Last of the summer whine
Another year in the Algarve is drawing to a close – 80 days to Christmas, my 21st – and what a strange one it has been.
A dry and cold winter saw water levels in reservoirs across the country dropping to alarming levels only to be refilled post haste almost to capacity during one of the most intense spring deluges on record. Donald Trump says there is no such thing as climate change. I beg to differ!
Summer began with a whimper but soon found its stride, producing prolonged periods of tropical heat – still ongoing – which saw the more typical fresh Algarve nights become the exception rather than the rule and prompting panic buying of anything and everything resembling a fan or ventilator. My household now boasts two sets of rotating blades affixed to the sitting and bedroom ceilings, providing a constant source for Ms Bojangles The Cat’s somewhat perturbed and neck-weary entertainment.
The summer of 2018 has been a bit different in other ways, too. Boastful announcements that the Algarve was “fully booked” at the beginning of the year soon turned into general disappointment as shops, bars and restaurants endured a difficult season, many operating well below capacity.
The whole dynamic of this year’s sun seekers shifted dramatically in comparison to the 2017 boom year makeup. Official figures show an almost 20% decline in British, Irish and German visitors, the shortfall being entirely taken up by the rather more frugal French, Spanish and domestic market.
Looming Brexit worries, the weak Pound and most recently discarded holiday destinations such as Turkey, Greece, Tunisia and Egypt attempting to regain their footholds in the tourism stakes are partly to blame, but, most of all, the Algarve’s failure to justify its drastic price hikes with matching quality is turning both discerning regular and potential visitors away.
Instead beds, beaches and supermarkets are being filled with the cash-strapped masses which have little or no inclination to spend money on anything but the bare essentials once accommodation, all inclusive or otherwise, has been taken care of. As a result, ‘big business’ profits wholesale-style, the local economy suffers.
I live in the at-times sleepy fishing village of Alvor, also known as a ‘drinking village with a fishing problem’ – and the ‘drinking’ in this instance only refers to the redundant fishermen, not the nocturnal summer pursuits of revellers of all ages.
The residents here then try to compensate in the winter, keeping everyone in business once the SAGA louts, typical for that time of the year, have retired to bed after the final tee or sundown, whichever comes first.
But back to the summer that was. In August, the freezer becomes our best friend as any normal working person can ill afford to spend two hours queuing to get in or out of supermarkets – if you can get there in the first place.
Alvor should have been turned into a pedestrian zone a long time ago. As it is, the powers that be continue to allow an endless stream of traffic to crawl up towards the central square where the unsuspecting motorised visitor soon loses the reason to live faced with only two options – turn right and make a quick exit, or carry on to negotiate a series of potential bottlenecks prior to arriving back at their point of entry.
Inevitably, as they often set off on a second circuit in their hopeless pursuit of non-existent parking spaces, a combination of high temperatures and other inept road users, leads to what I call ‘Alvor road rage’. Symptoms include attempts to reverse, or head straight down, one-way streets before being brought to an abrupt halt by either on-coming cars, abandoned delivery trucks, a bored GNR officer or, save us all, a Dutch camper van resembling a XXL bungalow on wheels, stuck, unable to make any one of several tight turns and thus bringing the whole village to a complete standstill – a prolonged cacophony of blaring horns ensues, raising more than an eyebrow or two from more peacefully inclined, and reclined, pedestrians.
Which leads me on to ‘Das Fussvolk’, loosely translated from German as ‘the common people’, footmen and women rather than engine-powered individuals. I found the best way to distinguish between the various species is to look at their shoes and it is a good thing our Teutonic cousins wore jackboots rather than Birkenstock sandals during the last great push south, or else most inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula would be bruised from the knees downwards.
Always rather brisk in both movement and manner, the typical German tourist is further distinguished by smart and functional dress as well as the ever-present knapsack containing carefully put together holiday essentials catering for any and every possible emergency: maps, compass, binoculars, water, sunscreen and a Swiss army knife – the full complement, bar a dictionary. That particular item is not deemed necessary as it is generally assumed that the world understands German, an attitude which becomes increasingly infuriating to both the person spoken to and innocent bystanders alike as each request is simply repeated at a greater volume every time it is met with non-comprehension.
As far as linguistic ignorance is concerned, the Spanish and French ‘invaders’ do not lag far behind. Incomprehensively delivered staccato outbursts punctuated by “vale, vale” (pronounced ‘bale’) can be just as annoying as seemingly urbane French arrogance, neither nationality even attempting to communicate in the generally accepted lingua franca, English.
The neutral observer of such often fruitless exchanges between visitors and locals is, more often than not, treated to an encore as cries of “ici, Jean-Pierre” directed at an errant child mutate to “anda cá, puto”, revealing the erstwhile French speaker to be non-other than a Portuguese immigrant.
Generally speaking, this summer the Algarve gave the impression of having been taken over almost completely by the Spanish and French, with localised English, Irish and German pockets of resistance. During a three-mile-plus walk on the packed beach between Praia do Vau and the mouth of the River Arade leading into Portimão, it was hard to spot anyone not Mediterranean in appearance.
At the same time, French-speakers were predominant in every café I visited, be it in the centre of town or more remote suburban snack bars only frequented by locals at other times of the year.
Lastly, I need to mention the usually more refined and rather elegant Italians. Apart from two very nice couples, one I met professionally and the other visiting us from Lisbon, the renewed political chaos in the land of vino, amore, football and fast cars has prompted a good chunk of its inhabitants to open restaurants in the Algarve. Twelve of varying descriptions at the last count in tiny Alvor alone and, during last week’s visit to Lagos, one has literally sprung up on every corner. How much pizza and pasta can one eat?
The full-on summer weather, belying the arrival of autumn, apart, the Algarve is slowly returning to normal as I am writing, the beaches are emptying and the pace of life is slowing down. Give me another couple of weeks and I am sure I will start complaining of boredom, starting to count the days until the next holiday season gets into full swing – but that is for another time.
By Skip Bandele
Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 20 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.