Skeleton in the... Chapel

Aimée Smith, 24 November, 2017
Faro may be a city best known for its airport, but the Algarve's underrated capital is packed full of old world charm and intriguing sights that make it a surprisingly fascinating place to explore.

When it comes to captivating cities, Portugal seems to have more than its fair share. With their old-world elegance, rich cultural heritage and atmospheric riverside locations, destinations such as Lisbon and Porto are fast rising up the list of Europe’s most visited cities. Yet these are far from the only places in Portugal where cobbled alleyways wind engagingly between ancient churches, medieval ruins and tempting waterfront restaurants – deep in the south of the country, another such city lies forgotten by all but a few visitors…

Often dismissed as just a gateway to the rest of the Algarve, or mistakenly written off as an over-developed tourist resort or a large, industrial city, historic Faro is full of surprises. Did you know, for example, that the correct Portuguese pronunciation isn’t actually ‘Far-o’ at all, but ‘Far-u’? I certainly didn’t, and this was just one of many things I learnt on a recent trip to the Algarve’s compact capital.

Like many other visitors, I was keen to make the most of the November sunshine and head straight to the one of the region’s beautiful beaches, perhaps for a plate of fresh seafood next to the crashing Atlantic. But, tempting though that was, I’d heard a rumour that Faro’s walled Old Town was worth the short detour from the airport (as well as mention of an intriguing chapel of bones), so decided to begin my exploration of Portugal’s sunny south here.

From my vantage point next to the attractive marina, first impressions were good. With the ancient city walls on one side and the Ria Formosa lagoon stretching away into the distance on the other, there’s a pervading sense of history and tranquillity in Faro. Adding to the city’s relaxed charm is the fact that it’s easy to explore on foot, with a centuries-old network of winding cobbled streets linking the main sights of the Old Town.

It was along one of these narrow streets that I headed next, passing under the neo-classical Arco de la Vila, an ornate archway built on top of the original Moorish gateway that was damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Though much of the city had to be re-built after the notorious earthquake, Faro did at least escape the worst of the ensuing tsunami, thanks to the protective presence of the aforementioned lagoon.

Natural disasters were only one of the threats the city faced – in the late 16th century, English troops sacked Faro, looting books from the Bishop’s library and later gifting these to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where they controversially remain. A new Episcopal palace was rebuilt following the attack, and today sits serenely in the very heart of the Old Town, facing the cathedral. The colourful past of this imposing Sé – the cathedral was built on the site of a former mosque that was itself built upon the site of the original Roman forum – is testament to Faro’s long and multi-layered history.

After a visit to the small but interesting Archaeological Museum, I picked up my pace, leaving the walled centre via the Arco do Repouso, so named as the first king of the Algarve, Dom Afonso III, is said to have rested here under the arches to hear mass. Unlike Afonso, I was eager to press on and reach the Igreja do Carmo, an 18th-century Baroque church whose interior contains some of the finest gilded wood carvings in southern Portugal. Impressive though they are, the main attraction here has to be the infamous Capela dos Ossos, located at the rear of the church. Guarded by a skeleton, this eerie chapel was constructed with the bones of over 1,200 Carmelite monks – allegedly as a reminder of the brevity of life, but more practically as a way to free up space in the local cemeteries!

With the limitations of time firmly on my mind, I wandered back to the train station to continue my journey west. As the train pulled out of Faro, I again glimpsed the labyrinth of marshes, dunes, barrier-islands and freshwater lagoons that make up the Ria Formosa Natural Park. One of the ‘7 Natural Wonders of Portugal’, this diverse ecosystem extends over 60km of the country’s coastline and is a haven for flora, fauna and visitors alike. Needless to say, it’s on my list for the next time that I’m in the area.

Because I will definitely be back – rather than the skeleton in Portugal’s closet, Faro is a quietly charming city that is full of character, and one which is certainly worth more than a flying visit.

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