Thursday, November 08, 2007

algarve #1
Image copyright Alan Edwards. No unauthorised reproduction
I spent a couple of weeks in Portugal's Algarve region during the summer. I really needed to find some sunshine, and Scotland was relentlessly wet and miserable this year. I can't say I was over-impressed by the Algarve, although I didn't explore much inland. It seemed to be one massive resort for servicing tourists, and not much else. Our hotel was a newly-built giant space-age block with a distant view to the sea, and on the intervening land they were busily constructing more huge tower blocks for tourists. Some were already completed, but large areas were obviously awaiting development.

From the vantage point of my fourth floor balcony I could see how the ground between the hotel and the sea had once consisted of lots of small family homesteads, each set in a fairly large plot of land where chickens probably scratched beneath olive, lemon, peach and fig trees, and perhaps a few goats were kept. Dozens of derelict old houses had been fenced off by the building contractors and were slowly crumbling away. In the middle of this wasteland a single house remained standing, inhabited by an elderly couple who - it seemed to me - went about their business as they had always done, apparently oblivious to the endless thud of the jack-hammers working on the foundations of the next muti-storey tower block, or the roar of the traffic on the new dual carriageway just up the road from them.

Once (minus my camera unfortunately) I followed the dusty road down towards their steading, passing the ruined shells of their former neighbours' houses, with their roofs caved in and the beautiful old Portuguese tiles that had once adorned the walls lying cracked in heaps on the floor. You could see how full of character these old stone buildings must have been, but the gardens had become wild and vegetation was already invading the buildings themselves. Everything was just sitting in the burning heat awaiting the arrival of the bulldozers.

The old couple's property was surrounded by a rickety wooden fence with a wide gate behind which a couple of large mottled brown and yellow dogs lay in the shade of a tree. They leapt to their feet when they saw me and began barking furiously so I beat a retreat, not wishing to get either savaged by the dogs or arrested for trespass. There was no sign of the old man, but I caught a glimpse of the woman standing on the wooden balcony at the front of the house. Several cages with singing birds were hanging from the rafters above her, and she was tossing grain from a tin bucket to her chickens in the yard in front of her, dressed in a faded brown headscarf and long black dress. She turned sharply and looked in my direction when the dogs began to bark.

I couldn't help but think how idyllic the whole area must have been at one time. The house was built on an incline and looked down over a small grove of orange trees - which I presumed was also on their land - and beyond to the deep blue of the Atlantic. To the right a rocky promontory stretched out to sea, against which the big white-tipped waves broke constantly. Why, I wondered, had the authorities allowed the area to be spoiled? In some countries - Scotland, certainly - these old houses would have been designated 'listed buildings', and they could easily have been renovated and modernised to provide accommodation - for tourists if necessary, but preferably for local families.

This would have preserved, and probably enhanced, the character of the whole area instead of dehumanising it with tarmac and breeze-block. I speculated that the old couple had rejected a lucrative offer from property developers in order to live out their days in their family home, and that their refusal to sell had prevented work starting on the land around them. If so, I imagined them as a perpetual thorn in the flesh of those who had tried to buy them out.