There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Algarve: Depredations and Delights

First published on the 6th of October 2010, this post now has several updates and many later pictures
Links are to other Algarve posts on this blog

The unhealthily pale old man and the sea, Algarve Oct 2010
We have just returned from our seventeenth [24th as of October 2017] trip to the Algarve. It was simply a holiday; unless you hail from Ulan Bator or the Kamchatka Peninsula it is impossible to pretend you are a traveller in southern Portugal, there are only locals, expatriates and tourists.

It was different thirty years ago when my father retired and bought a house by a golf course in the new development of Vale do Lobo. In 1982 we drove through the scruffy town of Almançil, skirted a sun blasted vineyard and passed several shepherds watching their grazing flocks before reaching the half finished ‘luxury resort’. There we left Portugal and entered never-never land. It is a long time now since that road has seen a shepherd. New villas, a dozen restaurants, an outbreak of tennis courts and a chic garden centre jostle for space where once there was only dust. Freshly painted Almançil is today packed with estate agents’ offices, banks and golf equipment shops. The N125 – the main road running the length of the Algarve - by-passed the town centre long ago and has itself been reduced to the status of a country road by the construction of the A22 motorway. Val do Lobo is no longer half finished, but runs into Dunas Douradas, which runs into Quinta de Lago, equally upmarket but becoming more and more characterless with each successive building phase.

That house on a golf course and a much younger me
Val do Lobo, April 1992
And it is not just this corner of the Algarve that has seen the developer’s bulldozers. Villas have sprouted from Vila Real on the Spanish border to Sagres in the west, leaving only windswept Cape St Vincent untouched. New resorts like Vilamoura and Praia de Rocha have sprung up, while old fishing towns like Albufeira and Quateira have blossomed into major holiday centres.

My parents’ house was sold years ago, and Lynne and I now rent a comfortable ground floor apartment with a pleasant garden in Carvoeiro. Situated in a narrow ravine running down to a beach that is little more than a breach in the cliffs, Carvoeiro has managed to retain more of a village feel than its larger neighbours. But even here, in defiance of geography, villas have climbed the walls of the ravine and spread along the cliff tops. In the streets you hear more English and German than Portuguese and in the summer the locals, as in much of the Algarve, are a minority in their own town. Even in winter there is no relief as the extensive and largely grey-haired expatriate community – British, German, Dutch, Irish, Scandinavian – avoid the rigours of the Northern winter in a region where frost is virtually unknown and even in January temperatures reach 17°.

Carvoeiro Beach
It is not just their languages the tourists bring with them, it is also their food. Carvoeiro’s out of town supermarket sells sliced white bread, baked beans and marmite. The village boasts an ‘English Restaurant’ and other establishments offer ‘all day English breakfast’ or ‘traditional Sunday roasts.’ ‘Pubs’ sell beer to foreigners and entertain them with all the premiership football matches that Sky Sport can provide.

And do the locals complain? They must do, it is human nature, but they do so quietly and among themselves. Within a generation tourism has turned the Algarve from a forgotten backwater of Western Europe’s poorest country into a thriving, prosperous province with a quality of life outsiders envy.

In the 1980s old ladies wore black dresses and thick woollen stockings. Little black trilbies - always a size too small – perched on their heads and were secured by a scarf tied beneath the chin. Picking one’s way through the potholes - a major feature of any road other than the N125 (and of that, too, west of Lagos) – the sight of horses pulling brightly painted traditional carts was commonplace. Back then, the carts were painted, but little else was. Buildings were usually grubby and dilapidated, chipped azulejo tiles and sagging roofs were normal. Now the black dresses, trilbies, potholes and carts have gone. Even the remotest village has a good road, and the houses are gleaming with white paint; tiled façades are grouted and washed, one wall often painted in a pastel blue or pink.

The old cuboid fishermans' cottages of Olhão, now all smart and clean (2010).
There are improvements every year. Loulé market, traditionally our first port of call from the airport, was closed in 2006 and 2007. It reopened in a bright, clean and airy new building. Everything was back as it was, only its soul was missing. Between 2008 and 2009 the centre of Carvoeiro was extensively remodelled. Even this year, when Portugal has theoretically run out of money for public works, we arrived to find Loulé’s main thoroughfare closed and workmen busy laying the grey cubical cobbles that are Portugal’s favoured surface for pedestrian areas.

Carcoeiro's new centre (Oct 2009)

I preferred the old unimproved Algarve, the Algarve that did not pander to north European tastes, the Algarve where it was possible to feel like a traveller not merely a holidaymaker. I must not be unreasonable, deprivation may not have been abolished but you have to look hard to find it, and I cannot expect people to live in picturesque poverty to please me. But something has been lost in the process.

So if the Algarve has been comprehensively built over and ruined, why do we continue to visit? Why have we been there every year for the last eleven years? [18 years as of Nov 2017]

Because despite the depredations of the developers, despite the efforts of those tourists who arrive in a foreign country and try to make it exactly like the one they just left, most of what made the Algarve great remains intact.

Maria’s restaurant, which has stood on the beach at Dunas Douradas for over thirty years, provides a fine example. In the early nineties, as the picture shows, we approached the then isolated beach hut via a cliff top path. By 2000, erosion required us to take a route through woods behind. One year we arrived to find building plots staked out among the pines and a year later Maria’s had become fully integrated into the urbanizacão.

