Portugal's Finest - The Unfound Fishing Town of Olhao
I woke and muttered to myself 'Ola June'
It’s Friday, 23rd January 2015, and I have RESFEBER (the restless race of a traveller's heart before the journey begins. when anxiety and anticipation are entangled together; it’s a travel's fever that could manifest as an illness) but I am not ill because it’s my first European jaunt this year. I am actually euphoric because I found myself later that day in Porto!(Portugal).
As I haven't really scratched the surface of Southern Europe, this destination seemed like a warm-ish location to spend a long weekend in the middle of winter. I tend to find any excuse to travel. Any! It’s one thing I can confidently say drives me to be an opportunist.
Travelling and exploring culture is what I live for and I get my kick from this. My beloved sister says I am a' travel junkie'. I accept. My excuse for this trip, along with my travel buddy, was my brother, Tom, whose birthday happened to be on Sunday, 25th of that weekend.
So we planned of a long beautiful weekend away from cold, gloomy miserable English weather- and I kinda suspected it could be perfect.
The reason and my choice of destination stems from my love to be non-conformist and individualist with my choices! No one I knew had heard of this town in the Algarve region. It surprised me further that a friend who lived in Portugal for many years had not heard of it.
I then quickly decided to declare this the town ‘my’ found, untouched, unseen, secret and special run away haven. (After Uzes` in the Southern Provence of France). One would think I just travel to find unseen towns in Europe, eh? Its part of the deal.
Anyway, nuff of me
So we arrive Faro Aeroport at 16:32 WET (Western European Time) and it’s about 8 degrees...and I am like- what?! No please, you have to be at least in double freaking figures...I became deflated, nostalgic!
BA crew announce landing and we are told that the Portuguese authorities require each passenger arriving Faro to obtain an information leaflet. I wondered what that was about. It was a declaration form to determine if one had been to West Africa in the last three months to complete for tests of the Ebola virus. C'mon now? I thought. Could this possibly be the best form of safeguard of a deadly virus which this government could come up with?
So much for managing infection control...
We take a cab and head to the Hotel Marina (in my beautiful discovery of an unseen town called Olhao). By the way, I pronounced this in an almost pure English fashion almost like Ohio but with a lingering "l" and I was immediately corrected by our taxi driver, Mr Coelho Simao, that it’s actually pronounced oyal-ow. It's almost like the 'L' is silent but it isn’t. It’s a ‘linking L’. This reminded me of a Nigerian pidgin lingua used by the Western
Nigerians called "oya oh" meaning "already now". It made me smile.
Linguistics is a bitch!
As we drive out of Faro towards the Algarve, we make conversation about London, the weather and all that nonsense and Coelho makes calculated recommendations of places to go and those not to. He specifically said, "Please do not visit Kinkash Restaurant, I had a bad tummy experience after eating fish and sea food there". I chuckled. He spoke with a sort of mixed and almost confused accent of French and Portuguese. Coelho is French born but migrated to Portugal when he was a child. He was pleasant.
He specifically advised to visit the Lighthouse Island otherwise known as the ''Faroul" and advised we could also have evening walks around the town and the popular Saturday fish and fruit market by the Marina with local traders selling freshly harvested oranges, mandarins, potatoes etc. I became even more excited at the thought of my typical and ideal Rural European weekend break.
We arrive the hotel and the staff are brilliantly polite and welcoming. Again, local and yay, they speak English too! Isn't it refreshing to go abroad and not feel like you are in England?! Get the kicks from that local touch and suck it all in! We felt at home immediately.
Real Marina is by Portugal's standards, a 5 *****Star Hotel and Spa and both interior and exterior looked like the property had been newly refurbished but it hadn't. The lift was all glass; the lobby had soft furnishings and shiny new tiles. We head to our lovely, cosy double bedded room on the 4th floor (the penultimate floor to the pent house). Ha!
We had ‘a view’ not a room with sea view. I was almost tempted to upgrade to a room with sea view which overlooked the Marina but then I thought – best to check before doing so. We actually did have a tad view of the Marina - However, I have to add that it came with an odd body position of an obvious twist of one's neck and head, with the torso almost falling off the balcony rail to get a proper view, east of the hotel.
My brother worked the night shift the night before and we had headed to Gatwick at 9:30am to catch a 13:00hrs flight so he had no sleep and was suddenly grumpy! He needed sleep...I didn't!
I let him sleep for a couple of hours while I indulged with the room, bathroom, our little private balcony, the premises of the hotel etc. I fell in love with this town. After three hours, I am famished so I speak to reception to find out where the best places to eat around this beautiful fishing town.
