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Some of the most interesting towns in the Algarve surround the capital. Exploring any one takes a half-day.

Loulé

This market town 15km (9 1/3 miles) north of Faro lies in the heart of the Algarve's chimney district. If you think chimneys can't excite you, you haven't seen the ones here. The fret-cut plaster towers rise from many of the cottages and houses (and even the occasional doghouse).

Bus service is good during the day; about 40 buses arrive from various parts of the Algarve, mainly Faro. Five trains per day arrive from Faro at the Loulé rail station, about 5km (3 miles) from the center of town. There are bus connections to the center of town from the station, or you can take a taxi.

The Loulé Tourist Information Office is on Avenida 25 de Abril (tel. 28/946-39-00). It's open October to May Monday to Friday 9:30am to 5:30pm, and Saturday 9:30am to 3:30pm; and June to September Monday to Friday 9:30am to 7pm, and Saturday 9:30am to 3:30pm.

Loulé and the villages around it are known for their handicrafts. They produce work in palm fronds and esparto, such as handbags, baskets, mats, and hats. Loulé artisans also make copper articles, bright harnesses, delicate wrought-iron pieces, clogs, cloth shoes and slippers, tinware, and pottery. Products are displayed in workshops at the foot of the walls of an old fortress and in other showrooms, particularly those along Rua do 9 de Abril.

In Loulé, you might want to visit the Gothic-style Igreja de São Clemente, Matriz de Loulé, or parish church, Largo do Matriz 19 (tel. 28/941-51-67). It was given to the town in the late 13th century. It's open Monday to Friday 9 to 11am, Saturday 9am to 7pm.

The remains of the Moorish castelo are at Largo Dom Pedro I (no phone). The ruins house a historical museum and are open Monday to Friday 9am to 5:30pm, and Saturday 10am to 2pm. Admission is 1€.

For meals, try the Portuguese cuisine at O Avenida, Av. José da Costa Mealha 13 (tel. 28/946-21-06), on the main street close to the traffic circle. It's one of the finest restaurants in the Algarve. The specialty is shellfish cooked cataplana-style. You can also order beefsteak à Avenida or sole meunière. The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 3:30pm and 7 to 10pm; it's closed for most of November. Meal prices start at 6€ to 12€. Occasional live entertainment is featured. O Avenida accepts most major credit cards.

São Brás de Alportel

Traveling north from Faro, you'll pass through groves of figs, almonds, and oranges, and through pine woods where resin collects in wooden cups on the tree trunks. After 20km (13 miles) you'll come upon isolated São Brás de Alportel, one of the most charming and least-known spots on the Algarve. Far from the crowded beaches, this town attracts those in search of pure air, peace, and quiet. It's a bucolic setting filled with flowers pushing through nutmeg-colored soil. Northeast of Loulé, the whitewashed, tile-roofed town livens up only on market days. Like its neighbor, Faro, it's noted for its perforated plaster chimneys. The area at the foot of the Serra do Caldeirão has been described as one vast garden.

Pousada de São Brás de Alportel, Estrada de Lisboa (N2), 8150-054 São Brás de Alportel (tel. 28/984-23-05; www.pousadas.pt), is a change of pace from seaside accommodations. The government-owned hilltop villa has fret-cut limestone chimneys and a crow's-nest view of the surrounding countryside. It's approached through a fig orchard.

Many visitors come to the pousada just for lunch or dinner (served daily 1-3pm and 7:30-10pm), returning to the coastline at night, but a knowing few remain for the evening. In the dining room, rustic mountain-tavern chairs and tables rest on hand-woven rugs. The 28€ table d'hôte dinner offers soup, a fish course, a meat dish, vegetables, and dessert. The cuisine is plain but good. After dinner, you might want to retire to the sitting room to watch the embers of the evening's fire die down. The 33 guest rooms contain private bathrooms and phones. Doubles cost from 90€ to 189€, including breakfast. Amenities include an outdoor swimming pool, laundry service, and room service (until 10pm). Parking is free, and most major credit cards are accepted.

Olhão

This is the Algarve's famous cubist town, long beloved by painters. In its heart, white blocks stacked one upon the other, with flat red-tile roofs and exterior stairways on the stark walls, evoke the casbahs of North Africa. The cubist buildings are found only at the core. The rest of Olhão has almost disappeared under the onslaught of modern commercialism.

While you're here, try to attend the fish market near the waterfront when a lota, or auction, is underway. Olhão is also known for its "bullfights of the sea," in which fishers wrestle with struggling tuna trapped in nets en route to the smelly warehouses along the harbor.

If you're here at lunchtime, go to one of the inexpensive markets along the waterfront. At Casa de Pasto O Bote, Av. do 5 de Outubro 122 (tel. 28/972-11-83), you can select your food from trays of fresh fish. Your choice is then grilled to your specifications. Meal prices start at 10€. It's open Monday to Saturday noon to 3pm and 7 to 10pm.

For the best view, climb Cabeça Hill, with grottoes punctured by stalagmites and stalactites, or St. Michael's Mount, offering a panorama of the casbahlike Baretta. Finally, to reach one of the most idyllic beaches on the Algarve, take a 10-minute motorboat ride to the Ilha da Armona, a nautical mile away. Ferries run hourly in summer; the round-trip fare is 5€. Olhão is 8km (5 miles) east of Faro.

Tavira

A gem 31km (19 miles) east of Faro, Tavira is approached through green fields studded with almond and carob trees. Sometimes called the Venice of the Algarve, Tavira lies on the banks of the Ségua and Gilão rivers, which meet under a seven-arched Roman bridge. In the town square, palms and pepper trees rustle under the cool arches of the arcade. In spite of modern encroachments, Tavira is festive looking. Floridly decorated chimneys top many of the houses, some of which are graced with emerald-green tiles and wrought-iron balconies capped by finials. Fretwork adorns many doorways. The liveliest action centers are the fruit and vegetable market on the river esplanade.

The Tavira Tourist Office is on Rua da Galeria (tel. 28/132-25-11). Tavira has frequent bus connections with Faro throughout the day. It's open June to September daily 9:30am to 7pm; and October to May Monday to Friday 9:30am to 1pm and 2 to 5:30pm.

Climb the stepped street off Rua da Liberdade, and you can explore the battlemented walls of a castle once known to the Moors. From here you'll have the best view of the town's church spires; across the river delta, you can see the ocean. The castle is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission is free.

A tuna-fishing center, Tavira is cut off from the sea by an elongated spit of sand. The Ilha de Tavira begins west of Cacela and runs all the way past the fishing village of Fuzeta. On this sandbar, accessible by motorboat, are two beaches: the Praia de Tavira and the Praia de Fuzeta. Some people prefer the beach at the tiny village of Santa Luzia, about 3km (1 3/4 miles) from the heart of town.

If you're here for lunch, try the Restaurante Imperial, Rua José Pires Padinha 22 (tel. 28/132-23-06). A small, air-conditioned place off the main square, it serves regional food, including shellfish, shellfish rice, garlic-flavored pork, roast chicken, fresh tuna, and other Portuguese dishes, accompanied by vegetables and good local wines. A favorite dish is pork and clams with french fries, topped off with a rich egg-and-almond dessert. Meals cost 8€ to 20€ or more, including wine. Food is served daily from noon to 3:30pm and 7 to 11pm. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are accepted.

If you'd like to stay a while, consider checking into Pousada de Tavira, Convento da Graça, Rua D. Paio Peres Correia, 8800-407 Tavira (tel. 28/132-90-40; fax 28/138-17-41; www.pousadas.pt), a 31-room hotel charging 150€ to 180€ in a double, 203€ to 262€ in a suite. Beginning in 1569 cloistered Augustinian nuns lived in the convent founded on this site. But today this historic building with its Renaissance cloister and baroque central staircase has been turned into one of the most colorful hotels in the Algarve. All the modern equipment has been installed, but much remains from its convent heyday. The bedrooms are the finest in the area, many with small balconies and one with a mezzanine. The accommodations are stylishly furnished and exceedingly comfortable. The suites are superb, one with a private garden. Archaeological traces of Islamic origin were discovered during the restoration. Some of these features are partially visible from the bar. The Pousada has a good restaurant, a lively bar, and 2 outdoor pools.

American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, and Visa are accepted.

Estói

A little village some 8km (5 miles) northeast of Faro, Estói is still mainly unspoiled by tourists. Buses run to the area from Faro. Visitors are objects of some curiosity, stared at by old women sheltered behind the curtains of their little houses and followed by begging children. Sometimes you see women washing their clothing in a public trough. Garden walls are decaying here, and the cottages are worn by time and the weather.

The principal sight in Estói is the Palácio do Visconde de Estói. The villa, with its salmon-pink baroque facade, has been described as a cross between Versailles and the water gardens of the Villa d'Este near Rome. It was built in the late 18th century for Francisco José de Moura Coutinho; José Francisco da Silva rescued it from near ruin between 1893 and 1909. A palm-lined walk leads to terraced gardens with orange trees along the balusters.

The villa is not open to the public, but the grounds can be visited Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. To enter, ring a bell at the iron gates outside the palm-lined walk, and a caretaker will guide you to the gardens. There's no entrance fee, but tip the caretaker.

Monte do Casal, Cerro de Lobo-Estoi, 8005-436 Faro (tel. 28/999-15-03; www.montedocasal.pt), is a country house from the 18th century that offers one of the most sedate and charming places to stay in the region. Totally renovated, the British-owned inn lies on 3 hectares (7 1/2 acres) of grounds planted with olive, fruit, and almond trees along with bougainvillea climbing white walls. The well-manicured garden contains a swimming pool. The spacious and comfortably furnished bedrooms, with tub/shower combinations, have terraces with panoramic views of the countryside. This inn represents gracious Algarvian living at its best. In the regional-style dining room, an excellent French cuisine is served nightly in a setting that was originally part of an old farmhouse. Guests meet and mingle in the spacious drawing room with luxurious furnishings, a bookcase, oil paintings, and a fireplace. Doubles cost 155€ to 395€; suites cost 225€ to 550€. It's closed January 4 to February 12.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.