Article by Michael Portillo on Faro and the Algarve for Medlife, December 2006.

It is a pity that over centuries the southern part of Portugal has lost most of the castles and palaces for which the area was once famous. The word Algarve derives from the Arabic Al-Gharb, meaning "country of the west", and that reminds us that this was for centuries the most westerly colony of a vast and wealthy Muslim empire. After the Moors had been expelled by the Christians, Portuguese explorers set out from the Algarve to discover new continents, and brought back great riches. It is fun, when driving through the region’s undulating country today, to hunt for traces of its former grandeur.

The Moorish regional capital was at Silves, and if you visit it (45 minutes’ drive from Faro airport) you will see one of the area’s best surviving castle ruins. It's a vast red structure that dominates the town's skyline, along with the striking Catholic church that was erected at its side many decades later.

In places the Moorish and Christian cultures have merged completely. In the largish town of Loulé look at the bell-tower of the São Clemente church and it is obvious that it was converted from the minaret of a pre-existing mosque. Whereas worshippers were once alerted to their devotions by the Mullah’s chanted prayers, they are now summoned to Mass by a peel of bells. But the tower's ancient structure had barely to be altered as one culture gave way to the other.

The hillside villages and towns of the Algarve nestle amongst groves of almond trees and in early spring the slopes are covered in snowy blossom. I visited in December when the whitewashed houses and churches are illuminated by strong winter sunshine. It was warm enough to walk about in shirtsleeves and to get a tan in pavement cafés.

Salir is a village that shelters under a picturesque flat-topped limestone mountain called Rocha da Pena. There is not much left now of Salir's 12th century Moorish castle but a delightful restaurant, Mouro Bar, has sprouted beneath its surviving stones. It provides not only delicious country fare (such as rabbit hotpot) but also superb views over the ridge-top village and a lush green valley below.

The best-kept village that I saw is Alte. As you approach its centre the outlying houses have beautiful gardens stocked with bougainvillea and lemon and orange trees. At its heart Alte's elegant townhouses, many of which enjoy outstanding panoramas, have been exquisitely restored. Alongside the river that flows through the town, at the Fonte Pequena restaurant, you can enjoy freshly-squeezed orange juice or lunch in the company of the village's thriving population of over-sized ducks.

Of course the Algarve is best known in Britain for its beaches. I stayed on a beautiful stretch of sand at the Grande Real Santa Eulália in Albufeira. Viewed from my hotel room the sunrise across the ocean was spectacular. This new resort has all the facilities that you would expect from its five-star rating. It is rightly proud in particular of its exclusive nightclub and well-equipped spa.

Not many of the British who flock to the Algarve seeking night clubs or carrying golf clubs take time to visit the city of Faro. That's a pity because the newer part of the town has charming pedestrianised shopping streets. They thread between the old houses which are adorned with balconies of wrought iron.

But the best is yet to come. Pass through Faro’s city walls that bear Roman traces and you will enter the old city which is seriously stunning.

The cathedral dates back to the 13th century but its interior is mainly an exuberant explosion of baroque tiles and carved wood. If you climb the stumpy bell-tower you can chat to the storks that nest there. Maybe because of global warming some simply don't bother to make the winter migration to Africa any more. Up there on the belfry you will also be rewarded with a view over one of Europe's most perfect and most tranquil squares.

The cathedral is corralled by dignified two-storey buildings and the square is decorated with statues and orange trees. There is little traffic and not a single tourist shop. In fact the only commercial outlet in the cathedral square is the Mesa dos Mouros restaurant. Thank goodness for it. At an open-air table you can enjoy the old town's serenity while demolishing a wild boar casserole. Or try a fish and cockle cataplana (named after the copper cooking pot in which they are stewed).

The best value wines come from the Alentejo, the province just to the north of the Algarve. Marquês de Borba tinto (red) appears on every wine list and is very acceptable.

In Faro it is also well worth visiting the archaeological museum, partly because its modern design is excellent, but mainly to appreciate the majestic Renaissance convent in which it is housed. You could not hope to find a more peaceful spot than its fine double-storey cloister.

The Algarve is one of Europe's most successful resorts. It has pretty villas and inviting hotels. The food is good and the service excellent. But southern Portugal is also a region of immense historic interest. If you are exhausted on your sun-lounger, or exasperated by your golf swing, or hung over from your clubbing, take to the hills or head for Faro. There you will surprised by fascinating vestiges of the Algarve’s golden age.