By Peter Russell

With its international airport, impressive shopping centre and ring of high-rise apartments, Faro boasts something of a big city feel. However, the central area is a manageable size, boasting charming mosaic-paved pedestrianised streets and marina-side gardens, while its university contributes to a lively nightlife, during term time at least.

In Summer, its boats run out to some excellent beaches. Originally a Roman settlement, the city was named by the Moors, for whom it was a thriving commercial port, supplying the regional capital at Silves. Following its conquest by the Christians, under Afonso III in 1249, the city later experienced a series of conquests and disasters. Sacked and burned by the Earl of Essex in 1596, and devastated by the Great Earthquake of 1755, it is no surprise that modern Faro has so few historic buildings. What interest it does retain is contained within the pretty Cidade Velha (Old Town), which lies behind a series of defensive walls overlooking the mudflats.

Faro is the southernmost city in Portugal with a temperate to hot Mediterranean climate perfect for sun lovers. My visit was in January where the average temperature is 22 degrees with low humidity. It's the perfect escape from the UK with budget flights available for less than $100 return if you buy at the right time.

Outstanding food and wine are a feature of this Algarve city. Steak houses abound and there also the famous Francesinha served. Francesinha is a Portuguese sandwich originally from Porto, made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausages like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries. Yum!

The only part of town to have survived the various violent historical upheavals is the Cidade Velha, or Vila-Adentro (“town within”), an oval of cobbled streets and bright–white buildings set within a run of strong walls. The houses are fronted by beautiful balconies and tiling, with an antique shop, café or art gallery. The most central entry is through the eighteenth-century town gate, the Arco da Vila, next to the Turismo. From here, Rua do Município leads up to the majestic Largo da Sé, flanked by the cathedral and a group of palaces – including the former bishop’s palace – and lined with orange trees.

There are many sites where Roman ruins can see. I came across one that had been unearthed at a construction site. It was a tiled floor depicting a sea god (looking remarkably like Poseidon) with crab's feet in his hair. Fascinating if you're a tourist; infuriating if you're a site engineer with a deadline hung up by local building regulations.

Faro market abounds with fresh fruit and vegetables, and the seafood is fantastic. A few Euros will buy you a beautiful seafood platter for your evening meal. This is so easily complimented by one of the excellent Portuguese wines. The whites are stunning. I asked my tourist office guide told me the reason you don't see many Portuguese wines outside of the country was "because we drink them all."

The region was once the world's leading cork manufacturing area. It is still a major part of the economy but has seen some decline with the introduction of screw tops and plastic "corks" into the wine industry. Globally, Portugal still holds 34 percent of all cork plantations.

In a day, visitors travelling by car or on an organised excursion can hike through a cork plantation, tour a cork factory, stop at a cork museum, and shop for cork-skin fashion accessories while enjoying the rural charm and warm hospitality of the Portuguese countryside.

For a real treat, you can visit the  Estaminé Restaurant at the Deserta Island. It is a short ferry trip from Faro. After exploring the beauty of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, you can taste the very special algarvian food with an 180º panoramic view over the coastline. “O Estaminé” restaurant provides the final touch for your experience, giving you the opportunity to sample seafood and fish in regional dishes handed down from generation to generation of fishermen and Riverside folks. The freshest fish often caught right there in the channel. Clams, prawns, baby clams, not to mention cuttlefish and squid, the salads and the alternatives to meat dishes.

Estaminé Restaurante (Faro Portugal) - Booking is recommended. Call: 917 811 856.

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