When Jacob Rees-Mogg recently suggested British holidaymakers avoid the trials of crossing the English Channel at Dover and choose our oldest allies the Portuguese instead, I confess my heart sank a little.
You see, I have a vested interest. It was people like my parents who beat a path to this most pleasant peninsula over 50 years ago, when it was still governed by the fading dictator Salazar. My parents liked it so much they set up a second home in the cloudless Algarve, where they enjoyed the real ‘sunlit uplands’ for over two decades before they sold up and returned to England in ripe old age.
In many ways they had the best of the country. As a family we first visited in the late 1960s and as a retiring farmer who had witnessed and adapted to the massive mechanisation of his industry throughout his working life, my father was charmed by a country where the horse and cart were still king and wheat was still threshed by hand!
As caravan-towing tourists we were treated as an amusing novelty, but everywhere we went the welcome was unfailingly gracious. We were seen as welcome inward investors bringing hard-earned retirement funds to a country desperate to drag itself into the 20th century, just as many others were preparing for the 21st.
But now I wonder whether the ‘bem-vindo’ mat will be rolled out quite as readily as it once was. I have returned from time to time, drawn to the now not-so-little former fishing village of Burgau where my folks first bought a tiny terraced villa.
Almost inevitably, that villa is a bar and has been dwarfed by a raft of somewhat overwhelming condo blocks and roads lined with sanitised pseudo-trad new builds, all waiting for the aspirationally-limited to snap them up. The village has long been a favourite exodus destination for holidaying Lisboetas who flock there during their annual August getaway, and it seems they and Brits have routed, with the help of local authorities who have cracked down on wild camping, the German and Dutch influx that made the overland trip in convoys of VW campers in years gone by.
What changed and why?
While the centre of the village retains many of its architectural charms, particularly in the rabbit warren of cobbled pathways and old whitewashed cottages, some bright spark, presumably at the Portuguese Tourist Board, picked up on the words of an over-imaginative travel journalist who described Burgau as ‘the Portuguese Santorini’ and sprayed them around liberally.
This resulted in a further upsurge in curious British punters. Now the older parts of the village are punctuated by beauty salons, shops flogging tourist tat, pizzerias and even, rather sadly, the inevitable English ‘pub’. Yes, there are still some great restaurants offering typical Algarvean fish dishes, but you’d better book early if you’re going to hold any hope of getting a table!
Speaking of fish, the fleet of night-time fishing boats, their twinkling lights festooning the bay as they plied their ancient trade, is long gone. A perilous existence, it is wholly understandable that many fishermen chose not to follow fathers and grandfathers into the business. Now the fish are landed on a more industrial scale by fishermen venturing out from the nearby port of Lagos and preferring to sell their catch in the large central market there rather than laying it out on the slipways of the smaller villages.
But what of the familiar Portuguese welcome extended over centuries to British adventurers, that Rees-Mogg advises us to seek out? Well, it’s true that in their infinite generosity, the Portuguese have sensibly opened up their EU passport lanes at Faro airport and thus ensured smooth entry for all. However, there are, if one looks carefully, signs that the previously effusive welcome may be superseded by what one may call a ‘resigned tolerance’. Previously, where there were smiles and bonhomie, now there seems a more weary forbearance, especially in the coastal resorts.
Is the welcome still genuine?
Hit hard by Covid in 2020, Portugal saw its annual tourism income slashed in half. It knows that to hit the 2019 peaks of some 27 million annual visitors (generating circa €37bn or over 17% of GDP) it can’t afford to be as choosy as it has been in the past. Always positioning itself as the more cosmopolitan alternative to the Spanish Costas, the sense is that it’s now very much ‘come one, come all’. The sheer numbers of Brits that have now discovered the ‘secret’ hideaway coastal villages of the Algarve mean that the local welcome therein has become perfunctory, although perhaps only in peak season.
The good news is that in the interior regions, such as the Alentejo, the reception remains genuine. A trip up country through its fiercely hot plains, undulating olive groves and vineyards pays untold dividends.
The regional capital of Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the perfect counterpoint to the heaving sands of the Algarve’s beaches, and the restaurateurs and shopkeepers of the town and its many picturesque satellite villages are happy to engage much longer than to simply divest you of the contents of your wallet!
In these relative backwaters the burgeoning signs of irritation with foreigners to be found in the tourist honey traps are anathema. The great hope is that the welcome that is showing the early signs of turning to blame for overcrowding or the overheating house prices that are shutting out local buyers does not evolve into a breeding ground for Faragist-style opportunists seeking to sow division in the interests of personal gain or misguided populism.
Have some respect
But what of the thousands of blue-passport waving Brits who descend on the 250 or so native residents of Burgau?
As they spill out of the cocktail bars, with the latest grime anthems blasting at full volume from AirbnB apartments, I can only hope they have enough decency to maintain a semblance of respect for the old ways of this venerable village and its mother country.
Portugal has largely been a socialist success story over the past decade, so heaven forbid we should export our warped brand of insularity and, through our exceptionalist ignorance, help the seeds of hostility germinate in this most benign of nations.
Portuguese patience is legendary, but not limitless!