When the time comes for summer festivals in Portugal’s Algarve region, the local maritime creatures get nervous, very nervous. Bernard O’Shea discovers why.
I got lucky on my first night in Faro. I had been wandering around the southern Portuguese city, getting my bearings and looking for a good place to have dinner, when all of a sudden a deep voice blared out from a set of loudspeakers. “Um, dois, tres, um, dois, tres…” Yes, the microphone was working. Then music began to play, a vibrant, catchy Portuguese tune. Someone, somewhere, was having a big party.
I went to investigate, skirting the walls of the ancient heart of the city, the music growing louder and louder, till I came across the Largo de Sao Francisco, a square where there is lots of parking available for people wanting to take boat trips out on the Ria Formasa nature reserve. It seemed like the place had been invaded and a whole tribe of revellers had set up camp: hundreds of long wooden tables and benches had been laid out in the car park, surrounded on three sides by dozens and dozens of makeshift market stalls and caravan kitchens. On the fourth side a stage had been set up, its back to the sea, where a glorious sunset was developing over the lagoon. The tantalising smell of grilled seafood wafted in the air.
“What’s going on?” I asked a woman in the nearest stall. “It’s the Festa do Marisco,” she replied – the Shellfish Festival, the one week of the year when the local fishermen’s association gets together to feed the masses. I wandered up and down the stalls, agog at the dishes on offer. Massive pots of prawns, mussels, clams, bubbling fish soups, stews, paella, seafood rice, “acordas” or bread porridges with a variety of seafood, and more prawns, prawns, prawns. Other fish that strictly speaking weren’t shellfish had gatecrashed the party: octopus, sardines, plus of course the Portuguese national dish, bacalhau or cod, cooked in a variety of ways.
My dietician had said that when I was in Portugal I had to eat lots and lots of their delicious healthy seafood, so I piled my plate high, and I even went back for seconds, just to please him. It wasn’t just seafood, of course, each stall had beers and wines and jugs of sangria on offer, and the Portuguese love their desserts – there were stands selling cakes and pastries and ice creams and tarts, and there was a mobile van where huge, fat sausage-shaped doughnuts were being dunked in hot oil and then rolled in brown sugar and cinnamon. My dietician hadn’t said anything about these but I thought I had better sample them all anyway, to take advantage of their health benefits, and I must say they worked wonders, my health had never felt so good after eating all that!
I had gone to Faro at the start of August to do a four-week summer course in Portuguese at the University of the Algarve, and during that first week the Largo do Sao Francisco became the city dining hall. On the first night I feasted on prawns, on the second night I piled into paella and then the following night it was the turn of one of my favourite Portuguese dishes, Carne de Porco a Alentejana, a pork and clam stew, but I had never had it as fresh and tender as this. The sauce was so delicious I had to mop it up with the half-dozen slices of bread that came with it.
One of the musical groups that had been booked for the festa was the Tuna de Medecina da Universidade de Coimbra, a fado choir from the faculty of medicine at the University of Coimbra, and they’d wander among the tables dressed in their black university capes, strumming their guitars and serenading all the diners until the stage show began. The fado from Coimbra is more lively than the better known fado from Lisbon, particularly when the performers have lubricated their throats with beers and spirits. They gave rousing performances.
In those heady sangria-filled nights the Algarve certainly seemed like a festive place, for while all this was going on in Faro the Festival of the Sardine was taking place in Portimao, and if I had arrived a couple of days earlier I could have caught the Festival of the Octopus in Albufeira – these Portuguese maritime creatures sure know how to party!
As it turned out, the Festa do Marisco in Faro was merely a warm-up for the Festival do Marisco the following week in Olhao just 10km up the coast. Here some of the biggest names on the local music scene, including my favourite Portuguese rock band Xutos and Pontapes (the Lusitanian Midnight Oil cum AC/DC) and Tony Carreira (John Farnham meets Enrique Iglesias) had been booked to appear on stage, and there was an eight euro entry fee.
