The Algarve’s inland gem, Loulé is set apart from its tourist coastline cousins and was our first reconnection with the region after 15 years. Would our disappointing memories from that package holiday be erased, replaced by a more mature travel perspective? And would Loulé be our first healer? We really hoped so.
Our entry to Portugal from Spain was 40 miles inland away from the Algarve’s Atlantic coastline. And whilst I had my heart set on revisiting the craggy cliffs and rock artistry from Portimão to Sagres, we consciously chose to avoid the full length of this southern most region.
Loulé would be the first dipping of our toes in the Algarve’s proverbial waters, and after a recommendation to visit, I hit the research jungle drums, to find out more. I was captured by the phrases “authentic Portuguese village”, “not a tourist destination”. Now that was my kind of place.
Although before I launch into regaling you with our tales of this fine town, let me tease you with a little preamble. Inland Portugal was a soothing introduction to our uncertain return. Winding our way through the curvaceous lands towards the Alentejos region, Mértola and its Natural Park of Guadiana was our first station stop. This Islamic icon initiated our Portuguese history lesson. Mértola, perched high above the river that courses its way to the Atlantic, is a walled city that houses Arabic tension and Christian dominance from way back in 10th century. It was a lovely place to check out for a couple of hours. Here’s a little taster in a gallery below.
N2 – Portugal’s Answer to Route 66
As keen motorbikers back in the day, our route south towards Portimão was shaped by the lure of Portugal’s answer to the famous Route 66. The N2 was in spitting distance from Mértola and this route had our names written all over it. The N2 glides from Chaves in the north to Faro in the south of the country, covering some 450 miles, tip to toe. It is classed as the longest continuous road in Portugal, winding through 4 different mountain ranges and crossing through 29 different municipalities. We joined it at Almodovãr and soon found ourselves snaking through the oak forest landscape that was as curvaceous as Marilyn Monroe. I could see why this is a Mecca for motorbikes. Traffic, now diverted onto the toll motorways for quick access north and south, leaves this road quiet, free and magnificent to drive. With the cork industry evident thanks to the half naked oak trees lining the roads, we wound our way to Querença having had a rich hour’s drive on this ‘not to be missed’ route through Portugal’s beating heart. Click below for our gallery.
Loulé, a town of authentic charm
So back to Loulé and the reason for writing today. We love the charm of authentic villages. Communities where the locals hang out for morning coffee, buy their fish from the daily market and gratefully sell their wares to any passing trade. Would Loulé satisfy our search for such genuine communities?
Our arrival to Loulé initially didn’t give us the image we had hoped for. Although we have come to appreciate that, just like a cracker, it is what is on the inside that really counts. We found ourselves a safe place to park (37.13815, -8.02614) just a few minutes walk from the southern gate of the city walls and got our Maps.me route at the ready. In my research I found a great blog from the Algarve Tourist that acted like our own personal guide, giving us all Loulé’s POI and their relevant coordinates. What a find that was, as wandering aimlessly irritates the pants off me.
Yet our self guided walking tour was anything other than aimless or irritating. It was a joy to experience its cultural diversity, seeing Portuguese and North African residents live in harmony together. To feel the vibe of locals going about their daily lives without the intrusion of coach tours was a privilege. I’m sure tourists exist in the summer, although Loulé seems unrelentless in its desire to stay true to its authentic roots. With its cobbled streets that entice you to explore the local artisans, brightly coloured houses holding centuries of history and small bars and cafés tucked away in corners, Loulé is charm personified.
The arrival of Arabs in 8th century gave Al-‘Ulya’ its first real identity as a fortified city and many of its features still remain today such as the Islamic Baths, the bell tower of St Clemente church and the Muslim cemetery in the park across from the tower. Although from mid 1200’s until 19th century Loulé’s character altered hugely as economic crises in the country impacted on its development and Christian dominance took hold of its architectural and cultural evolution. Finally today’s finely tuned community fuses diverse inhabitants who are set on making Loulé home, irrespective of history’s struggles. Click below for our interactive Walking Tour of Loulé.
Our Top 10 Sights
1. St. Francis Catholic Church
Set on the modern fringes of the town, this 17th century church looks plain and easily missable, although there will be crowds of people around its doors, so you’ll know you have found the right place. Although it is the inside that is meant to the main attraction. Unfortunately we couldn’t get in on our visit.
2. Walk down the elegant shopping street Rua 5 de Outubro
As you head across from the Church, take the Outubro street which takes you down the tantalising shopping centre. Unlike so many other cities or towns, this is a short lane full of smart boutiques and shops selling a huge range of cork products. Cafés line the streets and with the artistry on the cobbled floor, you will experience shopping like never before – and guess what? So few tourists too.
