I spent last Friday in Faro, which is the capital of the Algarve region. If you’re coming to visit, Faro is the closest airport to me. Just sayin.
I arrived in Portugal through Faro airport and my driver told me he loved living in Faro. I have visited a few times, mostly for government paperwork stuff. Faro did not appear attractive to me and I couldn’t understand why people liked to live there.
That shifted with my latest visit. I had to extend my temporary driver’s license at the IMT (Portugal’s DMV) so I decided to make a day of it. Mostly because I wasn’t sure how long the wait time would be. As it turned out, the gentleman at the front desk was very helpful and got me the proper ticket from the Take-A-Number machine. The waiting area was filled, so I settled in with my book to wait. My number was called within 10 or 15 minutes (Take THAT DMV!) and the clerk got me sorted in under ten minutes. I found myself back on the street with plenty of time on my hands until my lunch with a friend at 14:00.
I walked over to the Mercado Municipal in the hopes of finding things at the Auchon grocery that weren’t carried at my local groceries. Grocery shopping in Portugal, at least for me, involves going to several stores. The big Continente stores carry just about everything you need and then some. In addition to groceries, they usually have a large kitchen section, they’ll carry some linens, and small appliances. For some reason, they don’t carry good cream for my coffee. So I have settled pretty much on the smaller Pingo Doce stores, where I can get whole milk (gordo leite) and my precious cream (nata). But there are still items that are hard to find in either. Hitting different groceries is a bit like a treasure hunt—you never know what will turn up. This week, I found puff pastry dough at the little groceria in my village. I have yet to find it at the bigger stores. It doesn’t mean they don’t carry it, just that I haven’t stumbled across it.
The Auchon in Faro has a larger selection of foods than the Pingos in Tavira and in the past I have found boxed mac n cheese (yeah, I know it’s gross, but I like it), Biscoff cookies, and other not-easy-to-find items. Auchon also has a large bio (organic) section and the bins of oats and nuts and quinoa remind me of Whole Foods or a Sprouts.
Grocery shopping here is a crap shoot: What you found one week may not be carried the next week or maybe they’re just out of stock. I have learned to pick up “extras” when I find something I really like. This trip I found Ocean Spray cranberry juice. The real stuff. For someone who likes to drink Cape Codders, this is like finding the Holy Grail. I picked up a couple of quarts because the people who sit behind me in my Portuguese class are also Cape Codder fans. We’ve got to look out for each other.
The Municipal Market in Faro is a three-level building. Immigration (SEF) is upstairs, along with some other city offices. The Auchon and garage are on the lower level. And the main level is given over to vendor stalls. It’s a big farmers’ market with fresh produce, meats, and fish (an entire section I can skip). There are also vendors with local honey, nuts, and baked goods. I spied the first-of-season sonhos (Portuguese donuts) at one shop. At Christmas time, bakeries make special treats and unlike the US, they are really good about making sure you can only get Christmas treats at Christmas. Sonhos are basically fried dough balls (with a lot of egg) and these were rolled in cinnamon sugar. The baker had six left and I asked for two. (In Portuguese, thank you.) She said, “You need six.” I said, “No. I definitely do NOT need six!” and we both laughed. She said when she was pregnant, she craved sonhos. To say we bonded would be an understatement.
I got my two, put them in my bag, and tried not to think about them. I wandered for a bit longer, checking out the other booths and finally sat outside at a café with a cappuccino to people watch. I have to say, sipping a cappuccino at an outdoor café in the Portuguese sunshine has a way of making you feel at peace. I sat watching the world go by with no place to rush off to. I could sit for as long as I wanted. Nobody rushes you out of your seat to turn the tables here. You can sit to your heart’s content. I watched a young dad trying to keep up with his toddler, a couple with their mother just chatting, a young lady greet an older man and have a standing conversation. People came and went with their shopping bags. The news vendor did a steady trade. No one hurried with that defensive edge we put on in US cities that says “Don’t even think about messing with me.” Here people sit, relaxed, because for the most part, they don’t mess with each other. Maybe in Lisbon it is a little more frantic, but in Faro, not so much.
Eventually I wander off in the general direction of the marina where I am to meet my friend. I take the time to check into some of the shops and I end up walking through the Old Town District, a lovely area of restaurants and shops, open only to foot traffic. There is music playing, people sitting out, shop doors open for business. I come out at the park across from the marina and notice that the restaurant we had planned on for lunch is closed for renovations. That’s okay—I have just come through a goldmine of restaurant choices.
There’s a little crafts market set up in the park: people with handmade jewelry and crocheted goods, essential oils and artwork. I settle in once again with my book and in time, my friend shows up. We walk to the plaza with the restaurants and find a tapas place. A musician is playing guitar and doing American tunes from the 70s and 80s. I know them all. I don’t feel old; I feel at home. We order tapas and wine and talk with the musician and decide this will be our new hangout and we’ll be his groupies. It’s an ambition that is aligned with the day.
I started to see the virtues of living in a bigger city. You can get stuff—prepared foods, foods you can’t find in the smaller towns, Ubers that actually show up, easy travel connections, etc. There’s a wider choice of restaurants, perhaps a bit more going on. But I also know that I can have this any day I choose. I can hop on the train and get off at just about any stop along the line and find places like this. That’s the magic of Portugal for me. But I think it is true of any place you live. You just have to choose to do it.