Once upon a time …

My first holiday in Portugal was in 1964, three years before I moved here permanently, and it was for one short but blissful week. I arrived and left the Algarve by train, then caught the plane from Lisbon airport to Heathrow for my home in London. Unless you drove all the way, there was no alternative route from England.

Faro airport opened a year later in July 1965 and was little more than a hut with some wire netting around it and was not open every day to begin with.

Over the years, I have watched the airport expand and grow, and for the last few years it has been covered in shuttering with complex alleyways for getting where you needed to be whilst modernising works were carried out. Added to that, I have always been driven to and from the airport and the last time I saw it was in February.

Imagine my surprise when I drove myself there for the first time in many years, and saw this now finished and uncovered, modern piece of glass architecture, gorging out hundreds, even thousands, of tourists who never seemed to cease coming.

It had to happen and, in many ways, I’m glad it has. The Algarve is no longer the poverty-stricken and forgotten part of Portugal that most of the rest of the country thought of as the end of the world, not just the tip of Europe.

It was the early British, Dutch and Germans who basically rediscovered the Algarve, and those of us who came loved its pure unspoiled beauty. You could wander totally alone on glorious sandy beaches and beautiful unspoiled countryside, watching fishermen fishing off the rocks or farmers still using mules or donkeys with carts whilst sowing seeds according to season as there was no irrigation.

Winter brought forth mountains of fresh runner beans, broad beans and peas, whilst summer was for tomatoes, melons of every variety, grapes, peaches, almonds, carob beans and delicious fresh figs.

Most people lived in very basic homes made of a mixture of clay mud and rocks, often with no windows and illuminated at night by candles or oil lamps.

Food had to be home-raised or caught, so fish, rabbit or chicken were common along with dried then soaked beans, vegetables or much-loved dried cod fish (bacalhau).

In the 50 years that I have lived in Portugal, it’s hard to remember how much so many things have changed but, at the airport that Saturday, it came to me with such clarity – as if I had turned the clock back and I was that 20-something woman stepping off one of the first planes on to a tarmac that was melting in the heat, with the smell of the pine forest surrounding, that came wafting up my nostrils with its sharp clean scent.

One can never go back, but it feels good to have those memories safely tucked away somewhere in my memory bank. I can think of the charm of those days but also the inconveniences.

With my now advanced years, I certainly appreciate my constant water and electricity, neither of which we had in those days.

As a widow, I am also very much indebted to my TV for the company it provides when not out with friends. And imagine a life with no internet! Peaceful in many ways but having to wait for a Lisbon operator to connect you to the outside world on your phone, which might take a couple of days … well, not now, thank you.

The Portuguese housewives of today must be so delighted not only with washing machines, but all the other labour-saving devices they can now take advantage of. Happily, I never had to wash my clothes back then in a cold running river or dry them on a hedge or heat an iron on the fire.

I also never had to walk to a well and carry water back, although it often was switched off in town. I always kept a reserve in a big container or a collection of pans.

If I am truthful, I love modern living in Portugal. I see healthy young people around me who are much taller than their parents, all of whom can read and write, and many more who make it to university. I’ve experienced excellent healthcare, including advanced surgery, and I’m living proof that there is life after cancer so my memories are golden and I wouldn’t want to forget them. But life is for living … forward.

By Jenny Grainer
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Jenny Grainer arrived in the Algarve to live, work and raise a family in 1964. She is a freelance writer and her book ‘Portugal and the Algarve Now and Then’ is now in its 3rd printing.