Culatra: a Ria Formosa island
Atlantic waves break on one side of the barrier island of Culatra. The other side is a sheltered lagoon that faces the fishing town of Olhão, from where you catch the ferry. On the interior of the island, some thousand inhabitants live in mostly simple, one-storey houses with sand gardens. No cars; no roads. The houses have old wells but now the water is piped from the mainland. Garden plants, such as showy bougainvillea and hibiscus, thrive as easily in the sand of people’s gardens as the hardy saltwater species do on the island’s edges.
It’s about a five-hour walk around the entire island. Going west from the main settlement of Culatra you first reach the tiny village of Hangares, then the island’s second ferry port – Farol, with its lighthouse – before you come back to where you started. We didn’t walk the full circuit when we were there this weekend, but we saw most of the island. The lagoon side is the breeding ground for seahorses and I searched among the weeds that mark the tideline for a dead one to bring home, but I found none. Didi’s house on the island is decorated with them; you mustn’t look too hard, she said. They find you.
Much of the coast of the eastern Algarve is a zone of sandy beaches and marshes, barrier islands and lagoons, known collectively as the Ria Formosa. Culatra is one of these barrier islands; Ilha de Tavira, with its beautiful and popular beaches, is another. Officially the zone is a Parque Natural and a Ramsar site (protected wetland); it’s a flyway for migratory birds, and it’s rich in fish and shellfish. It’s also close to where oil companies hold concessions to explore for oil and gas.
We stayed on Culatra with our friends Didi and her Swiss husband. Didi was born on the island, the second generation of her family to grow up there. Culatra is not a picture-postcard place. It’s a working island of fisherfolk, inhabited for perhaps a couple of centuries. Most came originally to work the tuna season – April to September – as short-term employees of the big tuna companies, before the industry collapsed in the 1960s. During the tuna-fishing times, some of the fisherfolk decided to settle on the island for good. Didi’s grandparents were among them. Her mother grew up there to develop her own business in mussels and get married to a fisherman. It was in their home, where Didi was born, that we stayed. The government now declares much of the ad hoc housing to be illegal and liable for demolition; the simpler the house, the more likely they are to want to demolish it. There have been stays of execution, but it remains a live issue.
The island is hugely popular with holiday-makers at the height of summer but in February it is quiet. A fisherman mends his nets by stretching them out with his bare feet for tension. Cats wander around freely, masters of their domain. The island’s inhabitants file along concrete walkways or boardwalks between the houses. Didi’s childhood sounds idyllic: living on an island beach, playing hide-and-seek with cuttlefish and octopus in the sea, reading the sand to find where the cockles and clams were and digging them up for lunch. For Didi and her siblings their biggest excitement was when storm or high tide washed bits of plastic up on the beach. They didn’t have any plastic at home; this was magical, fascinating stuff, instant play material.
Didi’s family had to leave the island in the end. The four children needed more education than could be supplied on the island – the earlier generations didn’t have any education at all, but in the 1970s you could get four years of schooling before you had to go to the mainland, while schooling is now provided up to the sixth year, with free passage on the ferry to the mainland for older schoolkids.
In the 1980s a young Swiss man swept Didi off her feet. In a sideboard drawer in the Culatra home is a curled and faded colour photograph from the time, featuring the sole visit to Olhão of the in-laws. There on the pavement is a slender, dark-haired and dark-skinned fisherman in a checked shirt. Next to him is a plumper man, with white hair and a red complexion, dressed in a plus-fours suit, pipe in his hand. A meeting of two worlds.