightly reminiscent of home, but when our order of “oven-roasted kid” was delivered to the table, the similarities between our two cuisines could not be denied. Kalderetang kambing in the highlands of Portugal, who woulda thunk?

After chortling over the irony of coming all this way to eat a carinderia staple, we fell upon dessert: a caramelly-dark, moist tart made with figs and almonds, which are grown widely across the Algarve.

And for the first time, I found a digestivo that I actually like: a homemade concoction of schnapps, lemons, honey and cinnamon, my favorite flavors blended into a powerful little sip.

Tsokolate na lang ang kulang! But then, that would be overkill. And we’re all about balance and moderation here. Right?

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About towns

One of the best things Marlon and I did on our Algarve trip was to rent a car. All the guide books agree that it’s definitely the best way to get around, especially during holidays like Easter when the buses are down. At about €25/day (about Php1,600/day… cheaper than some car rentals in Manila!), the convenience and fun we got for our money just couldn’t be beat. It was our first holiday with a car… and now we know what we’ve been missing. We’ll definitely do it again!
The main advantage of having a car was being able to explore the towns of the Algarve. We would hit two, sometimes three towns in a day. We’d set out every morning from our digs at the Rio Arade in the sleepy little town of Estombar…
… and with Marlon at the wheel and CidadeFM blaring on the radio, drive along the big A22 highway or the smaller, closer-to-town N125 for anywhere from 20 minutes to a full hour and a half.
On these drives, I discovered that we’re probably the last people to find out about the Algarve. Waves upon waves of retirees from the United Kingdom have beat us to it. This made finding… shall we say, authenticity and charm a little bit difficult at times. I admit I was disconcerted at how packed and touristy some of the bigger towns were, especially in their old centres. 
I got a little spooked by the sight of so many retirement condos rising up everywhere, eerily similar in their homogeneity to the pastel HDBs of Singapore and the faux Mediterranean-themed housing developments of our very own Philippines. And so many of them were just empty, like sprawling ghost Pleasantvilles, which I found oddly unsettling. 
I’ve never thought so much about old age and retirement while on vacation. I’m not sure I’d like to spend my vacation in a sanitized Mediterranean matchbox. Still, I can’t judge… and I may eat my words when I’m older.
Still, there was authenticity and charm to be found in the towns of the Algarve—we simply had to walk a few extra steps and drive a few extra miles to small towns like Silves, with its red Moorish fort perched on top of a hill… 
… beside a cathedral that waited for a Easter procession to make its way up a winding road, solemnly silent but for the strangely mournful music of a police brass band… 
… and the soft drop of roses onto sun-bleached stone.
We drove to the center of Portimao, where we waited out a thunderstorm and ended up on its lovely marina, dangling our feet over the water.
Looking beyond the tourist kitsch peddled in the center of Lagos, I saw beautiful tiled plazas and buildings that reminded me of some photos I’ve seen of Macau, a Portuguese colony closer to home…
… an old cathedral made new by the festivity of Easter…
… and reminders that Portugal was once a colonizing force to be reckoned with. 
The Slave Market, where slaves from Guinea were first sold in Portugal, now an art gallery 
The old town of Albufeira, situated in a sort of basin or valley bordered by hills, was also pretty kitschy. But the higher we climbed, further away from the heavily touristed center…
… the more beauty we saw, in narrow alleyways and blue-skied panoramas alike.
We also went on longer drives to farther-flung towns, like Salema on the coast. The drive through the mountains to Salema was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken. I didn’t have my camera with me, though, but I’ll always remember it. The town itself was so pretty too. 
Old ladies standing on the main street offered us rooms in their houses. Each house had a name written on it in handpainted tile, giving each of them the dignity of a grand seaside villa. 
We had dinner in a little shack beside the sea and the sunset. It was one of the best meals of the trip.
Our longest drive was away from the coast and up the mountains to Monchique, a spa (a.k.a. hot springs) town. We didn’t go there for the spa, but for dinner. An old goatherd and his flock was the first thing we saw when we got to the restaurant. You won’t see that on the strip of resorts by the coast.
Blazing sun was replaced by cool mountain breezes, and sand and surf with a quiet grove of olive trees. 
On our last day, we drove into Quarteira to hunt down a Tripadvisor-recommended restaurant. It was the hardest to find out of all the places we tried to find on this trip, but by that time we knew it could only mean that we were about to get some genuinely good food.
Before driving to the airport in Faro, we stopped at a small, tree-shaded park so I could nap. I was just so sleepy. It turned out that I was in good company.
When I woke up I took some pictures of the surrounding architecture…
… which had become home to a surprising number of storks. 
I must have counted five or six nests in a single block. And that was all I saw of Faro.
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5 days, 7 beaches

Warning: you may experience beach overload!
With five full days in the Algarve and 22℃-25℃ temperatures forecast for most of our stay, I had made beach-hopping our top priority. On the southern coast of Portugal facing the Atlantic Ocean, the Algarve is blessed with over 150 beaches. And they. Are. STUNNING. 
After having seen seven of them (and not even the ones the guidebooks say are “unspoiled” and “paradise”), I must admit my braggart’s pride in our Philippine beaches was taken down a few notches. I’ll speak a little more humbly about them from now on, knowing that there are beaches like this in the world! 
As I’ve mentioned before, our warm waters and year-round beach weather is probably all we’ve got over beaches like these. Because stunning rocky cliffs, crashing waves and endless stretches of golden sand aside, the water was ice cold. I got used to it by our third or fourth day and was even frolicking in earnest by our last morning. I’ll say one thing about the Atlantic Ocean… it sure ain’t the Pacific!
I loved all of the seven beaches we managed to visit, though I liked some more than others. Here’s the rundown:
1) Praia da Rocha in Portimao was the very first beach we saw, on Easter Sunday. I’d forgotten my suit in the little town of Estombar where we were staying, a 30-minute drive away, so we’d had to double back. Then we got really hungry and detoured for lunch, after which followed a long fight for parking that made both of us impatient and cranky. When we finally came up to the edge of the cliff and saw Praia da Rocha for the first time, I almost fell to my knees.

I mean, seriously. How gorgeous is this beach?

We excitedly made our way down a long flight of cement steps to the beach, which was filled with Portuguese families and English retirees alike, hanging out in little beach bars, sprawled out on the golden sand, or cooling off under the shade of the many huge rock formations on the beach, like this one.

Yes, that’s me in my Winner Retro Bathing Suit #1. I would never have posted this photo if I didn’t love this bathing suit so freaking much. I got it on a last-minute shopping spree, literally less than an hour before I left for the airport, at a vintage store on the Prinsengracht. It reminds me of Liz Taylor and fits uber perfectly! 

2) Meia Praia in Lagos, one of the biggest bays in Europe, was our destination for Day 2.

This is Boracay-level sand we’re talking about… and there’s a 4-kilometer expanse of it.

It’s gorgeous, but there’s not much to see except endless sand (mala-desiyerto) and the white buildings of Lagos and Alvor (the neighboring town) shimmering in the distance.

And you can also see a little bit of Winner Retro Bathing Suit #2 ;)

3) Ponta de Piedade in Costa d’Oiro near Lagos is not strictly a beach, but for breathtaking sea views, this tops the list. An old lighthouse is perched on top of a range of cliffs that rise up to 20 meters (over 65 feet) out of the ocean.

Standing at this lookout point, you can feast your eyes on a spectacular, nearly 360-degree view of the ocean and cliffs.

While we were enjoying the view, this little old man with a fishing rod started walking down the edge of the cliffs to the ocean. The path is steep and rocky, and probably no more than three or four feet wide. Can you spot the super lolo?

You can also take a very long flight of stairs down to the Grottoes, where you can hire a boat and explore all the sea caves and rock formations along this part of the coast. It seemed like a fun prospect, but I didn’t want to deal with all the steps coming back up.

Besides, I had already set my sights on a nearby target…

4) Praia do Camilo is a small, sandy cove five minutes from the Ponta de Piedade. We drove by on the way to the lighthouse, liked what we saw… and vowed to come right back. “Let’s just run and take a quick look at the lighthouse, then get back here asap,” I remember agreeing with Marlon. Hah! Ponta de Piedade was definitely more than a quick look. But we did end up coming back to this tiny cove.

You can walk from end to end in less than two minutes (and I have short legs). So we crossed the rocks at the end of the beach…

And ended up in another small sandy hideaway sheltered by the cliffs.

We found a natural sinkhole, far prettier and much less freaky than the big ones in the news…

And a cave whose mouth framed the beach perfectly.

Great things can come in small packages. Praia do Camilo remains one of my favorite beaches of the whole trip.

5) Praia da Falesia in Albufeira was our most convenient beach trip. We simply had to take an elevator from the garden in the Sheraton Algarve, where we stayed (thanks, Ate!) and take the resort-made boardwalk to the beach.

We saw lots of windswept (and I mean windswept) pines and other trees along the way.

Here, we were pampered with shaded loungers and towel service. And I thought we’d left our life of luxury behind in Singapore! It was definitely a nice change.

It was a long stretch of beach, like Praia da Rocha but without the rocks. 

6) Praia do Tunel in Albufeira is just a short walk from the narrow alleys of the old town and the main tourist hub which is the praca (plaza).

This was the most unique beach walk for me. You stroll along a long, whitewashed promenade lining the cliffs, until you get to the very end of the bay and are rewarded with this panorama.

There’s also an elevator that goes right down to the beach. Marlon and I decided to skip the sun-worshipping that day and just headed back to the old town after soaking up the view.

7) Praia Sao Rafael between Sesmarias and Albufeira was our last beach before we bid the Algarve goodbye. It’s located in what seemed to be an affluent neighborhood, so it had its own resort-quality paved parking lot, beach bar, shower and toilet facilities, and even its own logo. 

It was also small and cozy, like Praia do Camilo. Marlon and I had decided that these small coves were more to our liking. Somehow they end up having more to see and explore… more character.

By this time I had already gotten used to the icy waters of the Atlantic, so this was the beach I enjoyed the most. Huge crashing waves can be fun!

If I can only keep coming back to beaches like these, maybe I won’t miss home too much! ;)

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The trip that almost never was

Our trip to the Algarve, Portugal was never supposed to happen. Two months ago, Marlon and I had booked an Easter trip to Istanbul and were super duper excited about it. Then, a week before we were set to fly, I got a text from my sister:
“How long did it take you to get your Turkish visa?”

Wait a minute. VISA?!?!?

Surprise surprise! Turkey is not on the list of Schengen states, as I had so wrongly assumed. I can’t blame the Filipino passport curse for this, though—I really should have double-checked. After a midnight panic-fueled flurry of surfing, Marlon and I decided that the easiest thing to do would be to rebook the Istanbul flight to October (making it a birthday getaway instead) and find a new place to go. Just a week before Easter, this was not the easiest thing to do as prices were high and most accommodations were fully booked.

We decided on Faro in the Algarve region of Portugal because a) we found relatively affordable flights leaving Black Saturday, b) accommodations at some top-rated places on Tripadvisor were still available, and c) Portugal is the home of peri-peri chicken, which we first fell in love with at Nando’s in Singapore (it’s a South African franchise though). Other than that, we didn’t know much about the Algarve, except that it was a coastal region in the south of Portugal, with tons of beaches on the Atlantic Ocean.

Definitely sounded better than showing up in Istanbul without a visa! It turned out to be a fabulous decision. Our five days in the Algarve were simply made of awesomeness. Well, save for one really bad tourist lunch….

And the decisions upon decisions we had to make! The Algarve offers such an overwhelming array of options that we were constantly agonizing over where to go and what to do. Did we want to:

Hit one of the Algarve’s 150+ beaches (!!!) and enjoy some sun?

See Moorish castles and forts?

Explore the colorful alleys of some pretty old town?

Enjoy a scenic drive?

Head up to the mountains for some cool air and gorgeous views?

Spend an entire morning lazing around in our hotel room? (Thanks to my sister for her Starwood points!)

Hunt down some hard-to-find hole in the wall with the promise of great local cuisine?

As you can tell from this random sampling of photos, Marlon and I were practically paralyzed every morning trying to decide on an itinerary for the day, then going back and forth and changing our minds every few hours. But that’s not such a bad problem to have, as far as vacation problems go!

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Away for now

I have tons of kwento and photos from my awesome weekend in Switzerland. But they will have to wait because the next few days will be very busy! My sister is arriving in about an hour from Oslo, and we will be amassing more kwento and photos over the next few days. I’m excited to have someone to explore Amsterdam with while Marlon is at work, not least because I know she won’t mind some shopping in between all the parks and museums.

After she leaves next week, I have a couple of days to recover and get ready for our next trip: our Easter getaway to the Algarve region in Portugal. It was a last-minute decision and I don’t know much about the area, but I’m excited because of two things: 25℃ and piri-piri chicken!

Anyway, hopefully sometime in that two-day lull, I can turbo-blog and share my adventures in the Alps (yodelei-hee-hooo!) and around Amsterdam. Till then, I’m taking a little break from blogging to go and live life! Toodleloo!

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