Friday, 3 September 2010

The Algarve

I remember Albufeira +40 years ago when it was still principally a small fishing village with only one or two buildings with more than two floors. Driving down from Lisbon took five to six hours on twisty cork and almond tree-lined roads. Faro Airport had just opened.

However, at that time, Portugal still had an empire generating its economic wealth and Lisbon was the bustling capital of an empire. I remember the first morning in the Mundial Hotel, in Lisbon, waking up to sound of trams rattling through the streets and fishmongers and other traders still pushing their barrows though the area around Mem Martins and Praça da Figueira plying their wares. A fascinating introduction to a new culture for a young teenager, whose experience of life till then had been restricted to Southern Africa.

However, life is a dynamic and all things move on. 1974 saw the Revolution in Portugal and overnight the country lost it Empire and much of its economic wealth, It also had to accommodate over a million retornados from its colonies, One obvious source of such wealth was to promote the development of tourism in the Algarve to pick up on the overflow form the beginnings of mass tourism to the Spanish Costas and Greek islands.

Subsequently, following Portugal's entry to the EU in 1986, there was a increase in mass movement by retiree's and others from other EU states to retire/live in the Algarve.

Hence the transmogrification of the region into a destination for wine filled, sun splashed hedonism for Northern Europeans!

Regrettably, the Algarve's cultural heritage was not really protected or enhanced during this period, Lagos, where I live, has a phenomenal history with recently research by the University of Seville recovering artifacts of Phonecian origin. The Romans were here and in Tavira, The Moors were in Silves. At this time, the Algarve region was part of the Moorish kingdom or Al-Andaluz and was known in Arabic as the Al-Gharb.

Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins shelled Lagos while they were still privateers, and Lagos as well as Sagres were critical key ports in the Portuguese Voyages of discovery which opened the sea route to the Asia around the Cape of Good Hope in the 14C/15C. Without this great Portuguese success, neither the Dutch nor the British would have had their empires in the form they subsequently took. Lagos was the capital of the Algarve until much of the old town was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.

I was privileged a few years ago to be passing a dig by the city walls near the Bombeiros and to see two skeletons been excavated from what was probably the graveyard of the church that stood in Largo Sta. Maria until the eartquake.

There are also apocryphal stories that illiterate fisherman without compasses from Olhão in the Algarve crossed the Atlantic to Brazil in 1830 to take news to the Portuguese Royal family resident in Brazil at the time.

The Algarve has a tremendous cultural is just that there is not one museum, historical theme park, son et lumière, or other facility that promotes it in a way comprehensible to visitors. It is a tremendous shame!

This lack of cultural awareness and promotion of cultural tourism to the Algarve is problematical and contributes of the lack of year round stable economic activity here.

It is interesting that there is increasing evidence that European tourists, in particular, are increasingly much more interested in taking city breaks to Lisbon and Porto than visiting the Algarve.

See, for example, this recent article:

Consequently, I must concur that if one is in Lisbon and one wants to take a side trip elsewhere in Portugal to see more than sea and sand, head north to Coimbra, Obidos, Alcobaça, Batalha, Porto, Torres Vedras etc.

A final note, with regards to the comments above about the behavior of foreign tourists here, I have been helping a friend out managing a 16 bed villa here this summer. The owner lives in the UK. What possessed her, I do not know, (greed probably!) but she rented the property this week to 14 English soccer fans.

I can tell you, that being called out to extract beer cans, various body coverings, hair etc, etc from a jacuzzi filter after a wild 18hr booze fueled party is not my idea of culture either!!