Category Archives: Algarve Life

One man’s vision

There is a statue of a man near the centre of Vilamoura and I would venture that the great majority of visitors never give a moment’s thought to whom the statue honours. Yet it honours a man of incredible vision whose self belief allowed him to pursue his conviction and start a project so large that he must have known from the start that it could not possibly be completed in his own lifetime.

Try and imagine the Algarve when his dream was born nearly sixty years ago: a province of small farms and clustered fishing villages dependent on land and sea for a living; an isolated part of Portugal served primarily by one paved road to Lisbon, one trans-Algarve road that joined east to west for 160 kilometres and from which mostly sand and dirt tracks linked to the fishing villages on the coast and the market towns of the rural communities on the hills behind.

Small car ferry boats puttering across the wide Guadiana river which forms the border were all that linked the town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio with Ayamonte in Spain. The few transport trucks and travelling tourists that visited the region entered Portugal from the north and made their way to the Algarve from there.

The countryside went dark at night as many rural homes had no electricity and street lighting was rare. Away from the major towns, there were no pipe lines for water supply or sewage. On the lower lands, some wealthier people had borehole wells and waterwheels with rusty bucket scoops still mark these places. Homes had ‘cisternas’ or holding tanks which collected the winter rainfall for use in the long dry summers. Many local people owned a donkey and cart for transportation or simply walked.

Enterprising merchants wheeled their rusty mopeds down dirt and sand tracks to meet the returning fishermen in the early morning and then left with their rack piled high with old orange crates now filled with fresh fish. Leaving a trail of smoke they made their way to chosen routes inland to fulfil the country folk demand for the ocean produce.

Faro airport didn’t exist until 1966 when a runway was paved and a humble shack was opened as its first terminal. There were few white contrails of passenger planes sketching the clear blue skies.

Into this unlikely setting and years before the package holiday boom began in earnest in the U.K. strode Arthur Cupertino De Miranda. A financier and banker by trade, and a native of the northern Porto area by birth, he saw potential in the golden beaches and seemingly endless sunshine of the Algarve and thus its future in tourism. Ignoring the harsh economic reality of the time and undaunted by the total lack of supportive infrastructure, he set about modelling the largest private tourist development in the world.

His master plan envisaged a self-sufficient community with 35,000 beds: an astonishing number at the time given that it was roughly equal to the existing population of the whole of the Loule administrative area, Algarve’s largest Council. It was to have its own electric power sub-station, water tower and sewage treatment plant. To help feed the visitors, land was to be set aside for agriculture and livestock and fishermen would be given a small port to encourage their trade.

The plan saw quality hotels along the beachfront flanked by low-rise apartment accommodation and, further back, by residential villas. A corner of the plan was set aside as housing for the workers who would be needed to support this new town. Championship golf courses, tennis and equestrian centres, a casino and Portugal’s largest marina were built into the proposal.

He had acquired the Quinta de Quarteira, at 1700 hectares one of only a handful of large estates in the Algarve and one which had been notable for its sugar beets, a crop unheard of in the province today. He renamed the estate Vilamoura.

(The former head pro at Vilamoura, Jose Caterinho, had been one of the first five young Portuguese men chosen by the new Portuguese Golf Federation to go to England and qualify as teachers with the PGA. He was local to the area and could recall as a boy being taken by his father to help with the sugar beet harvesting on the quinta that was to become his own beloved workplace in a far more different occupation and setting!)

Miranda must have been a man of great persuasive ability to sell this impossible dream, but by the late sixties the detailed planning was complete, the necessary permissions had been obtained and the construction begun. Today, nearly 4 decades later this huge project is still under development but completion is visible. An idea that most likely seemed preposterous to locals of the time of its inception has become a reality.

When he passed away in 1988, aged 96, Miranda would have known that his greatest dream had progressed to the point that it was an unstoppable force. Vilamoura’s basic infrastructure was in place and the main facilities had been constructed and opened for business. It had not only become an important tourist destination in itself, but also drew day visitors from across the region who came to spend time on the marina quayside, play one of the original golf courses or visit the Roman ruins that prove how the Algarve was already a popular destination thousands of years ago.

With his vision and ambition no longer to hand, however, Vilamoura slowly declined until the mid-nineties when the respected Jordan Group was invited to take control. Known for their exceptional luxury development at Quinta do Lago just along the coast, the Group’s team brought fresh energy and ideas to the resort. They refined and modernised the master plan, removing, for example, the land set aside for the farming that was no longer essential and added more green spaces, golf courses and sport facilities that were. The final bed-count was aimed at 45,000 and the destination was heading more upmarket.

