Since Faro airport opened in the 1960’s, the capital of the Algarve has become the gateway for foreign tourists seeking sun and sand in the south of Europe. It was originally settled by the Moors but in 1249 Dom Alfonso III captured it and rebuilt the 6m high town walls. For a while the town prospered but in 1596 the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh paid a visit, stealing valuable books from the Bishop’s Palace and then setting fire to the buildings. In the 18th Century much of the town was destroyed by two earthquakes and substantial rebuilding took place.
The cathedral, situated in the historic centre, is mostly a 16th century construction, though a chapel has stood on the site since the Constantine period. Inside are elaborate, carved, wooden chapels adorned with cute cherubs and statues of saints. There is a huge, red organ above the main entrance, which was built in 1701 in Hamburg, its weight supported by a single limestone pillar. Upstairs, a small treasury displays bishops’ robes, paintings and a set of small, mother-of-pearl Stations of the Cross. Outside, across the courtyard, is a small exterior chapel decorated with the bones of infants. An unusual and grotesque decoration, but a strangely beautiful one, none the less. A steep, narrow stairway leads to the roof of the gothic tower, where 8 bells ring every hour and which offers wonderful views across the roofs of the old historic centre, the sand spits to the south and the busy airport.
Later that evening, I return to the cathedral for an organ recital by Czech organologist Pavel Cerny. It’s amazing to hear the 43 pipes and 21 trumpets used to their full potential and see (via video camera) how he literally pulls out all the stops (22)to alter the tone of the music. His hands weave masterly across the stained ivory keys producing a variety of music: striding marches, mournful memorials and whimsical birdsong.
The pews are uncomfortably hard but the setting is soothing with the chapels brightly lit so that the angels and saints appear to be part of the audience. After the completion of the main concert, Pavel runs energetically downstairs to receive applause and a bunch of flowers. As an encore, he plays two pieces of music on the much smaller 17th century organ at the front of the church. It’s a nice finishing touch to the evening.