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Volume 52, Number 2March/April 2001

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The Mystery of Algarve's Chimneys

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

Cones, cubes, prisms, cylinders, pyramids, balloons; squat stumps, slender fingers, plain white or colorfully decorated: All these descriptions fit chimneys known as the chaminé Algarvia.

If there is one thing that characterizes Portugal's southern, sunny Algarve, it is ornamental chimneys. And if the chimneys have anything at all in common, it is that many bring to mind minarets, even miniature mosques.

During several visits to the area as a tourist, I became fascinated with them, all the more because nobody seemed to know much about their origins. If I heard anything it was "They came from the Arabs," or "The Moors started them," comments usually tossed off with a shrug. Nothing more specific. Whoever popularized them—and they appear on new apartment blocks as often as on old buildings—the Algarve chimney is everywhere, often right next to the satellite dish or television aerial.

When I pointed out that some people claim that the Muslims, who lived in the Algarve for more than 500 years and in Spain's neighboring al-Andalus for some 800 years, didn't build chimneys, people would just shrug again, and insist that their chimneys were nonetheless "from the Arabs." But these were conversations with local men-in-the-street, or at least men-in-the-village-lane. From my home, I started to fax tourism offices, architects and the University of the Algarve. Long Internet searches yielded nothing beyond general mentions of the chimneys in connection with the Algarve, along with a barrage of hotel and package-tour offers and, later that month, an annoyingly large phone bill. In the library, works on the Arab architecture of the Algarve and Andalusia did not mention chimneys at all, which left me more puzzled: Anyone who cooks or heats must either have chimneys or live in a perpetual fug, and the sophisticated Arabs of al-Andalus had a refined cuisine as well as dozens or hundreds of bathhouses in every city. It didn't add up. This was turning into detective work.

Then the Algarve Tourism Office sent me this information by fax:

"'How many days of chimney do you want?' was the question the Algarve master mason asked of the homeowner who ordered a chimney built. The cost of a chimney was measured by the time it took to make it: The more delicate and difficult its construction, the more expensive it became. According to the time spent, chimneys varied from very simple shapes to others flaunting complicated, beautiful tracery, or representing miniature clock towers or houses. The minaret aspect of the chimney reveals the influence of the Arab style. Not that the Arabs used chimneys, nor did they build them during their occupation of the region (the chimneys only appeared centuries later), but there is an undeniably Moorish influence in the south of Portugal with regard to architecture and ornamentation."

What? No chimneys? I still didn't believe this. What did the Arabs do with smoke from their elaborate bathhouses and kitchens? The fax continued:

"Nowadays, modern buildings display mass-produced chimneys bearing no relation to the authentic works of art of the old chimneys. The latter are, in fact, unique, and it is well worth exploring the region to observe these beautiful objects, which reveal the Algarve people's love for ornamentation."

"Exploring the region...." That did it. I booked a flight to Portugal in hopes that, in the chimneys' homeland, I might find someone who could give me a straight and believable answer.

My first port of call was Lisbon, specifically a fish restaurant in the old port area, where I met with Filipe Jorge, an architect who has been working for years on a book about Algarve chimneys. For more than three centuries, he told me, chimneys of this type have been constructed not only in the Algarve but also in Alentejo Province north of the Algarve and in Spanish Andalusia, which borders the Algarve to the east. The oldest chimneys, he said, date to the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

"Did the Arabs have chimneys?" I asked. Jorge hesitated, then replied, "Mostly their architecture doesn't have chimneys. That is a paradox. But when [masons] build chimneys here today they copy things like minarets. This is a very difficult thing, the lack of direct references. Obviously there is some kind of Arab, Muslim influence. After all, there were so many centuries of Muslim presence. But it is difficult to make a quick and direct connection with that.

"History is quite nebulous, isn't it?" he philosophized. "I have talked to many historians and historians of art. Nobody has a solid opinion. It almost seems mythical.

"It also has to do with the way they paint these houses all white. The houses all look more or less the same, so the chimney is what makes the difference between the houses. It is the signature of the owner."

Most of the chimneys are constructed in one of two ways, Jorge explained. Some are built of brick, which is covered with plaster and perhaps paint and tile;others are built from four or more—sometimes many more—prefabricated, molded pieces of plaster, "like making cakes." A master mason would often prefer the former method, and he would do the job free-hand, displaying the most intricate creativity his patron could afford.

