Jimmy Tarbuck, a well-known British comedian in the sweater, with Wendy and Mike Roberts enjoying a golf outing in the Algarve in the early 1980s

In search of the “good old days” – The Santa Bárbara de Nexe group

As a self-declared expat, I’m very interested in the expat experience. Whether you prefer the term or not, which is sometimes misunderstood and even considered negative, most people refer to folks who have moved from their country of birth to become residents of another country as “expatriates”. For many if not most, this lifestyle change has little to do with whether or not they are patriots, but rather has much to do with where they’ve chosen to live their lives.

When the Algarve Resident celebrated 30 years of covering the news and lives of English-speaking residents, I decided to look into the experience of some people who moved here over three decades ago. After all, I’ve only been in my new preferred residence of Santa Bárbara de Nexe near Faro for four years. Luckily, I’ve met some old timers who know a heck of a lot more about living here than I do.

For example, Cassi and Richard “Dick” Skidmore drove a VW camper down from Kent, south of London 46 years ago, or as Cassie (74) pointed out, “before the revolution”. In other words, to a newbie like me, the entire history of the republic after the fall of Salazar in 1974. Cassie clearly remembers “people wearing red carnations and celebrating in the streets”.

They fell in love with the place and, two years later, the Skidmores moved to their current location, just up the hill from downtown Santa Bárbara. Dick (83) actually remembers reading the first edition of “The Resident”, thinking it was a pleasant development that he could get local news in English even though, by then, he could speak reasonable Portuguese.

When they first arrived, they remember the Algarve as a widely scattered “cluster of villages connected by dirt tracks. Most people didn’t even own cars, so they got around on motorbikes, sometimes with the whole family aboard, or on brightly painted mule carts, with dogs running underneath”. Cassie recalls then that “the local women wore long black dresses with coloured scarves and black trilby (fedora) hats. The men were also all in black with trilbys”.

“Faro airport was tiny,” Dick recalls, “with just a shed next to the runway.” The town of Faro hardly had any paved roads and, as Cassie remembers, “the police were all in white with helmets standing on a plinth (platform) in the intersections with not much traffic to direct”.

When they built their house on what is still a narrow track, Cassie pointed out that the place was wired for electric but there was no service. They used a cistern for water and oil lamps. While the fridge and cooker were fuelled by gas, they often cooked over wood in the shed (outdoor kitchen) behind the house.

They owned a couple of restaurants until eventually Dick operated a successful swimming pool maintenance business (with over 50 swimming pools, which continue as a very popular amenity with expats), which he still runs today.

Then there’s Pat’s dear friends and fellow Santa Bárbara de Nêxe residents Wendy and Mike Roberts who used to work in the hotel business on the beautiful Island of Jersey. Back in 1977, they drove down to the Algarve for a holiday. On their first day on the southern coast of Portugal, the windshield (they call it a windscreen) of their Honda Civic was shattered by kids playing soccer (they call it football) in the street. “It took us six weeks to get a new windscreen,” Wendy remembers, “but it was the best holiday we ever had. We never got wet because it never rained.”

Mike remembers it the same way. “We loved motoring around, looking through the hole in our windscreen. The weather was great, and the people were very laid back in those days.” Mike tells the story of stopping by a fire station (the bombeiros) to ask directions and ending up sitting down and sharing a fish stew lunch. “We felt completely relaxed.”

“We had friends who had disappeared from Jersey for six months, and now we knew why,” Wendy recalled, “and they recommended this old villa on a strip near Albufeira,” which was a small but growing fishing village. “We took over an old ruin.”

They remember this first renovation project as a “hey day”. According to Mike, “first we hired a local carpenter who could speak a little English and soon we were interacting with the local people, who were pleased to have the work and did a very good job”.

Wendy fondly recalls “being invited to a local bar on Dia de São Martinho (Saint Martin’s Day) for the annual wine pressing. We climbed in and stomped on the grapes”.

Both also remember that the social scene was “lots of fun” even though, or maybe because, there weren’t that many places, so celebrities mixed in with the not-so-famous. One such spot was Harry’s Bar in Albufeira, which was owned by Sir Harry Warner and the likes of Peter Haigh, a well-known face on BBC television and the entertainer Sir Cliff Richard lived nearby. The Roberts recall eating fish in a hut near the docks and being taught Portuguese by the fishermen, who also served the fish they grilled.

