Finding balance barefoot in Olhão
I slip off my sandals and place them in the shoe rack provided for them right next to the large entrance door of Conveto Olhão. When my bare feet touch the smooth, white and blue tiles, it's like landing on another world, in another time. My senses sharpen and I enter the patio – a rectangular inner courtyard with a small fountain rippling discreetly in the middle. Two flowers float dreamily on its water surface, their petals stretched out towards the blue sky, half of which is covered by an awning gently swaying in the wind. It's only if I listen very carefully that I can guess that beyond the thick white walls of this magical place, somewhere out there in a busier, hotter, noisier world, there are people and cars. But I can just as well convince myself that it's the sea that's roaring there and the fishermen talking about today's catch.
The Convento: an oasis of calm in a busy fishing town in the Algarve
I'm in Olhão, a small town in the southeast Portugal. From here, the white, wild Atlantic beaches of the Algarve are just a short boat ride away. In front of it stretches the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a vast, lagoon-like labyrinth of marshes, sandbanks, islands, canals and mussel beds, which is navigated to the rhythm of the tides, admired and managed according to centuries-old traditions. So it's no wonder that almost all the alleys of the pretty old town, in which the cube-shaped, whitewashed and Arabic-style houses nestle, ultimately end at the hub of Olhão: the fish market. It is said that nowhere else in Portugal can you find such a wide variety of marine treasures.
Discreet luxury for maximum relaxation
My room in the Convento welcomes me like a cozy, whitewashed cave, the honey-colored wooden floor is pleasantly cool. During the heat of the day, the windows are kept closed here. Instead of a snarling air conditioning system, the rotor blades of a fan slowly turn their rounds on the ceiling, the effect reminiscent of a light sea breeze. The light that falls from the inner courtyard through the door gap into my room magically draws me back into the center of the refuge. Somewhere a warm woman's voice is laughing, the echo circling around the arches like in a sleepy choreography, before floating away into the blue sky as a soft greeting.
Guillaume, who welcomed me today, reminds me a little bit of a monk with his sparse hair and his deeply relaxed demeanor. Nine years ago he and his wife Antje received a momentous call from Portugal. "They wanted to demolish the Convent - but now it's for sale!" sounded the excited voice of his sister-in-law Eleonore from the other side of the world, where the couple loved to spend their holidays. And the two of them, who lived and worked as engineers and teachers in Shanghai at the time, followed this voice. "Together with Eleonore and her husband Filipe, we bought the completely dilapidated building - or what was left of it. At that time we didn't even think about turning it into a bed and breakfast one day. It was more of a spontaneous rescue operation without a big plan,” says Guillaume.
The Convento once housed the girls who worked in Olhão's fish canning factories. Eleonore and Filipe, who are both architects, have turned the former dormitories with high ceilings into beautiful, spacious guest rooms. Antje and Guillaume live in a separate part of the house and take care of the guests.
A place where you can hear petals falling
In the kitchen, I make myself a fragrant coffee and take a seat at the long, white-painted wooden table. Around it are 20 elegant chairs of all shapes and sizes, which appear to be waiting patiently for their guests. As I write these lines, I hear a petal from a bouquet of sunflowers gently landing on the table: a brief moment in which the calm and sobriety of this place condense as in an essence. Where else can you hear petals falling? Here in the common room, too, round arches and soft white tones tempt my gaze to follow the curved shapes without getting caught or snagged on anything. I almost didn't notice that a guest had scurried into the kitchen behind me to make tea. Nobody stomps, staggers or struts around here. It's as if nobody wants to disturb the old walls and their own newly won peace.
Anyone can take books with them from the library and are welcome to leave some
A little hidden in a corner is a small library with pretty, velvet-covered armchairs. As I sit down on a small canapé, I hear delicate jazz sounds. They seem to crawl out from under the bookshelf, settle down on the small Persian rug at my feet, and pretend to be a little bit bohemian. My gaze scans the spines of the books, recognizes mostly English, German and French titles, lingers briefly on a travel guide about Portugal and then turns away resolutely. I just want to be here, in this place - and not let my thoughts wander elsewhere.
Sunbathe, rest and refresh on the roof terrace
I reach the roof terrace via a stone spiral staircase. Instead of smooth tiles, the soles of my feet touch rougher, sun-warmed terracotta. I marvel at the magnificent view over the pretty old town of Olhão and the lagoons of the nature park. It's high tide right now, which is why only a few green tips of seaweed peek out of the sparkling water. On the horizon, I catch a glimpse of my sailboat, calmly anchored off the island of Culatra. I let my legs dangle in the cool water of the small pool and close my eyes. The evening sun warms my neck, the wind gently plays with my hair. Apparently a ferry has just rolled in, washing a large load of sun-kissed, noisy beach-goers back onto the mainland. Hungry, thirsty and still a bit salty from the sea, they now bring the small bars and restaurants of Olhão to life. I elude the noises, immerse myself again in the parallel Zen world of the patio.
Homemade breakfast made from fresh ingredients from the market
I would prefer to skip dinner so as not to lose contact with this retreat and with myself. But in the end, hunger drives me out into the alleys of the former fishing village. I meander along the cobblestones, now in sandals again, somewhat awkwardly to a tiny restaurant in a side street. In the Petiscaria I treat myself to a few delicious little things and then watch the hustle and bustle around the market halls. I enter the Convento earlier than planned. In the library, which is now bathed in dim light, I let the evening end quietly and am already looking forward to the home-made breakfast of my cordial hosts, which awaits me the next morning.
Ina's tips at the end
- In the two market halls not far from the accommodation you can buy fresh fish, fruit and vegetables every day. Every Saturday, the stalls of a farmer's market with fresh products from the region are packed tightly together on the promenade.
- The best way to find the accommodation is to approach it from the waterfront. Between the restaurants "Mariscos Isidoro" and "O Bote" a small alley, Travessa (Tv.) António Bento, leads into the city. Here you walk straight to the discreet house number 10. Yes, you're in the right place here - even if it's not on the line. Just ring!
- The best way to reach the endless, wild sandy beaches of the Algarve from Olhão is by ferry. It takes you to the islands of Armonia or Culatra. From there you can follow winding paths through the lagoons of the nature park to the Atlantik, where neither apartment blocks nor noisy beach clubs stand in the way of the perfect holiday feeling.
© Photos: Ina Hiester and Michael Storey