The small port of Olhão, in the unspoilt eastern backwaters of the Algarve, has been famed for fishing since Medieval times, but these days the charming, sun-faded town close to Faro attracts a bohemian crowd: artists drawn by the light, perpetual dreamers and eccentric architects who live harmoniously beside the fishermen who supply the country with the day’s catch. Today, you’re as likely to find octopus draped between houses as an artistic street painting.
Whilst deliciously dreamy, with a feeling of time stood still between its flat-topped Moorish houses and tiled townhouses with their wrought-iron balconies, Olhão maintains a working port with thriving fish market; and its lagoon-based clam bed yield 80% of Portugal’s clams for the quintessential garlic-strewn dish: Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato. Morning at the fish market is the place to be, not just for the astounding range of sea creatures from the deep but to admire the huge, echoey red-brick waterfront building, said to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Other claims to fame in Olhão include a fascinating historic and cultural moment - from here fishermen set off to Brazil to inform the exiled king that Napoléon had been defeated and today in Olhão a beautifully tiled monument depicts this scene.
Wandering around the old medina alleys, the air is filled with briny sea scents and church bells mark the soft punctuation of time passing, and old and new fuse with the pretty tilework visible on buildings to the modern injection of artisan shops and cafes, selling a beautiful array of homemade pastries. Along with its penchant for slow-living, Olhão has become a magnet for holistic lifestyle. Yoga teachers, therapists and peace-seekers are drawn here to tune into the low-key ambience and to soak up its all-natural pleasures.
Just outside of town, tiny river taxis putter to the lagoon’s sandbanks, islands and beaches. The ever-changing turquoise and green ribboned lagoon is the place to get your fill of this magnificent seascape, sometimes flecked by pink flamingos. Castaways can dream away on Ilha Deserta – an island with wide, totally empty beaches lapped by azure water. Come to Olhão, but we can’t promise that you’ll want to go home.