Traditionally the home of fishermen, the eastern Algarve town is the new hub for artists and intellectuals
Olhão is in fashion. The once disregarded town of fishermen and mundane life is in vogue with artists and intellectuals and is brimming with initiatives, new projects and businesses.
Architects, writers, painters and creative people from Portugal and around the world are seeking inspiration in this seaside town. The cubist architecture, proximity to the airport and the Ria Formosa, its iconic market and the local people’s genuine spirit and character are some of the key elements that partly explain the area’s attractiveness and growing popularity.
For 58-year-old architect Filipe Monteiro, the fact that Olhão is “an authentic place, with human scale, in the south, in the sun, by the sea and not too far from an international airport” was decisive when he swapped New York for the Algarve, 13 years ago. He has lived in France, China, Holland and in the United States of America, but his passion for this Algarve town arose, inevitably, during a trip to Portugal with his wife. They were just passing through when they decided to buy “a house in the downtown area”.
According to the well-travelled architect, the artistic phenomenon in Olhão is not unusual: “It originated mainly in coastal towns and specific areas focused on commercial transition from sea to land and vice-versa.” Over time, warehouses were abandoned for many reasons. “[These warehouses] were occupied, legally or illegally, by artists who found these ample spaces the ideal place to produce their works. That is where they worked and lived,” he said. “Subsequently, as a first step, art galleries and wealthier clients began realising the potential of these places.”
Known popularly as “cubist town”, the architect explains that this was the terminology used to “define the volume of urban fabric that makes up the old shell of Olhão, with its rooftop terraced houses, with pangaios [internal access to outdoor terraces] and upper and lower belvederes [mirantes], terraces and cubic shapes”. This is an architecture that Monteiro describes as “typical and unique in the country” with a “strong north-African influence”, due to its “labyrinthine and narrow streets”. In architectural terms, he also highlights the sensibility of many resident foreigners in restoring and preserving the buildings’ design.
According to Monteiro, everything began with “pioneering Piers de László, a painter and grandson of the famous Philip de László”, who was “involved, directly and indirectly, in the protection of over 70 houses (24 of which he himself owned) and who would eventually bring countless other artists to the area such as Antonia Williams, Edwin Hagendoorn, Justine Albronda, Jeffrey Carter, Cecilia Carter, Diederik Vermeulen, Frank Akinsete and Meinke Flesseman”, he states.
One of the cultural spaces where most artists currently convene is at Re-Criativa República 14. Inaugurated in April 2018, its headquarters are the old Olhão Recreational Society. Heading the project is Maria João Cabrita, a legal expert connected to the artistic world who wanted to convert the family building into a cultural centre, which already has 333 members. You can visit this “cultural republic” every day, enjoy the bar service and the consistent and varied programme including concerts, Portuguese lessons for foreigners, yoga, dance, meditation, drawing and exhibitions.
Maria João reveals that in just a few months the take-up and demand have been amazing. “Many artists and intellectuals meet here and we hope to soon revive the outdoor cinema.” The old screen can be easily salvaged but they need a patron who can invest in projection equipment so that people can once again watch movies and documentaries outside.
Meinke Flesseman is a mutual friend of Filipe Monteiro and Maria João Cabrita. The 52-year-old artist, who lives and works in one of the most charming houses downtown, grew up in the Algarve but spent most of her life studying arts in Holland, England, Italy and Russia, until she returned to the region. She perfectly recalls her first impression of the town: “I instantly felt the environment was still very authentic, romantic and magical. I immediately decided this is where I would buy my home, even though I’m a thoughtful person who doesn’t make rash decisions,” she explains. “At the time, Olhão had a negative image. In fact, it was only recently that people began looking at the town in a different light! But I had no doubt that this was my place,” she says.
She refurbished a house she acquired in Barreta and turned the ground floor into an atelier and exhibition room. The walls are randomly covered in colourful paintings of different sizes and themes. Meinke says that, unconsciously, the move to Olhão influenced her works. “I used to paint very lonely and empty landscapes, without people or animals. That changed when I came here. Suddenly I started painting fuller themes, with more life, history and bizarre situations! I feel that affected my painting,” she admits. Now the sea, water, people and animals are recurring subjects in her canvases.
Our meeting with Meinke took place a few days after the artist inaugurated an exhibition in a downtown restaurant, Chá Chá Chá, owned by British food critic Kevin Gould. After working for The Guardian newspaper, the 58-year-old former journalist decided to settle and invest in the heart of Barreta. He got to know the Algarve around 12 years ago, during his work travels. “I came to Olhão unexpectedly and was enchanted from the very first minute,” he recalls. “I thought the people and architecture were interesting, but the market… I can say I have been to every famous market in the world. I don’t know a better one! The freshness, quality and seasonality of the produce are unbelievable. I recall telling my wife we would live here someday.”
Intriguingly, after visiting the most renowned restaurants on the planet for the prestigious British paper, Gould left it all behind to settle in Olhão and open his own business. He restored a ruin which, up until 1996, had been a fruit and grocery shop and had a very popular tavern at the back, along with a brothel on the first floor.
“There is no reason to be ashamed of the history or mythology of the house,” he believes. In fact, all this will result in a book, to be published after the summer.
According to Gould, undertaking and creating a business from scratch in a foreign country, in a town of fishermen, has been an amazing experience: “They say Olhão has soul, and that is true. You can be anything here – rich, poor, anything, as long as you are authentic. I love this authenticity. People have a very genuine attitude towards life, which allows them to access a joy that only exists here. The way they talk and express themselves is one of a kind; they are real, with real lives and feelings.”
Header Photo: ©Município de Olhão