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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Paul Tierney

A miracle of design: Faro, the Palm Springs of Portugal

An early-1970s beach house near Faro by Manuel Gomes da Costa
An early-1970s beach house near Faro by Manuel Gomes da Costa. Photograph: Paul Tierney

In the glare of the morning sun, the streets of downtown Faro are a textural hot mess. A faded art deco shopfront sits cheek by crumbling jowl with its neighbour’s rusting balustrades and handmade fondant tiles. A bank swerves around the corner like an ice-cream sandwich hit by pistachio light. Everywhere there are buildings you might generously describe as less art and more nouveau. These are layers of the near past – and I’m smitten.

Travel Faro 7 Oct

But in this overlooked city, crowded with dusty anomalies, it is the modernist architecture – strict, sharp, punctuated by flat roofs and sloping angles – that attracts the most attention. Faro has more than 500 of these mid-century buildings, the highest concentration in southern Europe. Perversely, it’s only now that the curious are taking note. From looming, Rio-style high-rises clad in geometric scallops to modernist villas, the structural clarity and sheer chutzpah they share are catnip for the modern enthusiast.

In the early 1950s, having made their money in South America, a group of Portuguese architects led by Algarvian Manuel Gomes da Costa returned home ready to confront political values and reject outmoded ideas. Inspired by the work of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Oscar Niemeyer, they were tasked with breathing new life into the region, and in that sense their take on modernism – the “South Modern” style – did much to address Faro’s lack of character.

A restaurant in Faro’s old town.
A restaurant in Faro’s old town. Photograph: anitage/Alamy

For easy reference, and it’s a bit of a push, you could call it the Palm Springs of Portugal, although the buildings here retain an undeniably unique flavour. Gomes da Costa is known for a style of tropical futurism that pitted nature against the elements in truly progressive ways. His Brazilian-inspired cobogós are latticed slabs of brutal concrete, designed to cool a facade and filter light into shadowy abstraction. Everything he created celebrates the sun in some shape or form, so it’s slightly ironic that they’re now drawing people off the beaches and on to the streets.

On Rua Dom Francisco Gomes sits The Modernist hotel (doubles from €150, minimum two nights), a former maritime office reconfigured into guest apartments, for those who don’t mind being labelled “archi-tourists”. Like a chest of drawers, neatly positioned above a lottery kiosk, this symmetrical paean to a time gone by (once described as “the ugliest building in Faro”) is an ugly duckling grown up. There are no TVs here, no art on the walls. Just local green marble, red vinyl floors and the bed you wish you had at home. The Modernist is no-frills luxe, if such a term exists. It’s all about the lines.

Owners Christophe and Angelique are Parisians who came four years ago and never left. “Faro is a miracle of design and architecture,” says Christophe. “It was love at first sight. It felt like Havana – neglected, but with such wonderful heritage. Maybe the comparison is too much, but it certainly has that vibe. It’s not the prettiest of cities on the Algarve, and it’s not polished, but there’s a lot to discover here, and a lot, we believe, that needs to be preserved.”

A 1957 apartment block.
A 1957 apartment block. Photograph: Paul Tierney

With that in mind, the pair have become unofficial cheerleaders – the mod squad – of the scene and delight in inviting others to see what they see. Guests are encouraged to take curated architectural walking tours of Faro’s modernist charms, bypassing traditional tourist spots in favour of streets distinctly less trodden.

Away from the centre, where the palm-lined avenues are broader, and clusters of estates fan out like petals, buildings blend the future with the past. Detail is everything of course, and you’re never more than an overhang away from door handles to die for, or the geometric thrill of a tile-covered wall.

On Rua Emiliano Costa or Rua dos Bombeiros Portugueses, in what’s known as the South Modern residential area, mid-century houses retain their original features but are living, breathing spaces. If someone leans over a geometric-patterned balcony, they may well offer an impromptu invitation to take a look inside. The vibe is South American in spirit, laid-back to the point of inertia, and refreshingly low-key. It’s a bit like Through the Keyhole, sponsored by Super Bock.

Given the renewed interest in Faro’s buildings, it’s not surprising that like-minded creatives have since converged, launching a clutch of restaurants and watering holes that feel simpático to this new/old landscape. Bago’s dark, enveloping interior, lined with narrow black shelves of Portugal’s finest wines, is a good starting point. This is the spot where English professors from Faro’s University of Algarve come to mark PhDs over a glass of decent Douro, where people buy a whole bottle for themselves, without fear of sulphites or shame.

Faro’s marina.
Faro’s marina. Photograph: Jon Arnold Images/Alamy

Within staggering distance is Ato, a new dining proposition led by a young American chef, Sean Marsh. The space is an unpretentious ode to the Algarve and beyond, where cuttlefish cooked in its own ink looks better on the plate than the image in your head. The room is slick and simple, which all sits very nicely with the modernist crowd who aspire to this aesthetic purity.

At weekends, or when city life palls, people head over to Faro Island, a sliver of flaxen beach on the other side of the Ria Formosa – the billowing wash of lagoons that hug this coastline for about 40 miles. A dinky, year-round catamaran ferry costs a mere €3.75 and takes 25 minutes to gently reach land, while the captain plays a Portuguese version of Céline Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. Luckily, the only iceberg in sight is the angular skyline of Faro, diminishing in the distance.

Armona island, Ria Formosa natural park.
Armona island, Ria Formosa natural park. Photograph: Gonzalo Azumendi/Alamy

I’m met at the pier by Richard Walker, a British artist, part-time resident and modernism buff. “There’s a community here which is difficult to define,” he says. “You’ve got young international surfers, off-grid hippies, local Portuguese people. And then there are oddballs like me – the artists, observers and thinkers. It’s a place for ideas.”

Perched on a sand dune carpeted in succulents is the charming Café do Zé, a rusting hut serving milky cafe galão and hunger-crunching pork bifanas. Richard talks up the Faro Modernist Weekend, an event he organised in November 2022 and will repeat this year. “There’s an international appetite for modernism that’s really rather far-reaching. We have dinners, art exhibitions, architectural walking tours with access to interiors. It’s design in the sunshine.”

Bago wine bar.
Bago wine bar. Photograph: Paul Tierney

Walking towards the headland, I check out the Atlantic-facing houses, some of them modernist, others featuring minarets that nod to Morocco and Tangier in the distance. The Aeromar hotel fits right in (rooms from about €60). This is modernism at its most extreme, designed by our friend Gomes da Costa, with period features – an inglenook fireplace, marble staircases – that hark back to the future.

The senhōra on the desk reminds me of Sybil Fawlty, menus are written in the font Comic Sans, and the toilets are that rare shade of navy blue last seen in the mid-1970s. It’s a David Lynch movie come to life, but not without its charm.

Hermès recently shot a fashion campaign at the Aeromar: this could be the place’s making or undoing. Faro’s a modernist city but it will never be modern.

The Modernist Weekend runs from 10 to 12 November. Events – from walking tours to open houses – cost from €10

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