My dear friend, Carlos, a local (and hotel receptionist) whom I had a short holiday crush on and who was extremely kind and pleasant to me, but also terribly handsome ("in -a –Brazilian-'Leandro' -kind -of -way -and very tanned with a shade of light bronze which made his skin glow) explained that the best place to eat seafood and who served the best food in Olhao was a couple of minutes' walk from the hotel just facing the Marina. It was called 'Horta'! My mouth waters, so I rush back up, wake the brother and say, "Please we must get food or I may pass out in a minute"...he tosses and turns for ages and finally with no patience for B.S, I wake him with some sprinkles of cold water on the face :)
There is something about being abroad on holiday and having a bigger crave/appetite for food and alcohol. I cannot understand it. Perhaps, the body has switched from its 'crazy city (in this case*London) Rat Race clock’- to a 'relaxed, holiday mood, chilled-out' clock and the brain transmits this message to the stomach walls, no?
We head to Horta and to our amazement but anguish; the bloody restaurant was shut for improvement works. Damn! (I slurred in an American accent).
Tommy is staring at me and me at him, wondering, eat in hotel or eat out? So we keep walking and wandering and bump into a couple of places. This town is so quiet by the way and not so rural but borderline urban-rural and I loved that dichotomous nature of it.
We arrived at a Tapas restaurant called Terra I Mai just after the local Police Station where we anticipated could be good. There were more people there than there were anywhere else and we were invited in but almost immediately, was then told to wait at the door entrance whilst they verified seating capacity. Duh!? Unfortunately, they were all reserved!! So we went back to a restaurant called Sabores do Churrasco a couple of blocks from Terra I Mai and settled for it.
I later found that the lively, small local restaurant often packed most evenings called Terra I Mai was one of the best lounges, restaurants/ bars of the town and had a daily live band. If you love tapas you will love here.
The people of Olhao are very lovely and welcoming I must say. As a British- African tourist, I find that a lot of times, I go to European small unseen rural towns, I get a lot of impolite stares. This was different. Perhaps, maybe because this town had a predominant elderly demographic.
We got in settled to a table by the wine wooden stack, and immediately got some locally baked bread , butter and (a new one) fish pate!!!. (Oh, I forgot, we are in a fishing town) My mouth watered and I dug in immediately and cleared it all. Ooops, was that very obvious, I thought?
We had Vinho do Porto or in my translation I kept calling it (Porto rouge du vin (red wine) which in itself is very exclusive to the Portuguese and made local at the Northern provinces of Portugal. It often has a lovely sweet and dry flavour and it went down well already with our starters. We ordered sea food rice (duh!) which arrived in a large pot (no, a bucket!) with the soup floating on the top which wasn’t what I expected but was glad it came that way as Olhao was already cold and had wondered with my brother whether it was a wise choice of destination after all, given the current weather. The dish had every form of sea food in this world! Don’t ask me what happened 10 minutes later!
We watched a live jazz performance followed by performance by (I suspect) a Spanish guitarist -whilst having dinner. It was amazing. I think I could hear some Brits across our table but never really minded-as long as they weren’t several of them there. It makes it feel more like a holiday away from home when you don’t find lots of Brits in one place. Sorry!.
After my seafood rice served as a soup in a pail, really hot , it followed with a local dessert called talga natas. Its base is whipped cream topped with crushed cookies, yum! Its like the opposite of a cheese cake eh? Tommy then randomly ordered meat!!! Yes, MEAT! (I was saying to him, that’s rather random, you have just eaten a three course meal) He then says "this sea food business isn't exactly working for me" so given that this restaurant was a steak/meat specialist- but made great sea food too, he decided to order some (take out) mixed platter of meats to indulge in when we arrive at the hotel with some beer!.
So we ordered a platter of grilled special meats and when I tasted it, it was yum, it was divine. They served this with some rice and beans and some baked bananas. A vegetarian could have murdered him at the sight of that meal!
We head back to the room to relax and whizzed through the TV channels but everything was in Portuguese and we only had MTV in English. We settled. Wifi strength wasn’t great in the room but so weirdly strong in the bathroom so to communicate with loved ones, I had to sit on the toilet seat or the bathroom floor to chat or use apps which required internet.
I head down to check what happens exclusively at the hotel. I have a restless mind to dig for culture and find everything I can when I am abroad. I found the hotel plays Jantar Com Fado Ao Vivo which (means dinner with Fado) every Sundays from 20.30 - 22.30 at €30 with drinks from the hotel's selection. They also serve cocktails and snacks (Aberto todos os dias) daily from 19.00- 01.00.
