Skip to content

Olhão’s Metaphysical Graffiti

The end of dictatorship in Portugal in the 1970s, and the ushering in of new found freedoms and economic opportunities, brought with it a sad legacy: a serious drug addiction problem that coincided with an emerging AIDS epidemic. The combination devastated families across Portugal’s social classes. The Algarve, synonymous today with Portugal’s prime beach destination, saw a heroin addiction crisis wash up, hitting the coastal town of Olhão hard, putting it on the map as one of Europe’s worst for drug dependency and high crime rates.

A maverick doctor from Olhão, Alvaro Pereira, desperate to find solutions to the crisis, helped to create the first drug dependency centres for small scale, community-based treatment. Based on its success in reducing dependancy, the centres took hold throughout the country. With the turn of the millennium, and thanks to creative  approaches such as Pereira’s, Portugal took the forward-thinking move to decriminalize all drugs.  AIDS and heroin usage rates since dropped dramatically and the rest on that is a story for another time.

This context I think is helpful for understanding where Olhão was and what it has become today. Thankfully, what it isn’t is one of the many characterless, overbuilt seaside communities that have traded their souls to cash in on the tourist Euro. Olhão dates back at least to Moorish times, and parts of its old centre retain the tangled streets and breezy feel of a North African coastal town – a unique atmosphere not found in other quarters of Portugal. Streets paved with Portugal’s famed hand-cut calçada stones, humble one-story townhouses tiled over with a myriad of traditional patterns, and one of the best fish and produce markets of the south all add allure to this generally sunny and slightly decaying town. The plastic beach loungers, chlorinated football-field sized pools and mile-long breakfast buffets are nowhere to be found. Instead, and perhaps thanks somewhat to its inauspicious recent history, the drugs and hardship Olhão endured gave rise to a renaissance of creativity spurned on by a sympathetic local council and a mixing of local and expat talent.

The best evidence of this is on the walls of the buildings on Rua da Fabrica Velha, one of Olhão’s former canning districts, which the city gave over to local graffiti artists who’ve created stunning murals depicting local scenes from daily Olhão life: fisherman, canning factories, often inspired by local faces you’ll see around town. These works have inspired other graffiti art projects and today Olhão competes with bigger metropolises such as Lisbon and Porto in the scope and creativity of its street murals.

Saturdays are the day to be in Olhão, for sipping coffee and pastries, or local fried farturas (dough fritters sprinkled with sugar) while enjoying some prime people watching. Or haggling over fresh catch with the town’s lively fishmongers inside the market, while outside local farmers sell herbs, kale, oranges and other greens grown on small country plots. Around town, small shops featuring local artists and crafts have sprung up, and with a few of the right phone numbers you can arrange for private visits of ateliers for viewings and painting commissions, before heading to one of many family-run seafood restaurants down by the water front for long, lazy lunches.

All of this would be reason alone to spend some time in Olhão, but the icing on the cake is its access to a stretch of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, an extensive series of lagoons and sand bars that offer some prime virgin beach (no facilities), many of which can feel deserted even in the height of summer, with a regular network of cheap water taxis to ferry you back and forth.  Rare it is to find a beach destination that retains local flavour and artistic endeavour while not obliging you to elbow others to enjoy a beer or scratch out your own towel space on the sand.

While they did not create the scene you find around Olhão today, Casa Fuzetta acts as a fulcrum for local and expat life and Olhão’s flourishing scene. I was invited to this private house for an artistic retreat and meeting of minds earlier this year, and over the course of a few days I met painters, performance artists, restaurateurs, a local winemaker, a former ballerina with the Paris Opera restoring an old warehouse to turn into an workshop space and artist’s retreat, and a small handful of foreigners restoring small houses, among many others.

British owners Tara and Jonathan Donovan chanced on a formerly stately mansion fallen to ruins in Olhão’s backstreets that sung to them.  A few years and a lengthy restoration later, Casa Fuzetta is their comfortable home away from home which they rent out for artistic and yoga retreats, or to groups of families or friends to spend a week enjoying plenty of common space, a rooftop terrace and pool, and classy, individual rooms, all tastefully decorated and furnished with local materials and bath products Tara helped create.

Olhão’s star may not shine bright compared to the fancy resorts of the Algarve and some may be turned off by the slightly down-at-heel feel of the place, but that combination of creative energy and community means Olhão is a real place, with real people.  And that’s something that should be celebrated and sought.

Sebastian really would like to talk to you about Olhão, the Algarve, and his never ending hunt for authenticity and real appeal.  Email him to get the discussion going.  

Rare it is to find a beach destination that retains local flavour and artistic endeavour, while not obliging you to elbow others to enjoy a beer or scratch out your own towel space on the sand.

Destination Details