I first visited Albufeira on the Algarve in Portugal in 1985…
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I first visited Albufeira on the Algarve in Portugal in 1985…
“By the end…it was clear that spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms. It became the most visited tourist country in the World, and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.
In 1970 following the breakup of the Beatles, George Harrison released a solo album called “All Things Must Pass”. I remember that at the time there was much debate about whether this was a lament for a lost past or a celebration of future opportunity. I suppose it all depends on your point of view.
When I first visited Carvoeiro in 1986 a single dusty road led to centre of the village and the beach front and on the sand itself was a curious metal structure and a circular sign advertising Nivea Cream. There were wooden frames for drying fish but no sun beds or parasols, there were cafés for local people but no cocktail bars, there were fishing boats but no pedalos. Today, after only thirty years or so, there is a long tarmac road through modern holiday developments and hotels, tourist shops, restaurants and the inevitable ‘Irish Bar’.
I mentioned my previous visit to our host Isabella at our accommodation and with a theatrical sweep of the arm declared that all of the built up land all around was once open fields, she sounded sad about that but I am sure she wasn’t because now she has a thriving hotel business.
Once settled in we walked to the beach which was still busy in the late afternoon sunshine and then took a path away from the sand up past the holiday apartments and the bars and made our way to the top of the precarious cliffs, a route which took us past rows of abandoned fishermen’s houses that are destined sometime to be demolished and replaced with more modern apartments.
In this picture I have in the background the old fishermen’s houses today, run down and decrepit, by contrast in 1986 they are still occupied and there is a grand old house on the top of the cliff which is gone now. The beach is bigger because the Council demolished some cliffs to get more sun bed space. The black and white picture is about one hundred years ago and I do not feature in it!
This is a process that is inevitable, people can’t go on living in one hundred year old houses without basic modern facilities but it is still a shame to see their slow process through decay towards demise and eventual final collapse. What I did find sad was the graffiti that was daubed on the walls and doors, such I shame I thought that people can’t let old buildings crumble and fall down with some sort of dignity. No one would go into a care home and spray-paint an old person – would they?
At the very top I looked down on the crescent beach and the busy seafront behind it, it had certainly changed but not beyond recognition and I still liked it. I thought about it this way; if I had not visited Carvoeiro thirty-five years ago then I would have known no difference. Someone visiting for the first time today and returning in thirty-five years time might say ‘yes, it is lovely but you should have seen it in 2019, it was much better then’
Having walked west we now returned to the beach and after a short break set off in the opposite direction where a wooden boardwalk took us half a mile or so along a cliff top walk along sandstone cliffs sculptured into columns and caves by the erosion of the sea. There was opportunity to take various steep paths down to the edge and explore the caverns and lagoons that had been carved out of the rocks, I made my way down into one of the caves where people were swimming but I declined to join them because the rocks were razor sharp and in just a few minutes my feet and knees were bleeding from several tiny cuts so we retired to a beach bar where I could attend to my injuries over a glass of beer.
After an afternoon beside the hotel swimming pool our thoughts turned to evening meal but before eating we returned to the beach to catch the sunset. I remembered fishing boats on this beach but there were none here now, there are no fishing boats anymore because the fishermen have all abandoned the hard life of the sea and earn their living these days taking boat loads of people to visit the caves all along the coastline which at about €20 a person for a thirty minute boat ride I suspect is much more lucrative business.
“All Things Must Pass”.
We found a traditional sort of restaurant, Kim had spicy chicken piri-piri and I had mixed fish rice, a sort of risotto and with the food a jug of house wine and a beer, we had earned it, we had walked almost eleven miles today.
For an account of how tourism replaced fishing then read Norman Lewis – “Voices of the Old Sea”
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“How can anyone put it? One thing is certain – here we have always been and here, whatever happens, we shall remain, listening to the voices of the old sea.” – Norman Lewis
“By the end…it was clear that Spain’s spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms. Spain became the most visited tourist country in the World, and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.”- Norman Lewis, ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.
