The Algarve has a long tradition of settlement. Phoenicians came first and established trading posts some 3000 years ago, followed by the Carthaginians. Next came the industrious Romans who, during their 400-year stay, grew wheat, barley and grapes and built roads and palaces. Check out the remains of Milreu, near Faro.
Then came the Visigoths and, in 711, the North African Moors. They stayed 500 years, although later Christians obliterated what they could of the era. Many place names come from this time and are easily recognised 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, particularly in nuts and dried fruit, boomed 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 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 of navigation, and had ships built and staffed in Lagos for 15th-century explorations of Africa and Asia – seafaring triumphs that turned Portugal into a major imperial power.
While the huge seismic shock that hit Portugal in 1755 is usually known as the Lisbon earthquake, due to the massive damage and loss of life in the country’s capital, its epicentre was actually 200km southwest of the Algarve. The region was devastated by the approximately 8.7-magnitude quake, and what was left along the coast was battered by the ensuing tsunami. Very few buildings survive from the pre-earthquake period, and those that did weather the quake generally needed extensive reconstruction. The Algarve is, hence, very rich in baroque architecture.
Since the arrival of Faro's international airport in the 1960s, tourism in the region has boomed, anchoring the local economy.