British expats are following a long tradition of settlement. Phoenicians came first and established trading posts some 3000 years ago, followed by the Carthaginians. Next came the Romans, typically industrious during their 400-year stay – they grew wheat, barley and grapes and built roads and palaces. Check out the remains at Milreu, near Faro.
Then came the Visigoths and, in 711, the North African Moors. They stayed 500 years, but later Christians obliterated what they could, leaving little trace of the era. Many place names come from this time, easily spotted by the article ‘al’ (eg Albufeira, Aljezur, Alcoutim). The Syrian Moors called the region in which they settled (east of Faro to Seville, Spain) al-Gharb al-Andalus (western Andalucía), later known as ‘Algarve’. Another Arabic legacy is the flat-roofed house, originally used to dry almonds, figs and corn, and to escape the night heat.
Trade boomed, particularly in nuts and dried fruit, and Silves was the mighty Moorish capital, quite independent of the large Muslim emirate to the east.
The Reconquista (Christian reconquest) began in the early 12th century, with the wealthy Algarve as the ultimate goal. Though Dom Sancho I captured Silves and territories to the west in 1189, the Moors returned. Only in the first half of the 13th century did the Portuguese claw their way back for good.
Two centuries later the Algarve had its heyday. Prince Henry the Navigator chose the appropriately end-of-the-earth Sagres as the base for his school navigation, and had ships built and staffed in Lagos for the 15th-century exploration of Africa and Asia – seafaring triumphs that turned Portugal into a major imperial power.
The Algarve coastline is 155km long, with five regions: the leeward coast (Sotavento), from Vila Real de Santo António to Faro, largely fronted by a chain of sandy offshore ilhas (islands); the central coast, from Faro to Portimão, featuring the heaviest resort development; the increasingly rocky windward coast (or Barlavento), from Lagos to Sagres, culminating in the wind-scoured grandeur of the Cabo de São Vicente, Europe’s southwesternmost corner; and the hilly, thickly green interior, which rises to two high mountain ranges the Serra de Monchique and the less-visited Serra do Caldeirão. The Costa do Ouro (Golden Coast) borders the Costa de Sagres (Bay of Sagres), while the Costa Vicentina stretches north of here, the windy, wild rim of a national park.