Visiting my sister on the Costa Blanca we visited the coastal community of Guardamar del Segura. Carried away by the unexpected good weather I packed swimming trunks and challenged others to do the same. There wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm I have to say, Kim hid her swimsuit at the bottom of her case and claimed to have forgotten to bring it but my sister Lindsay promised to join me if I felt like taking to the water any time during the day.
As it happened the weather wasn’t nearly so good as the previous day so when we arrived and parked the car we left the costumes and towels in the back seat and went for a walk instead.
Guardamar del Segura turned out to be a fascinating place and once away from the modern concrete tourist beach front we found ourselves in an area of old fishermen’s houses, built almost a hundred years ago directly beside the caramel beach and now under daily attack from storms and water erosion as they crumble away into the Mediterranean. Some had already given up and surrendered to the inevitability of the assault of the sea. A visual story of changing fortunes and times.
In preparation for visiting the Costa Blanca I read the book ‘Voices of the Old Sea’ by the travel writer Norman Lewis who (allegedly) spent three summers in the fishing village he called Farol and where he watched, recorded and lamented as modern tourism replaced traditional rural industries and he mourned the changes that take place.
The book is an account of catastrophic social change punctuated with recollections of conversations and stories of strange customs – such as the local tradition of drowning of a mouse in the first barrel of newly pressed grapes, walking over red-hot coals and jumping over new-born babies. Slowly over the three sections of the book he explains how he integrated himself into a community that had barely changed for hundreds of years, where people adhered to tradition, superstitions ruled, and the ageless rhythms of the year continued as they had for centuries.
He asks a local man to explain about life and he replies: “How can anyone put it? One thing is certain – here we have always been and here, whatever happens, we shall remain, listening to the voices of the old sea.”
But Lewis was observing life on the verge of headlong and irreversible change, the cork forests that were the life blood of their neighbours were suffering blight, the fish were not as plentiful as they once were and worst of all, the first waves of tourism were beginning to lap at the golden shores of the Costa Blanca and a way of life was heading for extinction.
By the third season there was no turning back – the fishermen’s wives were working as chambermaids at the hotel, and even his friend Sebastian had to abandoned his ambitious travelling plans and succumbed to the inevitable and become a waiter.
We walked along the seashore and then into a pine forest, planted some time ago to protect the coast from erosion and now a site of special scientific interest. It has done its job well because the sand dunes are piled high at the back of the beach and have stopped the encroachment into the land.
This reminded me of seaside holidays when I was a boy and we used to go to a cottage at Seaview Crescent at Walcott on Sea in Norfolk. It was a crescent sure enough and every year that we went there were a few cottages missing as they had fallen over the cliff into the sea during the winter storms. Luckily ours, which was owned by a man called Mr Bean (he was an old man and dad used to call him Mr has-been – well, he thought it was funny) was furthest away from the cliff edge so each year before we left mum and dad could always book a week there the following year with some degree of confidence.
We walked right along the path though the pine woods and stopped for a while at the marina for a drink where the weather improved, the sun poked through the grey cloud and Lindsay began to panic about having to join me later for a swim in the sea. As we left and started to walk back I think she was probably relieved to see the clouds coming back in and blotting out the sun and if I am honest so was I.
I liked Guardamar del Segura, it was good, it is a tourist/ex pat sort of place now but I could still get a sense of its history and fishing heritage. It is a place that I would happily go back to.
I used to think that it might be nice to sell up and go and live abroad but as I have got older I have abandoned the idea. I am English not Spanish or French and my character, behaviour and whole way of life has been shaped from an English heritage that, even if I wanted to, I could not lay aside and become something that I am not.
But, now I have another idea. It always annoys me when I see a poster advertising something that happened last week, before I arrived, or will take place next week, after I have gone home, so I think I could be happy to live for a while, say twelve months, in a foreign country so that I could enjoy everything that takes place over the course of a year in a Spanish town or city and I would be very happy to place Quesada on my short list of potential places.
