Algarve, Olhão: a little city with big surprises

Olhão: a little city with big surprises

Praça Patrão Joaquim Lopes
Ornate balconies in Praça Patrão Joaquim Lopes, Olhão

The guidebooks are a little underwhelmed by Olhão, warning prospective visitors that there aren’t any sights as such. At first we were inclined to agree with them, but by the end of our time in Olhão we had discovered some hidden gems that the guidebooks don’t mention and had developed a fondness for this fishing town in the  eastern Algarve.

Arriving in the centre of the small city located 8km east of Faro we headed to the Praça da Restauração which houses the parish church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary) and its little external chapel of Nosso Senhor dos Aflitos (Our Lord of the Afflicted). Behind the chapel’s iron railings there are votive candles and wax models of children and body parts against an attractive azulejo-panelled wall. Its religious significance in the city harks back to the days when the fishermen’s wives came here to pray for the safety of their husbands and sons during storms.

The church, with its Baroque façade, dates from the eighteenth century and was paid for by the local fishermen. Inside the church is a gilt carved-wood altar and two side altars, one containing a beautifully carved statue of Christ on the cross.

We were unable to climb the church tower for the view of the cube-shaped açoteias (roof terraces) typical of Olhão, as the custodian was away from his desk and the man who was covering for him was unwilling to take our one euro entrance fee from us. Instead we decided to walk across the square to the Edifício do Compromisso Marítimo, a former fishermen’s mutual society which is now the Museu Municipal de Olhão. The building has a distinctive roof comprising two pyramids and there is niche above the entrance containing a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.

Museu Municipal de Olhão
Museu Municipal de Olhão

The small museum, which was free to visit, had the usual artefacts we are used to seeing in provincial museums throughout Portugal: a few broken pots and some bones from pre-historic and Roman times, along with models of boats, including a small model of the Bom Sucesso, a boat that is the pride of Olhão. In 1808 a group of sailors from Olhão crossed the Atlantic Ocean in this caique without the aid of maps or navigational instruments. Amazingly they reached Rio de Janeiro where they gave the exiled Prince Regent, who would later become King João VI, the news that the French occupiers had been expelled from the Algarve. Upstairs in the museum was a handful of more recent exhibits from Olhanense daily life, including my favourite exhibit, a simple pair of traditional slippers, known as ‘sapatos de ourelo’ (made with strips of cloth), which somehow seemed more personal than the broken pots and bones.

Also upstairs was a temporary exhibition entitled ‘Olhão Terra Cubista’, which included photographs, models and drawings of the white cube-shaped houses that we hadn’t been able to see from the church tower and it showed how these houses had been connected to the Cubist movement in art in the first half of the twentieth century.

'Mirantes de Olhão', Roberto Nobre
‘Mirantes de Olhão’ by Robert Nobre (1949) and a model of a typical Olhanense house, Museu Municipal de Olhão

From here it was a short stroll to the riverfront, walking down the pedestrianized shopping streets and looking up to admire the pretty wrought-iron balconies on the buildings.

Balconies,Olhão (2)
Ornate balconies, Olhão

Olhão is the largest fishing port on the Algarve and it is still very much a working port, dominated by the two red-brick buildings with their distinctive turrets which house the market. Inside the two buildings the market was a bustling hive of activity: one building selling the freshly caught fish and the other selling meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables and other local produce, such as nuts, honey and herbs. It felt as if the market was the beating heart of the city. There are also cafés in the market building with tables overlooking the quay where you can sit and watch the fishing boats.

Stepping out of the market building we found ourselves looking at a full-size replica of the aforementioned caique the Bom Sucesso, which allowed us to see how small and fragile this boat was and how remarkable the journey was. During the tourist season they run trips around the Ria Formosa Natural Park on the Bom Sucesso, but not on the late-December day that we were in Olhão.

Bom Sucesso, Olhão
‘Bom Sucesso’, Olhão

There are two barrier islands in the Ria Formosa close to Olhão, the Ilha da Armona and Ilha da Culatra, which not only give Olhão protection from the sea, but are also where Olhão’s beaches are located. They are only accessible by ferry or water taxi, many of which we saw lined up in the harbour.

The riverfront is lined with lovely gardens, the Jardim Pescador Olhanense to the west of the market and the Jardim Patrão Joaquim Lopes to the east. Joaquim Lopes (1800-1890) was an Olhão-born skipper of a lifeboat whose crew saved many people and he has become a national hero. The statue of him in the gardens shows him as a very old man. The park is a peaceful place to sit under the shade of the trees looking out at the activity in the harbour.

The Jardim Pescador Olhanense, lined with two parallel rows of palm trees is less interesting, but there is an elegant bandstand and tiled benches, depicting scenes from Olhão’s history, including the expulsion of the French and the voyage of the Bom Sucesso, at one end.

