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!