I had always thought that my “O” post would be about Obidos, a medieval walled town in Central Portugal that stole my heart a couple of years ago. But much has already been written about this tiny, charismatic place, so, with my Algarve affinity, it seemed better to introduce you to somewhere local and lesser known. (Unless, of course, you are a biker?) Welcome to Olhão!
From its situation on the Ria Formosa, it was always obvious that Olhão would make a fine fishing port, but for many years its growth was resisted by neighbouring administrator Faro, who wanted to keep fishing rights to itself. Autonomy was persistently refused and even permission to build a simple stone house. Hamlet status was finally achieved in 1765 and Olhão formed a self-supporting “Maritime Commitment”. Both before and since, it has been inseparable from the sea.
The natives of Olhão were never ones to run from a fight, and they occupy a special place in Portuguese history. The first successful uprising against French occupation took place here on 16th June 1808, and was the beginning of the expulsion of the Napoleonic army. The Portuguese king, João VI, was at that time exiled in Brazil. A group of fishermen from Olhão set sail across the Atlantic, in a simple fishing boat, to bring the news of the French defeat to their king. In recognition of this, Olhão was rewarded with village status.
A replica of the caique, Bom Sucesso (Good Fortune), sits modestly on the waterfront.
The town’s growth was enabled by a large spring or olho de agua (eye of water), for which the town was named, Olhão meaning big eye. The arrival of a tuna factory, and fish preserving industry, transformed Olhão into a wealthy town, with fine merchant’s homes. The fishing industry declined, of course, but today Olhão is again doing battle with Faro, attempting to lure away a little of the lucrative tourist trade.
If you’ve seen any of my previous Algarve posts, you might know that a large part of the attraction of Olhão is the access it gives to the islands of the lagoon, Armona and Culatra, paradise for beach lovers. From the harbour there is a lengthy promenade overlooking the marina. In the centre of this stand distinctive twin market halls, one for fish, the other fruit and vegetables. On Saturday mornings the market spills out onto pavement stalls in a flurry of activity. Remember the bikers? In July, when the Bike Festival arrives in Faro, the overflow spreads along the waterfront gardens in Olhão till there’s barely a blade of grass to be seen.
The other time when Olhão is exceptionally busy is when the Seafood Festival takes place, around the second week in August. The smell of sardines mingles with the sound of Fado and a great time is had by all. The waterfront is usually closed to traffic at this time, creating a little havoc in getting around.
To this day, I can get lost in the maze of streets behind the waterfront. Olhão is unique in the Algarve in that it has cube-shaped Moorish style houses which do not, in fact, date from the occupation of the Moors. They are instead the result of the town’s fishing and trading activities with the countries of North Africa. Try to visit Nossa Senhora do Rosario, the town’s main church, situated just behind this warren of streets. Igreja Pequena, the Little Church, was the first stone building in Olhão, and this is the second. Both were financed by the efforts of the local fishermen, at that time living in little more than mud huts themselves. The view from the Bell Tower reveals the special construction of the cubist houses.
White stone steps lead up to a second small roof terrace, the mirante, traditionally used by fishermen to evaluate the marine conditions before going to sea. The women of the house go up there to watch for them. A chapel at the rear of the main church is open day and night, to pray for their safe return.
Approaching Olhão along the EN125, the urban sprawl is not at all attractive. You might never think that this world existed. But take the trouble to dip down to the waterfront, and you will find an Olhão with real character.
Just before I finish, I should mention Quinta de Marim. 2kms east of Olhão, just off the EN125, on the Ria Formosa a link to the Roman occupation of the Algarve can be witnessed. A tidal mill overlooks fish salting tanks and the salinas for producing salt, which were a very important industry in Roman times. Today it’s an education centre and a very soothing spot from which to witness the natural world.
If you have enjoyed this piece, you might like to take a look at some of my other personal A-Z’s. The original idea came from Julie Dawn Fox, a fine writer who lives in Central Portugal. Click on the header or the links to see what’s out there.