"Culture and Tradition
A unique way to do, feel and celebrate!
More than just magnificent beaches and a blessed climate, the Algarve offers a rich folk heritage which is worth appreciating along with the pleasures of the sun and the sea.
Devote some time to discovering it because there are old customs, living traditions and heritage buildings which can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Algarvians across the centuries have left such a rich heritage which deserves to be explored: from the unique celebrations of festive occasions (such as Easter, Christmas or spring); to the historical buildings of ancient and recent times; to the irresistible delicacies making up the regional cuisine.
Caravel Boa Esperança
Learning about the Discoveries in a Real Life Context
The first caravels to set sail during the period of the Portuguese Discoveries departed from the Algarve, and it was here that the Infante D. Henrique invented the vessels used by the Portuguese in their exploration of the oceans. The Latin caravel, also known as the Infante’s caravel or the caravel of the Discoveries, was the ship of Moorish origin chosen by Prince D. Henrique for his maritime adventures.
Today, we have the caravel Boa Esperança, an approximate replica of the caravels used during the Discoveries. It was built in wood by specialists who stuck to the fifteenth-century shipbuilding rules but added some extra comfort and safety features. The caravel’s sails bear the symbol of the Cross of the Order of Christ and the Infante’s coat of arms on the main mast.
The Boa Esperança is intended for use as a teaching vessel to train sailors, as well as for participation in competitions and other nautical events, and conducting research into the behaviour and manoeuvring of the old caravels. Launched on the 28th of April 1990, it has called at ports in northern Europe and the Mediterranean and is regularly visited by schoolchildren on organised trips.
The caravel is therefore a huge asset for tourism promotion in the Algarve since it captures the interest of tourists, who can go aboard to learn about the glories of Portugal’s exploring past.
The Mediterranean Diet
Influenced by various civilisations and different levels of knowledge and practices, from the most traditional to the most cutting-edge, the Mediterranean diet in the Algarve is one of the most fascinating and vivid expressions of the region’s entire culture. Based on fresh, natural and mostly locally-produced foodstuffs, the use of pure olive oil as the preferred fat, the constant presence of fresh fish and, in particular, varieties rich in omega 3 fatty acids, such as sardines, mackerel and tuna, the limited consumption of red meat, the role of fruit, pulses and green vegetables, and even the moderate consumption of wine containing natural antioxidants, everything in this diet is an integral part of a healthy and appealing lifestyle.
Even though it is not a particularly big region, the Algarve boasts an incredible variety of culinary propositions. The differences between the cuisines of the coastal area, the uplands and the barrocal, and between east (Sotavento) and west (Barlavento) are many and all contribute to an enriched shared heritage. The passing down of knowledge and methods from generation to generation, as well as the rituals of conviviality and socialising, mean that rather than being simply foodstuffs, what we are talking about here are the elements that make up the identities of families, communities and the whole Algarve. The awareness of this treasure, an essential condition for its preservation, is yet another ingredient that is harmoniously in keeping with the discovery of everything else that the Algarve has to offer body and soul.
The Algarve is the gateway to the Mediterranean, with a taste of the Atlantic. An octopus salad or some maize porridge, a razor-clam or chickpea stew, a fig star or a little carob cake, all bring more than just pleasure to the senses. They are part of an entire way of life, a healthy relationship between generations, between those who are here, those who come and those who go, between the Algarve itself and the whole world around it. Come and enjoy it.
Popular and religious festivals
When the almond trees burst into bloom, Carnival time brings decorated floats and parades across most of the Algarve. Loulé, in particular, is noted for hosting one of Portugal’s biggest Carnival parades.
The Sovereign Mother festivities in Loulé are among the most intense religious traditions in the Algarve. On Easter Sunday, the Small Festival sees the litter descend from the Chapel to the Church of São Francisco (St. Francis). Two weeks later, at the Big Festival, the procession winds it way back up the steep hill to the chapel, the litter-bearers running all the way.
