Have Bag, Will Travel
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With the cars returned to the vehicle rental company we were back to foot transport for the rest of the holiday and on two consecutive days we took walks both east and west of Praia de Luz.
On the first day we went east and took a cliff top walk towards the tourist town of Lagos. There was a well worn path through the burnt grass across the tops of the brittle sandstone cliffs that were disappearing into the sea in regular places and I worried about the children getting too close to the edge lest they fall over and onto the rocks several metres below but we negotiated the walk of three kilometres or so, about half way to Lagos, before we came across a bar and stopped for a while and then, on account of the blast furnace temperature, agreed to turn back and return to the bars and swimming pools of the holiday complex.
This had not been an especially thrilling walk I have to say but the next day we went west and that was a whole lot better.
It was by far the hottest day of the week and all of us set out on foot to the neighbouring village of Burgau about three kilometres or so from our apartment on the Rua de Calheta in the holiday village.
The route took us away from the ersatz villas and apartments and swimming pools and to the outskirts of the village where there was a real sense that in contrast to Praia de Luz Portuguese people might actually live there. After a while we came across a man with a bag of fish that he had caught that morning and he was proud to show off his catch, actually I think he was offering to share it with me!
When the buildings stopped altogether and the surface of the road became pot holed and precarious we were for a while in what felt like open country with only the occasional house, a dusty track to walk along and empty fields, long since harvested, baking and cracking in the relentless heat.
Eventually, at about midday we came to the outskirts of the village of Burgau and shortly after that we were following the road down to the beach sitting in a protected cove with the fishing boats pulled high onto the sand and away from the surf.
I liked this place immediately, there were twisting lanes and narrow streets and an honest hard-working ambiance. Cubed, white-washed houses with colourful doors and especially eye-catching were the houses with colourful tiled walls in bright blues, greens and yellows.
Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and behind the tiled walls we could see that the houses were made of tin sheeet, but it is the seventh safest country in the world and the fourth biggest consumer of wine, after France, Italy and Germany, and so, with the sun beating down we choose a table at a café to help them maintain this statistic.
It was early afternoon and really quite hot and the town had a soporific feel that made me think of my favourite Al Stewart song ‘Year of the Cat’:
‘She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolour in the rain, don’t bother asking for explanation she’ll just tell you she came from the Year of the Cat… By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls there’s a hidden door she leads you to, these days she says I feel my life is like a river running through, the Year of the Cat’
As the day got hotter the time was approaching the afternoon siesta as we sat and surveyed curiously deserted streets as though someone had declared a national emergency and everyone had left town.
Across the narrow lanes abandoned laundry remained hanging on overloaded balcony rails, starched and bleached by the sun to a perfect whiteness that had me reaching for my sunglasses, occasionally a loose shutter kissed a window frame and a whispering wave crashed gently onto the beach. Even the surf of the sea seemed to go quiet out of respect for the siesta.
Sitting at the pavement bar it was so quiet that I could hear the paint lifting and splitting on the wooden doors, the gentle creaking of rusty shutter hinges, the squeaking complaints of rattan as sleeping residents shifted a little in their balcony chairs and the faint crack of seed pods in the flower planters.
We stayed long enough to have a second drink and then began to contemplate the walk back. For some this was too much to bear and so we summoned a taxi and half of our party returned the quick way while the rest of us were obliged to return the way that we had come.
As we arrived back in Praia de Luz and after a couple of hours of shut down and inactivity life started to slowly return to normal and the little town began to stir into life once more. Shutters rattled open, washing lines were cranked inside, car ignitions began to chatter, scooters croaked into action and sleepy people began to reappear from their front doors and a few minutes later we were reunited with the taxi people around the swimming pool at the apartment complex where a shower and a swim washed off the grime and a cool beer cleared the dust out of our throats.
On the second day with the car we planned to start early and some time before breakfast drive into the Serra de Monchique, the mountain range which separates the Algarve from the rest of Portugal and specifically to the mountain peak of Foia, which at almost seven hundred and forty metres is the highest spot in the range.
We drove directly north, climbing steadily all the time and then as we got closer we were obliged to leave the main road and take to a narrow paved track that weaved its way to the top of the mountain as the engine of the car complained all the way to the top.
At the top was a rather untidy radio telecommunications and radar base with all of the pylons and cables that are normally associated with this type of facility but we hadn’t driven here to see this and as we turned our backs on the buildings we enjoyed the panoramic views over the mountain countryside, the forests where wild European Lynx still live, a National Park and in the distance the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a delightfully clear morning so there was nothing to interrupt the natural panorama and being early there was no one to share it with.
