So just before Christmas Jon surprised me with a mini break to the Algarve, Portugal. It has been a place I have been pestering him to go to (as well as Andalusia in Spain) because it is a culture I dearly love and I have just discovered it is part of my DNA, even though my DNA results show I am largely British (Irish & Scottish not English) and Western European (French, Italian, Hungarian and Norwegian) we found out I am also Iberian. The Iberians form a group of people whose culture is mixed, don’t consider themselves Spanish or Portuguese and have a South American heritage mixed with Moroccan. The Iberian Peninsula sits at the bottom of Spain and parts of Portugal (The Algarve) and has had an interesting history of both Christian and Moorish rule-hence their devote Catholic lifestyle surrounded by Moroccan decor and architecture. Knowing what I know now about my genetic ancestry has filled a hole in my personality that felt isolated and “different”. I feel more complete and I understand aspects to me that were once confusing. Like why so many people believed me to be Spanish or half Arab, why I am so drawn to Latin music and darbuka drum as though those sounds stir my blood and why I have jet black curly hair, strong facial features and almond shaped eyes. But more on this in another blog post!
I was so happy when he surprised me because I had just found out I was contracted to work all the Christmas holidays (except Christmas day) and I was feeling super glum. This mini break was an early Christmas present that lifted my spirits!
So, we visited for four days and were primarily situated in Faro. With its international airport, Faro is the main city people fly into to go on holiday in the Algarve. We went in December meaning costs were low and there were little or no tourists about (peace on earth!). We usually prefer to travel during the shoulder or off season to avoid that touristy vibe, trashy merchandise and bratty children. The weather in the Algarve was still very pleasant, with lovely temperatures from 11am until 4:30pm every day, however early mornings and by 5pm temperatures do drop so I’d advise taking a winter coat, scarves and tote socks for the evenings, I carried a woolly jumper with me during the day in case the sea breeze was a bit chilly, however most often than not, I’d have to take it off because it did get quite hot during Mid day!
We stayed in Story Guesthouse which offers free wifi, breakfast included in the price, shared kitchen and small courtyard and communal bathrooms on every floor, the showers have super hot water and simple rooms with balconies. This is a great accommodation for backpackers.
Faro is a very pretty and quiet seaside city, with pleasant cobbled streets, an old town and with beautiful churches and chapels throughout. Often over looked or used as a pit-stop for tourists, this place holds a lot of traditional charm and a sweet ambiance. The pleasant shopping area is lined with open air cafes, seafood restaurants and pizzerias and there are tours available offering day excursions to Ria Formsa national park from a small harbour. Often Faro’s beaches are scarce of tourists, meaning in the height of the season you’d be sharing quiet coastal area with locals. It does make for a lovely day excursion if holiday-makers are situated in other parts of the Algarve, there is a bus service and train station nearby and the locals speak very good English.
The thing we loved about Faro is that it is a good central point to be in as a main base if you want to sleep easy somewhere quiet and plan your time in the Algarve to take day trips to places outside of Faro. You can literally hop on a two hour long train journey to spend a day in Portimao or one hour to Albufeira, and it takes just over two hours to get to Lagos, how easy is that! There are also neighbouring towns and villages to visit too if you didn’t want to venture out too far, within 15 minutes you are in the pretty village of Estoi where you can explore the Pink Palace (highly recommended) and you can also visit Loulé which takes 25 minutes or Quarteira in 31 minutes. The inexpensive public transport here means the entire Algarve can be traveled to very easily.
The old town at this time of year was deserted with only the locals dressed in their Sunday best for mass or casually having a coffee in the main square. It is very pretty to visit though and it was great for Jon as a photographer as he didn’t have to wait for bumbling tourists to get out of his shot.You enter through the 18th century Arco da Vila, walk uphill through impeccably cobbled streets framed by elegantly balconied houses and arrive at the Largo da Se where the Municipal Museum stands and off these squares in every direction are little streets and lanes which just beg to be explored. You can walk from one end of the Old Town to the other in about 30 minutes and leave by the other Arch, the Arco da Repouso, emerging by the edge of the water on the Largo da Sao Francisco. For a small price you can enter the church in the main square and venture up to the tower for some splendid views across Faro also.
