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The real Algarve: ‘A white-washed village adrift in the kissing sea’

Vitálio, 72, tubby and talkative, brushed lustrous hair, opens his barber shop at dawn. There’s a flow of customers blown in on the early tide – their fruit and veg picked and dug, fish hooked and delivered to the market at the end of the alley – and a handful of older insomniacs, here just to hang. Few come to get their hair cut, for Vitálio’s serves mainly as the bairro community centre. Read the newspaper, clack dominos, talk nonsense, fetch a café bica, scrape away at a lottery card. It’s the being here that matters, not the doing

Olhão is 15 minutes from Faro airport, a hard-working, hard-living fishing town and proudly individualistic – Portuguese shorthand for clams and characters, part-time piracy and peaceful anarchy. Barreta, this bairro where Vitálio has lived all his life, is a village within the old town, scrabbled with cobbled lanes, blind alleys, textured shadows thrown from the infinite blue sky above, once-prim cubist houses now in glamorous dereliction. There’s a feeling of North Africa as mopeds push past, and in the elaborate chimney pots with their echoes of minarets. Physically and emotionally, we’re as close to Tangiers as we are to Lisbon.

The last of the restrictions were lifted here on May 19. Lockdown was scrupulously observed: Portuguese society relies as much on understanding and mutual consideration as it does on its Byzantine laws. Now that we’re out (and all sporting our masks inside any business premises and on public transport), once again gifts from the sea and the serra are presented daily to Vitálio by his friends. A brace of wild rabbit from the fields behind town, hedgerow snails crammed inside a water bottle if it rained overnight, a squirm of sand eels, an octopus squashed in a shopping bag.

Lucília, Vitálio’s wife, has a holiday home on Armona, one of the pair of islands that protect us from the full force of the Atlantic. On Armona and her sister island, Culatra, time itself feels elastic and ethereal, reminding us of how beautifully innocent and unironic life can be. I say “us” because I’m slowly becoming part of the bairro, drawn here first more than a decade ago by the symphonically fresh, determinedly local produce in the markets, and then permanently three years ago, to open a taberna and recently a tiny bakery in the collapsing bordello next door to Vitálio’s. I too now pay my respects to him with a daily freshly baked madeleine, which he palms in an instant into his chatty mouth.

You reach both islands by Pugwash ferries from from the jetty at the end of the esplanada, or via taxi speedboat if you’re feeling a bit Raquel Welch or Tony Curtis. Culatra is further, up to an hour’s walk through the clambeds, depending on the tides, a journey I want never to end. It is a village adrift in the kissing sea, colonised by forthright fishing families, their low houses riotous with bougainvillea or fronted by eccentric gardens coaxed from the sand.

Every August the sea gods are propitiated when the enormous Bacchic ceremony, Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes, is bedecked with flowers and toasted in Super Bock beer then borne wonkily aloft from Culatra’s chapel on a flotilla of overloaded boats to meet mid-channel with the Madonna from Olhão’s Mother Church. The party lasts all weekend.

On the island there are half a dozen restaurants to serve you the perfect simple seafood lunch after which you amble along the boardwalk and over the low dunes, drawn on by the sound of the rising falling sea. The sands smell of the silver-sage and yellow-flowered curry plants that pepper them. Sparrows and bee-eaters nitpick and black swallows fed glossy and big on unsuspecting flies swoop and flit on swoosh-shaped wings.

The sea! Huge and restless to make you feel small and peaceful. Just by being here you feel like you’re playing your bit part in the universal drama, maybe even playing it well. Magnesium flares flash from sun-smashed waves. A rush of iodine in the air.  Even during busy August, after a short stroll you’re alone, left to nestle and burrow into a dune, seduced when sweaty into the sea’s powerfully pristine embrace. Depending on the tide there may be some folk armpit-deep in the swell dragging for butterfly clams, or gently casting long lines for silvery sea bass. Three generations make little family encampments. Families of sandpipers needle the water’s edge. An hour’s stroll towards the setting sun leads you to the lighthouse at Farol, a lovely beach bar, and the ferry home

Unlike the Spaniards a short drive away, Vitálio and his neighbours see themselves as Atlantic and not Mediterranean people, from a small country hemmed in by a powerful noisy neighbour on one side and the ocean on the other. Forced for a thousand years by invasion, poverty and politics to either get away or make do, it seems that the Portuguese are less effusive and more reserved than their neighbours, and how very lovely this is. In this egalitarian community humility is a strength, and “simple” an adjective of the highest praise.

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Such native diffidence does not diminish Olhão’s strong sense of self. Olhanenses relish their distinctive dialect, its inflections and inferences more Arabic than European. Their pride in being a salty, ribald town is reflected also in the knowledge that we are surrounded by land and water so abundant that it gives us broad beans in February and strawberries 10 months of the year, and when a breeze blows through in early spring the cashmere aroma of orange blossom is exotic and narcotic. The Unesco-protected waters of the Ria Formosa, a coastal inlet that surrounds Olhão, teem with the seafood you see in the market: monkfish, gilt-head douradas, supersweet meaty clams, weird sea snails, wiggly razor clams. The prices we pay for all this world-class wildly fresh, naturally grown and caught produce make my London chef friends weep.

 Armona island is part of the islet belt that separates the Ria Formosa inlet from the sea. Photograph: Hector Christiaen/Alamy

Best of all, Olhão’s big attraction is that there’s no big attraction. This not only keeps the tourist crowds away, but frees you from any nagging must-do, must-go, must-see anxiety. A hill to climb? If you must there’s São Miguel, with its humble leaky pilgrimage chapel and its flanks carpeted with thousands of resiny rock roses. From the lung-busting summit, the eastern Algarve reclines before you, flamingo’d salt pans shimmery in the heat, hugged by a sparkling sea, fringed with myriad fruit trees and largely empty of humans. In June we come to pick a certain pink flowering thyme that only seems to grow here, and its high green scent fills the car for weeks afterwards.

Here, history is in the faces of everyone around you, not in a museum. Tribes of Celts thrived here. Phoenicians established tuna fisheries and fish-salting industries. The Romans appropriated and integrated the fruits of both civilisations. Then the sybaritic Iraqi Umayads landed, followed by their sterner North African cousins: the Inquisition put paid to them and most of the Jewish communities. Foreign soldiers came and stayed too – Napoleon was defeated on the outskirts of town (his army reputedly marched here on Olhão tinned sardines). The DNA these visitors donated to Olhão’s gene pool is in the people’s gestures and attitude, their absolute commitment to family, their calm acceptance of Other.

The main aim in life is the achievement of tranquillity and contentment. Thus, with the fluff and detritus of life stripped away, to find yourself in Olhão is to find yourself. By travelling here you’re encouraged to leave your self behind and get closer to yourself, for Olhão is not just a place to come to, it is a place just to be.

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