One of the first things we learned upon our arrival in Portugal was that “picking up” the language was going to be difficult (especially since we have about ten words between us now) and pronouncing the words may indeed be our downfall. So when we talked to a local friend about our visit to Porches – we said it American style, POR chez – her response was a puzzled look. Only when we pointed to its location on a map did understanding dawn. “Ah” she nodded and then said very slowly something that sounded like the car Porche with the r smothered somehow and the ending s a mere suggestion.
Looks like we’ll be pointing for a while …
We’d first heard of Porches, population a smidge over 2,000, when we went to a monthly market in an even smaller village earlier this summer and saw some examples of the pottery for which the town is known. Nowadays, it’s a place easily passed by unless you’re looking for it, settled among hills with cliffs overlooking the Atlantic.
However, it’s easy to see why it was an important vantage point in the ancient times of the Romans and Moors and a significant medieval town in the 13th Century with only the ruins of a long-ago castle remaining. In the Middle Ages a string of forts stretched along the coast to defend Portugal and one of these, the Nossa Senhora da Rocha Fort still exists. Within the walls is located the 16th Century Nossa Senhora da Rocha Chapel, simple in its whitewashed exterior, a small building perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Here, according to local lore, it’s said that an apparition of the Virgin Mary once appeared to local children. The site sees many visitors, both the devout as well as those of us who appreciate the melding of a beautiful, awe-inspiring setting and a site of cultural significance.
Many of the streets of Porches are cobbled, wide enough for one-way traffic only, winding up and down the hills. Most of the homes are whitewashed and the contrast of the bright colors of bougainvillea climbing along walls against the blue sky is dazzling. We wended our way through the small “downtown” area looking for a place to eat but found the handful of cafes closed, maybe because most of the tourists were gone or maybe for the simple reason that it was Tuesday. A woman at a local bakery stepped outside and, with a friendly smile, pointed the way to a cafe she thought might be open.
The unassuming exterior of the Restaurante Mar a Vista led to a covered porch and a chalked sandwich board with the daily menu. We seated ourselves inside at a wooden table, enjoyed a hearty welcome by the waiter and ordered the €8 lunch special of three courses with an appetizer of olives and our favorite Portuguese bread, spinach soup, the fish of the day, dorado, presented alongside a plate of salad and an included beverage. The conventional wisdom is, “If you want to know where the best and cheapest places to eat are, look for the locals.” And, as we slowly enjoyed our lunch, the tables around us began to fill. By the time we’d finished, almost all of the tables were occupied with people partaking of their noon meal. There was the pleasant buzz of conversation in the background and we left feeling like we’d received much more than our money’s worth.
Sidetracked by the visit to the Nossa Senhora da Rocha Fort and lunch, we hadn’t quite forgotten the original reason for our visit, the pottery. We got diverted for a bit by a display of outdoor art including a real-size, huge, metal sculpture of a traditional Algarve chimney complete with a stork’s nest, some whimsical, smooching hippos, also life-sized, and a fire-engine red Rubenesque lovely, larger than life, dancing in the midst.
Next door was the Olaria Pequena Artesanata (the Little Pottery) shop with some distinctive, creative pottery, dishes and tiles as well as some gorgeous ceramic wall pieces that we admired greatly but were well out of our modest price range.
Traditionally, Porches was renowned for the pottery produced in its vicinity and it was located handily near some clay pits. But, by the mid-twentieth century the ancient art of pottery making in Portugal was dying out because styles and tastes had changed and there was cheaper, imported pottery and china available. The older artisans were retiring or passing on and there were few apprentices working at their sides, learning the skills as well as the art. In the sixties, however, an Irish ex-patriot, artist Patrick Swift and his Portuguese counterpart, Lima de Freitas, worked to reverse the demise of the industry and set about reviving this centuries-old craft.
Quite by chance we stopped by Porches Pottery, founded in 1968 by Swift, which is located in a typical old farmhouse and produces beautiful, functional tableware and tiles. The distinctive pottery is hand-painted and decorated with Moorish designs as well as illustrated with local themes such as fish and olives.
Today it is managed by Patrick Swift’s two daughters, one of whom we met, and currently employs ten Portuguese artisans as well as the next generation of the family, an Irish nephew. We bought a butter dish to start our collection of tableware with plans to return in the future for a full set of dishes.
There are several other pottery shops dotted about Porches and along the two-laned highway leading into the town including some with replicas of the large, traditional outdoor terracotta pots that were used to store olive oil and wine and some with garden statuary. Despite its diminutive size, Porches appears to be thriving and the once dying pottery industry revived and producing traditional as well as new contemporary ceramic designs. And, lucky for us, since it’s right down the road from Lagos, we’ll have opportunities to visit it again. We’re not holding our breath but maybe by then we won’t be stumbling over how to pronounce its name!
By Richard and Anita