We already had too much food and wine. I contemplate we could try it on Sunday...
I eventually fall asleep.
It’s Saturday morning. We head down for a lovely local fresh selection of breakfast consisting of fresh fruit, fresh Danish bakery and local bread selections, cereals, cooked breakfast etc. Yum! We indulge and Tommy then heads to the gym while I head up to speak to my family and think of what to do. I am not someone who plans so I tend to be spontaneous when I travel.
I thought this was the best day to explore; the sun was out though it wasn’t as warm as expected but better than Friday when we arrived. It was about 13 degrees or so. I got dressed, head down and buy tickets from the tour companies stalls sitting at the front desk of reception. I planned to have a boat cruise to the Ria Formosa and Culatra Islands. This was the core highlight of this town. Apparently, the Farmosa is considered to be a humid zone of world interest.
Tickets cost €25 each but one must cruise as a group for that price. We didn’t have anyone join within two hours of take-off so was advised that its either we got our refund back or hire the entire boat (privately!) and as no one turned up, we paid €75 in total and ended up on a privately hired boat...but we needed to wait for take-off time at 11:00am.
It's about 9:30am and I am dressed and restless, I remember it’s the Olhao Saturday fruits and fish market - (you come out of the hotel doors and smell fresh sea air, I was so content) so we head to the flea market and walk through different stalls of the local traders to the very end of the market path. We buy bits and bobs.
We head back for 11:00am and start our tour from the Marina right across the hotel. We start North of the River towards the Ria Formosa (which means the beautiful river- but as Ria is gender specific to females, its indeed regarded in that light). We sail through to the boat with the "eye" which has some significance to Olhao's strength and resilience during the time of the 16th C during Brazil's colonization of Porto. You could also sight the markets from this angle.
The tides were 3.4 at about midday, so we were told. We sail towards the Japanese Boats parked at the East of the Marina. The Japanese are known to trade and export sea food from Olhao to Japan in heavy export quantities. The Ria Formosa sea food farms produce up to 80% of bi valves shells. The local sea farmers tend to clean the farms in seasons and spread sea food babies around this island for growth and cultivation. The difference between this kind of farming and traditional contemporary farming is the collection of sea food babies and reproduction of them, transcending in quality and revolving of the soil. The locals use red bags to collect them :) I saw all of these with a binocular whist sailing on the boat. I was amazed. It was an education!
We head to municipalities of Tavira, then Culutra and the Deserta Island where I hear Christian Ronaldo hangs out for lunch on summer holidays when he is back home- (many locals repeatedly referred to this- so it became a consistent rumour).
We also sail through Fuseta beaches, East of the Island, Armona beaches, West of the Island- there we spotted the Cormorant birds. Oh, I forgot to mention, Ria Formosa is an amazing nature park for all sorts of birds on the planet. You can find up to 300 species of birds in this beautiful uncovered place. One of its popular qualities known by few tourists is bird watching. I can confidently say I saw at least 15 species of birds in the space of two hours.
We arrive Culatra Island and Jaime, (Jamie in English) our amazing tour guide/Helmsman, thought it would nice to give us some beach experience. He anchored our boat at the dock and made a call to pre-order our lunch. Tommy and I picked shells. I love picking shells and taking long walks on beaches. We head off after 15 mins and I spot Oyster Catchers (these are specialist sea birds by the way) with red long beaks. I hear from Jaime (lovely man) that sea horses are seen there sometimes too.
We are told that drowning chambers (otherwise known as the sea bull fight- quite similar to pitfall traps) are planted in the waters to catch Tuna sometimes worth up to 70 kilos, often by the Japanese. They have features of metallic nets that capture the Tunas as I learned and could be dangerous to human life.
Apparently, they are often injected when caught or killed with a shot gun (I shrivelled at the thought of this) We eat all of these exotic fancy sea food but we are often not aware that they sometimes undergo the same inhumane painful process as meat animals. I wondered if there had Halal fish at that instant. I also wondered whether the concept and philosophy of wild life and conservation was not such a great idea after all. Anyway, lets save that argument for another day.
Anyway, we arrive Culatra village, home of the local fishermen. This village has about a maximum of 1000 residents living here with 30 extended families and 400 nuclear families. It’s a village of close knitted families. It reminded me of my father's village back home and how they had tight knitted clans and kinships.
