Change comes to Algarve, Portugal

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2004

SAGRES, Portugal It wasn't what we'd expected.

Instead of a little speck on the horizon, a small fishing hamlet on the most southwestern edge of mainland Europe, all we could see as we approached was a line of white villas and holiday apartments.

That morning, we had left nearby Lagos looking for our treasured recollections from 15 years ago: a village square with one bar and a lone hotel high on a bluff overlooking the bay where fishermen used spotlights at night to attract their catch.

We would have Vinho Verde on the hotel terrace in the evening before going to Carlos, the restaurant owner who would treat us to more free aperitifs until the catch of the day arrived straight from the beach. One day it was a swordfish so big it hung heavy between two fishers dragging it in.

The spectacular beaches, apart from a few surfers and nudists, were all ours. "Tourists seem to be visitors here, not the owners of the village," I wrote in my diary then.

Now, the tourists have taken over.

We drove in, passing the Pirate Gift Shop selling skull-and-bones black T-shirts. We saw an Internet cafe and an international surfing school before we finally hit the village square. Even there, our beloved Dom Henrique hotel was under renovation.

There were three restaurants in the square now, and instead of the elderly of yore, with their leathery faces, dressed in black, the square was catering to the international crowd at several terraces.

Sad? Sure. Bad? There are two sides to the debate.

Fifteen years ago, the old fort on the cliffs was basically a dump, anything but an homage to the famed Henry the Navigator, a precursor of the great explorers who is thought to have had his ancient seafaring "school" around Sagres.

This time, a trip through the area was a pleasure, with its well-kept rooms, video area and museum cafe. Without the tourism boom, such gems could well be in ruins still.

The kids marveled at the cannons, the ramparts and fishermen defying gravity up on the cliffs. The elders could philosophize around the giant compass at the heart of the fort pointing toward new naval discoveries.

And so it went, day in and day out. Outrage that another part of our memory had been stripped bare for yet another tourist community. There were no complaints, though, when we could drive the new, marvelous highway along the coastline from west to east in barely a few hours, a road that went straight into neighboring Seville.

There is still nature aplently, especially inland _ although the summer fires of 2003 have done damage. Golf fans can now chose between two dozen courses tucked in greenery and many with splendid ocean views.

Coming back from Sagres, we took some dirt roads around Salema, where green, open fields and shrubbery suddenly open up onto golden beaches, with nary a tourist in sight.

Compare it to Luz, a construction site with hundreds and hundreds of homes, all mandatory white and adorned with a quirky Algarve chimney, stretching seemingly forever.

The attempts at indigenous architecture find a welcome relief in the marina of Lagos, a pleasant port town some 20 miles from Sagres. There, the sleek modernist lines, the light and airy apartments, make a contemporary statement without jarring with the past.

A newly built elegant footbridge over the sea canal now joins the old and new part of town.

When we first came to Lagos, we were awed by the ochre rock constructions separating coves and beaches and none come better than the Ponta da Piedade, where the sunlight dances in between the coves and rocks.

The suggestive formations have names like "the elephant" or "Mari-lyn Monroe."

This time it was our kids who dropped their jaws in amazement, as they took one of the dinghies in the bay and scuttled around the rocks.

Any visitors willing to zigzag down the cliffs can still find a beach, and a huge lot of soft sand, to call their own.

"The other beaches? bah!" wrote my daughter Claartje, 10, in the family diary. "But this one, so nice! We were all alone (except for a nudist. Hahhah)."

The center of town, though, has turned into a bustling tourist center, with Australian didgeridoos and African masks vying for attention within a stone's throw from the arcades where slaves were once sold to the highest bidder.

Our memories drove us back to the old fish market, only to find its gates hidden under scaffolding, and workmen slapping fresh mortar on the facade.

The old walls around the center also looked to be in much better shape than 15 years ago, another renovation to give hope that not all would disappear.

The great quake of 1755 razed much in the Algarve, and explains why it cannot rival with its Spanish neighbor Andalusia when it comes to historical treasures.

It makes the protection of what they have all the more welcome.

On our first trip, we depended on rudimentary public transport, which made it tough to wander much inland. This time, the rental car took us into the hills beyond with woods as intensely green as the beaches are ochre.

Monchique is already so high it makes your ears pop driving up. Apart from the pottery shops, tourists flock to Caldas de Monchique beyond the terraced hills, a spa going back to Roman times, yet kept well up to date.

Heading back to the sea, we decided to stop off in Silves, or Xelb as it was known during its Moorish heyday.

High on a hill, with the town dressed around it, sits the Moorish castle, resplendent with its walking gardens, ramparts and exhibition rooms, an ideal day trip from the coastline.

All through the vacation, one mandatory trip hung over our heads, ever since our son Corneel, 8, had seen his dad pose among the skulls and bones of Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of bones, in eastern Faro.

We waited a long time, quietly resisting the morbid idea of traveling 51 miles to see a room full of bones. But a child's longing for Gothic adventure cannot be resisted; we finally caved in.

The trip again highlighted our ambivalence toward all the changes in the region.

Driving into Faro, the orange blossoms were in full bloom and the sweet fragrance soon enveloped our car. It contrasted ever so sharply with the traffic chaos and construction sites that blighted the view of the suburbs.

Once there we found the medieval center had been spruced up since our last visit. At the infamous chapel, nothing had changed. More than 1,000 skulls and a multitude of bones made up the most outrageous wallpaper imaginable.

Corneel was mesmerized. He insisted we take a picture of his face among the skulls, identical to the holiday snap of dad all those years ago.

Click, and in a sense, the family had come full circle.

The Algarve though, had moved well beyond that.

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