3. Take a peak at the Conceição Chapel
Whilst perhaps plain on the outside, it is inside the the view will amaze you. Sadly you’re not allowed to take pictures, although with an Alter full of gold and the walls of intricate blue images, this tiny space is quite incredible. Conceição is a big lesson in never judging a book by its cover.
4. See the excavation works at the Islamic Baths
We were lucky on our visit as the major excavations of these ancient Baths had an open door for us to peak through. It is a major project uncovering the remains of the walls and they are unearthing a significant piece of history. Hopefully you will be lucky too.
5. Bicas Velhas Fountain and Castle
Just behind the Islamic Baths, you will find a fountain that dates back to 1887 and that supplied the local population with their water. Look out for the four spouts one of which was made from smelting one of the bells from the Mother Church.
And around the corner, you will find the Castle fortress and its museum. Its origin dates back to 2nd century when the Roman’s had a presence here, then the Moors more specifically took control until 1249 when the Portuguese gained control from the Muslims. You can visit from Tuesday to Friday from 10.00am – 1.30pm and 2.00pm – 6.00pm and on a Saturday from 10.00am – 1.30pm and 2.00 – 4.30pm. There is an entry fee of €1.62.
6. “Espirito Santo” Convent
This 17th century building is iconic, if not for its history than for its 45ft Pine tree, which rises from the centrepiece of the building. Initially occupied by Franciscan Friars, the convent evolved into a shelter for unprotected women and yet it was only in 1711 that the Pope recognised it as a religious sanctuary. The earthquake of 1755 had a devastating effect on the convent and had to be rebuilt and today it is now the home of the Art Gallery. You can walk into the inner court and crane your neck skywards to see the enormous Pine tree even if the Art Museum is not your cup of tea.
7. Câmara and Municipal indoor market
After walking through the alleyway to see the back of the Convent (take note of the best public toilets in the square here that I have even had to visit) you will come out to the main N270 road through the town. And you won’t miss it – the elegance of the Town Hall and the unmistakable pink facade of the indoor market. The market is on every day and offers you a range of fish stalls, at least 20 butchers around the outside and an array of other yummy goodies to tempt you. Although if you want a bigger market experience, then come to Loulé on a Saturday when the Farmers’ and Gypsy market become the places to hang out. Check out our gallery by clicking below.
8. Medieval cobbled streets
As you meander your way from the market towards the Igreja de São Clemente, towards the south side of the town, take some time to wander your way through the narrow, cobbled streets where artisans have small shops and café bars sell their tapas the locals. Here atmosphere is intimate and warm as daily life just toodles on by without a care for the visitors passing by.
9. Igreja de São Clemente
As you walk away from the market, the Bell Tower of the Church of San Clemente is your call, visible way above the reaches of the medieval houses. The square that the church calls home is full of interesting points and it is worth glancing upwards as you marvel at the bells that toll around Loulé’s rooflines. The church was built on a mosque and has survived three earthquakes so has many tales of survival and perseverance to tell.
10. ‘Martim Farto’ Townhouse and Muslim Cemetery
Opposite the church notice a very different style of house, which is thought to have been a noble-man’s dwelling constructed in 18th century. With Baroque style architecture the house holds an interesting story; Martim Farto a counsellor and representative from the King’s Court was said to be godfather to most of the children christened at the time. To the left of the building also check out the unique chimney, which is so different to those seen around the country. Also you will see the cemetery that is now a public garden and that can be enjoyed by all in the town.
More to see…
Whilst Loulé as a town is worth seeing in its own right, there are some special times to come visit and experience a cultural uniqueness.
If you can time your visit around 3-5 March you will experience the flamboyant carnival that grips Portugal at this time of year. Loulé has a reputation for being one of the best in the Algarve. Just check before you go as the annual carnival dates do change according to Easter calendar.
If you want to explore Loulé in the relative privacy of your own company then go Monday to Friday, as Saturday the place changes personality – it’s market day. Not only do you have a Farmers’ Market there’s also a Gypsy Market too and people come far and wide to visit. So expect more crowds, although what an interesting experience that would be.
So Loulé? What’s our verdict?
A delightful and historic place to visit way from the coastal crowds, that hums to the sound of Islamic and Christian war-dances that have scarred the ancient landscape. And yet paradoxically, peace and harmony now reign through the quiet, cobbled streets. For such a small town it has a big personality which will charm you and we highly recommend a visit.
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