Just a bus ride from the Algarve coast, still visible from the castle, but a world of difference. Loule (accented e) is in the foothills of what further west becomes the Monchique range.
Unlike Faro, the transition from modern town to old is little noticed, the only walls being the mostly-absorbed curtain round the castle. Nonetheless, once beyond the market, where it is tempting to indulge yourself for hours, streets become narrow and bend in an almost labyrinthine manner. Very little space is offered there for vehicles – not that drivers refrain – and there are craft shops, artists’ studios and of course cafes and restaurants. There is also the castle, of which more later.
After a first walk round we found a plaza with fountains at its centre. Our map, from the very helpful tourist office close to the bus stop, showed a museum nearby, free to visit, so we looked at some machines for processing almonds and carobs, before thinking of where to eat. We had also been much taken by a fig, almond and honey cake in the market and looked for the shop supplying the stall. Finding it closed on account of the market we thought we would try again after lunch and, if possible, take back to our apartment other produce that would not suffer on the bus. Mistake!
The choice for lunch was snack bar or formal – as it looked – restaurant. We decided on the restaurant and found it anything but formal in the British sense. People came in from work or after shopping, greeted friends and colleagues and settled down to an enormous – by our standards – meal. We chose black pig, since the Alentejo farms where they roam free was not far away. (All food here looks very fresh, including fish.) The pork came with chips and rice, standard Portuguese style. It was delicious. Of course we had wine, with dessert and coffee to follow, and all within a modest budget.
With plenty of time for the bus but not, as we were to discover, the market, we set off for the castle. Signposts have to be followed carefully, and you have to keep a sharp look out for the entrance. We had passed it once without noticing but second time we were successful. The greeting was followed by “Are you retired?” Confirmation meant admission was free. Portugal is very good to pensioners: we enjoyed half fares on the already cheap rail service as well.
The castle preserves elements of the Moorish stronghold as well as the Manuelline one that replaced it. There is an archaeological section showing local artefacts from the Stone Age to Medieval. In other rooms there is a folk museum, with life-size mannequins in costume beside a large hearth, cooking and domestic utensils and dolls for children to use. A school party was waiting as we left for the ramparts, and they looked enthusiastic.
The ramparts give splendid views over the town as well as aspects of the castle and its internal buildings. It was well worth the slightly strenuous climb.
On our way back we found the market already closed, although it is supposed to stay open until 3 pm. (In our local market stall holders are penalised for closing early.) We found compensation though in a craft shop display of why craft skills are vital, not just to the local economy but to aesthetic appreciation and life in general. We could not but agree.
Another year we will stay longer – and shop earlier in the market!