This is more like it. This is my kind of place. We left Albufeira early in the morning to enter the channel that leads to Faro and Olhão at high water. Our plan was to anchor behind the barrier islands in the Rio Formosa. We had no idea what the place would be like, but the pilot book said that Olhão itself was far less tourist-orientated than other places along the Algarve. We anchored behind Ilha da Culatra, hoping to stay for a couple of days. We’ve been here for over a week and are loathe to leave!
The red Algarve cliffs end a few miles before Faro, replaced by an incredibly flat low-lying sandy coastline. Ilha da Culatra is one of a few barrier islands sheltering the sandbank littered waters on its northern shore from the breaking waves of the Atlantic. As soon as we entered the channel leading to the lee side of the islands, I exclaimed ‘It’s Arviat on the Algarve’, while Julian simultaneously said, ‘It’s the Mississippi’.
The small village of Culatra lies only a couple of miles from two other villages, accessible across the sand at low water, but considered to be on separate islands. Ilha da Culatra is flat and mostly treeless, and from the sea it is a tiny thread of land separating the blue sea from the huge blue sky. It is the vastness of the sky, the flatness of the land, the lack of trees, and the profusion of small boats resting on the shore in front of the cluster of low houses that first reminded me so much of Arviat, my beloved ‘other home’ in the Canadian Arctic.
We anchored a short distance from the tiny village, and I couldn’t wait to get ashore.
There are no cars; just a few small tractors to transport goods and people. The village is built on soft sand, with paved footpaths (with street names recalling local history and celebrated local fishermen) leading between houses, to the harbour, the shops, post office, library, the little school and the community hall. Very little grows here, but outside many of the small white-washed houses, in plots protected by fishing nets from the multitude of large and free-roaming island dogs, the villagers grow vegetables and fruits in the unforgiving sand. Brassicas are ubiquitous, and there’s the occasional sad-looking tomato plant. Lime trees are scattered around the village and we found a pomegranate tree growing outside one house (it’s safe from me…pomegranate is the one fruit I dislike). None of the plants or trees looked particularly fertile – indeed they looked like a lot of effort for very little return.
The island relies on fishing and tourism. Indeed, it was fishermen from the mainland who first settled the island in the 19th Century, attracted by its rich marine life, and eventually building homes and founding a community. These days the island men fish for sea bass and sea bream and cultivate mussels, and if the activity around the harbour is anything to go by, fishing is thriving. The island’s women gather clams from the beaches at low water, and we met clam-pickers carrying buckets and baskets and nets heavy with clams at each low tide. I was thrilled to see two octopuses hanging out to dry on the clothes line of one home!
The island also takes advantage of the many day-tripping tourists who arrive by ferry. There are a surprising number of cafes and bars, some of which appear to be people’s homes, converted for the long summer into hostelries. Service is simple and informal – uncapping a bottle of cold beer pulled from the fridge is the extent of it!
On 19th July 1987, the village en masse refused to participate in the national elections. They were protesting against the lack of assistance they received from the Portuguese government, feeling they were being forgotten and left behind. Their protest caught the government’s attention and since then the islanders have seen many improvements to their lives – the island got electricity in 1993, a health centre in 2006, water supply and sanitation in 2009, and a scheduled ferry service to Faro in 2010.
The island is a nature reserve, so no further development is allowed to take place. As a result, the newest houses look at least 30 or 40 years old, with only a few community buildings, such as the school, dating from more recently.
We arrived onshore late in the afternoon of our first day here. We quickly surveyed the village and then walked across the island to the expansive beach on the south side, where the Atlantic rolls in and crashes on the shore in waves just the perfect size for the children to play in. Since then, we have visited the beach every day, where the swimming is excellent!
In an effort to protect the delicate sand dunes and salt marshes from the constant train of visitors each day, a raised walk-way runs from the village to the beach.
Back in the village, Lily and Katie played with some local children at the playground, while Julian and I sat and drank a beer at a nearby bar. Large dogs roamed freely, in and out of the playground, ignoring the children, minding their own business.
I long to see the island in winter, when the tourists have departed. I suggested to Lily that she and Katie go to school here, and we could live in one of these tiny houses, pick clams and send Julian out bass fishing! My little fantasy!