Just like the tides that wash the Algarve’s coastline, many waterfront towns have a history of highs and lows in fortune and prosperity. In the case of Olhão, these waves of transformations have been dramatic. 

WORDS Bob Tidy

Today the town of Olhão is experiencing a rising reputation as a tourism destination with its own share of quality accommodation and attractions. We will look at this in the second part of this article, but for now, the focus is on one of the town’s older buildings and how it relates to a period when Olhão was genuinely called a ‘boom town.’

The metaphor is perfect because it was the coastal waters that provided the opportunity to develop the town from a set of simple wooden fishing huts, with an abundance of sardines, tuna and mackerel available to catch. Around the beginning of the 18th Century, it really was a case of “if we could put that in a can and sell it, we would make a fortune.” 

At one point in the past, there were around fifty fish canning factories in Olhão alone, according to Sr Fernando Júdice, a charming man who I had the pleasure of interviewing. We met in the Republica 14 building on the main avenue of the town. Today, this building is used as a social centre, offering a range of activities with the aim of “providing a special place to feel at home and to develop meaningful projects” to quote Fernando. This includes art, yoga and many other activities, but the main attraction here has always been music, with Fernando being a musician of acclaim himself. 

Built in the early part of the 19th Century by the Conde D’alte, it became the home of the first high society recreativa of its kind in the whole of the Algarve. Quickly became known as the recreativa rica. The open space at the back of the courtyard has a large screen for showing films and staging outdoor concerts. The same area is used for local markets and the atmosphere is very relaxed and nostalgic. A small café/restaurant has a steady stream of visitors, confirming its popularity. The reminders of days gone by are seen in the worn floor, wall tiles and traditional furniture. After walking through the main gallery and other smaller rooms, I was hit with a sense of joy that places like this still exist. 

I asked myself why this happened here and not in the more established city of Faro. It turns out that due to the prosperity that the fish canning industry bought them, the local “Olhãonese” realised that they could govern themselves. Thus, they broke away from Faro. The town’s elite– bankers, judges and politicians alike– had their own private gentleman’s club. No doubt, this was a place to make their plans and business deals in private. Membership was carefully controlled with behind-closed-doors ballots, making it impossible for those who were seen as unworthy to be allowed in. This elitism went hand-in-hand with sexism by today’s standards. This was no place for women, who were only allowed to attend the fancy parties and balls. No, the women of the town had a meeting place of their own, down at the canning factories. 

Referring to her childhood memories, Nídia Braz writes:

During the 20th century, fish canneries were present all over Olhão, giving the town an immediately distinctive identity: the loud sound of the sirens calling women to work once the fish was landed (as it had to be processed upon arrival at the docks), the pungent smell from the fish-meal factory Safol which, mixed with low-tide odours from the salt marshes, poisoned the air on hot summer days, the chimneys emerging from the white-lime cubic houses, like tall, red-brick towers. Canneries were all the more important as they provided employment to armies of women whose life pace was actually dictated by the sound of the factory horn.” * 

Without a regular work schedule or a fixed salary, they would leave their household and children at the first sound of the sirens. They worked non-stop until the landed fish were all gutted, trimmed, cleaned and packed in cans. When the catch was good, they would work long hours and earn good money; when fish was scarce, there was no work and no income. 

–Memories of salt and sea: Anchovies from Sardines: Nídia Braz – University of Algarve

Like any other industry, the canneries needed local support. This gave an income for craftsmen and other ancillary businesses. Among them, the printers, metal workers, basket and net makers, all flourished. This explains part of the reason for the coastal salt pans and the cultivation of olive oil that was used in the preserving of the fish. Apart from being dirty, smelly, hard work with random and irregular hours, at least there was work.

Some may view this as slave labour and exploitation of women, and others as simply taking advantage of an opportunity. You can decide that one for yourselves. Whatever the verdict, it is good to see that the original concept of providing a place for social activity is still alive and all of us can visit the art gallery, do a Tai Chi class, enjoy a concert or simply drink a cup of coffee with friends.

* Memories of Salt and Sea: Anchovies from Sardines: Nídia Braz – University of Algarve,.

Main image: © Bob Tidy