The Quinta de Marim Environmental Education Centre is a 3km walk from the centre of Olhão. It is part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, which extends over 60km of the eastern Algarve coast, from Ancão (to the west of Faro) to Manta Rota (between Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António). The natural park was created in 1987 to save this unique ecosystem of salt marshes, mudflats, channels and small islands, which are in a lagoon protected by barrier islands, from the destructive development of large hotel complexes and golf courses.
The Quinta de Marim estate could be described as a microcosm of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, comprising 60 hectares of pinewoods, sand dunes and mudflats with plants that grow in these harsh conditions, such as glasswort, leadwort, saltwort and seablite, and fruit trees that are suited to the Algarvean climate, such as almond, carob, fig and olive. The prickly pear grows abundantly too.
At the office near the entrance where we paid our admission fee we were given a map of the estate which showed a 3km walking trail and the places of interest at various points. The main path follows a circular route, with information boards dotted around, although we discovered that there were other paths we could take leading off the main path. Nevertheless, we were able to cover all the estate in less than 3 hours. We were using a rather old guidebook dating from 2002 and in the intervening years some areas of the estate seem to have fallen into a state of neglect: the former kennels which were used to protect the near-extinct Portuguese water dog now stand empty; and the former visitor’s house is now bricked up. However, the Ria Formosa Recovery and Wildlife Research Centre (RIAS) still operates, looking after injured animals and then releasing them back into the wild and it even offers an 8-week volunteer programme for anyone, particularly graduates, who want to be involved with wildlife research and education.
For many people the main reason to visit the estate is to watch the birds in the salt marsh.
There is a hide at the edge of the marsh with a list of waterfowl you may see feeding in the mud, including the black-winged stilt, curlew, dunlin, heron, Kentish plover, little egret and white stork. Other birds that may be seen in the grounds are the Iberian magpie, white wagtail, Sardinian warbler, along with other warblers, chats, finches, larks, tits and thrushes. The very rare purple gallinule is the symbol of the Ria Formosa Natural Park having been observed breeding in the park and the symbol is on the sign at the entrance to the Quinta de Marim. It can be seen on the first two photos of this article.
Another interesting aspect of the estate is the evidence of how the natural resources have been used by successive inhabitants over the centuries, dating back to the 1st century AD, with remains of Roman salting tanks and other buildings which are thought to have been warehouses or living quarters, suggesting that this was the site of a fish salting industry where fish was preserved for export. More recently, in the late-eighteenth century, a tidal mills were built to grind barley. The building and mills have been restored and give a good indication of how the miller and his family would have lived right up until the 1970s. Detailed information about how tidal mills work was given to us on a leaflet and there are also information panels about it in the former mill house, but the basic principle is that the water is dammed in a tidal inlet reservoir at high tide and released at low tide to move the mill and grind the grain.
There is an example of Moorish inventiveness in the grounds of the estate in the form of a waterwheel known as a noria, something that used to be common in the Algarve. This would have been used by the family that lived in the farmhouse in the middle of the estate to draw water from the well by the movement of a donkey walking round in circles. The water was then stored in a tank from where it was channelled to the orchards and gardens. Sadly the noria is broken and no longer usable, but it is still intact enough to see how this ingenious piece of machinery works.
The other building of note is the visitors’ centre, but it was a bit disappointing, with a few models of traditional fishing boats and not much else. There were some nice views along the coast from the top floor and we were able to get a cup of coffee from a machine in an area that once must have been a café.
Visible across the railway line, although not in the grounds of the estate is the Casa João Lúcio/Ecoteca de Olhão, which is connected to the Ria Formosa Natural Park through its use as an environmental education centre. It also hosts cultural events organised by the Olhão city council. The house is named after an Olhão-born poet, João Lúcio (1880-1918), who designed the house in the early-20th century but died before he could live there. It has a striking exterior dominated by four staircases.
On a late December day there weren’t many visitors at the Quinta de Marim, which made it a perfect place to enjoy the natural wonders of the nature park, but despite our expectations we failed to see any birds of interest on that day. Such is nature!
Marim Environmental Education Centre, Quelfes, Olhão
Opening hours: Monday to Friday 8am-8pm; weekends and public holidays 10am-8pm. Entrance €2.70. Tours with a park guide need to be booked in advanced.
Bus: the Circuit Olhão runs from Olhão bus terminus to the Olhão campsite every hour Monday to Friday between 7.30am and 8.30pm and Saturday mornings (not on Sundays or public holidays). The entrance to the Quinta de Marim is a short walk from here across the railway line.
On foot: it is an easy 30-minute walk from Olhão. Starting from the Rua da Fábrica Velha (the road with the former canning factories with the amazing murals) walk by the fishing dock and then through an industrial area, leading to an area of holiday homes on Rua do Pedro Zé. The road continues through a rural area until it reaches the hamlet of Pinheiros de Marim where there is a restaurant on the bend. The entrance to the Quinta de Marim is just past the restaurant, on the right.