The downside however was that for an August morning with the sun shining it was agonisingly cold as strong winds blew in from the sea and with nothing to stop them just blew right up the side and over the top of the mountain and most of us regretted not bringing warmer clothes. We wandered around for a while and when we could bear it no longer we retreated to the tourist shop and café and warmed up with a cup of coffee before making the return journey to Praia de Luz for breakfast.
Later that morning we returned to the cars and embarked on our second journey of the day, this time, on my recommendation (I had been there before) to the nearby town of Silves on the edge of the mountain range. This was a shorter journey and we drove through Lagos, Alvor and Portimao before turning north towards the previous capital of the Algarve.
To reach Silves there was a magnificent approach from the south as the road dropped into the lush green valley of the Rio Arade and then climbed through the ridges and boulders of the other side with all the time the magnificent spectacle of the red sandstone walls of the old Moorish castle undulating along the top of highest point with its defensive turrets piercing the sky above us.
This is what we had mostly come to see so we found a car park and made our way to the castle past the statue of Sancho I of Portugal and towards the main gate. Interestingly Sancho seems to have been moved and relocated since our visit there twenty years before because from modern pictures he seems to be much closer to the entrance than I remember.
We went inside and were struck by the fact that the Portuguese hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety. The Castle was a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations below. I understand that it is a lot safer now however following a restoration process that was completed in 2008.
Except for worrying about my children disappearing over the side this didn’t really spoil the visit to the castle and we enjoyed an hour or so walking around the battlements and through the overgrown gardens, discovering fragments of history and reading about the Moorish occupation and the eventual Portuguese reconquest.
Outside the castle we walked around the narrow streets and the pastel coloured houses with their elegant iron balconies and window boxes overflowing with boiling geraniums, visited the cathedral and stopping frequently to admire the views before we took a vote on what to do next and the children conspired to outvote us and declared that we should return to the beach and the swimming pools of Praia de Luz.
“The ancient handsome litter of the sea front had possessed its own significance, its vivacity and its charm. A spirited collection of abandoned windlasses, the ribs of forgotten boats, the salt wasted, almost translucent gallows on which the fish had once been dried, the sand polished sculpture of half buried driftwood … was now abolished at a stroke” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
Part way through the holiday we hired some cars and did some sightseeing along the coast. On the first day we drove east to a small fishing village that I had visited eight years previously because I remembered that it was especially picturesque.
This was the pretty little fishing village of Carvoeiro, which, as I promised, was quite stunning, especially when viewed from the craggy cliffs on either side of the town, so we walked all around it and from the top we admired the village layered with white-washed villas and buildings which seem to undulate in perfect harmony with the natural rocky landscape.
The houses rose in tiers out of the caramel beach, sun blistered and pock-marked by the corrosion of the salt water with brightly coloured paintwork, green, crimson and blue and window boxes where even hardy geraniums were struggling to deal with the midday heat.
The beach was a delightful golden colour with pristine sand scarred but not disfigured by the tracks of the ancient tractors which pulled the fishing boats in and out of the sea. It was small and compact but sufficient when there aren’t many people about to share it with and it was fringed with seaside cafés and restaurants with indolent umbrellas providing welcome shade against the fierceness of the sun.
This was a wonderful place and down at the edge of the water there was no mistaking that this was a working fishing village that was a million miles away from the nearby tourist resort of Praia de Luz.
There were local people swimming in the sea and the beach was decorated with tiny fishing boats that had been working the previous night and were now just resting before going out again later. At the back of the sheltered beach there were fishermen’s houses that were built next to the beach and in some cases directly into the cliffs and I had a sense that inside men were resting before working again later tonight. In front of the houses were creaking wooden railings, disgigured and cracked, where the nets were left to dry and be repaired and tables where every day the previous night’s catch was assessed, sorted and prepared for sale.
I understand that Carvoeiro is a lot busier now so I am glad that I saw it as the fishing beach and community that has now all but gone to make way for holiday complexes and tourists, where fishing boats have been replaced by jet skis and pedalos.
Before tourism this was a very small and intimate fishing village and in 1965 a foreign resident wrote about the place; “the mode of living remains essentially medieval”. Well, in 1994 it was a bit more modern than that but still very quaint and although I have never been back I understand that now, twenty years on, it has lost any resemblance whatsoever to its modest origins.
When it was time to leave we decided to check out the guide book claims that this part of the coast has the best beaches on the Algarve. This is a claim that is made by every town and village along the south coast of Portugal so we made straight for the Praia de Marinha or the Navy Beach and so called because of the colour of the sea rather than any military activity.
