From the aircraft as it approached the runway, I saw the golden sand, picturebook-coloured houses, sunlight twinkling on the waves, the cathedral so close and the rows of boats in the marina.
Strangely, as I alighted 20 years ago and first sniffed the air of the Algarve, I felt a sense of being where I was meant to be, that I had come home. Nowadays, when I step out of the aeroplane, I really have come home.
There were then few places to stay in Faro, and tourists used to bypass the town on their way to the famous beaches of the western Algarve, but the improvements around the marina show that the city is beginning to compete as a tourist destination.
In August, we took our friend from the airport to sightsee in Faro from the bar/restaurant atop the new Hotel Faro. The beer is a little more expensive, but made worthwhile by the panoramic views over the marina, the lagoon and the airport approach.
Faro was an important port and administrative centre under the Romans who called it Ossónoba. It was reconquered from the Moors in 1249 by D Afonso III; his statue today stands proudly outside the Municipal Museum, which shows Roman artefacts from the excavations at Milreu. The most striking of its exhibits is the Roman mosaic, showing Neptune surrounded by the four winds, recovered during building works a few metres from Faro station.
The important towns in the Algarve were, for some time, Silves, Lagos and Tavira, but in 1577 the bishopric was transferred from Silves to Faro, which became the regional capital in 1756. Faro is, consequently, well endowed with churches and museums.
A major nightmare in the history of Faro was the raid of the Earl of Essex in 1596, during the Anglo-Spanish war. He sacked and burned the city and, to the disgust of his fellow commander, stole books from the bishop’s library. Before he was executed for treason at the Tower, Essex donated these books to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. There is even nowadays a movement in Faro to reclaim these books.
In his Journey to Portugal, even the usually scathing José Saramago waxed lyrical about the cathedral at the heart of the old city (Vila Adentro): “From its earliest phase there remains the magnificent tower-portal ... renaissance paintings, golden statues, plump marbles and a wonderfully colourful 18th century organ.” Its statues and carvings constitute a fine Algarvian collection of the religious art of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Nearby is a museum rarely mentioned in the guidebooks, the small Museum of the Portuguese Guitar, where João Cunha presents a delightful film guide to Faro. The Portuguese guitar provides background music to the film, after which Cunha gives a live performance. In the Praça da Liberdade, the regional museum (Museu Etnográfica) illustrates rural life in the Algarve, with baskets, straw mats, fabrics, ceramics and the cart used until 1974 by the last waterseller in Olhão.
The most characterful of Faro’s churches is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo. This honey-coloured building owes its unusual elliptical marble porch to the noted Algarvian architect Diogo Tavares de Ataíde.
Behind the gilded interior is a 19th century chapel built from the bones and skulls of over 1,000 monks as a reminder of earthly impermanence.
Opposite the marina, the Igreja da Misericórdia boasts a Manueline portico - the only part of an earlier chapel to withstand the 1755 earthquake.
The Igreja de São Pedro in the eponymous square features around the altar of the Capela das Almas elegant azulejos showing the Virgin Mary and other saints rescuing souls from purgatory.
To the north east of the town is the Isaac Bitton Synagogue Museum, formerly the cemetery of the Jewish community which returned to Faro after the final suppression of the Inquisition in 1821. This interesting museum was developed by Judy Pinto and husband Ralf, who now occupies one of the graves.
The two theatres in Faro are Teatro das Figuras, an impractical modern construction, and the charming Teatro Lethes. Built in 1605 as a Jesuit College, Lethes was rebuilt as a mini La Scala in 1843 by Lazarus Doglioni, and expanded in 1860 by his nephew, Dr Justino Cumanus, who made his money in curing venereal disease. The Latin Monet Oblectando on the outside of the building means “he teaches by entertaining”.
Stretching from Praia de Faro eastwards to Cacela Velha, the Ria Formosa Natural Park is a wetland of worldwide interest and has been voted one of the seven natural wonders of Portugal.
The park possesses a great diversity of flora and fauna in its marshes, tidal flats, dunes and saltpans. There are numerous boat trips departing from Faro on visits to the various barrier islands and this year a new route opened to visit four of them: Ilha Deserta or Barreta, Farol, Culatra and Armona.
It is some time since I was on Praia de Faro because lengthy roadworks have made the journey by car inadvisable over the summer. Now that the tourist season is drawing to a close, it could again be time to sip our coffee, gaze over the sea towards Morocco and remind ourselves yet again that the Algarve is our home.
By Lynne Booker