Faro is so much more than just a convenient airport for the Algarve. A colourful history, some fascinating museums and churches and the extraordinary Ria Formosa national park make the city well worth a visit – and you may even spot a stork.
A taste of the ‘real’ Algarve
A visit to Faro, capital city of the Algarve, is enjoyable on many levels, not least because it is very much a ‘real’ living city rather than a custombuilt, seasonal tourist resort. The streets may be bustling with people and noisy with cars and motorcycles but this simply reflects Faro’s vitality, while faded but elegant buildings and lovely curving balconies hint at a rich history. The city is very obviously a place of work, a place of study (making for a lively nightlife during university term times) and a place to live as well as a target to visit for those in the know. Join the throng in Faro’s tree-lined squares, shops, cafés and restaurants, admire the mosaic paving, enjoy the atmosphere of the old city and wander around the attractive harbour.
Faro’s history is evident in its Arab and Roman ruins and Roman walls encircling the old city. For five hundred years until 1249 Faro was a Moorish trading port... until Dom Afonso III ousted the Arab colonisers. In 1532 the city suffered the first of two catastrophic earthquakes, the second occurring in 1756. This destroyed much of the town and reconstruction provided some graceful city buildings. Christian crusaders also left their mark on the city, sacking it in the late sixteenth century en route to the Holy Land. The Earl of Essex, one of these crusaders, appropriated the library of the Bishop of Faro and the beautiful volumes remain to this day in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Enter the old city through the eighteenth-century arched Arco da Vila gateway. Walk along Rua do Municipio until you reach the cobbled Largo da Sé with its Renaissance-style cathedral. Drop in to see its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century azulejos (decorative Portuguese tiles) and extraordinary painted organ. On your way out you’ll possibly spot a storks’ nest in the belltower. Behind the cathedral, on the Praça Afonso III, stands the old Convento de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, a 16th century convent housing the Museu Municipal de Faro, the city’s archaeological museum. The museum has some fascinating exhibits including a 10-yard long Roman mosaic of Neptune that was found in a dig in Faro in 1976. Two other museums of note are the Museu Regional do Algarve, the regional ethnographic museum with its collection of Algarvian handicrafts, and the small Museu Maritimo, the Maritime Museum with an exhibition of scale-model fishing boats and galleons.
In the west part of the old town, on Largo do Carmo, stands the Igreja do Carmo, or Carmo Church with an impressive façade of twin bell towers and painted balustrade. Inside you’ll find ornate eighteenth-century gilded woodwork and some beautiful painted statues. Outside, to one side of the church’s small cemetery stands the gruesomely fascinating Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), its walls and ceiling lined with the bones and skulls of over 1,200 monks. Their remains were disinterred and moved here from the cemetery in 1816.
Storks and wading birds
It’s unsurprising that Faro’s symbol is the stork. Whenever you look upwards in the city, whether to rooftop, church spire or arched city gateway, you’re likely to spot a remarkably large nest – possibly with one of these gracious birds perched atop it. You’ll soon also discover that storks may be mute but they have the disconcerting habit of ‘clattering’ their bills to gain attention, or presumably to chat among themselves. While storks favour rooftops, migrating birds of many other species, including flamingos and herons, flock to the Faro area, attracted by the salt lagoons of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, an extensive nature reserve of over 17,000 hectares just west of the city. As night falls the sun setting over the salt flats and water channels is a remarkable sight.
In daytime the summer sun in Faro’s extraordinarily intense blue sky can reflect almost unbearably off the city’s dazzling white walls. Winters are cooler and ideal for strolling the streets, wandering around the marina or simply lingering at merchants’ stalls.
If searching for something typical to take home, on stalls and in the city’s many shops, both simple and smart, you’ll find a wide range of goods, from embroidered tablecloths and woodcarvings to the ubiquitous coloured tiles – an art that can be traced back to Moorish times.
Feast on fish
Another great pleasure in Faro is sampling the local produce. There are many reasonably priced restaurants and, as you’d expect, fish looms large. Typical dishes include bacalhau, salt cod, caldeirada, a thick fish stew, arroz de mariscos, rice with shellfish, amêijoas, clams (sometimes cooked with pork) and charcoalgrilled sardinhas, sardines – absolutely delicious...
There’s also fiery chicken piri-piri and many other tasty dishes, some using pork, others perhaps rabbit or kid. The choices are so numerous that you may decide to let the chef choose for you – just order the parto do dia (dish of the day) and a glass of vinho de casa (house wine).
As well as all this, it seems the Moors left the Algarvians the legacy of an extremely sweet tooth and you may find yourself unable to resist trying one or other of the many little cakes on sale – the most delicious of all surely being the pastéis de nata (small, golden baked custard tartlets in paper-thin flaky pastry) – so unbelievably delicious you’ll probably want two...