Way above our heads, the old church bells rumbled into life, demanding attention like a petulant child. The din drowned out the crashing of the waves, shaking the small town from its Sunday lie-in, and the effect it had was quite a spectacle.
Knowing that the heat of the burning Portuguese sun would render any exploration impossible by 11am, we’d headed out straight after breakfast to acquaint ourselves with the town of Armação de Pera, situated just west of Albufeira on the Algarve, and our home for the next ten days.
Strolling down the pedestrianised promenade, the glistening blue waters of the Atlantic were already tempting at this early hour, and the sandy town beach already full of sunbathers. On the other side of the promenade, an eclectic mix of tourist shops fought for the attentions of passers by, their Mickey Mouse towels, beach footballs and picture postcards hanging from every nook. Shop owners switched seamlessly into the native language of each and every passing tourist in a bid to sell their wares.
Rounding a corner as the promenade juts out into the sea, the landscape changed. The beach view was blocked by a colonial-style, raspberry pink house, different to any other building in town and almost grand enough to be called a mansion, teetering alone on the cliffs. Its foreboding perimeter walls and intriguing gated entrance distracted us so much that we barely noticed what stood behind us.
A church, petite but unapologetically beautiful. Entirely whitewashed with a tiled roof and stained glass windows, it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a small Greek island, serving a parish of five, yet here it was in a town square, slap bang in the middle of the Algarve. The tall, slim bell tower cast a shadow over the dogs sleeping in the square, but the most eye-catching part of the building was the pointed arch around the door, livened up with blue flowers which, closer inspection revealed, were each delicately handmade from crepe paper.
And then it happened. The church bells sprung into life, announcing the arrival of 10am and almost instantly people appeared from all corners of the petite square, making a beeline for the door of the church, as if they’d been lying in wait.
The intricate arch was immediately swarmed with parishioners. The cacophony as they greeted each other in Portuguese was astonishing, their conversations expertly timed to finish just as they reached the wooden church door, allowing them to enter the building in a respectful silence. Sunglasses and eccentric sunhats were removed at the entrance, giving the impression of a town on pause from sunbathing for as long as the service would take.
They poured in from the town centre, many with shopping bags from the local market, bananas and carrots peeping out of the top. Some came loaded up with umbrellas and surfboards, treating the church trip as a minor pit stop on the way down to the beach.
Behind us, they came from the beach, many still wet and with sand stuck to them as they climbed the rickety stone steps, no time to think about appearances. Mothers clucked around with towels in an attempt to make children look respectable. Some wielded picnic baskets, their culinary contents too valuable to be left unattended on the beach for this brief encounter with God. Others came completely empty handed, as if they’d dropped everything when the bells beckoned.
We were in awe. How were this many people fitting into such a small church? How were there even this many residents in Armação de Pera, a small fisherman’s town which relies heavily on the tourist industry? From our vantage point – we had been rendered immobile both from a desire to watch the spectacle, and from fear of being trampled – we could see that it was standing room only at the back of the church, and yet still they came. Finally, the wooden doors of the church were drawn shut from the inside, and the square was still again, left in the hands of tourists once more.