“By the end…it was clear that … spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms… and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.
In the morning the lady at the shop seemed very surprised to see us back quite so soon to return all of the empty bottles and exchange them for a new supply of full ones. We were impressed as well that she had clearly been thinking ahead and with an eye to increased sales there were more bread rolls today and she invited us to buy as many as we liked.
We planned to take two more days in Portugal and spend three driving back and as Armação de Pera had been a bit too quiet for us the day before we decided today to drive instead to the main tourist town of Albufeira, which was about eight miles to the east on the way to Faro so we left the village and drove through the towns of Pera and Guia before turning off the main road and driving directly to the town.
Up until the 1960s Albufeira used to be a small fishing village but is now one of the busiest tourist towns on the Algarve and has grown into a popular holiday resort for tourists from Northern Europe and even though this was late November it was surprisingly warm and there were still a number of people about today.
We parked the car and walked through narrow streets of traditional Algarvean white and tiled residential homes, side by side with less attractive modern tourist developments – the apartments near the Marina e Bryn for example are a shocking mix of pinks, blues, and yellows and referred to locally as Legoland.
Portugal, then as now, is one of the poorest countries in Western Europe, and behind the tiled walls and the balconies with washing hanging like bunting as though as in anticipation of a carnival we could see that the houses were made of breeze blocks and tin sheet.
On the other hand, it is the seventh safest country in the world and after France, Italy and Germany the fourth biggest consumer of wine, and so, with the sun beating down we choose a table at a café to help them maintain this statistic.
The town was busy but down at Fisherman’s beach there was plenty of room for everyone and we stretched out our towels and lay in the sun and now and again went down to the sea for a dip. Anthony, who thought he bore a resemblance to Magnum PI, always fancied himself as a bit of a ladies man quickly found some girls from Leeds to chat to and after an hour or so Richard’s boredom kicked in and so the two of us went to the bar overlooking the beach for a beer while the other two stayed behind flirting.
On that first day in Portugal we spent nearly all day in Albufeira, on the Praia dos Pescadores, at the bar and walking around the pretty little streets of the old town behind the promenade and then we made our way back to the villa and tried the pool, which, on account of it being November, was a bit too cold and was only the sort of thing you would do if you were compelled to, and to test this theory we threw Tony in – several times I seem to remember.
Later we went back to Albufeira because Anthony had arranged to meet the girls from Leeds so we had something to eat and then went on to the bars in neighbouring São João, the modern tourist part of Albufeira, which is mad with activity in the high summer but in November was almost Saga like.
I liked Albufeira but I am not sure that I would want to go there in the summer months of crazy tourist activity.
“It was not only in Farol that brusque changes were taking place…they were happening at a breakneck pace all over Spain. Roads, radio, the telephone and now the arrival of tourists… were putting an end to the Spain of old. And for those who wanted to see it as it had been, there was not a moment to be lost.” Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
If Pedro Zaragoza Orts is remembered for the Beni-York skyscraper he is even more famous for the so called ‘War of the Bikini’. In the later years of the 1950s the icon of holiday liberty was rapidly becoming the saucy two piece swimsuit but in staunchly religious Spain, still held in the firm two-handed grip of church and state, this scanty garment was seen as a threat to the very foundation of Catholic society.
According to the official version the swimsuit, that was a little more than a provocative brassiere front with a tiny g-string back, was invented by a French engineer called Louis Réard and the fashion designer Jacques Heim. It was allegedly named after Bikini Atoll, the site of nuclear weapon tests on the reasoning that the burst of excitement it would cause on the beach or at the lido would be like a nuclear explosion. Plenty of fallout and very hot!
And it certainly had this effect in Spain and although occasionally allowable on the sandy beaches, it had to be covered up in all other areas; on the promenades and in the plazas and in the shops and the bars and cafés for fear of causing any offence. In one famous incident, a British tourist, sitting in a bar opposite a beach wearing only a bikini, was told by a Guardia Civil officer that she wasn’t allowed to wear it there. After an argument she hit him, and her strike for social justice cost her a hefty fine of forty thousand pesetas.
Zaragoza needed tourists and tourists wanted the bikini and with more pasty-skinned northern European tourists arriving each year in search of an all over suntan the Mayor knew that the banning of the two piece swimsuit simply couldn’t be sustained or allowed to threaten his ambitious plans for development.
Zaragoza took a gamble and signed a municipal order which permitted the wearing of the bikini in public areas and in this single act he effectively jump started the Spanish tourist industry. Zaragoza said: “People had to feel free to be able to wear what they wanted, within reason, if it helped them to enjoy themselves as they would come back and tell their friends about the place.” In deeply religious Catholic Spain not everyone was so understanding or welcoming of the bikini however and in retaliation the Archbishop of Valencia began the excommunication process against him.
This may not seem such an especially big issue now but to get a better perspective it is important to contextualise it in terms of the time. Spain was in the grip of an ultra-conservative dictatorship and the beaches at Benidorm were still managed in theory according to a decree of 1907 that had segregated the beaches into specific zones for men and women and where people could only bathe if, in the words of the decree, they were ‘decently dressed’.
Excommunication was a very serious matter in 1959 and his political supporters began to abandon him so the story goes that one day he got up early and drove for nine hours on a little Vespa scooter to Madrid to lobby Franco himself. The Generalissimo was suitably impressed with his determination and gave him his support, Zaragoza returned to Benidorm and the Church backed down and the approval of the bikini became a defining moment in the history of modern Spain ultimately changing the course of Spanish tourism and causing a social revolution in an austere country groaning under the yoke of the National Catholic regime. Zaragoza went on to become Franco’s Director of Tourism and a Parliamentary Deputy.
Not many people would have described Franco as a liberalising social reformer and perhaps he secretly liked to look at semi-naked ladies but not long after this lots of women on holiday in Benidorm dispensed with the bikini bra altogether and brazenly sunbathed topless and Benidorm postcards had pictures of semi-dressed ladies on them to prove it.
One thing I am certain of is that this wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference to my Nan because I am not sure that she ever possessed a swimming costume, never mind a two-piece! She was rather old-fashioned and the human body in the naked form was only permitted behind closed doors with the curtains closed and preferably after dark. If she ever went in the sea I imagine it would have been in one of those Victorian one piece bathing costumes of the previous century.
Grandad too wasn’t one for showing bits of his body normally kept under his bus conductor’s dark blue uniform and didn’t even concede to a pair of shorts, preferring instead to wear his colonial style slacks even during the day. When he came home his impressive suntan stopped at the line of his open neck shirt and his rolled up sleeves.
For people who had never been abroad before Benidorm must have been an exciting place in the early 1960s. Palm fringed boulevards, Sangria by the jug full and, unrestrained by optics, generous measures of whiskey and gin, rum and vodka. Eating outside at a pavement café and ordering drinks and not paying for them until leaving and scattering a handful of strange coins on the table as a tip for the waiter.
There was permanent sunshine, a delightful warm sea and unfamiliar food, although actually I seem to doubt that they would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on these holidays because to be fair anything remotely ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people they weren’t really ready for tortilla and gazpacho, tapas or paella. They didn’t really want garlic, olive oil or saffron and they certainly didn’t return home to experiment with any new Iberian gastronomic ideas and I suspect they probably kept as close as they could to food they were familiar with.
Benidorm is a fascinating place, often unfairly maligned or sneered at but my grandparents liked it and I have been there myself in 1977 for a fortnight’s holiday and then again on a day trip in 2008 just out of curiosity. It has grown into a mature and unique high rise resort with blue flag beaches and an ambition to get UNESCO World Heritage Status and I hope it achieves it.
More posts about Benidorm…