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The Road to Faro

Until a few years ago, I’d never heard much about Faro at all. Well, it’s the capital of the Algarve- the

southernmost part of Portugal and also the westernmost part of Europe. Still, it beats me as to why,

suddenly, I was compelled to make it to Faro: Not because of its unique historical standing as the

administrative core in the southwestern region of the Iberian Peninsula; not because of what I’d heard

about the aesthetic appeal of the placid “Cidade Velha,” Faro’s medieval barrio; and not because of its

renowned golden sand beach, the much loved “Praia de Faro.” My road to Faro really was not about the

destination, itself, or the beatific roadway there. Instead, it was about the personal journey leading to

Faro- across cities, countries, continents and cultures, gradually transforming mindset, lifestyle,

knowledge, and convictions- along the way. This journey, though unfinished, has altered my identity

because each adventure brought a distinct impact on my mind, heart and spirit.

 

But, first, let’s start with Faro, itself. Traveling with long-term French friends, Laurence and Jacques

Mauge from their exquisite Cascais residence to the Algavre, we were able to experience this beguiling

town of Faro in just the manner that we preferred- unrushed, curiously, and with no set plans for each

day. I’d say that Faro possessed a seductive quality. Sneakily, it unveiled its appeal: Arco da Vila, the

harbor-side gateway to the Cidade Velha, characterized by a master display of stonework; cobblestoned

alleyways and backstreets; a 2000 year history of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Moor inhabitation

illustrated in the architecture of churches, houses, museums and other buildings; and, a surprisingly

lovely and lively atmosphere in the cafes and squares. Frankly, I found the Faro old town to be

engrossing as I envisioned the creativity and amazing effort that went into the early architecture and

pondered the life of the lost societies once living there. Just inside these ancient walls, the first

inducement was the Sé Cathedral de Faro, a Roman Catholic cathedral completed in 1251, then

reconstructed in 1577 and again in early 17 th Century. With a marriage of Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic

styles, the church is wondrous because of its interior azujelos tilework and gilded wood carvings and

alters. A baroque 17 th Century organ, gifted from Brazil’s Cathedral Mariana, fortified its appeal. Even

more, the rooftop view provided a full appreciation of the walled city, café-crammed shoreline, and Ilha

Deserta- a long tract of sandy land extending from the coast.

 

While leisurely strolling, we noticed Palácio Belmarço, a 20 th century restored and serene-looking

chateau just paces away. Originally commissioned by Manuel de Jesus Belmarco and used as a

residence, it was purchased at auction in 2014 for a mere 455 thousand Euros by Barão Rodrigues

Investments to house its headquarters and represent its Herdade do Menir wine brands. Although the

chateau was closed, we approached an entering employee and were able to secure a private wine

tasting, much to our excitement! We had only to wait about a half hour at the café in Largo de São

Francisco (St. Frances’ Square) only paces away. The experience began with a fairly complete tour of the

 

renovated property which had cost a secret fortune to restore. For me, the most outstanding features

were the fabulously tiled wall panels, reconditioned and depicting Portuguese landscapes that dated

back to 1916. In the end, our pleasurable wine tasting experience concluded with purchases that made

it a worthwhile opening for all, and an open invitation to return either to Palacio Belmarco or to the

Herdade do Menir vineyards, Lagoa do Ruivo, along the banks of the Guardiana River. All I can say is:

What great fun we had!

 

During the Faro visit, we found the time to explore The Igreja da Ordem Terceira de Nossa Senhora do

Carmo. There, I was haunted by the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of the Bones), located behind the church,

in which the walls and ceiling were completely covered with skulls and other bone fragments. Back in

1816, some local stonemasons from the Brothers of the Order recovered and used remains of over 1000

monks buried in the adjacent cemetery. As if one of these ossuaries wasn’t sufficiently macabre, there

are others, including a much larger one in Evora, 83 miles away, with the bones of over 5,000 who were

once buried in the cemeteries of dozens of Portuguese churches. These chapels were intended to make

one contemplate the frailty of our own existence and the fact that we each must confront demise. With

these fragmented skeletons cemented all around, meticulously arranged, gingerly polished and

shellacked, I can’t adequately articulate the creepiness of this chapel in Faro and its eerie effect on me.

Pára aqui a considerar que a este estado hás-de-chegar” (“Stop here and think of the fate that will

befall you”), it says above the entrance. Ghoulish yet intriguing and divine!