Meanwhile in Faro, another stage and more stalls had been set up in the Jardim Manuel Bivar, a park alongside the marina that is the social hub of the city. First was the 35th annual book fair, with a little bit of food and wine on the side, then after that was a wine fair, with a little food and possibly some books on the side, then we had nine days of Folkfaro, an international festival of folkloric dance featuring groups from places as far afield as Mexico, Russia, Poland and Japan. Meanwhile back at the stalls the wine fair had made way for my favourite celebration of all (don’t tell my dietician this) the Festa das Fruitas Secas e Doces, the Festival of Dried Fruits and Sweets/Desserts/Puddings.
The Algarve is a very dry region and its orchards produce mainly citrus fruit, almonds and carob, but how do you know which citrus, almond and carob cakes, tarts and puddings you like and don’t like until you’ve sampled them all? Carob tart is a bit of an acquired taste, but I acquired it. I found out I don’t have a delicate stomach but I can still stuff it with delicacies. I did a lot of research.
There are a number of universities in Portugal that offer summer language courses, including the University of Minho in Braga and the famous University of Coimbra. But these two aren’t by the sea, whereas Faro is. Did I mention I was doing Beach Studies as a major with Portuguese as a minor? As is to be expected in the Algarve, Faro has a beautiful beach, but it is a little bit out of the way: you have to drive or take a bus past the airport, past some wetlands where if you are lucky you will spot some flamengoes, then cross a bridge over the lagoon to get to it. It’s worth the journey. On weekends I would head to the beaches of other cities a short train ride away, such as Tavira and Albufeira.
When I didn’t go to the beach I went to the Faro municipal swimming pool. It took me a week to find it, but I persisted. The locals had no idea where it was. When I asked them they looked as me as if I was mad. “But why don’t you go to the beach?” D’oh, because I like to do laps in swimming pools too. It’s the only way I can shed some kilograms.
The pool was a peaceful haven, an oasis in the hot desert. Mostly it was just me, the beautiful blue water and the salvador nadadors. See how poetic the Portuguese language is? They don’t call their lifeguards guardas de vida, they are “saviour swimmers”.
In between all this there was some language study too. There were 44 people on the course, divided into four groups based on our level of proficiency, the ages ranging from late teens to fifty-somethings. Spaniards and Italians predominated but there were also people from England, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, Poland, Greece, the Ivory Coast, Taiwan and Japan. The classes were mostly mornings only, and the course included a number of cultural excursions. We were given tours of Faro and Olhao, and went cruising on a replica of the caique Bom Successo, an 18m vessel which in 1808 sailed all the way from Olhao to Rio de Janeiro without maps or navigational instruments to deliver a message to the exiled king. We went picnicking in the hills and swam in the natural springs at Alte. There was lunch in Lagos and an eco tour along the cliffs of Cape St. Vincent. We saw the Roman ruins at Milreu and the palace at Estoi and had a great night up in the castle at Castro Marim during its three-day medieval festival. We had a marvellous time.
On my last evening in Faro I wandered along the seafront. The Largo do Sao Francisco was deserted, most of the summer holidaymakers had packed up and gone, and one last lonely boat was weaving its way among the sandbanks to get to the marina before nightfall. At times when I had been grumpy from the heat and lack of sleep (there was no air-conditioning in the residence I was in) I couldn’t wait to get away from Faro. But now the air was cool and refreshing, the sky was a blazing orange, the clouds a deep purple, it looked more beautiful than ever and I knew that I would miss it. My four weeks in Faro had been like a whirlwind trip to another planet. Coming back down to earth would be difficult.
I have my certificate from the University of the Algarve mounted on my wall: Portuguese with a lots of food, festas, fun, and new friendships on the side. Maybe somewhere, at another university on another planet, there is a certificate with your name on it, just waiting for you to fill in the blanks. When you go there, say “hi” to the salvador nadadors. TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled to Portugal at his own expense. More information: Visit Portugal. Main photo: © Regiao de Turismo do Algarve/Turismo de Portugal.