Quietly does it

Free of tourists, Lagos reveals its traditional charm, writes Steve McKenna.

VISITING a beach town during its low-season feels a bit spooky, especially when you've experienced it at the height of summer. Lagos, on Portugal's Algarve, was scorching hot and choked with people when I came in August. Mopping the sweat from my brow and dodging blotto, red-faced tourists and over-eager touts, I'd had a feeling that if you half-emptied the streets and dropped the temperature by, say, 10 to 15 degrees, it would be a much more pleasant place.

"It wasn't a bad hunch," my sister, Helen, says, as we stroll across Lagos's attractive, sun-kissed Praca Gil Eanes on a mild (it's 18 degrees) and seductively sleepy March morning. Fringed by outdoor cafes and ice-cream parlours, the square is today the preserve of wizened old Portuguese men in once-smart suits and hats, trendy teenagers sporting Cristiano Ronaldo hairstyles, young families and lady pensioners nattering over pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and bicas (espressos). There are a few foreigners but unless you count the squawks of seagulls, the dominant language in the slightly salty air is, overwhelmingly, Portuguese.

Lagos sits at the heart of the Algarve, one of Europe's most popular tourist regions, a mecca of golf courses, sandy beaches and white condominiums, on Portugal's scenic but, in parts, heavily developed, south coast.

What separates this old fishing port from its resort rivals is that it looks and feels so Portuguese. As the launch pad for Portugal's golden Age of Discovery, there's a lot of history here, too. In 1415, aged just 21, Prince Henry the Navigator, son of King Joao, led a fleet from Lagos to seize the Moorish trading hub of Ceuta on the north African coast.

The Portuguese went on to find, and claim, the Madeira Islands, the Azores and, later, Cape Verde, before Henry's protege, Gil Eanes, became the first person to sail beyond Cape Bojador and return. Overcoming this headland, on the Western Sahara, was a feat as ships had frequently fallen foul of its violent Atlantic waves, sparking mythical tales of sea monsters swallowing ships and the sea being so hot it would boil anything in its path.

Ripe for more casual exploration is Lagos's beguiling web of twisting streets, sloping alleys and stone staircases. We browse family-run fashion boutiques, examine bottles of port in an artisans' store and ogle the opulent, gold-leaf-clad interior of the baroque St Anthony's church. We marvel at the giant walled mosaics of azulejo (glazed, intricately decorated tiles), as the buildings' inhabitants gaze down from their wrought-iron balconies. Then we do as the locals do and stop for coffee and tarts.

At one stage, the quiet is pierced by a procession of chirpy schoolchildren dressed as giant bananas, oranges, pears and potatoes. They come bounding along, chaperoned by their teachers, who are dancing, giggling, blowing whistles and generally acting half their age.

A little further on, in the shadow of the old town's 16th-century crenellated walls, teenage boys masquerading as princes and kings swing plastic swords and act the fool, while fair maidens laze on the grass and look on with a mix of bashfulness and nonchalance. This is part of Lagos's annual Carnaval, which, though not a patch on Rio de Janeiro's, is injecting a jolt of colour and energy to a place emerging from its winter slumber. My imagination stirs as I come out on to breezy Praca do Infante, a large square studded with a statue of Henry the Navigator.

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Across the road, beside the town's attractive, palm tree-lined, harbour-front promenade, a fortress houses an intriguing discoveries-themed museum. Under Henry, Lagos became expert at churning out caravels - an agile sailing vessel that was easier to manoeuvre than the standard clunkers. Historians believe that although he wasn't much of a traveller himself, Henry sponsored myriad voyages from his armchair and his legacy influenced other great maritime figures, notably game-changing compatriots Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, and, of course, Columbus and Cook.

Nearby is an old customs house that, in 1444, hosted Europe's first market for African slaves. Now it's a modern art gallery that reflects on its dark past. While gold and lust for spices fuelled exploration, Portugal became embroiled in this lucrative business under Henry's watch (though he later forbade the kidnap of Africans for slavery).

It's tough to get to Africa from Lagos today but small schooners drift from the town's harbour and flashy new marina, for tours of the stunning Algarvian coastline.

Secluded coves, grottoes and rock pools abound, while eroded sandstone cliffs and outcrops evoke Victoria's Great Ocean Road, though the water here is even clearer, calmer and greener. As we admire the scenery, an Australian couple pull up on bicycles, lock them, then descend to Praia Dona Ana, which they have to themselves. They look pretty happy about this.

Seafood restaurants - and grilled sardines, shellfish risottos, salted dried cod and boiled prawns - are Lagos's forte and we find a cosy little nautical-themed number - O Cantinho do Mar - down a quiet side street. The bubbly waitress tells me it's one of the few buildings in Lagos to have survived the earthquake that devastated Lisbon and southern Portugal in 1755. She shows me the chunky old door pillars as proof of its fortitude.

Surrounded by wooden model ships and lighthouses, fishing nets, lifebuoys, lanterns and plastic sharks, I enjoy a platter of grilled fish - mainly sea bass and bream - while my sister raves about her tuna steak.

As we eat, we overhear the waitress chatting to the couple next to us. "It's much nicer now than in summer," she says. "We're not as busy and it's still quite cold but at least we don't see American, Canadian, English, Australian people having sex in the street ..."

Apart from a few cocktail bars pumping out dance and jazz tunes and one showcasing live fado (sad, folksy Portuguese music), it's almost dead, nightlife-wise. We're not too fussed, though, and when we see a sign outside one establishment saying - "Are You Ready for the new season? We are back! Will you be the first to drink the famous Fish Bowl?" - we're glad we've come before things really kick off.

Trip notes

Getting there

Lagos is a 90-minute taxi-shuttle bus ride from Faro airport, which is linked with dozens of European cities, including Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Lisbon. We flew easyJet (easyjet.com) from London Gatwick for about €80 ($110) return.

Staying there

The Lagos Tivoli Hotel has twin/doubles, with breakfast, from €45 off-season — rising to about €150 in August; tivolihotels.com.

Eating there

O Cantinho do Mar, off Rua 25 de Abril; +351 282 767 722.

More information

visitalgarve.pt

Three easy trips from Lagos . . .

1 Sagres Take in fabulous Atlantic views from the old fort at this wind-swept western tip of the Algarve, where Prince Henry the Navigator ran a navigation school for talented map makers, geographers, astronomers and sailors.

2 Silves The former Moorish capital of the Algarve has a fairytale hilltop castle that looms over a pretty old town on the banks of the Arade River. Silves, which sits on underground aquifers, is edged by lush citrus groves.

3 Monchique This village in the hills offers cooler temperatures, wonderful hiking trails, the upmarket Longevity Wellness Resort (longevitywellnessresort.com) and Villa Termal das Caldas de Monique (monchiquetermas.com).

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