Algarve, Armação de Pêra: where cliffs and coves meet sweeping sands

Armação de Pêra: where cliffs and coves meet sweeping sands

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Fishermen’s Beach, Armação de Pêra

As we entered Armação de Pêra our hearts sank. ‘Is this the right place?’ we asked ourselves. Unfortunately the seaside resort of Armação de Pêra was a victim of overzealous property development in the later decades of the twentieth century, when the Algarve was becoming a popular package-tourist destination and a lot of the architecture is quite frankly ugly, with characterless high-rise apartment blocks lining the streets. The main street in the centre of the town, Via Dorsal, is more reminiscent of a financial district than a holiday resort and even the pedestrianized seafront hasn’t escaped this building trend. However, after the Holiday Inn and the Water Dog pub (with the photogenic sign of the famous Portuguese aquatic poodle) the promenade opens outs onto some pretty gardens that look out over the sea, at the end of which is an incongruous terracotta-coloured villa, that looks like it came from a pre-package tour era, and we could see the appeal of the place.

There is a long expanse of sandy beach which goes all the way from Praia dos Beijinhos eastwards to Praia da Galé and it marks the end of the imposing cliffs and cove beaches of the western Algarve. Looking to the west, the pretty little white chapel of Nossa Senhora da Rocha sitting atop a cliff is visible, alongside some of the most spectacular rock formations along this coast. Looking to the east the beaches of Praia de Armação de Pêra, Praia Grande de Pêra, Praia dos Salgados and Praia da Galé extend along the coast for as far as the eye can see. The beaches to the east of the town are wilder, with sand dunes and a wetland lagoon that I have described in A walk around Praia Grande de Pêra.

Truth be told there isn’t a lot to see in the town, but the parish church of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of Mariners), dating from 1960, is charming with pretty stained-glass windows, statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and wonderful wood carvings on the wall depicting the stations of the cross.

A little further along the promenade is a small section of the former sixteenth-century fort and the tiny chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos (Our Lady of the Afflicted Ones, also known as the Chapel of Santo António) dating from 1720 when Armação de Pêra was a small fishing community built up around the beach that is now known as Praia dos Pescadores (Fishermen’s Beach).

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Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos, Armação de Pêra

The word armação means ‘fishing net’ and this beach was where the fishermen from the nearby village of Pêra came to fish, hence the place being named Armação de Pêra. Praia dos Pescadores is still a working fishing beach with rows of fishermen’s huts, nets and boats.

Some of the boats are used for trips along the coast to see the cliffs of Senhora da Rocha, Albandeira, Praia da Marinha and Benagil. The streets around Praia dos Pescadores give a sense of what the village looked like before tourist development with traditional two-storey whitewashed houses along narrow cobbled streets. There were a few other small surprises during our walk around the back streets of Armação de Pêra which made me like the place more, including spotting a pretty circular bench covered in traditional tiles on Rua Bartolomeu Dias, just after stopping to admire a large mural entitled ‘Homo Sapien Space Captain’ painted on the exterior wall of a primary school.

Having taken part in the annual Christmas Day Santa Swim before looking around the town we were ready for lunch and decided to try the Olival Mar Beach Café overlooking the beach. We had a wonderful selection of freshly prepared tapas (smoked ham with melon, squid rings, octopus, garlic mushrooms and grilled pork slices) all washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice. The food was delicious and the portions were good and we were happy to pay the over-inflated €37 bill. It was Christmas Day after all!

Practicalities

Buses run to Armação de Pêra from many parts of the Algarve, including Albufeira, Lagoa, Portimão, Silves, Lagos and Faro. The Lisbon bus also stops here.

Olival Mar Beach Café, Praia Vale do Olival, Armação de Pêra (next to the car park at the western end of Armação de Pêra)

Algarve

Quinta de Marim, Olhão

Photo (747)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.

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Map of the Ria Formosa Natural Park

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.

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Prickly pear, Quinta de Marim, Olhão

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.

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Ria Formosa Recover and Wildlife Research Centre, Quinta de Marim, Olhão

For many people the main reason to visit the estate is to watch the birds in the salt marsh.

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Salt marsh, Quinta de Marim, Olhão

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!

Practicalities

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.

Algarve, Milreu - a Roman villa in the heart of the Algarve

Milreu – a Roman villa in the heart of the Algarve

Bath
Pool with mosaics, Milreu Roman villa

In contrast to the rococo extravagance of the Palácio de Estói, which has been immaculately restored and leaves little to the imagination, the Roman ruins of Milreu, the other main attraction on the outskirts of the village of Estói, requires quite a bit of imagination to picture how the site would have looked from the 1st to the 10th century AD when a villa stood there. Nowadays it is mainly only ground-level bricks that remain, but if you look closely there are few vestiges of the former villa. The site isn’t very big and it is amazing to think that early archaeologists mistook it for remains of the city of Ossonoba (which was on the site of what is now Faro, 8 km away). It wasn’t until the 1940s that two archaeologists identified Milreu as a large villa. The layout of the villa is still very evident and there was plenty of information around the site to help me understand what each area would have been used for.

Plan of villa
Plan of Milreu Roman villa

The villa was built around a large peristyle (a type of cloister) in which the water tank in the centre and two columns that surrounded the courtyard are still standing, but I was particularly drawn to the largely intact remains of the mosaic floor depicting marine creatures, which are thought to date from the 4th century AD. During this period a decorative style which had started in Rome made its way across the Roman Empire and wealthy Romans employed artists to create works in this style in marble, mosaic, ceramic and painted stucco. The mosaics that still exist at Milreu give us some idea of what the decorative style of the villa would have been like.

Also, still standing is the bathing complex, which comprised an apodyterium (changing room) of stone benches along a wall with a large number of niches underneath, presumably for people to store their clothes. A bathing pool had also withstood the test of time, with more wonderful fish mosaics lining it, also from the 4th century AD.

Due to its position near the Serra do Caldeirão mountains and the River Seco there was a good supply of clean water that they channelled from the mountain springs into the villa and dirty water from the kitchen, baths and latrines was removed via drains that ran downhill to the river. The villa was totally self-sufficient: they grew their own vegetables, figs, olives and grapes and made their own wine. Part of the garden can be seen along the southern side of the house, which would have been where the entrance was. They even had their own forge where they made farming tools, nails and locks. A few remains can be seen in the museum.

Garden in the south wing
Garden of the south wing, Milreu Roman villa

Another important building that is still partially standing is the temple to the south of the villa which was dedicated to a water god. Information in the small museum gave more details about the temple and even had a scale model showing what it would have looked like when it was built in the 4th century AD, with columns around the outside and an apse at the southern end. Nowadays only the crumbling apse is still visible. The temple was believed to have been built by the owner of the villa in the 4th century AD as a private place to practice pagan worship, as by then Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. In later centuries it became a church and, during the Moorish rule, a mosque.

The villa was abandoned in the 10th century, possibly after it was destroyed in an earthquake. However, a farmhouse was built on the north-east corner of the site in the 15th century using some of the villa’s foundations and it was adapted into its present form of a large white building with a cylindrical watchtower on each corner in the 19th century.

Farmhouse
Farmhouse, Milreu Roman villa

To either side of this farmhouse are what would have been the working areas of the Roman villa, including an area of wine presses to one side and the atrium area, which included the kitchen, to the other. Interestingly the kitchen is nowhere near the triclinium (formal dining room), although the atrium opened onto the peristyle, the other end of which gave access to the triclinium.

As well as lots of insightful information about the structure of the villa and the life of the people who lived in it, the museum also contains copies of some of the busts that were discovered in the grounds of the villa, including Agrippina (the mother of Emperor Nero) and Emperor Hadrian, explaining that portrait sculptures were often a way of showing support for an emperor and were put on display in areas where they would be seen by visitors, such as the atrium, peristyle, gardens and bathing complex. The originals, dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries respectively, are now on display in the Museu Municipal de Faro.

Without the information that I had gathered in Milreu’s museum before stepping out into the site I would have probably walked around the site, seen piles of bricks and a few mosaics and instantly have forgotten it, but instead I left feeling as fascinated by the Roman period of Algarve history as I am by the more recent history.

Practicalities

Roman Ruins of Milreu, Rua de Faro, Estói

Entrance: €2

Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10.30am-1pm and 2pm-6.30pm (May-Sept); 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5pm (Oct-Apr). Closed 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 7 September and 25 December.

Bus from Faro to Estói: €3.30 per person one way (buses aren’t very frequent). It is a 10-minute walk from the centre of Estói.

Taxi from Faro to Milreu: €15 one way

Algarve, Palácio de Estói: a pink house with a colourful history

Palácio de Estói: a pink house with a colourful history

DSC00581It was a waiter at the Pousada Palácio de Estói who told us about the colourful history of the former stately home, which is grandiosely called a ‘palace’. The house, designed by the architect Domingos da Silva Meira in the early-nineteenth century, was originally built for Francisco do Carvalhal e Vasconcelos. It had fallen into a state of neglect after the last member of the Carvalhal e Vasconcelos family died, but a wealthy man called José Francisco da Silva acquired the house at the beginning of the twentieth century and restored it. Da Silva was made the Viscount of Estói and this is where versions of the truth become a little blurry. In some versions of the story he was given the title for restoring the house, but in our waiter’s version, a version that seems more likely, da Silva used the house as a place for his powerful friends to come and stay. He would organise parties where these men could meet women away from the watchful eyes of their wives and it was for these favours that he was made a viscount. The small summer houses and gazebos in the gardens, which would have made it easy for illicit rendezvous, support this story.

Whatever the truth is, there is nothing else quite like the Palácio de Estói in the Algarve region. The exterior of the house is pink with a bell tower and dome.DSC00675 Inside, the house is a fine example of rococo-style décor, from the ornate stucco ceilings, carved wood-panelled walls, frescos on the walls and ceilings depicting nymphs and cherubs, extravagant chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors and gilded furniture. There is even a small chapel.

The ornamentation continues in the gardens, to the point that there is so much going on it is hard to know where to look and attempting to describe it in words is almost impossible, but I shall try!

From the bar and restaurant area of the house a flight of stairs leads to a terrace with a formal garden from which there are lovely views of the Serra do Caldeirão mountains and the city of Faro. On the other side of a wall is the hotel swimming pool and along the top of the wall are busts of Portuguese heroes, including Vasco da Gama, Luís de Camões and Almeida Garrett. In the centre of the garden is a fountain with a cherub sitting on a dolphin. In two corners of the garden are two small charming summer houses with stained-glass windows, frescos and azulejo panels depicting pastoral scenes and to one side is a path flanked with pillars.

An ornate wrought-iron gate leads to a staircase which divides into two and descends to a lower terrace where, at the bottom of each staircase, you are welcomed by a statue of a nymph reclining against a coloured panel of tiles decorated with images of exotic birds and plants. Dominating this terrace is a fountain with four more nymphs and a cherub watched over by some gargoyles and to the side of the terrace is what appears to be a bandstand.

Another staircase, opulently decorated with azulejo panels depicting more nymphs and cherubs, leads to ground level where there is the pièce de résistance, a wonderful grotto with intricate wrought-iron gates at the three entrances, a mosaic floor and walls, statues of Venus and Diana and at the centre is a delightful replica of Antonio Canova’s early-nineteenth-century sculpture ‘The Three Graces’.

From here a path lined with trees and lavender plants leads into the rest of the garden, which includes a lovely grove of orange trees. At the far ends of the garden are two gazebos, far enough from the house to be perfect for secret assignations away from prying eyes! The house is surrounded by a relatively low wall but there is an incongruous ornate gate at the south-western end of the garden, through which in the past carriages would have entered. Nowadays the gate appears to be firmly locked and the only entrance is through the hotel reception.

Despite the work that da Silva put into restoring the house, subsequent owners did not maintain it and by the time Faro Municipal Council acquired it in 1987 it had fallen into a state of disrepair. Eventually, it was restored under the direction of the architect Gonçalo Byrne and financed by the Portuguese tourist office and it became a pousada (a state-owned hotel in a building of historical interest managed by the Pestana hotel chain) in 2009. The original part of the house and the gardens are open to non-guests, but we decided to go for the full experience and treated ourselves to a night in the hotel. The accommodation, swimming pool and spa are in a completely new section built to the side of the original house, but it has been designed in such a way that it doesn’t impinge on the original building either from the inside or the outside. The three former reception rooms (Salão Verde, Salão Nobre and Salão Estói) are still used for socializing as there are sofas and armchairs in all of these rooms and the bar opposite serves drinks, snacks and even afternoon tea here. Dinner and breakfast are served in the restaurant next to the original kitchen, which still has the original cooker and cooking utensils on display.DSC00682

The modern part of the hotel is a complete contrast to the original building, but somehow it works. Our room was large with two double beds pushed together. It was on the lower ground floor, which, due to the way the hotel has been built into the hill, meant that we had to go down two flights of stairs from the reception, but it also meant we had a little terrace with a table and two chairs facing onto a patch of grass, although our room was a bit too low to have a view.DSC00596 As it was late December I didn’t use the outdoor swimming pool, but I did make use of the spa, which had a very small pool with a Jacuzzi at one end, a sauna, a Turkish bath, a tropical shower with water jets and, in a room opposite, a few gym machines. There was a wonderful view of the sun setting over Faro from here and, best of all, I had the entire spa to myself.

After it got dark we went for a walk around the grounds and got a different perspective of the ornamentation in the floodlights. The artificial light allowed us to focus on the main sculptures without all the extraneous details coming into view. It wasn’t better, just different.

We then decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, O Visconde, as it advertised gourmet regional cuisine. The food was good and each dish was a decent size, but it wasn’t cheap. We started with the regional couvert of bread, olives and olive oil, which also came with an unexpected amuse bouche. We then opted for a regional tasting snack starter which comprised sardines and roasted red peppers on toast, asparagus wrapped in smoked ham with poached quail egg, figs stuffed with cheese mousse, chilli and olives, and fried squid with garlic and coriander. They were all delicious and gave us an opportunity to try local dishes we wouldn’t normally order. For the main course Neil ordered the cataplana porco which was pork loin with sweet potato, chouriço sausage and clams cooked in a cataplana (a traditional metal cooking utensil) and I opted for tagliatelle served with grilled vegetables (not a regional speciality and in retrospect I wish I had ordered the vegetarian cataplana, which, if not authentic, would have been an interesting variation on a traditional theme). For dessert, as it was a few days after Christmas, the hotel was offering a dessert buffet of traditional Portuguese Christmas desserts at no extra charge and although we were stuffed we couldn’t resist trying treats such as bolo rei, filhós, sonhos, aletria and rabanadas, among many others. A bottle of one of the cheaper wines on the wine list (at €19) washed it all down nicely.

We retired to the Salão Nobre for a nightcap and found ourselves alone in this sumptuous room, as all the other guests had retired to their rooms. It was almost possible to image what it must have been like to have been a guest in this house in its heyday and nearly 100 years after his death José Francisco da Silva’s presence is still very much felt. It may have been the wine or the fact that there was no one else about, but for a moment I thought I saw him poking his head round the door to make sure we were having a good time. We were!  DSC00748

Practicalities

Pousada Palácio de Estói, Rua de São José, Estói https://www.pousadas.pt/en/hotel/pousada-estoi

One night in a double room, including breakfast and use of the spa: €114 (late December 2017)

Dinner (couvert, two starters, two main courses and a bottle of wine): €86

Bus from Faro to Estói: €3.30 per person one way (buses aren’t very frequent)

Taxi from Faro to the Palácio de Estói: €16.75 one way

 

 

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.

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 unable 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 is 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, Wine and sculptures at Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate, Estômbar

Wine and sculptures at Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate, Estômbar

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pic (221)As we approached the Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate on foot from Estômbar, we were greeted with the sight of life-size colourful bears doing handstands among the vines and a curvaceous red giantess standing on the top of a hill. We knew we had arrived. The estate is no ordinary winery, but also a renowned sculpture park, where the owner, Karl Heinz Stock, displays his and other artists’ grand sculptures of elephants, bears, hippos, birds and unfashionably Rubenesque dancers.

Many of the works are for sale and, for people who want to try their hand at making something in the arts-and-crafts-line themselves, workshops are held at certain times. Images of some of the sculptures have made their way onto the labels of the estate’s wine bottles, including the company’s logo of the Sirens from a work ‘Legends of the Seas’ by Fachraddin Rzaev.pic (117) We were happy wandering around the grounds on our own (although we did notice a group of visitors on a guided tour of the grounds), moving from one area of sculptures to another, past a barbecue area, a swimming pool and an outdoor eating area

I fell in love with the kissing hippos in a pond surrounded by blue, purple, green and red naked women floating on the water.pic (161) We finally arrived at an area of sculptures by Ivan Ulmann, whose work is prolific throughout the estate, which included small elephants painted to illustrate the parables which are printed on the accompanying information boards, such as ‘The Day an Elephant Crossed the Land of Plenty’, and another of my favourite sculptures in the grounds, the ‘Love Car’, an old car completely covered with mosaic tiles.

As we walked through the grounds we passed fruit trees with oranges, lemons and plums waiting temptingly to be picked.pic (136) Dotted around the 44-hectare estate we took a sneaky peek at some of the accommodation that can be rented, including a lovely villa, a cottage and apartments, and decided that it would make a wonderful location for a peaceful holiday, a wedding or a very special party.pic (176)

We discovered a large area of animal pens hidden away at one end of the estate, with geese, sheep and goats. The geese were noisy and keen to make their presence felt, while the group of sheep and goats were running around the grounds acting very camera-shy. We finally caught up with them in the orange grove.

But it was the wine that we really went to the Quinta dos Vales for, having already tasted a bottle of the Marquês dos Vales white wine at the Lagoa Jazz Festival. Vines have been grown on the estate since the 1980s, when commercial wine production in the Algarve began and vines can be seen growing for as far as the eye can see, including grape varieties such as Syrah, Verdelho, Aragonês, Arinto, Touriga Nacional, Castelão and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Quinta produces two labels: the aforementioned award-winning Marquês dos Vales and a new range of fruity, uncomplicated wines on the Dialog label (look out for the kissing hippos, elephants and bears on the labels). Finally we got to try some wines, opting for a solo tasting, which for the bargain price of €5 allowed us to taste four glasses of wine from the Marquês dos Vales label. A leaflet of tasting notes was provided. The glasses were arranged on an ingenious holder that allowed us to safely carry three glasses to the secluded seating area, where we sat back to enjoy the Duo White 2015, the Duo Rosé 2016 and the Elegant Grace 2012. The Duo White was a blend of Verdelho and Arinto grapes and was light with a citrus flavour. It was very refreshing on that hot day. The Duo Rosé was a blend of Touriga Nacional and Castelão grapes. It was pale pink in colour and had a strong floral perfume. It was a young wine with a slightly sharp flavour. The Elegant Grace was a red wine made of a blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Aragonês grapes. It was a light and acidic with a garnet-red colour. Finally, we were served a glass of the Licoroso Red 2010 made with Touriga Nacional grapes. This was a fortified wine with a cherry aroma and a smooth, berry flavour. It reminded of the cherry liqueur ginjinha that I have drunk and enjoyed in Lisbon. Luckily neither of us was driving, so we were able to enjoy all of the wines knowing a taxi would take these two tipsy people back to Carvoeiro.

Practicalities

Quinta dos Vales Wine Estate, Sítio dos Vales, Estômbar

Opening hours: October to April Monday-Friday 9am-6pm; May to September Monday-Saturday 9am-6pm. Entrance to the grounds is free.

Tastings (as of June 2017): a solo wine tasting is €5 for 4 glasses. For an extra €9.90 per person they will provide regional snacks such as bread, cheese, ham, pâté, and olives. A private tour of the winery and cellar costs €29.90, plus €6 per person for a guided wine tasting with bread and olive oil.

By public transport: the Faro-Lagos train stops at Estômbar railway station or the Lagoa-Portimão bus stops in front of the station. It is a 10-15-minute walk from the station. Follow the sign on the signpost opposite the station to Quinta dos Vales.

Algarve, Silves - a Moorish legacy

Silves – a Moorish legacy

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Silves Cathedral and Castle, Silves

Silves appeared to be asleep when we stepped off the bus on the riverfront road. As we walked along the riverfront past the market and the smoky outdoor-grill restaurants to the charming white thirteenth-century Ponte Romana (Roman Bridge), which crosses the River Arade, there was still nothing to dispel the thought that Silves was a pretty, but unexceptional small Algarvean city. Tour operators run boat trips up the River Arade from Portimão to Silves, but the water level was very low on the hot June day that we were there and I couldn’t see how a boat would make it as far as Silves. The river played an important role in the history of Silves. The Phoenicians established a port there around 1000 BC, followed by the Romans (who named the city Silbis) and then the Moors, who turned Xelb (the Arabic name for Silves) into a thriving city of artists and artisans. The city lost its importance when the river silted up.

 

A short walk from the Ponte Romana we stumbled across some magnificent gardens, which raised Silves above the level of an ordinary small city. The Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad is a peaceful park with a tranquillity pool containing calming sculptures, created by António Quina in 2001, honouring the Arabic people who lived in Xelb during the time of Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, an eleventh-century governor of Xelb, by depicting scenes of their daily life. The statues are incorporated into the reflective pool and the pastel colours of the marble and stone of which they are made blend with the water, making them look like reflections. There are two seated figures, one of whom could be Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad (who was also a poet and is considered to be among the best of the Andalusian poets), observing the other figures. Placed in the water are tablets made of steel with Arabic writing engraved on them. The whole scene is very meditative. Further in the tree-lined gardens are fountains and benches. Apart from someone walking their dog, surprisingly there was no one else about.

 

From the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad we climbed a steep cobbled street to discover Silves’ Moorish past. Silves today is a complete contrast to the Silves of the 11th century, when it was the capital of al-Gharb, the Arabic name for the Algarve region which was under Moorish rule from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. Xelb was a walled city with an outer wall protecting the centre. We entered the historical centre through a very narrow doorway, the Torreão da Porta da Cidade (Turret of the City Gate), a surviving section of the twelfth- or thirteenth-century outer fortification, which leads from the Praça do Município, a charming square which houses the city hall and still has a pillory at one end. Once we passed through the Torreão da Porta da Cidade the noise and bustle contrasted with the peacefulness of the riverfront. So, this is where all the tourists were!

 

It was a short walk to Silves Cathedral. Built on the site of the former Grand Mosque in the thirteenth century, it is an austere building, cool and dark inside with rose-pink granite columns. The cathedral was the bishopric until 1577 when it was moved to Faro. It still has tombs of former bishops, along with crusaders who died during the battle against the Moors.

 

From here we walked to Silves Castle, with its distinctive red sandstone walls, which can be seen from miles away and which is one of the best-preserved castles in the region. During the Moorish period the castle housed the governor of city, including the aforementioned Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad. There is not much evidence of the castle interior left, except for a huge vaulted water cistern, intriguingly named Cisterna da Moura Encantada (Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl) after the legend that at midnight on the festival of St John a Moorish princess who has been put under a spell appears in the cistern in a silver boat with golden oars looking for the prince who can break the spell. At the entrance to the castle is a large statue of King Sancho I, the Portuguese king associated with the Christian recapture of Silves from the Moors. In 1189 he gathered an army of Portuguese soldiers and crusaders to invade the city. It is believed that the population of 30,000 took refuge in the castle and managed to survive due to the water in the cistern. Eventually, when the water ran out, they agreed to meet with King Sancho I, who promised they would be safe if they allowed the city to pass over to his control, but he had also promised the crusaders the spoils of war and they ransacked the city, killing 6000 Moors. Although the Moors won back the city in 1191, they been weakened to the point that the city fell to the Christians in 1249. On a lighter note, from the castle walls we got wonderful views of the surrounding fields of orange, almond and carob trees; all of which are a legacy of the Moors. Silves celebrates its Moorish past every year in August when it holds a Medieval Festival in the historic centre, the streets leading from there and the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, which lasts 10 days and includes parades with people dressed in Moorish costumes, jousting and street entertainment, market stalls and street food and even a banquet in the grounds of the castle. A fee to enter the historic centre is charged on these days, but I am told it is worth it.

 

From the castle it was a short walk to the Archaeological Museum. The museum contains a variety of objects found in the Silves area dating back to pre-historic times. The highlight is a well-preserved well dating from Moorish times, around which the museum has been built. It was only discovered in 1980 and is the focal point of the museum. After a much-needed cool drink in a small café in Largo Jerónimo Osório, near the cathedral, we walked back down Rua do Cemitério past the entrance to the municipal cemetery, heading to the eastern outskirts of the city, where we discovered a large cross on a piece of wasteland on the side of the N124. The Cruz de Portugal (Cross of Portugal), which depicts the crucifixion of Christ and the descent from the cross in a mixture of Gothic and Manueline styles, is a late-fifteenth/early sixteenth-century symbol which was placed on routes of pilgrimage. It is believed to have been donated to the city by Manuel I as a thank you for interring the body of João II at Silves cathedral before his body was taken away for burial at Batalha. Not realising how far from the bus terminus we were we had a hurried walk back to the riverfront road to catch our bus back to Lagoa, which I’m pleased to say, we caught!

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Cruz de Portugal, Silves

Practicalities

Silves can be reached by bus from Albufeira, Armação de Pêra, Lagoa and Portimão – the bus terminus is near the market on the riverfront – and by train from Faro and Lagos (the Algarve line) – the railway station is 2km south of the city.

Silves Cathedral (Sé de Silves), Rua da Sé, Silves. Open to the public Monday to Friday 9am-5pm (except public holidays).

Silves Castle, Rua do Castelo, Silves. Open April, May, September and October 9am-8pm; June to August 9am-10pm; November to March 9am-5.30pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance costs €2.80 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.

Silves Archaeological Museum (Museu Municipal de Arqueologia de Silves), Rua da Porta de Loulé, Silves. Open daily 10am-6pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance €2.10 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.

(Times and prices as of June 2017.)