Moorish fun east of Faro; TRAVEL.
FISHES of every colour and description were laid out glistening on marble slabs as we entered the busy market hall at Olho, a little port on the tip of the Algarve.
We'd gone there at the recommendation of the staff who'd greeted us to our hotel near Faro with a courtesy glass of champagne.
This part of Portugal may be best known for its golf courses and tennis schools, or for the holiday homes of the rich and famous. But the region east of Faro, between the Ria Formosa and the Spanish border, is less frequented than the more popular west, around Albufeira.
Here, the climate is more Mediterranean than Atlantic, the landscape more north African than Portuguese. There's also a strong Moorish element in the house designs, a reminder of its Arab heritage.
While facilities and major roads are firmly in the 21st century, in the quiet hillside villages you're just as likely to see ancient wives sitting in a donkey-powered trailer behind their equally wrinkled husbands, taking their produce to market.
Monte do Casal, a former manor house near Estoi converted into a boutique hotel by Englishman Bill Hawkins in a 21-year work of love, stands in acres of wonderful gardens.
There are three swimming pools - one of which looks more like a boating lake - plus a villa which can be rented separately.
It's just a few minutes' drive from Faro, where we'd landed after a flight from Manchester with Monarch.
Both the hotel and its restaurant can be found in guide books as among the best places to stay and eat. The cuisine leans towards cordon bleu though it draws heavily on local produce and rustic styles, with a mix of Atlantic seafood and fish plus fruit and veg from surrounding market gardens.
We tried the gourmet tasting menu, with dish after dish coming out of the kitchens superbly presented with an appropriate regional wine.
The day starts well at Monte do Casal, with breakfast laid on your private terrace by chambermaids. And what better way to begin than sitting in the sunshine, enjoying wonderful views across to the sea and the gardens below.
We'd hired a car so we could explore the region - a must if you are to get the most from this area. One day we headed into Faro, the capital of the Algarve.
Mostly known for its airport, it's an under-rated city, with lots of great little bars and handy shops.
From the marina it's a short walk into the old walled town. On top of the 11th century gateway in, the Moorish Arco da Vila, are stork nests. In fact they are everywhere, perched on posts, nesting on Sky dishes, swooping silently above the city.
Inside the old town you can climb to the top of the cathedral or tour its collection of gold sacred crosses and bibles.
We walked across the new town to Taska which during the evening is taken over by poets and performers.
Just around the corner is the new cathedral, Igreja de Carno, with its ornate richly decorated interior. There's also the gruesome Capela dos Ossos (chapel of bones) the walls of which are covered with more than 1,200 skulls.
Just outside Faro is a shopping centre where we stocked up on souvenirs and vino verdo wine.
We also hoped to explore Estoi's rococo palace and gardens but they were shut, having been turned into a government B&B. However, we spent a couple of hours at the remains of a Roman villa at Mileu, which still has intricate mosaics.
We also explored the Ria Formasa nature reserve (37 miles of beautiful coastline) with a walk at Quinta de Marim educational centre just outside Olhao, walking through pine woods and along the shore past a freshwater mill. It's home to the very rare purple gallinule, a type of moorhen.
We also popped back to the street restaurants of Olhao, to try out that fish market produce. They were heaving with families enjoying a Sunday lunch.
Ordering was simple. We pointed to what a nearby group - from grandparents to toddlers - were enjoying (a big pan filled with a rich seafood casserole) and asked for one of those.
A longer trip took us east to the pretty town of Tavira with its seven-arched bridge.
Elegant wide streets are edged with lattice-balconied houses.
We then pressed on to Vila Real de Santo Antonio, standing at the mouth of the Guadiana, and looked across to Spain.
There we found a medieval festival in full swing.
Back along the new motorway to Estoi it was a much quicker trip than the winding route through the sleepy villages, but our mini-tour gave us a real taste of the area.
It's warm, and welcoming. The food ranges from cheap but well-made basic using local produce to top of the range haute cuisine.
On the flight home we chatted to a Manchester businessman with an apartment near Faro - it takes only a couple of hours from his UK home to sitting on his balcony soaking up the sun. And I can't blame him.
The climate is more Mediterranean than Atlantic, the landscape more north African than Portuguese
Sarahstayed at MonteDo Casal, Cerro do Lobo, Estoi near Faro (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 00 35128 999 0140, orvisit www.montedocasal.pt).
Monarch (www.monarch.co.uk) fliesfrom Manchesterto Faro-one way faresfrom pounds 46.50plus charges.
Go to www.visitalgarve.pt for details of what's on in the region
HIGH LIFE: Monte Do Casal, Cerro do Lobo, Estoi near Faro, a former manor house converted into a boutique hotel by Englishman Bill Hawkins in a 21-year work of love, and standing in acres of wonderful gardens; SQUARE WORLD: The cathedral in Largo da Se, just in the heart of Faro. In the square is a statue of Thomas Aquinas who is the saint of Faro. (Below left) Faro's new cathedral Igreja do Carmo, best known for its chilling Capela dos Ossos (chapel of bones)