Wendy and Mike ended up settling in Aldeia do Golfe, a golf development near Vilamoura, which shows that there were tourists and golf courses back in the 80s, just not as many. The Dom Pedro was the first and only hotel back then, near the marina where the Roberts docked their boat “The Albatross”.

Then in the late 80s, the Roberts decided to renovate a 150-year-old farmhouse called Quinta da Janela at Monte João Preto near Boliqueime. The house itself used to be the hub of local social life, being the place where all the local people stored their wine. This four-year labour of love was so successful that the beautiful house surrounded by a lovely garden was featured in a local property magazine in 1989.

The author of the piece, Marilyn Stebbe, described the adventure this way: “Find the Roberts an unmarked and previously unexplored track and they have an irresistible urge to take the turn and drive up. Through this method of ‘getting lost’, they one day turned up the lane to their current home. When they were asked ‘have you come to see the house?’ (they hadn’t), the result was almost inevitable.”

Also, during the 80s, Wendy and Mike ran a popular restaurant in Ludo. Then in the 90s, Mike became involved in the rapidly growing golf industry, first as the treasurer for the Golf Society with 80 members centred at the Old Course in Vilamoura and later with Long Shot Golf, a Portuguese and British company that promoted golf trips and tournaments at the 12 to 15 courses that existed at the time.

Wendy remembers the nearly 20-year period of their life as a “great time” with “a wonderful and exciting social life”. Mike tells the story of when well-known golf course architect Henry Cotton was designing the first 18 holes at Penina resort, which now has three courses. “He would ride around the course on a donkey.”
Wendy (76) and Mike (81) Roberts are now retired and live in the village of Santa Bárbara de Nêxe, where they enjoy stopping by the Sooner or Later Pub for “the best hamburgers in the Algarve”, served up by Elisabeth Costa and her gregarious host/husband Carlos.

So, what has Pat, the relatively new expat, learned from these experienced veterans? Basically, I’ve learned that nothing fundamentally has changed. Yes, there are many more people but, except for two or three of the biggest towns like Portimão during July and August, getting around is still manageable. My lovely wife and I think that compared to the traffic in the Washington D.C. area or Panama, there is no such thing as a true spirit-crushing traffic jam. Sometimes on the A22, we’re the only vehicle.

Village life is still possible to experience. In Santa Bárbara de Nêxe, for example, Paulina at the grocery store always tries to get me to speak Portuguese to which I respond “Obrigado”. Sérgio at the Central Café knows my name and always shakes my hand. I often exchange pleasantries with the mayor, the bank manager, the pharmacist and most of the people in the bakery having their morning ‘bicas’ and ‘pastéis de nata’.

Of course, it is more expensive than in the good ol’days. The Skidmores tell of a time when they could have a generous lunch or dinner of chicken, sardines or curry for only five escudos. Now, newer immigrants marvel at how low wine and restaurant prices are compared to what’s the going rate in New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam or Panama City. Really the only commodity that seems expensive is gasoline. Real estate prices have gone up, but again compared to where?

Both the Skidmores and the Roberts reminisce about their enjoyable social life either centred around a local amateur theatre group or golf and liked the fact that everybody mixed. I obtained virtually identical quotes from Cassie and Wendy when they talked about socialising with “all ages; Portuguese, German, Dutch, even some Australians and, of course, people from all over the UK”. Wendy seems pleased to have “so many dear old friends who have moved here over the years; and lovely new friends as well,” including as least a couple of Americans.

The same is still true today. Recently, my lovely wife and I attended an “International Meetup” at the Maria Nova Hotel in Tavira organised by Adam Prince, along with Rui Caetano and Karen Pereira, who also organise a Happy Hour on the last Thursday of every month. There we mingled with expats from Sweden, Canada, France, the States and had a reunion with five other friends who all had moved to the Algarve from (yes, you guessed it) Panama. There’s also ALITA (Americans Living in the Algarve), led by Mike Wasinski and Frank Remiatte, that enables Americans from all over that huge country to come together.

What do we all have in common, people who have lived here in southern Portugal for as long as “The Resident” has been in circulation and those of us who have arrived and stayed more recently? Cassie spoke for almost all of us when she said, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. We still love it. The sunsets, almond trees, riding my horse across open fields, the people, the sunshine – we can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

When I asked the Roberts and the Skidmores when was the best times and the worst times, the two couples were basically stumped. “It’s all been good and still is” was the consensus. Whether we’ve been here for 30 years or three years, most of us feel very lucky indeed to have found a pretty darn nice place to live. The “good old days” are now.

By Pat, the expat

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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.