“From what you would know and measure, you must take leave, at least for a time. Only after having left town, you see how high its towers rise above the houses.” Friedrich Nietzsche
We’ve been guilty of it so many times – that rush at Faro airport to pick up the hire car and hit the A22 as soon as possible to reach ‘home’. So of course if someone asked – I’ve ‘been’ to Faro – via the ‘aeroporto’ route – more times than I can count.
But I am ashamed to say that we had never actually visited Faro itself. I thought of it only in terms of the industrial (big Delta coffee cup!) / car hire/car showroom / spaghetti road system (lots of signs and quick lane changes!) and the Algarve Stadium (nice design!). But never the city itself. Shocking after all these years to admit that.
So we went. And we were amazed – and fell in love a little bit.
So if you haven’t actually been yet – you should go (preferably before Wednesday when the dreaded tolls start on the A22 – don’t get me started on that!). But you should definitely add it to your ‘where to go list’.
Here are some of our highlights – we have more still to explore, including the beach – so we will go back again. But here’s why you should go and explore this beautiful little city.
You can park and walk
We parked off the centre – follow the centro and old town signs and we found a big open car park right by the waterfront – free all day parking. And an easy walk through to the old town and into the new shopping area.
The waterfront is not to be missed, it’s very pretty with stunning views across the Ria Formosa lagoon. This is a nature reserve of over 17.000 hectares and a stopping place for hundreds of different birds during the spring and autumn migratory periods.
And it’s good for plane spotting too – they fly low right overhead – and you suddenly realise why when you look over the water and see the airport landing strips – and you think ‘oh, so that’s the water we fly over before we land’…
There is also a small naval maritime museum next to the boat basin, with scale model boats and galleons showing the maritime history of the coast. The exhibition is focused mainly on the Age of Discovery, and includes a model of the “Sao Gabriel”, the flagship that was used by Vasco da Gama to travel towards India in 1497.
The Old Town
Simply lovely. Cobbled streets, history at every turn, and fantastic old buildings, windy streets to explore and cafés to rest in.
The old town is still surrounded by the walls built by the Romans in the 9th century, and they are a delight to walk around and through, and you can also try to spot the storks nesting along the route.
The entrance to the ancient city is a monumental arch, designed by the famous Italian architect Francisco Xavier Fabri, and constructed in 1812 by order of the archbishop Don Franciso Gomes, on the site of a former medieval gate that had been destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The arch has a bell tower with a niche, which hosts a statue of Thomas Aquinas, the patron of the city.
You can see some of the Roman history at the Archaeological Museum which is housed in a 16th-century convent in the Praça Afonso III street, (just back from the marina area) and contains a Roman mosaic unearthed in Faro in 1976. It is 10 yards long and three wide, with a handsome portrait of a moustachioed Neptune at its centre.
The Moors who occupied the town in the 8th Century originally gave the city it the name of Ossónoba and developed it into a trading port until 1249.
In the 9th century it became the capital of a short-lived princedom and was fortified with a ring of defensive walls. At this time the name Santa Maria began to be used instead of Ossónoba. Later on the town was known as Harun (from a local Muslim chieftain) which was then translated over time into the current name, Faro.
The Moors were then defeated in the 13th century by the Portuguese King Dom Afonso III and with the decline of the importance of the city of Silves; Faro then took over the role of the administration of the whole Algarve area, which remains the case to this day. The Earl of Essex ransacked the town in 1596 with his fellow crusaders on their journey to the Holy Land and the collection of books taken from the palace of the Bishop of Faro became an important part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England.
During the 500 years of Moorish occupation there were also some Jewish inhabitants in Faro who were kept busy printing copies of the Old Testament. Today there is a Faro Jewish Heritage Centre which consists of a cemetery and a small museum.
(info taken from Wiki and Portugal Info web-site)
The churches and cathedral
Two highlights for you to enjoy. The first is the 13th century Cathedral and 18th century Episcopal palace – follow the signs within the old walls to the Sé.
The cathedral is originally believed to have been built on the site of a mosque, and has been heavily re-built over the centuries, particularly after the 1755 earthquake, and a devastating fire in 1596 following the invasion and looting by English troops.