That evening I flew to Faro, Algarve's capital, and drove on to a country inn outside Estoi, a town known for its chimneys. Although the sky was dark by then, the chimneys were ever-present in other forms: The driveway to the inn was lined with electrically lit lanterns shaped like Algarve chimneys. The lamps in my room, fitted with standard light bulbs, were—you guessed it!—chimney shapes. It was kitsch, yes, but colorfully thematic all the same.

The next morning looked and felt like a North African morning. The golden dawn backlit a palm tree in front of my window. After sunrise, the light soon turned glaringly, almost blindingly bright, especially when I gazed past the palm toward the whitewashed farmhouses beyond. Later, as I drove northwest, only the Portuguese license plates along the sparsely traveled road kept me from believing I was in fact in North Africa. It was hot and the land was dry. The white villages looked just like those on the other side of the Mediterranean. I saw the truth of Jorge's assertion of "a definite connection between North African and southern Portuguese architecture."

The name Algarve comes from the Arabic al-gbarb ("the west"), referring to the province's position at the western edge of the former Muslim empire and, as well, at the western edge of al-Andalus, of which the Algarve was part until it became a separate Arab governorate in 1140. In the fields, scrabbling alongside desert scrub and cacti were olive, carob, fig, citrus, pomegranate and almond trees, and grapevines, all of which need little water. They were all also favorites of the Arabs, and some, like the citrus, almonds and pomegranates, were first imported and naturalized by them.

The farmhouses I passed were mostly small, plain and almost windowless. They were brilliantly whitewashed, and atop them rose plenty of chimneys, often not just one but three or four per house, each different in style. Crowned with striking tops, the openings in the sides of the chimneys appeared as circles, squares, rectangles, triangles and grids in infinitely varying combinations and proportions. Some were clearly in use, as evidenced by their blackened tops. Others were apparently decorative only, for they were sparkling clean.

Why so many chimneys for one modest home? One, I learned from conversations that day, might be for the "stove house" above the everyday eating area. Another might serve the main kitchen, used only for parties or visitors, while another one or two could indeed be strictly ornamental. The heart of a traditional Algarve home, I was told, is the big, wide fireplace or hearth called a lareira. From it, the chimney rises straight up, without any throat or other constriction.

The lareira had to be big and wide to accommodate the many meat, sausage and other farm products that had to be hung in it for drying or smoking, according to the season. The straight-up design also allowed brush-cleaning from the bottom, unlike European and American chimneys, whose throated fireplaces often require that cleaning be done from the top down.

From the countryside around Estoi, I drove to the charming old town of Porches, one of the few reasonably quiet towns near the aggressively tourism-oriented Algarve coastline. The other distinctive decorations of the region were apparent along the way, for many houses had what are called açoteias, roof terraces of the kind common in North Africa, as well as platibandas, colored friezes of tile or paint that also have Arab origins.

In the middle of Porches, atop a small, plain whitewashed building that hosts a cozy restaurant, sits what is believed to be the oldest Algarve chimney. White, square and tapered, it was built in 1713, and it is in a glorious state of preservation. On the lower part it has a primitivist figure of a woman with outstretched hands, painted yellow; she stands on a yellow circle. Despite his research, Jorge, who had told me where to find this chimney, could tell me nothing about its background, nor could a village neighbor.

Porches, I found, also hosts some of the region's newest chimneys. Best characterized as "modern Moorish," a new apartment block I passed looked like a set-piece for a movie with a modern Moroccan story-line. You find yourself looking among the gleaming white curves and domes for the minaret of the neighborhood mosque, but you have to settle, in the end, for large numbers of slender, tall, round Algarve chimneys, all ornamental.

"It is still a mostly unexplored theme," Jorge said later when, over another meal, I tried to extract more information from him about the omnipresent, historically inscrutable chimneys. "So far there is no finish to this story. They are sort of lost in time." He sighed. "But we Portuguese are quite calm about this. We are in no hurry to find the end of the story."

Free-lance photographer and writer Tor Eigeland began contributing to this magazine when he lived in Beirut in the late 1960's, and continued for the two decades he lived in Spain. His home now lies on the other side of the Pyrenees, in southwestern France. His website is at www.toreigeland.com.

This article appeared on pages 38-41 of the March/April 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2001 images.