Algarve interlude: Travel as a branch of show business

16/03/2020 12:18

Written by John Carter

After I began my travel writing career in 1961, I spent several months finding my feet and, literally, finding my way about. Accepting an assortment of invitations, I went on fact-finding press trips, getting to know my fellow scribes and gradually being accepted into the brotherhood (and, of course, the sisterhood) of travel writers.

I also tried to unlock the mysteries of the UK travel industry, meeting its leading lights, attempting to work out the difference between a travel agent and a tour operator and to understand the convoluted politics of different trade bodies — and more or less failing. Then a chap named Ray Colegate, a civil servant with the Civil Aviation Authority, sorted it out for me in a single sentence.

‘If you look upon the travel industry as a branch of show business, you’ll find it will all make sense,’ he remarked. At the time we were sitting beside each other in a private jet, being whisked down to the south of France to attend the annual convention of ABTA — the Association of British Travel Agents. The whisking was by courtesy of a major tour company, whose champagne was flowing freely, and I understood immediately what Mr Colegate was driving at.

Like the theatre or cinema, the travel trade sells the dream rather than the reality. A holiday can never be as perfect as the brochures promise, but we settle for the less than perfect — just as the publicity for the west end show or the latest blockbuster film is hype, but we still enjoy going to the theatre or the cinema. The characters who inhabit the UK tourist trade are, similarly, very much like larger-thanlife showbiz types — or, rather, they were back then.

Carovoeiro City Coast View Algarve Portugal by Marcin Krzyzak, ShutterstockCarvoeiro city in the Algarve © Marcin Krzyzak, Shutterstock

After many months of following the herd, I thought I should break out on my own — find somewhere the others hadn’t been to, go there and write about its potential as a holiday destination. I studied a large map of Europe for quite a while, ruling out the north and the east and deciding that what I needed was an unspoiled coastline with decent beaches, preferably facing south. The Mediterranean had very little to offer, but I saw that Portugal had just such a coast, sheltered from the north winds by the Monchique Mountains.

I contacted the London representative of the Portuguese National Tourist Office. We met and talked about this slice of his country which was apparently called the Algarve. Nothing much was happening down there, he told me. As far as tourism to Portugal was concerned, people visited Lisbon and Porto. Those based in Lisbon went on side trips to Sintra or Estoril (in whose casino the character of James Bond was born).

Those choosing Porto were likely to be interested in the Douro valley and the landscape of the north. Nobody went to the Algarve, he declared. Naturally, I decided that is where I should go. He tried to dissuade me from this foolish course of action, but eventually agreed to contact his superiors in Lisbon and see what help they were willing to provide. So it came to pass that, in the middle of October 1962, I flew to Lisbon for my first independent trip. There would be no other journalists to set my agenda, to keep me up late with their anecdotes and revelries or, most important, to share my discoveries.

I spent a pleasant night in a very decent Lisbon hotel before reporting, as planned, to the tourist office headquarters where I met a young man who was to be my driver and guide. All those years ago I did not possess a driving licence, you see. I could have travelled down to Faro by train, but the chaps in Lisbon didn’t think the Algarve folk capable of looking after me as I needed to be looked after — what with me being an important English journalist.

In hindsight, I wish I had gone by train and trusted to luck, as my companion and guide proved to be a miserable lad who hated being out of Lisbon and thought the inhabitants of the deep south to be a bunch of useless peasants. That afternoon we took the car ferry across the Tagus River — the bridge was several years away — and drove as far as Setúbal on the west coast for an overnight stay.

Then we pressed on down that west coast, stopping overnight at Sines, before checking into a Pousada at Sagres, close to Cape St Vincent, the tip of Europe that the Portuguese call el fim do mundo — the end of the world.

Pousadas were a chain of state-owned hotels designed for people on the move. Like their Spanish counterparts, the Paradors, they provided accommodation for one or two nights, expecting their guests to be off about their business as soon as possible.

This was perfect for the travelling salesmen who formed the bulk of their clients, but not much use to holidaymakers wanting to spend a week or more in the same place. From the Pousada at Sagres we drove east along the coast, staying in a hotel near Monte Gordo called the Vasco da Gama, and in another Pousada at São Brás de Alportel. Along the entire stretch of coast, from Cape St Vincent to Vila Real de Santo António on the Spanish border, those were then pretty much the only hotels in the Algarve.

My miserable companion said there would, of course, be places where local people might stay, but these were of inferior quality and quite unsuitable for foreign visitors. However, wherever we paused on our odyssey — and the trip was to take almost three weeks — I encountered wonderfully hospitable people. On learning I had come from London to check on the region’s potential as a holiday destination they talked enthusiastically about their plans.

Restaurateurs spoke of expanding their premises and opening new ones. The owners of those modest local hotels (which I insisted on visiting in spite of my companion’s obvious disapproval) brought out blueprints for the extensions they were eager to build.

The people of the Algarve, it seemed, were more than ready to welcome tourists. So where were the visitors? I concluded that the problem was a historic one. Situated down in the far south on the other side of the Monchique Mountains, the Algarve was a different country as far as the rest of Portugal was concerned. Its rulers had been designated kings of Portugal and the Algarve. Historically, it got little investment from the government in Lisbon and lagged behind in all areas of development. It was certainly a remote and undeveloped region then.

We spent days driving on narrow roads empty of traffic save for the occasional ox cart. To get to beaches we bumped down farm tracks, and found those beaches quite empty. On some, fishing boats had been hauled above the tide line and nets laid out to dry. That’s what beaches were for, back then. Not for sitting on or sunbathing. I remember arriving at one location to find two small girls playing on an upturned boat while their mother sat nearby beneath a parasol, engrossed in a book.

Barranco do Velho Algarve Portugal by Peter Etchells, ShutterstockBarranco do Velho © Peter Etchells, Shutterstock

When we got out of the car she waved and smiled. She was an Englishwoman whose husband was based in Lisbon. He would be joining them in a few days. Until then, the three of them had a wide and empty beach entirely to themselves. It was located at a tiny village called Carvoeiro — now an established holiday resort with several hundred holiday villas, more than three dozen hotels and over one hundred restaurants.

The Algarve then was a place where people came to their doors on hearing the unaccustomed sound of a car. Where they clearly thought the young Englishman must be mad to be taking photographs of empty beaches. There were no decent roads, and certainly no motorways. And it was to be a few years before Faro airport was built.

Places that were to become large resorts were then just a handful of houses and the Algarve remained stubbornly unspoiled and virtually unchanged for a very long time — a destination my family and I came to love as, for several years, we took our holidays in villas and apartments all along that coast. It couldn’t stay that way, of course, especially after the opening of the airport, and I have a lot of regrets when I see what has happened to that gorgeous, empty, place.

But that’s not the point of this particular essay. The point is that, when I flew back to Heathrow, I was met by Ron Thorne, who ran a local cab company and regularly drove me between home and airports. I slung the case in his boot, climbed into the front passenger seat, and prepared for the journey home, and the usual small talk en route. But Ron had a question for me. ‘What do you think about the crisis?’ ‘What crisis?’ I asked.

During my time in the Algarve, what was to become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis blew up. A stand-off between Nikita Khrushchev and Jack Kennedy, between the Soviet Union and the USA, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. And I knew absolutely nothing about it. It was all over by the time I returned home. I don’t think many other journalists — or many other people, come to that — can make a similar claim.

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