A White-Washed Village Adrift In the Kissing Sea
By Kevin Gould
Olhão is 15 minutes from Faro airport, a hard-working, hard-living fishing town and proudly individualistic – Portuguese shorthand for clams and characters, part-time piracy and peaceful anarchy. Barreta, this bairro where Vitálio has lived all his life, is a village within the old town, scrabbled with cobbled lanes, blind alleys, textured shadows thrown from the infinite blue sky above, once-prim cubist houses now in glamorous dereliction. There’s a feeling of North Africa as mopeds push past, and in the elaborate chimney pots with their echoes of minarets. Physically and emotionally, we’re as close to Tangiers as we are to Lisbon.
The last of the restrictions were lifted here on 19 May. Lockdown was scrupulously observed: Portuguese society relies as much on understanding and mutual consideration as it does on its Byzantine laws. Now that we’re out and all sporting our masks inside any business premises and on public transport.
You reach both islands by Pugwash ferries from the jetty at the end of the esplanada, or via taxi speedboat if you’re feeling a bit Raquel Welch or Tony Curtis. Culatra is further, up to an hour’s walk through the clambeds, depending on the tides, a journey I want never to end. It is a village adrift in the kissing sea, colonised by forthright fishing families, their low houses riotous with bougainvillea or fronted by eccentric gardens coaxed from the sand.
Every August the sea gods are propitiated when the enormous Bacchic ceremony, NossaSenhora dos Navegantes, is bedecked with flowers and toasted in Super Bock beer then borne wonkily aloft from Culatra’s chapel on a flotilla of overloaded boats to meet mid-channel with the Madonna from Olhão’s Mother Church. The party lasts all weekend.
The sea Huge and restless to make you feel small and peaceful. Just by being here you feel like you’re playing your bit part in the universal drama, maybe even playing it well. Magnesium flares flash from sun-smashed waves. A rush of iodine in the air. Even during busy August, after a short stroll you’re alone, left to nestle and burrow into a dune, seduced when sweaty into the sea’s powerfully pristine embrace. Depending on the tide there may be some folk armpit-deep in the swell dragging for butterfly clams, or gently casting long lines for silvery sea bass. Three generations make little family encampments. Families of sandpipers needle the water’s edge. An hour’s stroll towards the setting sun leads you to the lighthouse at Farol, a lovely beach bar, and the ferry home.
Best of all, Olhão’s big attraction is that there’s no big attraction. This not only keeps the tourist crowds away, but frees you from any nagging must-do, must-go, must-see anxiety. A hill to climb? If you must there’s São Miguel, with its humble leaky pilgrimage chapel and its flanks carpeted with thousands of resiny rock roses. From the lung-busting summit, the eastern Algarve reclines before you, flamingo’d salt pans shimmery in the heat, hugged by a sparkling sea, fringed with myriad fruit trees and largely empty of humans. In June we come to pick a certain pink flowering thyme that only seems to grow here, and its high green scent fills the car for weeks afterwards.
Here, history is in the faces of everyone around you, not in a museum. Tribes of Celts thrived here. Phoenicians established tuna fisheries and fish-salting industries. The Romans appropriated and integrated the fruits of both civilisations. Then the sybaritic Iraqi Umayads landed, followed by their sterner North African cousins: the Inquisition put paid to them and most of the Jewish communities. Foreign soldiers came and stayed too – Napoleon was defeated on the outskirts of town (his army reputedly marched here on Olhão tinned sardines). The DNA these visitors donated to Olhão’s gene pool is in the people’s gestures and attitude, their absolute commitment to family, their calm acceptance of other. Olhão is not just a place to come to; it is a place just to be.