The tower and a south window are now the only remnants of the original design of the cathedral, and there are a range of architectural styles, including Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance which seem to fuse together quite seamlessly. Today there is a heady array of tiles and gold leaf, paintings and sculptures for you to see, but parts of the interior also feel quite austere in comparison with other churches in the area. The cathedral also houses an exhibition of clothing and artefacts.
Entry will cost you 3 Euros (adult) – you can visit the inside of the Cathedral (open 10-5.30) and also climb the amazing tower which gives you fantastic views over the town and Ria Formosa. And don’t arrive at 9.30 am as we did… it’s closed – but it had a great sign on the wooden doors ‘please respect our privacy – we are praying’ (never seen that on a UK cathedral door!)
There is also a ‘Chapel of Bones’ – but for a real bones experience you need to head into the town and find our second choice of church, which seems to have at least three names:
The Carmelite church ‘Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte do Carmo do Faro’ or Igreja do Carmo, or the so-called ‘golden’ Nossa Senhora do Carmo church, which is situated in the ‘Largo do Carmo’ square in the ‘Riberinho’ neighbourhood, and is open every day from 10:00 to 14:00 and from 15:00 to 17:30. Admission to the church is free, and the ‘Chapel of Bones’ costs 1 euro.
The church was started in 1713, and finished in the 19th century, and has a Baroque altar and a nice bell tower to each side – it has a lovely balance to its design from the outside and some impressive steps leading up to the entrance. It is reported to be the best example of gold-leaf woodwork in Portugal and there is a rich opulence to the interior, with art and statues and gold in abundance. It’s certainly a contrast to the colder stone interior of the cathedral.
But the real delight lies to the front right of the main altar – where you can buy a ticket for the spooky Capela dos Ossos or ‘Chapel of Bones’. This was the work of the Carmelite monks in 1816 and its construction displaced a cemetery where hundreds of their earlier brethren lay buried. Their human bones were salvaged and recycled into this haunting reminder of our mortality.
The inscription over the door reads “Stop here and think of the fate that will befall you – 1816”, and there are reputed to be approximately 1245 bones covering the walls and ceiling of the chapel.
Macabre? – yes. But also strangely comforting and captivating. The longer you look, the more you see different faces and shapes emerging, the whole chapel and the bones have been painstakingly arranged and ordered, and the skulls in particular seem to haunt you and draw you into their history and story.
Back into the warm sunlight, and slightly disarming 21st century hustle and bustle, and it’s definitely time for a spot of lunch.
There are some lovely little restaurants and cafés to choose from, and we selected a pretty little restaurant overlooking one of the shopping squares. Great food, freshly cooked rabbit, and a leisurely meal watching the world go by. We ate so well that were too full later on to enjoy the famed pastelaria in the main street – ‘Gardy’ so we will have to return another day!
The main shopping area is a great mix of eclectic shops, selling a wide range of gifts, crafts and treasures – great for gift shopping and ambling!
If that isn’t enough shops for you, on the way out of the town you could always stop at the big ‘Forum Algarve’ complex – a shopping mall big enough to keep even the most ardent shopper happy!
More to see
Faro is also a lively cultural town, with a good theatre and lots of music and events to enjoy. It also appears to have a good nightlife, from web-site reviews we have seen, and an active municipal council organising lots of cultural events. There also seems to be lots of reasonably priced accommodation, if you want to really immerse yourself here and explore even more. There are lovely little gardens with benches to entice you to sit alongside the sensible older folk, who while away many an hour watching others rush past them.
We didn’t even travel to the beach this time, apparently it’s only 7kms from the town and is a long sandy spit reached by crossing a bridge not far from the International Airport. You can see the sign for it to the right off the roundabout with the amazing statues of people looking up into the sky as you reach the airport (I love those statues!)
So – that’s the Faro we discovered. Historical, quirky, vibrant, charming – and inviting.
We will definitely return again soon.
If you have liked our photography, why not check out our new 2012 Calendar – click here for more information.
And if you have enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy some of our other similar posts: