THIS WEEK’S set of experiences reflect on life in Portugal’s main tourism region, because it is here that the greatest variety of that strange species, the tourist, can be found. Having fired a humorous broadside at our Portuguese hosts last time around, I have been prompted by the few friends I have left to redress the balance with a look at the temporary visitors to this beautiful country.
In times long gone by, travel to foreign countries was the sole preserve of the rich and eccentric ‘touring’ in their roadsters (imagine Hercule Poirot in the south of France).
In the Algarve, Praia da Rocha became the first firmly established resort, providing a home from home for a growing colony of English artists during the 1920s. Sixty years later, the climate of post-war prosperity, coupled with improved and more accessible public transport by road, rail and air, brought with them the first manifestations of modern tourism, including package holidays as we know them.
Still, the overwhelming majority of people taking time off abroad belonged to the affluent upper middle classes. Reduced working hours, higher wages and falling prices caused another shift in the make-up of the travelling masses, foreign holidays finally becoming available to all and sundry with the advent of low budget airlines such as easyJet, Ryanair and others.
So…my potted history is complete. Let me cast a circumspect eye over today’s modern Crusaders contributing to the annual panoptic of cultures populating these shores. Over 50 per cent of Algarve holiday-makers are Brits and it is, therefore, only natural that most of my observations are dedicated to this group.
“How big is this island?” I have actually been asked this question on two occasions over the years. It makes you wonder. Did they get on the wrong ‘plane? No Spanish phrasebook in evidence, so not Majorca. Perhaps Madeira? No, it turns out the Algarve is indeed their intended destination, the geography classroom obviously was not.
Apart from firmly embracing the Churchillian ethos of “We will fight them on the beaches” (and everywhere else for that matter), the Englishman abroad is something to behold, a phenomenon with pronounced tendencies towards two extremes. A few, albeit in the Algarve, Africa or the Far East, “go native”, adopt local customs with a fervour that puts their hosts themselves to shame and generally stay to be pointed out to other visiting foreigners as quaint oddities.
The vast majority, however, belong to a marauding Celtic tribe alien to their temporary environment, causing exasperation at every turn. Upon arrival, the unhealthy paleness of their skin is only exceeded by the Scots, who boast an underlying shade of blue or a varying degree of tattoos. This lack of real colour is then soon rectified. Within 24 hours, the putrid exterior is replaced by a shrill pink, which rapidly turns into various hues of violent, purplish red, accentuated by white stripes caused by a day spent on a plastic chair at a beach bar. The resulting appearance has given rise to the derogatory Portuguese descriptive term of “bifes”. As the sun goes down, the effects of this self-mutilation are partially covered up with England football shirts as the masses throng to the nearest pharmacy, Irish pub or karaoke bar.
Can someone please explain to me why everyone from the toddler in the pushchair to granddad is decked out in soccer regalia? I could perhaps persuade myself to come up with a degree of comprehension if a crowd of Brazilians proudly showed off the four-times World Cup winning achievement, but one solitary success, controversially achieved on home soil almost 40 years back? It simply defies belief. No other nation parades itself thus uniformly attired on vacation and many would rather be seen dead than going out in a replica football shirt at night. The following morning, winter or summer, scorching or freezing, rain or shine, that same shirt is then whipped off much to the amazement of locals conducting their weekly shopping in a fur coat at the supermarket. That supermarket, whose failure to stock marmite or Bovril, is greeted with disbelief by our virulently coloured visitors who then begin to get irate when the shop assistant reacts with a blank stare to belligerent questions enunciated in a thick Glaswegian or Scouse accent.
More on gastronomic delights and habits… Fresh fish, caldeirada, bacalhau à brás or delicious Alentejo stews and feijoada are all spurned. Hamburger and chips and the traditional Sunday roast are both actively sought. Chicken ‘Piri Piri’ might represent the only venture into the national cuisine, soon after to be replaced by a much more satisfying visit to one of the many Indian or Chinese restaurants populating the region. Similarly, the request for a sherry, and adamant subsequent refusal to try a port, represent the exception to a week or fortnight’s binge on Boddingtons or Magners cider. Alcohol-fuelled nights often turn ugly in consequence regardless of how many kids, equally terrorising parents and innocent bystanders, are in tow. Enough!
Every nationality has its peculiarities and faults, which tend to stand out like a sore thumb abroad. Deckchairs apart, the German tourist abroad is no more ingratiating. Here too, a minority sets itself apart from the mainstream, but instead of ‘going native’, these individuals display a missionary zeal which can be just as grating. Good intentions are often superseded by Teutonic inflexibility and more harm than good is done.
But your average representatives of this group of visitors can easily be identified by their impeccable taste in clothing, even appearing for breakfast in the hotel dining-room dressed up to the nines. Unfortunately, the holiday spirit often eludes the Germans. They like to moan, complaining about anything ranging from terrible service and the weather, to astronomic green fees and the British. Communication is not a strong point either, especially among the older generation. Insisting on speaking German, the solution to not being understood, is repeating what was just said, a considerable increase in volume supposedly making things clearer. I could go on…
Spaniards do not understand why their staccato deliveries in faultless Spanish are not understood by historically resentful Portuguese, and the Dutch are hurt and puzzled by the fact that they are not received with open arms while illegally camping in huge caravans, containing everything necessary to prevent one guilder, now euro, leaving their possession.
The list is endless. I won’t bore you with French arrogance or sticky Russian dollars. Suffice to say that idiosyncratic differences between contrasting cultures all contribute to form a rich and interesting texture of life in the sun.
Let me end with a message of hope and change. A recent survey has shown that over a quarter of British holiday-makers have made dramatic and life-changing decisions while on holiday – 30 per cent of those asked told travel firm ebookers that time away has led to that magical “Shirley Valentine” experience.
Most common are the restoration of self-confidence leading to an end to troubled relationships, holidays boost birth rates and lead to moves abroad, broadened horizons bring about changes in careers and it has even been reported that militant vegetarians have returned reformed after being served “unbelievably tasty” seafood.
Holidays are good for you, there is no getting away from it. And Portugal is one of the most inviting places to start to re-evaluate your life.