The path to Maria's in 1992

In 2008, we went there after our first visit to the newly reopened Loulé market. ‘I expect,’ I said, in jest while driving through Dunas Douradas, ‘we’ll find Maria’s has been knocked down and rebuilt, too.’ And, of course, it had. The old wooden hut had been replaced by a new structure, still wooden, but no longer a hut.
Until 2008 Maria's was a hut, then this happened
What has never changed, though, is the quality of the food. Maria’s grilled squid, so fresh it could almost swim, so perfectly cooked the flesh is firm, yet yielding. Served with boiled potatoes, a glass of white wine and a view of the sun sparkling on the sea, it is a simple yet deeply satisfying pleasure. [Sadly, Maria's changed hands and name in 2012. The magic went and we no longer go there].

Maria's same food in a smart new building (Oct 2011)
The year before Maria's sad demise

And then there is the climate. The Algarve enjoys more sunshine than anywhere else in Europe and in autumn, when we usually visit, the temperatures reach a pleasant 25°. A laze on the beach and a dip in the sea are quite possible well into November. Then, just as autumn becomes chilly, spring arrives; there is no winter. But it is not only temperatures. The gentle blueness of the sky and the extraordinary quality of the light lift the soul, while the white painted buildings shimmer in the sun, and bougainvillea trails a purple blaze across the walls.

Bougainvillea on a vila in Carvoeiro - its not all purple (2010)

The very air is a delight. I know of no other country where it is a pleasure simply to breath. The scented air is obvious from the moment you step from the plane, even over the jet fuel smells of the airport. Wafts of scent pass over you everywhere, and if you become habituated during the day, just walking into the early morning garden provides an instant reminder that you are living somewhere special.

Ferragudo 2007
To get away from the coastal strip and drive along a country road is a journey among delights. Nothing matches an orange orchard in spring, but the warm woods - eucalyptus, figs, olives, pines, and, higher up, the gnarled cork oaks - are a pleasure to the eye and nose in every season. Huge cactuses and prickly pears cling to old walls and villages bask in the sun.

Away from the coast and off the beaten track, October 2011

‘Traditional Sunday roast’ may be available, but the overwhelming majority of the Algarve’s many hundreds of restaurants are more tipico, specialising in fish as fresh as it can only be within minutes of the fishing port. After so many visits we have inevitably developed favourites. Sardines are always eaten at Dona Barca in Portimão. The décor is functional - they retain the once typical long communal tables - the fish are barbecued outside in the square and the prices are low enough to be reminiscent of the good old days.

Sardines at Dona Barca with Mike and Alison (Oct 2016)
I am delighted to say that since we first ate here in 2003, the prices have risen (but not by much) and nothing else has changed. Why should it when they are packed on a Thursday lunchtime
At Dois Irmão in Faro, another venerable restaurant, I usually chose the pork and clams, an Algarve speciality, while Lynne opts for the grilled cuttlefish. Somewhat exceptionally, these restaurants are frequented by locals as much as tourists.

Lynne and a cuttle fish Dois Irmão, Faro (Oct 2013)

Elsewhere the fish of the day – usually sea bass, or golden bream - is reliably excellent as are swordfish or tuna steaks. Fish stews and cataplanas using the wonderful Portuguese refogado based on olive oil, tomatoes and garlic should not be ignored, nor should chicken piri-piri. Salt cod - the local staple - is also worth a try. I shudder at cafés offering ‘all day English breakfast’, but mainly I feel sorry for their customers. When it comes to the pleasures of the table, the Algarve ranks with the best in the world.

Fish Cataplana, Restaurant Vimar, Carvoeiro Oct 2011

You do not have to eat in restaurants to eat well. Every town and village has a market selling the freshest of fish. Chourição (sausage) and presunto (air dried ham) are wonderful, the scrawny looking chickens have more meat than you could imagine and taste like chicken used to. There are olives and salted almonds which go down so well with a glass of port, as do the cheeses which range from the mildest, youngest goat curd, to curado cheeses matured to a rich stinkiness.

A light lunch of Chourição, Cheese and salad
Portugal’s inexplicably underrated wines are available at all prices from negligible to eye-watering. Even the wines of the Algarve, long ignored (and with good reason), are improving. I am not a Cliff Richard fan, but his Quinta do Cantor has started a trend that is benefiting producers and drinkers alike.

It may be grossly overdeveloped, but nothing can change the sunshine and the scented air and nothing has changed the Algarve people themselves. Quiet and unassuming, without the tendency to arrogance of their Spanish neighbours, they treat the vast occupying army of tourists with good humour and courtesy. With rare exceptions they deal honestly and fairly with all – which cannot be easy, given the profound ignorance and ingrained idiocy of some tourists. For all its imported faults, the heart of the Algarve still beats strongly. As long as there are squids at Marias in the sea we will return and return again. [OK, Maria's went 5 years ago, but we are still coming back. Martin's in Carvoeiro grills a pretty fair squid]

This post is currently (16/04/11) a feature on the Algarve Daily News

Other Algarve posts

1 comment:

  1. This is now on AlgarveDailyNews as a new feature.