Growing up outside of Boston, our American history classes touched on how cobblestone sidewalks and streets came to be. In the 1800s, cobblestones were used as ballast in ships coming from Europe. They were offloaded in American port cities, making room for the cargo that was being exported to Europe. The cobblestones were repurposed to pave the streets. Some were used for buildings as well. It was a big deal to see a cobblestone street on a trip “all the way into Boston.” (It was sixteen miles. The Boston Marathon runs through my home town. Literally, you can run or walk to Boston from my town. As a child in the suburbs, it was an Expedition. Who knows why?) If you’re in the Boston area, Acorn Street on Beacon Hill is one of the best known (and photographed) examples of early cobblestones. Pavers are the modern-day equivalent.
When I arrived in Albufeira, I was enchanted by Portugal’s cobblestone sidewalks or calçadas. Until I tried to walk on them in the rain. Spoiler Alert: They’re slicker than gooseshit. Even in dry weather, walking on cobbles takes a little getting used to. Portuguese women navigate them at a rapid clip in spike heels without blinking, of course. I find these women astonishing, awe-inspiring, and intimidating. I am proud to say that I can now navigate any cobblestone sidewalk at a matching clip… in my Fila running shoes… if it hasn’t rained.
The AirBnB I am staying in is in the historic center of Olhão, a rabbit warren of cobblestone back streets and pedestrian-only walkways. Here’s the street where I’m staying. Aren’t the planters adorable?? Little BOATS! I know, right?
One of the “benefits” of cobblestones is that they create a distinctive sound. They also amplify sound. You can hear a car (or a horse-drawn carriage) approaching on a cobblestone street from at least a block away. That’s especially handy in areas where there are a lot of pedestrians. The buildings in this particular area are about twelve feet apart which creates narrow “canyons” where people walk. The result is that sound is amplified and carried for at least a block. I can hear the conversations of people walking in the area long before I can see them. I can hear the trash containers being emptied several blocks away. A bicycle crash around the corner was as loud as a car crash. (No fatalities or injuries, but both bicyclists chose to stay in place for about twenty minutes while they gathered their wits.)
Not too far away is the Nossa Senhora do Rosário Church, built between 1681 and 1698. The bell tolls the hours and half hours and puts a fine bit of punctuation to the expression, “clear as a bell.” Although it is several blocks away, the first time I heard it ring out, I thought I was standing in the bell tower. For reals. Because…cobblestones. Everything is amplified and echoes. I have since grown accustomed to it and the second church bell chimes that come two minutes later, in case you missed it the first time. (For my Boston friends, think of Dave Maynard suffering through Community Auditions: “And, in reprise…”) Lately, there has been a series of 9 chimes at odd hours, an extensive peal of bells usually at 5:30 pm but sometimes at 4:30, followed by 33 chimes representing Christ’s years on Earth. One day the bells tolled 78 times. (I counted.) I’m assuming it was for a funeral and that was the age of the deceased. A good long life marked.
Olhão is a working city with a strong Moorish appearance. It started as a fishing village and, during the sieges of Cadiz and Gibralter, the town’s enterprising boatmen made their fortunes supplying services to both sides of the conflict. While Olhão has easy access to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Algarve, it is mainly a working town, off the beaten track for most tourists. (Yeah, that’s the view from my bedroom.)
All this is a way of saying it is noisy in this area. This section of town is filled with small shops and mom and pop cafes. (Yes, of course I have a favorite.) From early in the morning to about midnight, there is always someone walking by. But you grow used to it, the same as you would grow accustomed to the hum of traffic if you lived in a city or the shouts of children if you lived near a school. I listen in on conversations from two stories up, trying to recognize a word or two of Portuguese from my limited vocabulary. Mostly I enjoy hearing the voices raised in greeting and the background chatter of every day life.