In São Brás de Alportel, at the Flower Torch Festival, men carry torches decorated with sprigs of lavender, French lavender and flowers, forming the wings of the procession that signals Christ’s resurrection.
The first of May is a festive day in the Algarve. These popular festivities are deeply rooted in the Algarve’s culture and include, picnics, snail-eating, dancing and singing. Another tradition is to make big rag dolls called Maios (“Mays”), decorate them and place them at the door of the house with amusing verses. These dolls symbolise spring and fertility. The origin of this tradition lies in certain customs from pagan Rome, connected to the worship of nature.
In June, the Algarve takes on a special charm during the Popular Saints festivities. There are festive gatherings and dances in various parts of the cities and villages, and people eat barbecued sardines and pork steaks, drink red wine, dance and jump over rosemary wood bonfires, all in a cheerful basil-scented ambience.
August is the month of the Banho 29 or Banho Santo (Holy Bath), which brought the country folk to the seaside. Today, it is not so much the country folk as groups of friends, who take the opportunity afforded by the tradition to socialise around a bonfire. In Lagos and at Manta Rota beach, the celebration includes period bathing costumes.
All along the coast, in August and September, seamen take part in processions at sea to give thanks and ask for blessings for their dangerous professions.
The most obvious symbol of traditional architecture in the Algarve is undoubtedly the chimney, which translated house owners’ individuality and displayed their wealth. No two chimneys were alike and the more intricate their design, the more expensive they were to make. Fine examples of these symbols of popular art and creative skill can be seen on wealthier rural dwellings in the inland Algarve.
The platband is another characteristic feature of the Algarve’s architectural heritage. Ornamented with geometric shapes and colours, this elegant decorative feature gives a finishing touch to façades and conceals the roof or roof terrace. It contrasts with the brightness of the whitewash, applied annually out of neatness and pride, and matches the colourful frames around the doors and windows.
The hipped roofs or scissor roofs are typical of aristocratic cities and denote a strong oriental aesthetic influence, brought Portugal to along with silk and spices. They are associated with Tavira, the princess of the River Gilão, a well-preserved architectural jewel, which was a port of great strategic importance. They can also be found in Faro, but there are not many left there.
In the western Algarve, or Barlavento, winds blow in off the Atlantic, and inland a mountain climate reigns. Here, the houses are generally simpler and less sophisticated, built in lath and plaster or stone, undecorated and only whitewashed. These charmingly simple rural houses are also found in the uplands of the Serra do Caldeirão.
On the coast, you will often see houses with roof terraces of Arab inspiration, which served as look-out points to watch the sea and the fishing boats bringing their catches ashore. They also provided a private space on which to dry fruit and fish, and to rest on the hot summer nights.
Olhão is the epitome of this architecture with its pure and simple lines. Indeed, the city has been nicknamed the cubist city because of its winding layout of constructions clustered together in cubes in Moroccan fashion.
Arts and crafts
All across the region, you will find artisans who make blankets, table runners, tablecloths, fine linen and rugs, using traditional materials and techniques. Palm weaving was once an important activity for many families’ budgets, as it was connected to the need to work in the fields. Today, while it may have lost some of its utilitarian importance, it has acquired ornamental qualities so that items made in this way have become not only charmingly attractive but also much sought-after. The same is true of pottery and ceramics, tiles, wooden, copper and wrought iron pieces, and magnificent decorative lace items, all of which once served merely utilitarian purposes and are now highly prized for their decorative value. The Algarve’s artisans produce unique pieces, based on deeply-rooted and longstanding traditions.
In recognition of the artistic quality of the Algarve’s handicrafts and the potential of the traditional materials used to make them, the project “Ancestral Techniques, Current Solutions”, (abbreviated as “TASA” in Portuguese), has been salvaging the skills and knowledge of the region’s traditional culture by employing innovative design and putting the materials to unexpected uses. Working with a new generation of artisans, who are helping to perpetuate tradition, new pieces are being created with more contemporary lines but which do not detract from the traditional function of handicrafts: to create attractive pieces that serve a useful purpose in the present day. Lampshades and cradles made from cork, cane paperclips, woven palm bags with pockets inside them and woven mobile phone cases are just a few examples (some of which have won awards) of this new lease of life in the traditional arts of the Algarve.
