by Lena Strang
“We want to create a wow factor in the historic centre of Portimão,” Inna Iefimenko tells me. “Just imagine the abandoned, dilapidated buildings transformed into beautiful houses with the addition of artwork telling the story of the city.” This is not just a fanciful flight of the imagination: it’s exactly what Inna and her partner Fernando Sequeira are doing. She is the artist and Fernando procures buildings to restore.
I meet the couple in one of the houses that they have just restored in the old town. It’s situated on Rua da Barca, just a stone’s throw from the riverfront. It’s a small townhouse painted in shades of blue with part of the façade decorated in azulejos (traditional Portuguese tiles) featuring scenes of fishermen at work. On top of the door is a plaque with the words Vida à Portuguesa (Portuguese Way of Life), which is their trademark.
Inna invites me into the house. At the top of the stairs, there is a large, painted azulejo with a mischievous-looking fisherman tipping out a catch of sardines from a crate. “I decorated the front of some of the steps with sardines as if they were tumbling down the stairs,” she laughs. The two bedroomed apartment is stylish and comfortable, oozing old-world charm. The theme of Portimão’s fishing industry is continued with decorative tiles on the walls. “All the furniture is locally sourced from charity shops. We restore each item, giving them a new lease of life,” Fernando says. A lot of care and imagination has gone into turning an unloved, forgotten building into a charming residence that harks back to Portimão’s maritime past.
Then Inna takes me to the second building on Rua do Cólegio nearby, which is currently being restored. It is a larger project, resulting in two small and one large airy apartment. This time the theme is dedicated to ‘Fruits of the Sea and Land’, and on the green façade are beautiful azulejos that celebrate this aspect of Portuguese life.
I still have plenty of questions. How does she manage to do such exquisite artwork? And how is Fernando able to buy buildings to restore?
Inna tells me she was born in the Ukraine and studied Architecture and Fine Arts in Kiev. “Thanks to my mother’s constant support and excellent education, I had a successful start in life,” she says. She worked as an architect in Kiev, but her skills were soon put to use in very different ways.
Ten years ago, the family moved to Portugal and chose Portimão to open the restaurant Waterfront. For the next four years, Inna was busy serving at tables. As fate would have it, Fernando enjoyed a meal there and, in a casual conversation, told her he was looking for an architect! Fast forward a couple of years and you’ll find them working together on joint renovation projects in Paris, moving back to Portimão, and then embarking on their new venture here.
Although born in Lisbon, Fernando spent most of his life in France. He is an astute businessman buying and selling property, the proceeds of which are now being re-invested in Portimão. His mission is to restore old buildings to their former glory and enhance the character of the historic town centre. He wants to create a pleasant ambience for residents while recognising the need to attract visitors, benefitting local commerce. “Renovation must have a purpose. Our properties do just that; they provide attractive tourist accommodation that reflects the heritage of the city.”
And there is more. I am shown a huge 19th-century building stretching along Rua do Carvalho and Rua Porta de Serra. It was a landmark when it was built, being the tallest building in the city. A family occupied the house and kept horses on the ground level. It was abandoned for many years until Fernando bought it recently. The ground floor will be turned into a restaurant with outside terrace space and the rest of the building will become accommodation. I can sense Inna’s enthusiasm: “The azulejos will tell the story of the house itself with images of the local market and the church nearby. The ones for the restaurant will feature typical Portuguese food.”
Yet another building is being restored next to the house of Manuel Texeira Gomes, renowned Portimão resident and ex-President of the Republic. Inna’s azulejos will trace the history of the life of this remarkable man.
Fernando has one more card up his sleeve – classic cars. Ten cars are currently being renovated, ready for visitors to cruise around in style. Inna is going to make sure that the twelve iconic brands of cars that were once produced in Portugal aren’t forgotten as they will feature on the façade of the garage.
The couple is pleased there is increased awareness of the importance of revitalising town centres. The government and local councils are promoting projects through various grants and tax concessions. Their private venture has received much positive feedback from residents and the buildings frequently feature on various social media.
A seal of approval is given by Visit Portimão, which states on its Facebook page: “The creativity and fantastic impact of these true works of art can be enjoyed by anyone who passes through the streets.”
The city of Portimão is certainly benefitting from the work done by this innovative couple.
Main article photo © Nuno Telles www.instagram.com/tellesbeautycaptures