|AlbufeiraAlcoutimAljezurCastro MarimFaroLagoa||LagosLouléMonchiqueOlhãoPortimão||São Brás de AlportelSilvesTaviraVila do BispoVila Real Santo António|
In ancient times known as the Kingdom of the Algarve, the Algarve of today spans 5,412 km² and is bordered on the east by Spain, and on the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean. This is a region with more hours of sunshine per year than anyone could hope for - plus 155 kms of south-facing coastline, and a further 50 kms on the west coast stretching northwards.
In the last 20 years, the number of people living in the Algarve permanently has quite literally exploded. This is principally due to a huge influx of foreigners - some who move here in order to retire, others who come seeking work in the tourist or tourist-support industries.
Out of season, the region registers a total of 410,000 inhabitants living within the 16 concelhos (boroughs): Vila Real de Santo António, Castro Marim, Alcoutim, Tavira, Olhão, Faro, São Brás, Loulé, Albufeira, Silves, Lagoa, Portimão, Monchique, Lagos, Aljezur and Vila do Bispo – but in the summer, this number more than doubles, with most holidaymakers flocking to the central boroughs of Loulé, Albufeira, and Portimão where tourist infrastructures have obliterated almost everything that existed before them.
The rapid rise in the region’s popularity (it is the only area in Portugal where birth rates are on the increase) has brought with it mixed blessings: 20 years ago, Algarve families were financially poor – many without any transport at all, others all sharing one 50cc motorcycle. Donkey carts were a mode of transport still used by many country people – and choices were all extremely limited.
With the advent of the great tourism boom, followed by entry into the EU, everything shifted focus dramatically. In a way, the Algarve was plucked from the equivalent of the 1950’s and dropped, wide-eyed into the 21st century. The result is that incomes, to a certain extent, have improved – infrastructures too, but at a huge spiritual cost. The Algarvians of today are definitely not the happy, gentle, nature-loving and appreciating people of 20 years ago.
Progress came too fast and furious for them to grow into it – and now, of course, there’s the added dilemma of world recession … But, from an historical point of view, this region has been populated since around 1.000 years B.C. and, in the old days, was famous for its agriculture (grapes, citrus fruits, olives, figs, almonds), its cork processing and its fabulously fish-filled seas.
Phoenicians, Romans and Visigoths fought over possession of the Algarve many hundreds of years ago, followed by the Moors and, hot on their trail, the Christians. The name ‘Algarve’ comes from the long period when the Moors controlled the region (from 711 to the mid-12th century, give or take a few battles) and means Al-Gharb (the west). If you look at other local names: Aljezur, Albufeira, Alcoutim… you will see how the Moorish influence lives on to this day. Indeed, local people here are often a lot darker (and a lot more like Arabs in appearance) than the Portuguese from elsewhere in the country - although they will certainly not thank you for pointing this fact out!