Handicrafts are like a common thread connecting us to our beginnings and which we hand down to the generations that follow us. When you discover the handicrafts of the Algarve, you discover its past, you feel its traditions and customs, and you can connect with its age-old values that embrace many different peoples and influences. Take home some of these veritable works of art which bear witness to tradition and innovation.
The Language of the Algarve
As is the case in other regions of Portugal, in the Algarve too the sayings, expressions and accents show marked differences from standard Portuguese. However, due to the region’s long period of isolation, the particularities of the Algarve language are greater. It is worth bearing in mind that up until less than a century ago, travelling to the rest of the country, with the exception of the Baixo Alentejo, meant going by boat along the coast.
Sometimes, the marked individuality of the Algarve accent can make it difficult for those not familiar with it to understand what is being said. This, however, is part of the charm and pleasure of travel because the way people speak and the things that they say express the identity and cultural heritage of the places we visit and the people who live there.
The Algarve language is much more than a mere accent; it expresses a way of life, with its traditional sayings, its well-known and highly colourful curses, and the vivacity and rhythm of conversations. Curses in the Algarve can be ironic, wicked and biting, but also have traces of superstition. They are part of an oral tradition, many from the coast, and inevitably cause smiles and a feeling of affinity.
All of this is inextricably linked to the region’s rich and varied history. The language bears the influences of Arabic, archaic Portuguese, neologisms and seafaring terms, but the language also changes depending on where you are: by the sea, in the countryside and uplands, in the western Algarve or farther east, close to the border with Spain.
This accent and this language are among the Algarve’s most notable characteristics. Amusing, cheerful and humorous, they reflect this land of sunshine and contrasts, a land from which explorers set sail all those centuries ago on voyages to discover the world, and a land which, today, opens its arms wide in welcome to everyone who wants to visit it.
The corridinho, the baile de roda and the baile mandado are danced in pairs and are directed by the mandador. The origin of these dances, which used to be popular in nature and today are danced by ethnographic and folk music groups, can be traced back to the court dances, and were then recreated and adapted for popular weekend dances.
The accordion, a fundamental instrument for the Algarve’s traditional dances, first appeared in the region towards the end of the 19th century, and soon became popular, bringing added interest to local repertoires. Players reinvented and combined melodies and rhythms of polkas and mazurkas to those of the old bailes de roda, giving rise to the rhythmic and harmonic richness of the Algarve’s folk music groups, whose dances incorporate influences from the various peoples whom they encountered over the years. Christmas in the Algarve is a time of religious and community tradition, with wonderful songs in tribute to the young saviour, especially in the uplands of the Serra do Caldeirão.
During the Christmas and New Year festive season, carol singers called charolas go from door to door singing seasonal songs and playing popular instruments that illustrate the people’s cheerfulness and ability to improvise. Residents normally respond with applause and then offer the singers delicacies and a glass of good medronho brandy. However, if they don’t, the singers get their revenge by singing teasing songs, called chacotas. Spontaneous carol-singing groups have now virtually disappeared but there are ethnographic groups who try to keep this typical eastern-Algarve tradition alive and bring it back into the public eye.
Other traditional songs, which have all but disappeared are working songs such as the leva-leva, which fishermen used to sing to mark the rhythm of drawing in the nets, and the harvest songs, sung in the countryside. The same is true of lullabies and romantic songs, which could either be slow or lively, like parades. Nowadays, the tradition lives on in the voices and fingers of the traditional singing groups, who preserve this inestimable wealth and present it to the public.
In the Algarve’s legends, the Moorish maidens are either incredibly beautiful or are dangerously seductive princesses, who promise treasures to whoever can free them from the magic spells that bind them.
