Jaoquin picks up a shell with a perfectly drilled hole through its centre and hands it to me. He informs me this is how the clam who used to live peacefully within met his gruesome end. A squid was the culprit who came along and decided to eat him for dinner. I’m enjoying the anecdotal tale as I wander along this deserted island swaddled in the basking sun.
I could well be in the Caribbean but instead I’m on a short three day city break to Faro. This city is the capital of the Algarve region in southern Portugal and one of the few European destinations that offers 300 days of sunshine year round.
I’ve been taken to this deserted island by boat from the city centre as it’s the only way to get here. Having Jaoquin as my guide means I’m learning about the local wildlife and nature along the way. He’s a wealth of information as we travel by rib through the wetlands of the Ria Formasa. One third of the city of Faro is immersed in the green and turquoise waters of the Atlantic that make up this patchwork of vegetation and islands.
Few places in Europe retain that unique feeling of isolation that the islands of the Ria Formosa offer. Culatra and Farol Island are occupied by settled communities but the single permanent inhabitant on Ilha Deserta is a fisherman who has lived in his shack for decades.
The only other structure is the wonderful Estaminé Restaurant which opens during the day up to 5pm but booking is essential and for very good reason. Not only does it serve the best of local and traditional seafood cuisine, the kitchen is powered by sustainable solar energy. The building is designed to harmoniously blend with the natural landscape and the windows open directly to views of the beach.
Faro is a university city of 65,000 and a perfect size city that will suit couples, friends or solo visitors. Travelling to Faro also means the convenience of a short transfer as it is on the flightpath to the airport and for that reason the city has ordered a curfew on landing after 12pm at night – ensuring a good night’s sleep for its residents. The rooftop pools and bars make a dream setting for aeronautical fans who like to airplane watch. I stopped by at the Hotel Faro for a spot of lunch. This city centre hotel overlooks the marina and Ria Formosa enjoying some of the best views of the city’s heartbeat. In the line of vision is the Eva Senses Hotel which is over fifty years old but has been fully refurbished to modern standards. On my arrival the day before, I was transported here in less than ten minutes by car from the airport. The Eva Sense has a fabulously placed rooftop pool and bar which comes alive in the evenings. Breakfast is a special treat too as a live pianist serenaded me while I gathered my fruit and pastries from the buffet bar. Spacious and comfortable rooms make this hotel ideal for a city break and it’s in a super location.
I found a novel way to spend the afternoon with a cookery class in the charming restaurant Tertulia, at the heart of the old town. There I learned how to make Cataplana, a traditional fish stew under the expert tuition of Alessandra. As chef she allocated each of us in the class with a task. I was left chopping the cilantro while the others sliced the red onions and peppers.
The razor fish and clams were still alive, which I found unnerving at first, but in this region fish is on almost every menu and why shouldn’t it be with local fishermen setting out to find their catch each morning. The great treat at the end is we get to dine under the autumn sunshine with a glass of cold rose and sample bowl of our labours.
There are few better ways to get your bearings on a city break than with a walking tour. Luis is our guide and it’s surprisingly balmy with a gently breeze that whispers over the Ria Formosa before winding through the cobbled streets. Cafes fill every corner of the old town with beers from €3 for a pint. Even at the trendy cocktail bar Columbus a beer won’t reach Temple Bar prices. Luis takes us on a stroll through the Bishops Palace where the walls are lined with the regal gold colours of the papacy mixed with traditional blue tiles.
Vestments and religious relics of martyrs and saints fill the display cases. The obsession with body parts is continued at the Chapel of Bones where the skulls of monks form part of the walls, symbolising the transitory nature of our mortal bodies. Not for the faint hearted, however a stroll through the cathedral is a must for the views alone. This baroque-roofed building gives a wonderfully panoramic vista of the city old and new and is well worth a visit.
The story of Faro unravels at Faro Story Spot, an interactive museum that tells the history and culture of the city’s progression through the centuries. With clever digital graphics the wildlife and flora of the region is explained and clever cartoons simplify the information making it suitable for children too. https://farostoryspot.pt/
At first Faro was home to the Phoenicians and Greeks before the Roman’s dabbled with the coast. The golden age of the Moors was a highlight in the city’s story and during this time of enlightenment the Harun family ruled the city giving Faro its name. The legacy of the important Moorish time is still visible in parts of the old town with an original arch embedded in the gateway of the Arco da Vila. Here is the best place to catch the little train that runs through the city but take time to look up at the enormous stork’s nests that cling to the rooftops. Depending on the time of year you can see the storks feed their young.
On the topic of food we were spoilt for choice with delicious eateries all along the Avenida da Republica. The evenings see this street turn into a hub of delicious restaurants – some quite unique with their offerings. Escama is a relatively new concept of picking not only the fresh fish from the counter as you’d find in a fishmongers but with the choice of several different ways of preparing it. I went for the sardines but the fresh tuna, bass and shellfish looked equally enticing. Value for money is another benefit of travelling to Faro as it is considerably cheaper than resorts such as Vilamoura further along the coast. @escama.faro on instagram
The Municipal Museum of Faro is situated in the cloisters of a monastery and not to be missed. Nestled next to the cathedral in the old town, some of the finest remains from the Roman period of the city are displayed here. Entry is only €2 and it puts in an hour.
The Infinity Pool at 3HB Faro has one of the best views of the city and Ria Formosa making it a luxurious city break hotel
3HB is Faro’s only Five Star Hotel and offers a new standard in accommodation. The infinity rooftop pool with spectacular views over the terracotta roofs towards the marina is a great spot to watch the sunset and open only to guests. The flavours of the local cuisine are blended with a modern twist in the rooftop restaurant Habito and presentation on par with the best city restaurants in Europe.
Rooms are digitally programmed with touch commands and every modern convenience. You will feel as if you’ve landed in the next millennium with all the comforts of home.
Faro has a plethora of pretty-white-cobbled streets perfect for browsing shops and they stay open until late. In fact for a winter city break laced with charm and sunshine there’s nowhere quite like it and, hey, it’s a lot closer than the Caribbean.
For all you need to know about the Algarve see www.visitalgarve.pt/en
Places to stay:
Eva Senses – www.ap-hotelsresorts.com/eva
Prices from €103 per room (city views with balcony) based on 2 adults sharing. Includes breakfast. November 2022 stay
3HB – www.3hb.com
Prices from €195.00 per room (city views with balcony) based on 2 adults sharing. Includes breakfast. November 2022 stay
Estamine on Deserta Island: www.ilhadeserta.com / Estaminé Restaurant – Discover a unique restaurant in a true desert island (ilhadeserta.com)
Eco Tour boat to Deserta Island: 30€/per person including return by ferry