The Algarve’s capital is acquiring a buzz with cultural events and tourism. It’s a seductive alternative to the busiest beaches in Portugal. Marco Lopes, director of the city’s museum, keeps us company on our latest jaunt south.
The theatres are full, its main museum is a roaring success, the community of contemporary artists is growing, the musical scene is booming, there’s great sacred art on show, the historic centre is a living monument, the city centre promotes good taste, and new restaurants rub shoulders with traditional eateries. This is not Portugal’s most obvious southern attraction. It’s the region’s capital, Faro, which is undergoing a cultural and urban revolution, adding new features to the Algarve’s redundant combination of sun & sand (if you really want to go to the beach, it’s a ten-kilometre walk). And it’s all happening as the city regains its passion for Ria Formosa, a lagoon fed by the Atlantic, parked between land and sea by a string of islands and freshwater tributaries. This can only go well.
Our god is Roman, and his name is Oceanus. He can be seen in the impressive mosaic preserved in the City Museum, which is classified as a National Treasure. Covering almost 32 square metres, it’s made up of thousands of differently coloured small stone cubes. The deity is set in the middle, hair adorned with lobster antennas and crab claws. Beside him blows Zephyrus, the god of the western wind, and Boreas, the one of the north. At the bottom, there are the names of the four citizens who sponsored the work, which was created around 1,700 years ago. Marco Lopes, museum director and our host and guide, never tires of celebrating this testimony of Ossonoba – the Roman name for Faro. The piece was discovered in 1926 during building works on Infante D. Henrique Street, near the railway station, and is believed to have occupied the central area of a maritime merchants’ guild. Ossonoba was the westernmost town in the frenetic Mediterranean of the time, and, in a way, this memory is the foundation of a new-found energy that many now sense here (the site baixadefaro.pt is a great guide).
It’s worth mentioning that Faro is currently a candidate for the European Capital of Culture 2027 (like other Portuguese cities; a title to be shared with a city in Latvia). Bruno Inácio is coordinating the candidacy. “We’re getting somewhere. We’re not there yet, but we feel it. The Algarve has places that are too saturated for people who prefer different things. Here there are various cultural agents from different areas and backgrounds who’ve chosen tranquil Faro as their home, forging connections between artists, forming a network”. Located on the city’s outskirts, the University of the Algarve has probably the largest number of foreign students in the country, stimulating a growing population of 60,000. Well-designed hostels, quality short- -term rentals and large, sensibly constructed hotels align with the world of socio-cultural business. “There’s going to be hype,” warns Bruno. The projects (even if Faro doesn’t become the European Capital) include the conversion of the remarkable old commercial port (on the Ria Formosa) into a cultural and maritime knowledge centre; the redevelopment of the huge warehouses next to the train station; the expansion of the Teatro das Figuras by the architect Gonçalo Byrne; and the building known as Fábrica da Cerveja in the historic centre – a multifunctional place that echoes the commercial and artistic ensembles of Lisbon’s LX Factory or the Old Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane. The secret of Faro’s potential lies in having avoided the Algarve’s tourist boom as an international destination from the 1970s onwards, essentially remaining an administrative city. And that’s what’s evolving, but sensibly, encouraging visitors to stay longer. Importantly, it benefits from having a major airport, where TAP’s daily flights from Lisbon and Porto make a key contribution. And then, of course, there’s the wealth of sometimes surprising heritage.
Nothing is still
Every city has a gateway and this one is called Arco da Vila. It’s a bit like a time machine: the monumental building hails from the early-19th century but incorporates the much older medieval and Arabic doors.
This visionary preservation of the past was thanks to a key figure in Algarve and Faro culture, Bishop Francisco Gomes do Avelar (1739-1816), who was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment on his travels throughout Europe in the late- -18th century. He commissioned the arch from the Italian architect Francesco Saverio Fabri and ordered a sculpture of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an “intellectual” and patron saint of the city, to be placed in a niche. Marco Lopes brings us here after giving us a tour of the City Museum, which he runs. Housed in an old Renaissance convent in the historic centre, near the beautiful cathedral (where we see the work of the remarkable carver Manuel Martins), it was there that we saw the mosaic of the god Oceanus. The museum has an eclectic collection that ranges from North African art to masters of historical painting, all in a place that provides a fine contemporary art programme. There’s a masterpiece on loan (part of the Novo Banco collection): a “Tower of Babel” by an anonymous Flemish painter from the late-17th century. Marco takes his cue: “This symbol of multiculturalism, Babel, has everything to do with Faro”. From the Arco da Vila we make our way to an actual tower, the Ermida de Santo António, standing tall at the city’s highest point, overlooking the secondary school. Next to this unique church, which dates back to the time of the Discoveries, a military watchtower was built to guard against pirate attacks. There’s no better spot to soak up Faro in all its glory.
Back in the centre, the Baroque sumptuousness that rivals or even surpasses that of the cathedral can be found in the Igreja do Carmo, in the square of the same name. Inside, our admiration for the previously mentioned Manuel Martins grows, as we admire his retable in the main altar. Marco teaches us about the peculiar entrance designed by Faro architect and sculptor, Diogo Tavares e Ataíde: “See how it’s near-hexagon shape allows the Baroque dynamic to breathe”. True. Nothing is still. It’s the nature of the style. “Igreja do Carmo is like a Kinder egg”. Surprises within surprises: traversing the sacristy, we reach the garden that leads to the Chapel of Bones (one of the three in Portugal, the others in Évora and Campo Maior).
The day is done and we find ourselves at a table of Café Aliança, a profane temple and bourgeois gem that opened in the 1930s, where appetisers are served to more modern patrons. There is a wall adorned with portraits of artists, intellectuals and writers who brought a different buzz to Faro in the 20th century: painters Carlos Lyster Franco and Carlos Filipe Porfírio, the peculiar writer José Dias Sancho, and even visitores such as Simone de Beauvoir and the great musician José Afonso. Welcome to the Algarve’s Babel.
by João Macdonald /// photos Carlos Pinto
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