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The transformation of Olhão, romanticization of the past & the loss of authenticity.

The administrators of Olhão in the Algarve were shocked when their fantastic demolition and new construction plan for a 21 m high watchtower in the middle of the historic center of Olhão was completely rejected. During a meeting in the main hall of the Sociedade Recreativa Progresso Olhanense, with quite a few demonstrators in the hall, the plans were completely burned down by the “speaking specialists”. During a subsequent presentation of the plans for the city center, the observation tower with historical and cultural information center, designed by Baixa Atelier from Lisbon, had completely disappeared.

Observation tower of 21m. location of the tower

How do you preserve the authenticity of a historic place, while still keeping up with modern times? Olhão is the last of the “fishing towns” with a disappearing canning industry and undergoing the transformation into tourism. 10 years ago, the first foreign newcomers, attracted by the "cheap" houses in the Barreta district, hardly dared to walk through the center in the evening because it was dominated by crime and drugs. It is not without reason that Dutch columnist Arthur van Amerongen described Olhão at that time as the “Detroit of the Algarve”.

For foreigners, the appeal of Olhão probably consists of this “authenticity”, in addition to other qualities, such as close to Faro airport, the markets and other services, including broadband internet and the "Recreativa 14" society. This authenticity is rooted in a certain “romanticization of the past" due to the fact that Olhão is still in an embryonic stage of tourist development and because there are still plenty of old buildings and aging population left in the historic area. Foreigners living in Olhão are particularly concerned that traditional architecture will give way to high-rises and other 'modern' buildings.

Unfortunately, these are the projects that the city council, led by the chairman of the Camara Municipal, António Miguel Pina, is focussed on. On the border of the Barreta district, where the huts for storing the fishermen's nets once stood, now is a V-shaped 5-star hotel with as many floors and next to it some rows of apartment blocks in a uniformly and tasteless urban development pattern. Below it there are “new catering establishments” with even an Irish Pub. But that will not be your first thought if you are looking for an “authentic” fishing town in the Algarve. However, it is nice to live there and the view of the Salinas is great..

New Marina

There is even more development on the other side, where a new marina has been built, which will accommodate around 1000 boats after the future planned expansion. The park next to it has received the necessary "view" with restaurants that are also located in Quinta de Lago. No wonder that this development is called the "Vilamourarisation" of Olhão by the local inhabitants. Only in Vilamoura they do not have such a great view on the islands and the shell pickers as here in Olhão.

It is hard to stop new developments and some developments are an improvement. The new boulevard along the market halls has been significantly changed by the disappearance of the parking lots and the new fresh design. Perhaps a terrace with 5 rows of tables and chairs is a bit overdone, but that is becoming a global phenomenon. In the Barreta district, the new owners have renovated a number of houses and the decline has clearly been reversed. The coming up with the "Caminho das Lendas" walking tour through the Barreta and the Levante districts is a discovery and has created new squares without cars but with art.

But the problem is that many developments are “new” and tourists mainly want to see and experience the “old” Olhão. The question is therefore whether enough remains of the “old” Olhão to support the “new” Olhão. Will the aging population and the decline in fishing cause more and more people to leave or to be displaced? Will there soon be any authentic restaurants such as “O'Bote” and others left on the boulevard or will they all become branches of restaurants from Quinta do Lago. Will we soon be able to get a glass of wine for €0.80 like at 7-Estrellas or will it all be Bamboo-Rooftop Bars with expensive cocktails, ....but with a world view of the islands around them? Will the locals continue to come to the market and fill the terraces every day with their discussions about football or the “lucky numbers” of the lottery?

Will the residents of the Barreta district still grill sardines on the corner of there square on Sunday afternoon and will I still experience the scene with my bicycle repairman Sr. José ? The last time he was sitting in front of his repair workshop, packed with bicycles and having a picnic with a friend on a Saturday. Occupying a parking spot on while sitting on a crate. A few roasted sardines on the table and some bread and a bottle of wine. Unfortunately, more of these precious scenes will disappear, that is irreversible. The question is whether there is enough left. Whoever has the answer may say it.


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