We came out of the boat, went to the Café Resturante O Janoca, owned by a local called Timothy. Our tour guide, Jaime, he is lovely , (I had to repeat that again) had pre-ordered us grilled sea breams and sea bass as this takes a while to cook with *the way they grill it* so we didn’t have to wait ages to head back to Olhao. We walk in whist the boat is anchored to the dock.
Tommy and I are filled with so much overwhelming exhilaration for this place coupled with the fact that Tommy drove the boat half the time during our travel here. He loved it! The fresh sea breeze, the blue skies, the sun rays, the birds, the gentle tides, the couple on the boat who waved at us and all those beautiful memories will remain with him and me for eternity.
We swayed along on the white sands towards the Janoca and spotted a church, Gaviao e Atalaia and the café was right opposite it. We walked in and are greeted and welcomed. Timothy was expecting us. He introduces himself as Timothy with an air of authority and pride and I guessed he was either the manager or the owner of this place. Eventually, I found he was.
We sat and we are served again, with bread, butter and fish pate. Tommy has a cold bottle of (Sangres) beer and whilst I cant decide on what to drink due to my indecisive tendencies when I am faced with a world of choice, Timothy suggests I tried the locally made Porto sparkling green wine.
I didn't know what to expect but I trusted that sparkling wine (whether green or orange) with sea bream did go well together. The wine came and I died! It was divine and I started to get tipsy after 3 glasses. Tasted like no wine I had ever had (and I have had a lot of good wines) So we had the best grilled fish I had eaten in a very long time (other than when I return home). It was properly grilled with pan crusted edges but soft, white and fresh on the inside and very tasty and we ordered more because we couldn’t get enough!
Whist we waited for more fish to arrive, Jaime is vegetarian, and so ordered potatoes and veg and whilst that was been prepared, heads out with some locals to fetch oysters. Jaime returns with a bunch of oysters and opens them there, as we slurped to the freshness of fresh oysters sprinkled with fresh lemons and we ate like 8 each - and I said to him “Jamie, eat please and stop feeding us these oysters before we become used to them" but he said he will eat in a jiffy and wanted us to experience the freshness of sea food in this village.
We finalise food and bill. I paid for Jaime's meal too and that was a tiny gesture compared to his devotion in making us feel like home from start of tour to finish. He puts the rest of the (80!) oysters in a plastic bag for us to take back.
On our way out, he speaks to another very elderly local sitting amongst the other men on a bench just watching life happen. He says something to him in Portuguese but I am unable to decipher what he said and after a few minutes, elderly man walks in with a tissue wrapped gift and places it in my palms and aims to cover my palms. It was heart touching. I opened up the tissue wrapped gift and to my bewilderment; it was a collection of three sea horses.
Apparently, this kind man was a renowned local collector in his time and has thousands on display at his home, I ask Timothy to get him and his friends’ beers and we paid and I said thank you to him, holding his frail hands and they all smiled bowing their heads in greeting and gratitude. I fell in love once again with this place and its people. Love always wins they say. Love is the only language and culture that brought myself and the people of this village together.
Its my turn, I drive the boat for a few minutes back. It was an experience. It took shorter to get back for some reason, probably the tides, no?. We arrive the hotel and I am elated at my discovery. of these islands. We have a nap. I wake to the view of the sunset from my balcony. It was beautiful. The sun still shone. Town still very quiet.
We take a walk around the town that evening, exploring the architecture and the rurality of this town. Got some cash by the ATM at the local Police Station, head to a local store couple of metres from the hotel called Frutaria e docaria, got some wine, water and nibbles and more souvenirs! I noticed the towns of Faro leading to Olhao are defaced with graffiti and I wondered whether this was the norm and part of their culture.
This town had fish shops everywhere!
We head back to the hotel, there is an art gallery by reception. I am a sucko for art too and Tommy's eye caught this. We browse through the gallery and I noticed its got a flare of Portugal, Olhao on its canvases.
We head back, chill out for the night. Its midnight and his phone and mine are going off. Its
Tommy's birthday. We drink to the night and I say "happy birthday bro. you are amazing". He says, "Juno, this was the best birthday gift ever, love you sis". I smiled. My bonding time with my brother and the memories I will hold forever. I love my family to bits.
Sunday morning- more calls from home and London wishing him a happy birthday. We head for breakfast, he heads to the gym, I head to get dressed and again think of our plan for today. I think Faro and remember Jaime drew up a mini itinerary of what we could do in Faro. We take a cab to Faro costing about €15. Stop at the museum (Museo da Mariaha) and of course, it was closed. Duh! It’s Sunday, I forgot.
