A New Year in the Algarve

Visiting a ceméterio to lay flowers at the grave of a fellow Scot who died more than 20 years ago is an integral part of Tom and Margaret Callan’s regular trips to the Algarve. However, their most recent visit, earlier this month, did not go as smoothly as usual. Tom Callan explains.

Albufeira on the second day of January, 2007. It is almost two in the afternoon as we bump down the hill of Cerro Grande in our wee silver Saxo.

Parking next to the ceméterio, typically white, silent and fragrant, it proudly casts an eternal gaze towards Fisherman’s Beach. Margaret, my wife, has the flowers and we cast two fleeting shadows beneath the old and dignified entrance archway.

The trusty, and rusty, iron chain for the entrance is out of sight and redundant until later and there is no sign of Joaquim, who for many years has lovingly and respectfully tended the cemetery and its marbled monuments to cherished souls.

Making our way along the spotless stone passageway we, as usual, move left towards the grave of a young man from home who was laid to rest over 20 years ago in this sacred corner of southern Portugal.

We silently offer prayers and marvel at the beauty of a place dedicated to preserving memories and maintaining tributes in such peaceful harmony.

With the floral spray now appropriately positioned it is time to make our way down towards the Old Town. Tastefully erratic flagstones form the path towards the arch, underneath which the iron gates normally hang relaxed until being joined by Joaquim.

As it is not quite 2pm, it is unusual to see the two gates already closed. Is that a padlock that reflects ever so slightly in this beautiful sunlight?

Margaret glances at me as I feign nonchalance. Moving closer, however, we both accept the reality of being locked in the cemetery — and it’s not even supposed to be closed!

There is no one to whom we can turn. It seems inappropriate to yell. Even by Algarve standards this development seems unique and lacks the benefit of previous experience upon which to draw and stave off even slight anxiety.

Our four hands are tightly wound around the iron bars as we see the waves lapping on the distant shore. There is no sign of any other living soul.

The German couple that had parked their camper van have obviously moved on. We are alone with only a shared sense of bewilderment for company.

The gates are shut tight and we are inside. What next? Modern technology provides an option.

Grateful to have the mobile fully charged, I respond to Margaret’s suggestion of contacting a Portuguese friend in the local estate agents.

Of course, Ali is out for lunch at that moment when I call and try to explain, in very limited Portuguese, our predicament to Maria from Loulé and working in Albufeira.

The words cemetério, correntes, and trancar dentro are desperately pasted together as we try to paint a picture of chains keeping us locked in the cemetery. Maria no doubt questioned the accuracy of her translation, perhaps even slightly less than the sanity of her Portuguese-cum-English speaking caller.

With the estate agent’s office almost adjacent to the cemetério, I also reckoned that curiosity would overcome any understandable misgivings.

As it happened, Ali returned just as my plea for assistance was in full flow. Shrieks of laughter from across the road could be heard without the aid of our mobile.

We now realised that at the very least we would soon have company to soothe our situation. But how would this quintessentially Portuguese situation be resolved?

Might Joaquim be summoned? Would a plea to officials in the câmara for a spare chave de ceméterio be necessary? Would either of these possibilities make any difference? Were we here for the night? A voice we recognised could be heard above us. Turning to the white perimeter wall , we were met with Ali’s slightly bemused gaze.

On hearing our hurried explanation, Ali burst into tears of unrestrained laughter. The thought of this couple from Scotland celebrating New Year by spending the second day of January confined within an admittedly beautiful, if unconventional, setting was obviously having the opposite effect to our faint stirrings of panic.

To our dismay, Ali then disappeared. Had the emotion of our situation finally driven her to seek refuge from the enormity of a scene in which imprisoned characters pleaded beneath her feet?

A blinding flash from the street above, accompanied by a distinctly metallic rattle across grating concrete, sent Margaret and I huddling together.

Had the Algarve Cemetery Police devised an appropriate retribution for visitors who refused to leave? Was Ali trundling an ancient cannon designed to blast a hole in the cemetery wall and through which we would make good our escape? A range of fearsome images and lurid possibilities flashed through our collective imagination in the instant before I squinted through the sunlight to see a vision that was Ali with an exceptionally long pair of steel ladders.

Margaret’s reluctance to scale the cemetery wall aided only by thin metal rings was defeated by the compulsion to return to the freedom of Cerro Grande, now tantalisingly close at only two meters above head height.

Ali’s encouragement, and the applause of the Portuguese who had stopped to digest what was probably the first calamity of the New Year, allowed us to make slow and grateful, if undignified, grasps to the ladder’s summit.

I swear the strains of Stairway to Heaven echoed from above; the rickety metal frame certainly felt like a foothold towards a state of higher existence.

Glancing at the steel steps below it was obvious that the ladders could not be retrieved before morning. The steel still touched the earth of the cemetério in which the young friend from Scotland lay resting. There was a palpable sensation that he too was enjoying the fun in Albufeira and marveling at how he could still bring such excitement and happiness to people around him.

There was also the unmis-takable feeling that what we had experienced was so typical of our beloved Portugal. Uplifted by our return to the road above, it then occurred to us — and to Ali — that the ladders being necessarily left behind in the graveyard provided another seam of rich, vivid possibilities for another dawn on the Algarve.

Over café douplos we speculated what Joaquim’s reaction might be tomorrow. He would be met with the sight of shiny step ladders affixed beneath his wall. This was, of course, after he had left for the day; after he had joined the chains; after he had padlocked the gates.

Happy New Year, Joaquim and até loge. We look forward to meeting you and don’t doubt that Ali already has.

Who knows when her escadas will be whisked out for another emergency? The year is young.

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