The Algarve is best known for its fabulous beaches and top notch golf courses so what’s an inland town like Loulé to do if it wants to entice visitors away from the coast?
Get creative, that’s what.
Loulé Criativo organises hands-on creative workshops in Loulé city and municipality. Run by local artisans, these practical sessions enable you to delve into the local culture by learning its crafts and traditions. Workshop themes include palm weaving, making cold soups, silk screen printing, contemporary jewellery-making and graphic design. There are also various artistic residences available for those wanting more than a few hours’ instruction.
I visited during a weekend packed with events and workshops and was able to try my hand at a few new skills. Some more successfully than others!
Cane crafts workshop
One of the many enjoyable aspects of this particular creative workshop was its location. Half way along the Benemola walking trail near the village of Querença, we stopped at a stone picnic table in the woods where cane artisan, Ana Silva, was waiting for us with individual tool kits.
She demonstrated the range of cane tools, musical instruments and toys she makes. My favourite was the magical floating cork ball, a plaything she remembers from her own childhood. Better still, we got to make one in the workshop, as well as a more practical cane bag clip.
We started with the bag clip using our own set of tools to trim a length of green cane and sand it smooth before attempting the tricky bit. After several pathetic attempts to make a notch in mine, Ana got me started so I could cut along the length without splitting the tube in half. I now have a couple of bag clips that are far more attractive than the plastic clothes pegs I usually use to keep food bags sealed after opening.
Having earned my chops with the clips, I was eager to move on to the ball toy. Despite clear instructions and a demonstration, it turns out that making a round ball from a piece of cork is not that easy. Mine was slightly misshapen but it does the trick. For those who are too cack handed to produce anything even resembling a sphere, Ana has some perfectly formed balls at the ready, as well as the cane tube you need to blow through.
I wasn’t able to participate in a full fig workshop, which ordinarily (in season) starts with participants harvesting figs from the tree. Having skipped the picking and drying, I moved straight to the part where Leonor Guerreiro taught me how to insert almonds into figs.
How difficult can that be, you may wonder. Well, although I managed to squash and squeeze my dried fig into a flatter circle, I obviously hadn’t been paying attention to which side of this disc I was supposed to make slits with the knife. I cut the fig and inserted my almonds then compared the result with the hundreds that Leonor had made that afternoon. Apart from the fact that my fig only had five almonds instead of the preferred six, I soon realised that it was also upside down and far less aesthetically pleasing.
I comforted myself with the knowledge that Leonor has been making these since childhood. She makes several batches every year, and queijos de figos (fig ‘cheeses’); rich, moist fig cakes that make perfect Christmas gifts and keep well without preservatives. Sadly, I didn’t get the opportunity to learn how to make one of these but they look and taste great. A standard workshop would also include this experience and you get to take home what you make.
I only got as far as plaiting half a single strand of palm leaves and another of esparto grass but again, the full workshops lead to finished products which you may or may not be proud to show your friends. Given the abundance of cheap imports, especially from Asia, these are two traditional crafts which are in serious danger of dying out.
The years’ of practice and hard work that have gone into honing these skills are often overlooked when it boils down to price tags and fewer people are willing to pay for quality hand-made mats, hats and baskets. I reckon the palm chess set would sell well though – I loved it!
Contemporary jewellery workshop
Loulé’s creative workshops aren’t all about ancient traditions. In the jewellery sessions, master jeweller Filomeno de Sousa uses modern materials such as acrylic and resin to teach participants the basic skills and techniques for crafting unique pieces.
At the workshop I visited, Vania showed me the brooch she was making, inspired by a satellite image of Loulé. I asked her how she was finding the workshop. “I’ve already broken my cutting tool so it’s not easy,” she told me, “but it’s interesting and I’m enjoying it.” These tend to be among the most popular workshops run by Loulé Criativo and are always full so book ahead if you want to join one.
Dance your socks off
Loulé Criativo are still working to develop a traditional dance workshop in conjunction with the folk group from the Caldeirão mountains. As a taster, the group performed some of their dances in one of Loulé’s squares, accompanied by two women singing, various traditional instruments and a heart-meltingly cute little boy with a guitar. After impressing the crowd with some serious skirt swirling and hand clapping, the group broke apart and began grabbing people from the audience to join in the next dance.
I watched the first dance with public participation and figured that the footwork wasn’t too fancy for me and joined in at the next opportunity. My partner, the group leader, kept me in check and made sure I was facing the right way and clapping at the right people as we went around the circle. It was fun, but it would be even better to actually learn the steps properly as well as the meaning of the gestures in a dance that clearly told a story.
Loulé Criativo and Creative Tourism
Loulé Criativo benefits the local community in multiple ways and has the backing of the city council as well as private partnerships. Caroline Couret, CEO of the Creative Tourism Network it belongs to holds Loulé’s joint efforts up as a shining example of what can be gained through creative tourism, beyond tourist dollars. Not only do visitors get intimate, hands-on experience of local culture and the chance to learn from skilled craftspeople, the initiative helps protect traditional crafts from extinction.
As the mayor puts it, “Rather than sit on our hands while the last of our talented craftspeople die off then lament the loss of our heritage, we decided to do something about it before it’s too late.” Aldegundes Gomes, the elderly lady who showed me how to plait esparto grass, is only too aware of the risk, “My regret is that if I die, my knowledge will die with me,” she said.
New life for traditional crafts
Although the workshops and creative initiatives aim to preserve age-old crafts, it’s not all about glorifying the old days. Life was tough in the rural villages and still is in many ways. No, the hope here is that young people will be inspired to learn these crafts and find innovative ways to add their own modern twist so that they will have relevance in the present and into the future.
Such a project is already under way in the form of Projecto TASA, which stands for Tecnicas Ancestrais, Soluções Actuais, or Ancestral Techniques, Modern Solutions. Designers and artisans are brought together with a brief: to create something useful and attractive from natural materials incorporating traditional crafts with modern design.
The results are inspired and beautiful, such as the cork and ceramic lampshades, cork bicycle saddles and the cane ‘memory sticks’ for collecting small stones, seeds and other mementos of a walk in the countryside.
Supply and demand is sometimes an issue though. Since the products are handmade, often by ageing craftspeople, production can be slow – the beautiful wood and ceramic salad spoons I spotted in the catalogue are out of stock for an unknown period of time. What’s needed is for more young people to be encouraged to learn these crafts and be actively involved in producing these items as a means of income.
In the meantime, if you see something you like, buy it while you can!
Creative workshops in Loulé
The Loulé Criativo website has the full list of current scheduled workshops and you can sign up for the newsletter to stay informed about future sessions. Some of the crafts are taught over a series of workshops so expats in the Algarve are perfectly placed to take advantage of these. If you have your heart set on learning a particular craft but the published dates don’t fit in with your plans, don’t despair – contact the lovely people at Loulé Criativo and they’ll do their best to set up a workshop for you.
The venues range from picnic tables in the countryside to magnificent old buildings full of history and relevance to the craft.
An increasing number of local accommodation providers are also opening up their spaces to workshops, including the very central Loulé Coreto Hostel (they have private en suite rooms, too), the charmingly rural Cerro da Janela near Alte and the more luxurious Monte da Quinta Resort in Quinta do Lago.
For other things to see and do in Loulé, check out this post: Lovely Loulé, Another Unspoilt Gem in the Algarve
Check out my guide to where to stay in the Algarve for more ideas.