What’s special about this part of town is that there are no postcards or souvenir shops, just a few bars and sea food restaurants and in parts an almost rural atmosphere. I do appreciate it might look and feel a bit different in the high season however it is a little gem of a place to go on a relaxed walk, a real joy!
The Église du carmel de Faro Church, or the Carmo Church (which is the same location as the Bone Chapel) is a stunning piece of architecture situated near the market place and post office in Faro. The statues and alter inside take your breath away and there is a beautiful state of calm within. Most tourists do come here to see the chapel of bones built on the side of this church but I do recommend you spend some quality time being dazzled by the decor and high ceilings. A long approach over shallow steps gives it a feeling of grandeur and, upon entering, one is taken aback by the incredibly ornate nave and altar – so much gold carving and statues. Perhaps due to most people coming to see the Chapel of Bones and needing to walk through the main church to access it, this isn’t a place to come for quiet reflection or prayer, but worth a visit just to compare it with other churches in the city. This is well worth a visit because it is cheap to go inside (one Euro each) and it gives you a glimpse into part of Portugal’s rich Catholic lifestyle and history. In the summer, be wary of gypsies begging for money near the entrance though.
The Chapel of Bones is what most tourists in Faro come to see. Built on the back side of the Carmo church you have to walk through the church and out through a side door to the right which then takes you into a small dark room full of Christian artifacts and solemn statues before leaving out through another small door into a courtyard of stone graves, cats and plants. It is here that the Chapel of Bones is situated and it is a very small room literally covered in skulls and bones. I have always wanted to see something like this, we did find a church in Cornwall, England that included bones as part of the decor (which is a rarity in the UK) and we had seen documentaries of churches and holy places around the world being decorated with human bones. I personally do not find it macabre as I find different cultures interpretation of death and the afterlife fascinating and I love learning about tribal rites of passage, old fairytales about the life/death cycle and the symbolism of bones. So seeing the chapel of bones was a highlight for me, I’d question why the monks did this? Was it a ritual? Did they believe it kept them close to God? How did they do it? How did they carve out space for each person’s skull every time they died? And Ironically this chapel is next door to a school playground so hearing the cute laughter of children just outside a place dedicated to the afterlife was interesting to say the least!
This place is out of the ordinary so if you like peculiar things or you are a history and culture buff or maybe fancy going for a walk just to see something different on your otherwise beach filled holiday then do go visit this place especially after your calming walk through the old town.
According to wikipedia the bone chapel is known as an Ossuary. An Ossuary is a small box like building used as tombe when burial space was scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The greatly reduced space taken up by an ossuary means that it is possible to store the remains of many more people in a single tomb than if the original coffins were left as is. Many Ossuaries can be found all over Europe, including Italy, the Czech Republic and the Catacombs of Paris. Ossuaries have been common practice in Greek Orthodox and Jewish tradition for hundreds of years.
Faro is a perfect destination for visitors who wish to know the “real” side to the Algarve and want more out of their holiday than a week on the beach. Faro offers history, culture, local charm and a peaceful environment. It’s close to the airport to catch your flights in time and offers a wonderful transport system to visit the rest of the Algarve by an independent traveler who stays clear from typical and hectic tourist hotspots. Faro is not geared up for visitors who want the nightlife, clubs or pubs and it is not quite suitable for families (especially families who just want a week on the beach), although it really depends on the family and how you raise your kids. I recommend visitors stay in Faro for two days to really soak in the atmosphere before traveling to your next destination or if you get into the Algarve on a late flight, it is a great location for an over night and day stay before you venture on towards your main holiday destination.
Next up: The Pink Palace in Estoi!
If you wish to see other Travel blogs visit them here:
Morocco for 16 days
Croatia/Montenegro for 10 days
Hungary/Vienna for 5 days
Nepal for 21 days