Centuries of narratives and oral tradition have created countless legends in which these Moorish maidens are depicted as the guardians of treasures hidden in places affected by magic spells: springs, fountains, rivers, caves or castles.
The legend of Mareares in Aljezur Castle, or the one about the Moorish maiden of Salir Castle, both describe the conquering and reconquering of the two castles.
Conversely, the legend of the Moorish maiden of the noria in Rio Seco, Faro, tells of a fine Lusitanian knight who fell hopelessly in love but was unable to break the spell binding his loved one, cast over her by her father after the city was taken by the Christians.
In a land of fishermen and sailors, a common myth tells of the beautiful Floripes, rising up out of the waves and demanding demonstrations of bravery and courage from Olhão’s sailors on nights when the moon was full, if they wanted to be saved.
The Legend of Praia da Rocha tells of a mermaid who flirted with a fisherman, son of the sea, and a farmer, son of the uplands. After numerous reversals of circumstances, the furious uplands sent huge rocks rolling down to the sea which, in turn, raged night and day, throwing itself against the rocks. Unable to decide between the two, the mermaid turned into fine, golden sand, allowing her to receive homage from both of her eternal, giant suitors.
Every year, almond blossom announces the arrival of spring and brings to mind the Nordic princess who was so homesick for snow that her husband, the king, ordered hundreds of almond trees to be planted.
Memories also live on at the promontory of Cape St Vincent, where a temple dedicated to Hercules once stood. From pagan worship to Muslim and then Christian beliefs, the promontory has retained its mysticism.
The legend says that crows accompanied the body of St Vincent from Valencia to the Algarve, standing guard in the dome of the church and then following the body to Lisbon when it was transported there on the orders of Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal.
The line between legend and myth is a thin one, and is only recognised by those who recount them, as they journey through the memories of Iberians, Phoenicians, Romans and Moors.
On the Sacrum promontory, the sailors made promises before setting off on their long voyages. Sagres had been a place of worship since the Neolithic and is, even today, a crossroads on the sea routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Fortress stands strategically on the Sagres promontory, where it could control shipping, and its founding in the 15th century is associated with the Infante D. Henrique. The primitive wall built by the prince and destroyed by the 1755 earthquake was rebuilt in 1793. Still visible inside are the enigmatic compass rose on the ground, the wind-breaking false battlement wall and the Chapel of Senhora da Graça (Lady of Grace), built on the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria (St Mary) by the Infante D. Henrique, the Navigator.
These witnesses to the Discoveries reinforce the aura of mystery and the mythical quality of all the history and legends about the maritime adventure, keeping the heroic feats of the navigators alive to this day.
From here, you can look out over Cape St Vincent, a reference point on nautical charts due to the lighthouse originally run by monks, who shone a light from the top of their convent tower to keep ships safe.
This vast heritage is further enhanced by the impressive natural beauty of the coast and the wild cliffs, shaped by sea and wind. The Sagres promontory is part of the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Nature Park. Large numbers of birds nest here, or rest during migration, to the great delight of birdwatchers.
Further enhancing the magic of a visit to the mythical promontory, Sagres Fortress is regularly used as a venue for plays, poetry recitals, classical and popular music concerts and various other performing arts shows.
The Algarve Regional Culture Directorate stages cultural events at the region’s historical sites, combining immovable heritage with the intangible heritage of artistic creation.
The Algarve of the Discoveries awaits you.
The beauty of the natural setting further enhances the megalithic monuments, which can be admired in many places across the Algarve.
The Padrão menhir in Raposeira, Vila do Bispo, is part of one of the most significant concentrations of megalithic monuments in the Algarve.
In the uplands of the Serra do Caldeirão, the Cerro das Pedras dolmen and the Beringel dolmens near Salir, bear witness to the area’s prehistoric past. The megalithic tombs at Alcalar, in Portimão, are a national monument and offer a cultural programme. At the hamlet of Santa Rita (Cacela), you can visit a tomb that is around 4,500 years old.
