THE engine roars, tyres grip the Tarmac and I’m thrown back into my racing seat as I take off for a second time today.
Just hours ago, I was speeding down the runway at Stansted Airport.
Now, I’m in the passenger seat of a 510- horsepower £146,000 Mercedes AMG GT sportscar, hurtling around a deserted race track at breakneck speed.
I’m beginning to understand my driver’s nickname for his motor: the “monster of torque”.
I’m at the Algarve International Circuit, a 2.9-mile professional racetrack nestled in the hills above the town of Portimao, on Portugal’s south coast.
Here, thrillseekers can ride in super-fast cars to feel the giddy rush — first your instructor drives you round the track, with you as passenger, then you swap seats and YOU take the wheel.
The temple of torque that is this 72,000-seat autodrome has hosted some of racing’s biggest names.
In May 2021, Lewis Hamilton beat Max Verstappen here to win Formula One’s Portuguese Grand Prix.
But today the stands are empty and just one race car whizzes around the track — with me now nervously gripping the steering wheel.
Like Lewis Hamilton I’m taking to the track in a Mercedes, but that’s where the similarities end.
Despite feeling like I’m piloting the Millennium Falcon, the on board post-race diagnostics reveal that during my first lap I only exceeded Portugal’s motorway speed limit once.
Although, that was by 76kph – my top speed a dizzying 196kph.
It’s exhilarating to be in control of such a powerful car.
Keeping it on the road is no easy feat and by the end of our two laps I’m in awe of my driver’s abilitiewith the pedals.
He doesn’t hold my driving chops in quite as high regard: “Seven out of ten — with plenty of room to improve.” Ouch!
The Algarve International Circuit is my first stop on a long-weekend winter sun break in the city of Portimao.
Some 40 miles west of Algarve’s capital, Faro, I’m here to explore what the popular resort city has to offer outside of high season — and the Pestana D. João II Beach and Golf Resort puts me in a prime spot to see it all.
Right on the sandy beachfront of Alvor, the hotel has two salt-water swimming pools, a Turkish bath and a sauna, but more importantly it’s just a ten-minute drive from Portimao centre, a region famous for its heritage and seafood.
Streets are awash with tempting restaurants but Faina, a small boutique one which is an extension to the Portimao museum complex, is a must.
Not before exploring the museum’s exhibitions, though.
The museum is in a former fish-canning factory on the harbour, where about 300 locals worked in the early 19th century.
Some of those workers are still alive today and enjoy returning to the site to show their grandchildren what life was like.
It was hard graft.
In photos lining the museum walls, gnarled and sinewy men lob the day’s catch up to the dockside from boats tied up in the harbour.
In those days, a chain- pulley system would winch thousands of fish a day up to the factory to be cleaned, gutted, packaged and shipped out to customers around the world.
Now, the museum houses exhibitions about the factory and the region’s history, from its first prehistoric inhabitants, through Roman, then Moorish occupation, to its rise as one of Portugal’s major fisheries in the 1900s.
In the adjacent restaurant, the region’s maritime prowess is also on show.
Tuna tartare and black cuttlefish risotto, washed down with regional wines from Portimao’s three local vineyards — delicious.
The next day, I wandered the quiet streets of the city centre.
In summer, this area would be packed with tourists staying in the many tower- block hotels and apartments that line the seafront of Praia da Rocha — one of the Algarve’s most popular beaches — but today I have them practically to myself.
On a cobbled side street is the Taberna De Portimao, a cosy restaurant with Portuguese antiquities lining the walls.
It offers an all-Algarve experience, from the food, to the wines, which owner Joao Monteiro proudly tells me means “zero kilometres of waste”.
Local razor clams, octopus, cod, calamari, sautéed squid with garlic, sautéed chicken liver, fava beans — from my table on this quaint cobbled street my tastebuds have explored all corners of the Algarve.
But Joao has still one more surprise in store for me.
It turns out that the restaurant houses just a small selection of his incredible collection of antiques.
Stepping into his home is like entering a small museum, or the set of a particularly gaudy TV period drama.
Muskets hang on the walls in the study, a hand-powered record player belts out Beethoven’s Concerto No5 in the lounge and in the dining room a gigantic wood and glass cabinet holds chinaware embossed with the royal seal of Portugal.
The only item in the house that looks like it belongs in 2022 is the gigantic flat- screen TV in the bedroom.
Joao tells me he hopes one day to rent the space out for private luxury dinners with a historical twist.
It’s an unexpected and charming twist to a trip which has shown me there’s much more to the Algarve than its stunning beaches — if you can drag yourself off the sand to go looking.
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