Fishing is still done with old fishing boats, the corridinho is danced at folklore festivals and even new houses come with original Algarvian chimneys. The south of Portugal is a traditional place. Craftsmen showing their artisan skills make for pretty pictures, but, more importantly, they keep the local cultural heritage alive. Enjoy the Algarve explores why the old ways are still so popular.
Want to learn how to make clay pots, tibornas, felt slippers, or carob liquor? The Algarve is the place to be. Especially in inland cities like Loulé, Silves and São Brás, where there’s no ocean or beach to spend all your time, care is taken that artisan skills are being kept alive. Initiatives like Loulé Criativo, launched in 2015, offer workshops and courses that range from making an Algarvian picture frame to cooking with local aromatic herbs. Their goal? ‘Revitalising the traditional arts and crafts’ while encouraging ‘visitors to interact with the local culture’. A cynic could claim these experiences are just to make money off tourists. They aren’t. Artisans are proud of their skills that go back generations and take decades to master. Normally they’d pass them on to the next generation in the village; but seeing as the majority of youngsters are either working in hotels and bars in Portimão and Albufeira or don’t fancy becoming craftspeople, it’s a good way to ensure these skills aren’t forgotten. (Yes, we know that following one course doesn’t make you a master tile-maker. It does, however, give you a taste of the Portuguese identity).
Another initiative is Projecto TASA, which in Portuguese stands for ‘Ancestral Techniques Current Solutions’. Also located in Loulé, it combines old skills with new design and therefore aims to ‘bring strategic innovation into the craft industry, insuring its place as a profession with a future’. A good thing, as many ancient crafts are about to disappear. Half a century ago, a walk through Loulé’s Rua da Barbacã would be accompanied by sounds of hammers coming down on copper plates; now, it’s not so noisy anymore. Logical: there’s more money being made as a tourist guide than as a coppersmith, who spends up to four days creating a handmade cataplana. Same goes for other crafts: why go through all the effort of weaving your own bread basket out of reed or cane if you can buy a factory-made one for a tenner? Or even less, considering the low prices of plastic goods that are mass produced in Asian countries and sold by the dozen all over the world, also in the Algarve.
But traditional isn’t just about artisan skills like palm weaving and pottery, or pretty costumes and dances at folklore festivals like the Santos Populares processions. Portugal’s cultural heritage is luckily also still visible in the daily life of the Algarvians. Walk along the street and you’ll see horse and carriages, street signs made of azulejos, and calçadas lining the streets of pedestrianised shopping areas. The local cuisine, with its flavours of either mountains or ocean, consists of traditional recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation. Ask any Algarvian for the best pastel de nata/cataplana/meat stew recipe and ten to one the answer will be: exactly like avó (grandma) used to make it. Even if there isn’t any need for all this traditional work, like drying and salting cod in order to keep it from going off on long sea journeys – surely nowadays it’ll keep fresh in a freezer?- bacalhau is still made the historical way. And don’t you dare suggesting to change it!
These old customs make for great pictures: orange sellers along the Algarve’s N125, sitting under an umbrella in the sun with a handwritten sign saying ‘2 sacos, 5 euros’ or fishermen sorting out oysters and clams on the beach. But these images also paint a picture of Portugal’s culture and spirit. Whereas the rest of the world seems obsessed by modernisation and change, trying to become bigger, better and faster, Portugal seems content to stay with, or even go back to, the basics. With success. Take for example the recent Eurovision Song Contest, won by the Portuguese Salvador Sobral who sang ‘Amar pelos dois’. Contrary to the majority of the other acts, in the Portuguese performance there was no glitter, glamour, fireworks, flames, spectacular dance choreography or dancing monkeys. Just a guy singing a semi-sad song (which no, it wasn’t Fado. Yes, it sounded a bit Fado-like). The question is: why change a winning tune?
Same goes for traditional occupations. In Cachopo, blacksmith José Zacarias Vicente proudly uses bellows, hammer and chisel to make horse shoes, the same way his father, grandfather and great-grandfather have done. The village of Cachopo put up a special sign outside his workplace and also boasts about their local saddle makers, Medronho brewers and weavers. Not featured in museums or tourist guides, but working in a traditional way as well, are the people in small inland villages like Carriços, who plough their fields with donkeys instead of tractors. Partly because it wouldn’t make sense to use a tractor on a small piece of land, but also because they don’t have the money to buy one. However, in other occupations work is done by hand because this leads to better results. Sea salt harvesting in the salt pans of Castro Marim and Olhão for example; using a rake and hand shovel instead of a digger means you can work more precise. Since there’s no mud or clay mixed in with the salt that’s harvested by hand, it doesn’t have to be cleaned and thus it retains all the good minerals. Also olive picking and carob bean collecting is done the way it has been done for centuries; by hand. And despite all technological advancements, there still isn’t a machine or computer that can debark cork oaks…
Another traditional occupation you’ll see in the Algarve is goat herding. When walking in the countryside, it isn’t uncommon to share your path with a herd of goats, all looking for the juiciest leaves. Just like his father and grandfather did before him, Sr. Martin is a goat herder in the Salir area: “I like it. I don’t have many goats, but I keep them for milk and cheese. Goats’ cheese is really good. I walk them every single day and enjoy being in the mountain area.” His small herd consists of just over a dozen of goats, all with bells on their neck, their colours a mixture of black, white and brown. The goats are afraid of unknown humans, but immediately react to their keeper’s shouts and follow him as he walks home in the sunset, looking content.
Although it also has its disadvantages, walking your livestock around the countryside every day doesn’t seem too bad a job – especially when the sun shines (which luckily happens quite often in Portugal). Maybe living a simpler life does make people happier. One where you are working with your hands, actually creating something, or spending lots of time outside in the fresh air. Compared to many present-day jobs that include spending the majority of your day sitting on your backside behind a computer screen, it isn’t hard to see why, sometimes at least, the old ways are indeed the best.