In places next to the sea, or in the fertile lands of the barrocal, you will find Roman ruins in the Algarve that reflect a lifestyle which valued the landscape. The ruins of the Abicada villa are located in the singular environment of the Ria de Alvor. The house (domus) had a gallery with a view of the estuary and the sea, and beautiful, coloured mosaics lined the floors.
Although lacking the size and decorative pomp of the Roman ruins of Milreu, in Estoi, with its decorated spa and private temple, the villas in Cacela, Boca do Rio (Vila do Bispo), Quinta do Marim (Olhão) and Montinho das Laranjeiras (Alcoutim), nevertheless afford attractive views. At the Cerro da Vila site in cosmopolitan Vilamoura, you can visit the ruins of a Roman villa that had a spa and fish-salting tanks.
At Ponta da Atalaia in Aljezur, the Arab ruins of Ribat da Arrifana, a convent-fortress that welcomed pilgrims, are unique in Portugal.
The Arab presence in the Algarve lasted 500 years and left profound cultural, economic and social legacies.
One of the most emblematic objects from the Islamic period is the “Tavira Vase” (11th century). Profusely decorated with highly symbolic human and animal figures, this is an iconic example of the region’s archaeology and is on display at the municipal museum in Tavira.
It was in the Algarve, at Cape St Vincent, off the coast of Vila do Bispo, that Portugal’s first ever lighthouse entered service in 1515. The tower of the Convent of St Vincent was used by the monks to shine a light that guided seafarers.
The current Cape St Vincent Lighthouse, built in 1846, rises to a height of 28 metres. Today, the arches of the cloisters and the water tanks still remain from the old convent, as does the wall of the fortress that protected it. From here, you can see one of the finest landscapes in Europe, with whimsical cliffs and the infinite blue of the Atlantic Ocean.
At 51 metres above sea level, the cliffs at Ponta da Piedade are the highest on the south coast and atop them stands a lighthouse. Its construction was controversial, since it required the demolition of the centuries-old Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Piedade (Our Lady of Sorrows), a pilgrimage site for seafarers.
The lighthouse at Ponta do Altar stands on the promontory next to the picturesque hamlet of Ferragudo (Lagoa) and affords a view of the mouth of the River Arade and the city of Portimão from the sea.
Similarly, the Alfazina, or Carvoeiro, Lighthouse (Lagoa), as it is called by the fishermen, stands on a rocky promontory, where it rises to a height of 23 metres above the Atlantic Ocean. The whimsical shape of the coastline and its caves are used as nesting and resting places by numerous birds that fly or glide with infinite elegance before plunging into the sea in search of food.
An 18-metre-high orange lighthouse at Vilamoura Marina’s control tower assists with the coming and going of pleasure boats to this cosmopolitan harbour for yachts and sailing boats. At 46 metres high, the Cape Santa Maria Lighthouse, standing opposite the cities of Faro and Olhão, dominates the landscape of soft, light-golden sands on the barrier island of Culatra, part of the Ria Formosa’s dune system.
Watching over the mouth of the River Guadiana stands the Vila Real Santo António Lighthouse. Cylindrical in shape, the tower is white with black bands and is topped by a red lantern. It is a marvellous viewpoint from which you can look out over the bay of Monte Gordo and across the border to Spain.
More information on visits to the lighthouses please go here.
THE WAY OF ST. JAMES
The origin of the Way of St. James as a pilgrimage route, with the aim of venerating the remains of the apostle St. James the Greater, who is buried in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, dates back to the Middle Ages, from the ninth century onwards.
Classed as European Cultural Routes in the twentieth century, some parts are also World Heritage.
Among the various historical routes, the branches of the Portuguese Way offer several different itineraries in Portugal.
And it is possible to follow the Way of St. James starting in the Algarve.
Whether your motivation is faith, spirituality, a desire for adventure or any other reason, choose your route, contact the various pilgrimage associations for information and away you go!
More information and useful contacts: