Report & Photos by Gwen McCauley
Photo 1 – Olhão mercado by the water
Market (mercado) culture is deeply entrenched in the Portuguese psyche. Until recently everybody shopped there daily; many still do. It is the soul of Portuguese life: alive, vibrant, pulsing with vitality, colourful and playful.
Throughout the Algarve you’ll find designated mercado facilities in most towns, operating Mon-Sat, 8 am to 1 pm. And then there are ‘gypsy markets’, some associated with the mercado. Others rotate from village to village on Sunday mornings.
Another regional tradition is that on Saturdays, local farmers set up stalls in the streets surrounding the mercado building. It becomes a fair-like, colourful experience, where locals and tourists alike meet with friends and family, shop for fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and cheese, enjoy a coffee, beer or glass of wine, while enjoying roving musical groups who fundraise while providing entertainment.
Photo 2 – Loulé mercado building
Algarve’s most well-known Saturday mercados happen are in Loulé and Olhão, although Albufeira, Armação de Pèra and Vila Real de Santo Antonio also offer good mercado experiences.
For years I was a Loulé mercado devotee. It is large, filled with a wide variety of stalls, many nearby shops, great pedestrian shopping streets, and scheduled activities. Each week there is a craft/flea/art/antiques market in the historic district, in addition to all that is happening around the building.
Photo 3 – Wild aspargus & others
And then I discovered the Olhão “Saturday mercado” . Smaller, more modest than Loulé for certain, but perched right on the edge of the ocean, it feels intimate, open to nature. A bit of the friendly country cousin vibe compared to the sophisticated city one. There are open parks on either side of it.
Olhão’s twisted, narrow alleyways are across the street, offering a mix of shops, restaurants, cafés, colourful characters and a reminder of a way of life that is rapidly disappearing; it’s always a pleasure to wander its alleyways and hidden squares.
Photo 4 – Espada at Olhão mercado
As is so typical of all Portuguese markets, fish in Olhão is housed separately from produce and meat. The fish hall is noisy, with lovely tile work on the walls. Small mountains of the freshest possible fish and seafood are everywhere. Vendors happily scale, gut and prepare your purchase for cooking.
In the meat and produce hall you’ll see displays with pig’s heads, poultry with feet and heads as well as many cuts of fresh meats. Seasonally whole lambs or kids are for sale. Portuguese people are still connected to where their food comes from and are not afraid of confronting the animal from whence dinner originated.
Photo 5 – Saturday morning purchase
Count on a stunning variety of produce, a goodly amount of it grown in the greenhouses that occupy hectares of land throughout the Algarve. Trays of fresh raspberries in January anyone? Locally grown mangoes, pears, oranges, lemons, persimmons, bananas, lettuces, tomatoes, onions, carrots, leeks (called French Garlic) and so very much more. Mix with this are open tubs of local olives, honey, herbs, flowers, and bedding plants.
Photo 6 – Kumquats & onions Olhão
Everyone seems to quickly find a favoured stall which they return to week after week. And the same goes for the cafés that populate the outside of the market buildings. Enjoy jazz with your coffee or mimosa? There’s a jazz café. Want to meet up with locals or long-term expats? There’s another where they all hang out.
The Portuguese mercado might promote itself as a place to buy quality food. But in truth, it is a place to connect with your soul and the souls of others.
Some time at a Saturday morning mercado is a must if you want to claim you’ve ‘experienced’ Portugal!