Olhão & Ria Formosa
Situated at the heart of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, Olhão has developed as a result of the harmonious interaction between man and Nature. Originally populated by seafaring nations that were attracted to the wealth of its marine life, Olhão has continued to pursue its main livelihood of fishing whilst earning a reputation as a beautiful holiday destination. The intricate labyrinth of canals of the Ria Formosa estuary, interspersed with sand banks, salt pans, long stretches of golden beaches and the marvellous examples of diverse flora and fauna have all combined to add to the timeless allure of this attractive Algarve region.
Olhão’s history is deeply rooted in its fishing industry. Roman and Arab remains throughout the municipality testify to timeless fishing and fish-salting activities in this area and the fishermen of Olhão are renowned throughout the region for their competence and expertise. Originally attracted to Olhão by the abundance of fish, evidence suggests that the sole inhabitants of Olhão were for many centuries the fishermen who erected makeshift huts along the coast and dedicated their life to fishing using the traditional ‘xávega’ method (casting a sock-shaped net into the water and dragging it back to the shore).
The fishing industry continues to capture the interest of all who visit Olhão. Whether it be the fishermen’s quarters of the old part of town with their curious cubist-shaped houses and Moorish flat roofs, the morning buzz of the fish market by the waterfront or the boats at the harbour returning laden with their catches of shimmering sardines, the town is a hive of activity and a picturesque mixture of sounds, colours and smells. A stroll along the promenade that skirts the waterfront is ideal for observing the buzz of activity in the harbour below.
A walk around the historical centre takes one past the 17th century Igreja Matriz (main church), the first stone building to be built in Olhão and financed by the fishermen themselves. It contains a separate chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Afflicted who is generally revered by those whose livelihoods depend on the sea. The affluent houses in this area bear witness to the period of wealth enjoyed by the region after the establishment of the first sardine and tuna-canning factory at the end of the 19th century.
As one would expect, Olhão is also credited with having the best seafood and fish dishes in the Algarve and is the proud host of the annual Shellfish Festival in August. The Ria Formosa is a renowned breeding ground for various species of fish, molluscs and crustaceans and they are all proudly exhibited and savoured during this festival, all to the tune of music and dancing in the town’s streets. A visit to Olhão would not be complete without tasting one of the local, tasty fishermen’s recipes in the little restaurants that line the streets. The local specialities include almond clams mixed with corn, razor clams in a rice sauce, stewed conger and cuttlefish and broad bean stew. Far more traditional than most of its neighbouring cosmopolitan towns, Olhão does not have the offer of restaurants that is available elsewhere but there are a limited number of foreign restaurants available.
Leaving the town behind and crossing the maze of canals, sand banks and marshes of the beautiful Ria Formosa, lie the long sandy dunes of Armona island. Armona and Fuseta beaches lie at either end of this long sand bar and provide amenities and water sports. Both these beaches can become quite busy in the summer but a walk further along the dunes will guarantee seclusion for those who appreciate peace and quiet. Fuseta Ria beach, close to the town of Fuseta, is a small sandy cove facing the Ria that can be reached on foot. Cavacos lagoon beach lies in the middle of the estuary surrounded by salt pans and is an excellent location for observing the rich plant and wildlife of the Ria Formosa.
Longer, exploratory trips around the Ria Formosa are organised at the Ria Formosa Natural Park Centre in Marim where explanatory guides detail the fauna and flora of the area and offer walking itineraries around the estuary. These walks also include visits to the breeding centre of the Portuguese water dog, a native breed to the region and at one time thought to be near extinction.
Although Olhão has welcomed development as a holiday destination, gladly receiving visitors to its shores to enjoy the beauty of its beaches and lagoons, it continues to cherish and uphold the tradition and heritage that led to its very birth.