Standing on the top of the cliffs rising in golden tiers out of the surf, erosion gnawed into arches, caves and grottoes and looking down to the sand and the sea it was difficult not to agree with the Algarve best beach claim and a lot of other people would be inclined to agree as well because it is included in the Michelin Guide as one of the ten most beautiful beaches in Europe and as one of the hundred most beautiful beaches in the world.
We stayed only to admire the view and to nod our heads in agreement with the guide book and then we made our way back to Praia de Luz, driving through the marina resort of Portimao without stopping even for a quick look, for a late afternoon of sunbathing and swimming in the holiday complex pool.
In 1986 and then again in 1987 I spent some time with my brother in the Algarve in Portugal at a villa in a village called Alcantarilha which was near the beach resort of Armação de Pera a few kilometres west of Albufeira.
I liked the Algarve so much that a few years later, in 1994, I went there again on a family holiday to the resort of Praia de Luz. Not many people had heard of Praia de Luz in 1994 but it has subsequently become notorious for the location of the alleged abduction of Madeleine McCann and where a few English detectives, who probably can’t believe their luck at being assigned to the case, now spend their time on permanent vacation inventing new, ever improbable, leads that keeps them permanently sunning themselves at the expense to the UK tax payer.
Anyway, this is not a post about Madeleine McCann or my irrelevant thoughts on the matter, but instead about my holiday there with my family about twenty years ago.
This was an extended family holiday and turned out to be a quite close to a disaster of almost biblical proportions.
There was my family of four and my sister’s of four (just one missing) and my mum and dad and quite frankly that was just too many people all colliding with each other like shifting tectonic plates and leading to frequent personality collisions and daily running battles. Everybody fell out with everybody at some point during the fortnight and although there were some high spots almost everyone was glad when it was all over!
I remember the arguments most of all – Mum fell out with Lindsay, Mum fell out with…. in actual fact (to cut a long story short) Mum fell out with mostly everyone! We had two apartments, one for eight of us and one for two. We allocated the one for two to my Mum and Dad and I would have been delighted with that but she didn’t share this glee about the accommodation allocation and worried about being left out although to this day I am still confused about what exactly she thought she might be missing out on!
Before I move on to the good stuff about the Algarve I am going to get the bad stuff out of the way straight away.
Lindsay’s son Chris was about fifteen and with raging hormones was really moody for the whole time. Even though it was mid July and about 30° centigrade he insisted on wearing black jeans and a nylon puffer jacket just for the sake of fashion. He also developed a curious habit of leaving the apartment via the bedroom window at odd hours of the day and night so we were never absolutely sure where he was or what he was up to!
My own son, Jonathan, was seven and had reached the peak of food fussiness to the point that every night I had to take him to a bar for a plate of plain rice and a Pingu ice cream – every night! On a positive note I did get to have a couple of beers while I watched him chew his way through a tasteless plate of grain.
Dad had been poorly for about ten years but it was around about now that he seemed to take a serious turn for the worst and it was a challenge for us all to come to terms with a major change in his health and his mobility that we had all previously taken for granted. Looking back on it now it was a tipping point in his life.
Praia de Luz was quite nice, I liked it then, but probably wouldn’t now. It was a modern holiday complex with lots of apartments and a couple of swimming pools. At one I fell out with a barman who didn’t seem to appreciate my cheapskate order for a simple plate of chips for the kids to share and the chlorine in the water sent Sally’s blond hair a curious shade of green. On the positive side we didn’t encounter any abducting perverts but on the other hand we didn’t leave our children in the apartment by themselves whilst we went out to a tapas bar either.
And so we spent a lot of days around the pool and when we weren’t around the hotel terraces we would walk to the beach which even now I remember as being quite stunning. Soft sand and red limestone cliffs and out to sea Atlantic waves that thrashed against the shore and made playing in the sea and at the water’s edge a real delight, much better I have to say than the limpid waters of the Mediterranean.
In the evenings we would walk down to the water’s edge and watch the brightly coloured fishing boats cast off and make their groundhog day journey out to the sea in search of a catch and when they had gone and their lights were twinkling out at sea like stars in the water we walked back along the jetty and enjoyed a pre-dinner snack of grilled sardine (all except Jonathan of course) that was being lovingly prepared on smoking barbecues along the vibrant sea front.
In between the arguments (which was only about 10% of the time, it has to be said) it was wonderful and I will move on to the good bits in the next post.