We were starting to wonder if we had seen all there was to see in Olhão, but decided to wander back into the town via what looked like an area of small streets with the aforementioned white cube-shaped houses. From the Jardim Pescador Olhanense we crossed the Avenida 5 de Outubro and walked up Rua Dr. Manuel Arriaga and found ourselves in a very small square with a very large silver statue of man with long spiky hair wearing what looked like a skirt and looking down at a pattern on the ground. A nearby information panel explained that we had discovered the Caminho das Lendas (Route of the Legends), which takes you on a journey through the alleyways of the historic Barreta and Levante neighbourhoods between Largo João da Carma to Largo da Fábrica Velha depicting local legends at various points along the way. This piqued my interest and I was keen to follow the route and find out more. The statue we had come across in Largo João da Carmo told the story of Arraúl, a man who survives the destruction of Atlantis only to be eaten by a whale and then deposited on the shore of a place he falls in love with and which he decides to protect by erecting a sand barrier. The place is Olhão and the sand barrier becomes the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa. Other statues on the route depict the legends of ‘the Big-eyed Boy’, ‘the Enchanted Moorish Boy’, ‘Floripes’ and ‘Marim’, three of which involve characters appearing to selected local inhabitants and then mysteriously disappearing. The big-eyed boy appears to a group of fisherman and when they pick him up to stop him crying he becomes unbearably heavy. He eventually disappears. The enchanted Moorish boy befriends a young fisherman who invites him home, but when the fisherman’s mother takes the Moorish boy to Mass he disappears. Floripes is a beautiful Moorish woman who comes to visit a drunken fisherman at night. No one believes him, so he makes a bet with a young fisherman that he will give him a farm if Floripes also appears to him. She does, but it results in the older man disappearing, reputedly with Floripes. ‘The Legend of Marim’ tells the story of a troubadour, Abdalá, who loves Alina, the daughter of a rich man who lives in Marim. The rich man challenges Abdalá to bring the spring of the local river to his palace in one night. Amazingly Abdalá is able to do this and Abdalá and Alina leave together by the river. The statues by unnamed sculptors were all fitting tributes to the legends and I was thrilled we had stumbled across them.

But that wasn’t the end of the surprises. As we walked out of the Largo da Fábrica Velha we noticed a mural on one of the walls of an abandoned factory. As we went closer we realised that every wall was covered with beautifully painted scenes. This was the area of the former canning factories of the Conserveira do Sul, which had become derelict. However, a recent initiative by members of a local artistic association has resulted in the exterior walls being painted with wonderful murals depicting scenes from Olhão’s fishing and canning past, including the people of this district going about their daily lives. All the murals are painted in black and white, which adds to the sense of the past. It was a perfect end to our short visit to Olhão and I was pleased to prove the guidebooks wrong.

That wasn’t quite the end of our time in Olhão however, as from here it was a relatively short (3km) walk to the wonderful Quinta de Marim, but that is for another blog!

Algarve walks, Quinta da Rocha nature reserve: the ‘Rocha Delicada Trail’

Quinta da Rocha nature reserve: the ‘Rocha Delicada Trail’

Flamingos, Quinta da Rocha

The ‘Rocha Delicada (Elegant Rock) Trail’ is one of the walks described in the Guide to Walking Trails in the Algarve, published by the Turismo do Algarve. It is a circular walk along well-trodden dirt paths, which in the main are flat. The walk starts (and finishes) at the Mexilhoeira Grande railway station between Portimão and Lagos and covers a diverse expanse of salt marsh at Espargueira, salt pans, mudflats, sand dunes, farmland (with sad signs of abandonment in some places), orchards of almond, fig and orange trees, and pine and Mediterranean scrub forest.

The Quinta da Rocha nature reserve is on a peninsula between the River Alvor and the Odiáxere Brook and offers a range of habitats for plants and animals, including amphibians, such as fire salamander, marbled newt and natterjack toad and many species of migratory bird, for whom it is an important feeding and rest stop, such as avocet, black-winged stilt, common kestrel, flamingo, little owl, osprey, oystercatcher, peregrine falcon, redshank, ringed plover, spoonbill and stone-curlew. During our walk in late December we were lucky enough to see a large number of flamingos, although not as pink we were expecting. We also saw quite a few curlew sandpipers which proved hard to photograph, as they seemed to sense when we were pointing the camera at them and repeatedly flew off. I also managed to capture a ringer plover on camera and what I think was a little egret, but it was a bit too far away to identify properly. During the walk I was also lucky enough to get my first sighting of a lapwing in a field.

The nearby Alvor Estuary is a coastal lagoon of great biodiversity due to the presence of fresh water from the rivers that feed into it and salt water from the sea. It is a popular area for local fishermen to fish for clams and cockles and we observed a small group of men fishing for molluscs in the traditional way.

