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 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).|
|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.
|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.
|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
|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|
|A light lunch of Chourição, Cheese and salad|
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
This post is currently (16/04/11) a feature on the Algarve Daily News
Other Algarve posts
2 Eating the Algarve (2011)
3 Drinking the Algarve (2011)
4 The Algarve: Random Delights (2012)