DAY TRIP TO FARO
Faro is a place that's often skipped, overlooked and thought of as merely a place for arrival and departure…but to this traveller, that's something of a mistake. There's certainly plenty to see and do across all parts of the Algarve and Faro is no exception. Just on the edge of town is the "Forum" - a modern shopping centre with a central, open-air square where tired shoppers can rest and refresh at the many cafés. In town, there's a lovely pedestrianized shopping precinct with some name brand shops, but mainly small independent ones….also lots more cafés and eateries. For those who like beaches and/or lovers of water and nature, there's that too, with 3 pristine sandbar islands just off its coast, plus access to the Ria Formosa park right from Faro's waterfront. Many boat trips are on offer for a tour of this area, which has saltwater lagoons and mudflats….it's a bird & nature lovers paradise.
For us, Faro is all about the lovely architecture and the atmosphere. With this in mind we set off, together with our friends Lynn & Richard, who were also enjoying a stay in Lagos….we wanted to show them a city, which we thought they'd enjoy.
After spending almost 2 hours on the train, we left the train station in Faro and in less than 5 minutes were at the waterfront and the marina. This small attractive Marina only accommodates small boats, due to the height limitations of the railway bridge at its entrance. With a choice of cafés around its perimeter, It's a pleasant place to while away some time, but we continued onwards passing Jardim Manuel Bivar - a small shady park that also has views of the Marina. Just a few more steps and we entered the historical area - a place of ancient walls, beautiful old buildings and peaceful plazas - with an ambience which is pleasantly relaxed and unhurried.
Upon entering the old town through a neoclassical arch - Arco da Vila, which sits on the site of an old gate that was part of the original Moorish walls - we could see that Lynn and Richard were already pleased with our recommendation of a visit to Faro!
There are 3 remaining "gates" that give entrance to the medieval part of the city, but this one is the most striking. From either side of the arch we could see a stork's nest on top….the area is a popular nesting place for these majestic birds.
Following the old cobbled road (Rua do Município) up from the Arco da Vila, we reached Largo da Sé, a charming square lined with orange trees. It's dominated by the city's impressive cathedral and a cluster of palatial buildings, including the Bishop's Palace. For a small fee we entered the cathedral, which at the moment is undergoing a huge restoration. The walls, ceilings and plaster work are all in need of repair. Unfortunately due to these restorations, only half of the cathedral is accessible. Fortunately we were able to see the huge Baroque organ, suspended high above, plus some of the Gothic chapels with their beautiful azulejo tiles. There's also a museum of religious clothing, chalices and religious relics. In the peaceful courtyard, there's a "bone chapel" - a shrine made of human bones, and some more of those lovely hand-painted azulejo tiles.
A highlight of the cathedral is found after a steep climb up a narrow, winding stone staircase to the bell/clock tower. Care is needed going up and down, especially if someone is going in the opposite direction ….but the view from the top is worth it! From this high viewpoint both the city and the waters of the Ria Formosa park can be seen, along with the startlingly white square far below.
After leaving the cathedral, we took a route around the old castle walls, which leads down to the waterfront promenade. Here we saw some interesting, graffiti-covered old cabanas, along with kiosks promoting boat-tours. We strolled this promenade, continuing to follow the old walls back to the cathedral square in order to locate The Municipal Museum, which is just behind the cathedral.
€1 per person is the entrance fee for this museum, which has frequently been named as the best in Portugal. This distinction is primarily due to its archaeological content that displays prehistoric, Roman and Medieval artifacts. It also features other exhibitions along with regular Fado musical performances. Although the admission price is extremely inexpensive, even at a much higher price it would still be a bargain just to enter the convent where it's housed.
Inaugurated in 1894, it was only the 2nd museum in Portugal. Housed in a 16th century convent, which was inhabited by the nuns until 1834, it's often listed as one of the "jewels" of Renaissance Algarve. It contains archaeological treasures from the ancient Roman city of Ossonoba and the Islamic period. In addition there's a collection of religious paintings from 16th to 19th century, by both international and Portuguese artists.
This lovely building has a church with a baroque dome - but it's the cloisters, which are entered immediately after admission, that gives me goosebumps. Exhibits can be found in many of the rooms leading off both floors. Wandering in and out if these rooms we learned the history of Faro through the cataloguing of artifacts from the ancient city that was known as Ossonoba.
We saw gravestones of Roman citizens and busts of their Emperors, glass jars and oil lamps from the first century plus amphorae from the same era, that were used to transport fish and oil. Coats of arms, chiseled in stone, spanning the medieval era through to the19th century are also on display. Another display featured "a back yard" from the Islamic period with some interesting old pottery. The Islamic occupation of Portugal, which started in the 9th century was well established by the year 1000 and lasted for another 200 years. Although there are fewer physical remains here than in neighbouring Spain - where their rule lasted longer - their influence remains. The language in Portugal contains many words relating to food and farming that's Arabic in origin.
The highlight and the "crown jewel" of this museum is "Oceanus." Filling a whole room, this large, 3rd century Roman mosaic - Oceanus the Greek god of the sea - was discovered near Faro railway station in 1926. The names of who commissioned the work are inscribed on the bottom edge of this beautiful mosaic. When it was extracted in 1976 it was already partially damaged, with a large middle section missing, but it certainly doesn't detract from the most famous mosaic in the country. The gods of the north and the west winds are depicted on either side.
From this and other archaeological findings, it's known that the ancient city of Ossonoba was a small town, confined to a hill, until the Romans consolidated it and started trading with merchants. It expanded greatly under their rule in the 1st century.
Before returning to Lagos, we left the museum and stopped for a beer and Tosta Mistas. We've learned by experience that some of the best basic food (and cheapest) is by a bus station - here in Faro, we weren't disappointed.
Arriving home after dark, the 4 of us reminisced on the great day we'd had - commenting that although Faro is now a small city with many modern amenities, it still carries some of the magic of the ancient city of Ossoniba.