We then walk to the popular Cathedral with an aim to visit the museum within it (Cidad Velha). The buildings there are spectacular. A lot of pre-poetry neolithic character and that European/medieval effect I adore in edifices in Europe. We walked into Mass as was literally 12:05 so the midday Mass was being held. Tommy and I are being Catholics just thought we might as well stay on then. Mass was obviously in Portuguese and we just had to herald on knowing when and what to do and say due to countless Masses we attended growing up. This church was built in the 14th Century and was one of the most astonishing pieces of art in Europe standing.
We left Mass and went for drinks at a bar/café called Cafe do Coreto and I had a mojito and Tommy his usual Sangres. It was really hot at this time and temperatures were up to 22 degrees. We are now famished and found a Brazilian restaurant for birthday lunch. More fish and sea food though Tom had meat this time. We explored Faro a little but many businesses were shut or closed for holidays and the weekend.
We hailed a cab from the street and headed back to Olhao. I spotted a Lidl on the main way from Faro Marina back to Olhao and I smiled.
There were small homes made of zinc and wood in the middle of farms with greenery and cattle amidst the environs. This place felt like home. I think I am a country girl, really!
Faro is about 7 miles approximately from Olhao. You could also take the train from Olhao to Faro. We got to the hotel for about 15:00 and had a long deserved Sunday birthday nap and then- a knock on our door. at about 17:15, its room service with meals on wheels (no, I lie, champagne in a bucket of ice and a nice chocolate cherry fruity cake with a card complimentary of the staff of Real Marina and flowers and 2 dishes and a cake cutter. I said to the man "errr, sorry but we didn't order anything", looking dazed and he replied, "yes we know". This is for the birthday man complimentary of Real Marina. Wow! "Thank you" I said to him, "that’s really really thoughtful and kind, please leave it here" I direct him towards the balcony. I wake Tom with so much excitement. How could someone sleep through that noise?!!
"See what the hotel did for you". He goes "Wow, that’s really kind of them" and asked how they knew and I said "your passport I guess, it probably shows them birthdays from your DOB". As Tommy doesn't eat chocolate cakes, I dug into it, we cheered to a glass of champagne. Headed for the jacuzzi and sauna before 18:00hrs when they close and then the outdoor pool as the weather was glorious.
Had our fill of hotel facilities. Wind down to packing for next day's flight back to miserable England. We are nostalgic. I am becoming depressed to head back home. Tommy is really excited for the moment and said he will certainly relive it. This is the way men and women function. He is more logical, I am more deluded, and emotional; thinking, "but this cannot end"!.
Sunday morning , we pack, have breakfast, check out, flight is for 5:00pm, we have almost 6 hours to fly. There has to be something to do, I thought. I look around the hotel for more information leaflets, something! and bingo! We find the Nature Park in Olhao called Marim, the nature park of Ria Formosa. I request a cab, we paid about €5. Was about ten mins from the Hotel Marina.
We arrived Marim and found natural and cultural aspects of the Ria. The nature trail is about 3km long and takes 2-3 hours to be completed and we did it. I forgot to change to hiking shoes or perhaps more appropriate ones for this activity! (story of my life). Marked with yellow striped wooden poles, we saw stopping joints and took 1 minute breaks every 30 mins. This park is another nature's beauty which remains unseen and untouched. The preservation of greenery overwhelmed me. The species of birds got me lost trying to identify what was what. Another bird watching spot for people who love stuff like that. We talked as we walked; about the features of this place. Tommy is also a sucko for nature.
It was a glorious day and great to explore nature as well as hike. We ask our cab driver to pick us up after 2.5 hours. Its about 14:00hrs now and we head back to the hotel, have drinks, charge our phones, chill out with drinks and wait for 15:00hrs to head to Faro Aeroport. Carlos, my lovely little crush takes our luggage to the car and I felt so sad leaving this town where I spent (what?) 3 nights but felt like eternity and more importantly, felt like home, a place I felt welcomed, covered quite a bit in that sparse of time but also felt like I absolutely did nothing too.(as we rested and slept and ate loads). It was one of the best trips I ever had since I started travelling.
All I had was love for this place. I shake Carlos' hands and say thanks and Tommy tips him with a handshake.(I often wonder how guys did that) We bid him and the other staff farewell and head to Faro.
Airport process was smooth, BA announces boarding just after I pick a few bottles of Porto wines for home and we board. My love for this place tells me that I will, I must return to Olhao with my loved one/s and relive this experience and I can bet it will be one of the highlights of my adult age on earth. I love Olhao. It has deposits of my heart.