In due course, the Jordan Group moved on and it is perhaps appropriate for such a tourist destination that companies from outside Portugal took over the reins with a Spanish company taking on the final pieces of the master plan while the five golf courses were absorbed by an Irish group.

Miranda would have been happy with that international vote of acceptance for his vision.

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(A man stands proudly by the tractor he has just acquired. It will allow him to drag a trailer loaded with fish and thus become a wholesaler to inland markets. In due course he can afford to open a small grocery shop, eventually add a small bar and slowly start selling food. Ultimately this became the large and very successful fish restaurant named after him: Duarte’s of Olhos de Agua.)

The family store

A month-long holiday in 1986 convinced me and my wife that that the Algarve was to be our new home. We duly arrived two years later.
Our temporary accommodation was a fair walk from the centre of the fishing town, but a small, family run grocery store was nearby. This was to be the site of two learning experiences that I have never forgotten.
The store was small, being only the conversion of the large garage adjoining the family home, but it carried all the basic foodstuff and normally needed house ware. Coffee, milk and sugar shared shelf space with plastic buckets, mops and cleaning fluid. A small display cabinet next to the vegetables held cheeses, salamis and ham. Most importantly, a wooden box near the entrance boasted bread and rolls delivered fresh from the bakery each morning.
The matriarch sat at a desk with a drawer for the money instead of a till and she took payment from the clients as they left. Having no till or calculator, she simply noted the price of our rolls, butter and jam on a piece of paper and then added them up. Her pencil tapped a line down the numbers as she did her arithmetic, hesitating as she did each calculation. I soon noticed a strange quirk: she hesitated even at the zeroes as if she was stopping to add the number as she went. She was taking time, it would seem, to add seven plus zero is seven before carrying on.
This was my first exposure to the low level of education suffered by the ordinary Portuguese. I was to learn that, at that time in the eighties, ‘compulsory’ schooling was only six years and that older generations hadn’t even had that experience. Many, and the rural folk in particular, were often illiterate and couldn’t sign their own name.
There was that awfully embarrassing time when I feared we were lost on one of our ‘curiosity’ drives back in the hills and away from the coast. We came across a little farmhouse with a lady in black clothing resting on a bench in front. I stopped the car, gathered the map and got out and approached her with a smile and in halting Portuguese tried to ask her where we were on the map which I had thrust in her face. As she looked at the paper map and back at me repeatedly with confusion on her face, it suddenly dawned on me that not only had she not understood me but also she had probably never seen a map before. She knew where she was and she knew where she could go if her legs were still good or the donkey and cart were still working. She had certainly never needed a map. I realised that I had been inconsiderate in my naive assumption that she could help me as I expected and thereafter I took a step back before approaching the old people. I now try to understand or at least consider their very different backgrounds in my contact with them.
Banks were initially few and far between – I had to travel 15 kilometres from the fishing village to the nearest big town to open our first bank account. In due course more banks were opened and the new tourist resorts began to pay their employees with cheques. It became a common experience to stand in a queue and watch as someone presented a cheque with their ID card and the teller duly produced an ink pad and pen so that the presenter could stab the pad with his thumb and then roll a print on the back of the cheque before scrawling a wriggly ‘x’ below it. That done, he could receive his pay in cash.
Times have certainly changed and many older people have taken special classes to learn to read and write. I often see them in cafes with their finger slowly traveling on the daily newspaper as they read word for word, but nonetheless understand what they see. Today, the younger generations are well served with schools as well as choices for higher learning, but more importantly many seem to have a desire to take the opportunity their parents and grandparents didn’t have to get an education.
As the computer age evolved, for example, I have been impressed with the youth that dominates all aspects of the technology and more so with the enthusiasm they have going about their work. This might well be common in much of Europe, but it is a seismic shift in a few short decades in Portugal.
Returning to the little family grocery store, I will tell you of my second memory. Not long after living in the neighbourhood, I made an early trip to the store for fresh rolls and eggs. When I went to pay I realised I had left my wallet at home and thus couldn’t. As best I could, I explained that I would leave the goods, go home for the money and return. To my astonishment, the dear old lady told me to go away for my breakfast and pay her next time I came to the store.
That trust on her part was so refreshing and took me back to the fifties and early sixties in France when we didn’t lock our homes or our car doors. Yes, times have changed and home security and locked car doors are sadly now a way of life. Nonetheless, the generosity of trust remains a part of the local people and their psyche. The impression that small episode made on me has been repeated in many different ways countless times since: the Algarveans have a natural generosity of spirit and kindness that makes living here truly worthwhile.

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