 

During the exit from Faro we made an amiable visit in the village of Estoi to see the 18 th Century Palácio

de Estoi. While construction started in 1840, the palace was not completed until 1909, and then

renovated in 2009. Today, the opulent “pink” palace operates as a luxury hotel, complete with grand

staircases, gilded furniture, stucco ceilings, azulejo tilework and extraordinary gardens reminiscent of

those at the palace in Versailles. Unfortunately, we were not able to negotiate a table for lunch because

the restaurant, the spot for tourists and residents alike, was fully reserved. Oh well, next time, I hope to

spend at least one night there!

 

Okay, now, I’m still pondering “Why Faro?” Could it be that Faro completes my intended course

throughout the Iberian Peninsula? That’s seven out of ten major metropolitan areas, along with many

other urban cities and historic towns. Could it be due to the expressed Iberian enthusiasm for this

panoramic and peaceful region, with Faro as the capital? Or, could the draw be something as simple as

the sound of the name- far-removed and distant, a perfect place for soul-searching, and reflecting on my

potentially infinite journey, with a bit of dreaming thrown in? Hmmm…maybe all these thoughts were

motivations, but whatever the reasons, Faro turned out to be the right place.

 

There are voyageurs like Donald Parrish, Charles Valey and Jorge Sanchez, who have traveled to all 193

United Nations countries. Impressive! Though, this is not the vision I have for myself. My odyssey is

inspired by romantic cultures, gentle people of the world, friendships, majestic treasures in art and

architecture, the creative and the wondrous. This extraordinary pursuit has led me to reach 46 states of

the USA; all of Western Europe; much of Southern, Central and Northern Europe, South America, Asia

(including parts of the Middle East), Canada and the Caribbean; and bits of Africa and Mexico. Ah, “Life is

what we make of it! Travel is the traveler. What we see isn’t what we see but who we are.” (Fernando

Pessoa)

 

I dream about the many new places that I want to observe and appreciate: Gazing at Christ the

Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro; cruising to the “bottom of the world”-Patagonia and marveling at the

gargantuan glaciers and icy peaks; becoming spellbound by the Aurora Borealis emanating from

Iceland’s or Norway’s Northern Lights; being captivated by an opera at Milan’s La Scala (Soprano Sondra

Radvanosky singing Donizetti’s “Three Queens,” please!)… And, there are plenty of experiences that I

silently cry out to savor over and over again: Being awestruck by the Chateau de Versailles’ spectacular

fireworks and fountain lighting shows; strolling along the cobblestone streets in Bellagio on Lake Como

with a strawberry gelato in hand; gaping at Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji (“The Golden Pavilion”), all covered in gold

leaf, then wandering in its pristine gardens; catching my breath in Zaragoza’s La Seo Cathedral, adorned

in gold and alabaster; pressing on my heart to the sound of the soulful Fado music in Lisboa’s Ristorante

A Severa or Sr. Vinho; crossing the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, staying

a night and rediscovering the small café where the sugar packets were stamped with the words, “La

dulzura puede cambiar el mundo”….

 

I was once a teacher in the inner-city high school where I graduated. My world was minute compared to

now, but my mind was inquisitive and my heart was huge. Today, the experience of the world has

opened my mind and my eyes, broadened my shoulders and expanded my knowledge. Although my

spirit struggles to be completely free, my heart’s capacity remains intact. I have “dared to live” and, oh,

how I have grown!

 

So, after listening to my rumblings and observing my comings and goings, a friend gave me a book called

“The Female Nomad.” Hahaha! Wait, I’m not nomadic! I have roots! However, I considered, while in

Faro, why she gave this particular one to me. More Odysseus-like, I travel with the distinct intention of

making it home. Granted, extensive time in France awarded me a second citizenship, and invaluable

friendships, like Laurence and Jacques who concern themselves with my well-being on every trip. And,

Marie-Noelle, Philippe, Mona, Eric and Corinne stand by in friendship, ready to share their knowledge of

the French culture and environs. Here, I learned more discipline, maturity, sophistication and how to be

courageous in the face of seemingly overwhelming stumbling blocks. I brought this new strength home.

Spain offered me frequent hospitality, along with inexpensive and safe refuge, in the fashion of the

Phaeacians, during the years when I was obliged to bring my kids to Paris for extended visits with their

dad. Still, home was always home. Then the Circe, Japan- so magical and flawless, was almost capable

of erasing memories of my past; however, I shook off the spell and came home. The sweet, gentle song

of the Siren Portugal continues to lure me back, again and again, but there is always a return. There’s so

much more that could be shared…. Here’s to the road to Faro!

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