On the return leg of the walk we passed the A Rocha Association environmental field study centre which also, as A Rocha Life, organizes birdwatching tours around the Algarve using the field study centre as a base. The walk complements the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve: ‘At the whim of the tides’ walk that we had done the previous year, which approaches the estuary from Alvor and gives a different perspective of this environmentally diverse area.


The walk is 8km and takes approximately 2 hours. It is an easy walk along well-trodden dirt paths, although it is a bit potholed and rocky in places. It is well sign-posted and there are two information boards along the walk, one at Mexilhoeira Grande station and the other at Quinta da Rocha, with information in Portuguese and English about the flora, fauna and geological features. Be aware that there is very little shade on the walk and nowhere to buy a drink or go to the toilet.

Mexilhoeira Grande station is just off the N125 road between Portimão and Lagos.

Buses run to Mexilhoeira Grande from Portimão and Lagos and trains on the Algarve line stop here.

Festivals, O Dia de Reis - Epiphany in Portugal, 6th January

O Dia de Reis – Epiphany in Portugal, 6th January


O Dia de Reis (King’s Day) is the Portuguese name for Epiphany and celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings at the stable where Jesus was born, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the past it was believed that Christmas presents were delivered by the Three Kings, but recently Father Christmas has taken over that role. However, on the night of 5th January it is still common for children to leave their shoes by the window or door with straw and carrots in them to feed the horses of the Magi who will visit during the night. In return sweets and cakes are left in the shoes as presents for the children. The Dia de Reis festival marks the end of Christmas and many families have a traditional meal similar to the Christmas Eve consoada, including the essential bolo rei (king cake). The next day all the Christmas decorations are taken down.

Bolo rei

During the period between New Year’s Day and Epiphany it is common to find groups of people in rural areas singing traditional New Year carols known as Janeiras and Cantares dos Reis, accompanied by traditional instruments. (The Cantares dos Reis are similar to the Janeiras, but they relate to the story of the Three Kings and are only sung on 5th and 6th January.) It is reminiscent of the British tradition of carol singing, with the groups going from house to house in the village singing songs announcing the birth of Jesus and wishing the residents a happy new year, or even sometimes making fun of them. In return they are given food, drink, sweets or money. In some towns and villages people dress up as Biblical characters and re-enact the story of the Magi through the streets, often followed by music, food and wine.

The lyrics of the Janeiras and Cantares dos Reis vary from region to region and each town or village will have its own traditions. To give you a flavour, this video clip shows a group of singers in Macedo de Cavaleiros in the Bragança district of north-east Portugal going around the neighbourhood singing Cantares dos Reis and enjoying the hospitality of the residents. While in the eastern Algarve there are musical groups known as Charolas who sing Janeiras accompanied by the distinctive sound of castanets, giving the Janeiras a very different sound to those in the north of the country.

Food and drink, Ginjinha – the drink of Lisbon

Ginjinha – the drink of Lisbon

Porto has port, the Algarve and Alentejo regions have medronho, while Lisbon and the area just to the north have a type of cherry brandy unique to Portugal called ginjinha (or ginja). It is a sweet liqueur made with the sour morello cherry (ginja) which grows in this region and it can be found on the menu of any bar, but in Lisbon there are also several ginjinha bars which specialise in serving this drink. The most famous is A Ginjinha Espinheira in Largo de São Domingos near Rossio square, which is where the drink is said to have originated in the 1840s.

Picture (1971)
A Ginjinha Espinheira, Largo de São Domingos, Lisbon

The drink is said to have been created by a monk, who combined morello cherries with brandy, sugar, cinnamon and water. An entrepreneur, Francisco Espinheira, saw an opportunity and sold the resulting cherry brandy in his bar which was named after him and where his portrait hangs above the counter. (Ginjinha was even claimed to have medicinal properties and it is true that the taste and consistency is reminiscent of cherry-flavoured cough syrup.) The bar has to be one of the smallest in the world and, once they have bought their glass of ginjinha, customers stand in the street to drink it. Some people ask for a ‘ginja com elas’ (with an alcohol-soaked cherry from the bottle in the glass) while others ask for a ‘ginja sem elas’ (without the cherry). Copy the Lisboetas and order a ‘com elas’ and after finishing your drink suck the alcohol from the cherry, but maybe leave spitting the cherry pip onto the ground to the locals. Other ginjinha bars also in the Rossio area include Ginjinha do Carmo in Calçada do Carmo and Ginjinha Sem Rival in Rua das Portas de Santo Antão.

Ginjinha is also widely available in Alcobaça and Óbidos in the Centro region, north of Lisbon. In Óbidos a shot of ginjinha is often served in a small chocolate cup which you can eat after drinking the liqueur, and great value at only €1 a shot.