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.
And it is not just this corner of the Algarve that has seen the developer’s bulldozers. Villas have sprouted from Vilareal 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.
It is not just their languages the tourists bring with them, it is also their food. Carvoieiro’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.
|Carvoeiro's new centre|
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.
The Algarve has been comprehensively built over and ruined - so why do we continue to visit, why have we been there every year for the last eleven years?
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.
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.
|Sardines at Dona Barca 2010|
You do not have to eat in restaurants to eat well. Every town and village has a market selling the freshest of fish. Chouriços (sausages) 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 hard, curado cheeses, matured to a rich stinkiness.
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 Maria’s we will return and return again. [update 2016. Maria's went 4 years ago, but we are still coming back. Martin's Grill in Carvoeiro does a pretty fair squid]
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)