Seems everyone we met had been to Portugal so, with Reisa retired, away we went to Alburfeira, the Algarve, warm, sunny Portugal, last seen by me 30 or more years ago.
Up the road and around the bend from our rented apartment, brother and sister Rodrigue and Laure serve a short tapas menu, including the most tender chicken gizzards — what we used to call pipiks or shoe leather, growing up. To open their eatery, they went to Switzerland to earn money serving in restaurants. White, good-looking and English-speakers, they are prized. Rodrigue says, with tips, they each made 5,000€ a month. The average wage in Portugal is less than 900€ a month. Life is hard. They open at 10 and close 12 hours later and shutter on weekends in winter. Some customers eat outside in down coats so they can smoke, a popular pastime. Rodrigue says the Algarve is no longer Portugal but he has ambitions to open several restaurants to serve the ever-expanding tourist invasion. We see the enemy and it is us. Even in winter, when the days are often warm, though short, and the nights are cold and long. The quaint, quiet Algarve has become condo/hotel city, though few places are heated and insulation does not appear to be in the Portuguese vocabulary, which we struggle to adopt. Around the corner is Don Capito, the owner/cook of which comes out at the end of the night to sit with an elderly couple from Scotland who have been coming here for 31 years and have been married for 55 — “We’re creatures of habit,” says the woman, before the grizzled owner harangues them about a table of 10 “damn Canadians” who wanted separate cheques rather than a single bill to save him and the young woman who waited on them the hassle of I'm not sure what. The Scottish woman warns him we’re Canadian and suggests it’s time he retired. He likes Canadians, he says, but … Like every restaurant we've entered, the fish has been remarkable. The fish are from the waters a few blocks away, or so we think. Some restaurateurs know the fishers and preparing them must be genetic. It's always perfectly grilled. But, Marco, the man behind the desk at Visacar Rental, who dispenses culinary wisdom along with keys to Peugeots and Fiats, says most of the fish is caught off Canada’s coast. The truth lies somewhere in between, we imagine. The other national dish is frango piri piri, or chicken grilled and basted in the country’s trademark spicy sauce. Also addictive and served everywhere.
Farther along is a strip of dark bars that feed off the British appetite for beer and football on giant screens starting well before noon, as well as a grocery where you can find a rare commodity — grain bread and rolls, fresh daily, as well as a decent chocolate-covered donut — among the soaps, packaged processed foods, fruits and vegetables, including football-sized frog skin melons, large, ripe and sweet. It appears to be the country’s national melon, found in every store and every hotel breakfast. Flights are so cheap on the budget carriers – you can fly in from the U.K. for $25, as long as you don't have luggage – a British tourist whispers to us many come here to spend long weekends drinking. It's cheaper than staying home, he says, looking over his shoulder, afraid of being overheard. "They're al scum," he says and walks away. We think he's sober. We quickly learn searching Google brings you a cavalcade of third-party reservations systems for everything — flights, rent-a-cars, restaurants, hotels – and misinformation has to be waded through. Reviews are contradictory, descriptions misleading. Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Hotels.com, Time Out, etc., etc., etc. are all in on the act, advising "One room left, book now!" No, we didn’t need an international driver’s license and no, the bank machines won’t give you a maximum of 400€ — they will only dispense 200€ — and no, it is not a cash society. Credit cards are good everywhere. The bank machines are exploitative, charging fees on both ends and jacked up exchange rates. We send money via Interac transfer to a friend back home who graciously sends the money back via Western Union. It takes a passport and a transfer number and about 20 minutes and two or three staff at the local supermarket to get our money— these are suspicious times — but the savings are substantial. Even small hotels have safes and Portugal is considered one of the safest countries in Europe. Next to the grocer is an example of an ubiquitous curiosity called China Shops. Think maze-like dollar stores that sell everything from luggage to underwear, canned food to hiking boots, often on two floors and, as the name suggests, most is made in China, including the staff, save for a few items from Spain and Italy. Extra large often fits like small so purchasing clothing is a crap shoot and underwear is, well, restrictive. In this particular version, a young, desultory Chinese man at the cash never looks up from his phone. The Algarve is far from home. He is the opposite of his smiling Chinese counterpart in a similar shop in Lisbon who admits to speaking at least five languages, including a dialect of Chinese unique to his home village. I ask if he can write it, too, but, he says, there is no written version. If you wish to sacrifice your back on the cobblestones, you continue down to the sea and beach and the Old Town, which is now a giant square surrounded by restaurants boasting “British food” like meat pies and pizza and wings and beer and then, if ambitious enough, cruise along a strip of shops of high-end labels of jewelry, clothes, shoes, bags, etc., etc., etc. It peters out at woodlands and a small road, at which consumers have run out of energy or money or both. At the edge of commerce is the sea, endless and blinding and beautiful in the sunshine, less blinding but no less beautiful on the rare cloudy days when the waves rise up and punish the shore. Some slog through the edge of incoming tide, most walk in the sand in coves bracketed by ancient, clay-coloured cliffs, often topped by forts-turned-tourist-attractions. The former colonizers have now become willingly colonized by credit-card wielding invaders. Others sit in the inevitable seaside restaurants and eat and drink and watch the parade. To ease the descent to the beach and the return, there are escalators that occasionally work. From the top, tourists lean on a waist-high wall and stare down at other tourists. We finally find Portugal at the southern-most tip of Europe in the village of Sagres. We discarded Google maps for the paper kind and choose it because it’s the end of the line. We wander and discover a modern inn hidden behind an ancient facade on a dead end street. Beautiful rooms, firm beds, good breakfast, great heating and the back garden has a path that takes you to the sea. Sagres, we discover, is a surfer’s paradise. We explore the coast and discover surfers by the dozens, bobbing like ducks in black wetsuits, waiting for the waves and riding the curls before disappearing under explosions of white water.
But the sea is calm out our doors and the main strip consists of a pharmacy, a clothes store run by a woman who also expanded her bank account in Switzerland to come home and open her shop and a half-dozen better-than-average restaurants. All serve remarkable fish and seafood and great wine. Tipping, we learn, is uncommon for Europeans, so leaving 15 per cent makes for fast friends and warm welcomes and excellent service, exemplified by Rueben, a young man from Cap Verde, a former colony, who says he loves Canadians. Europeans might leave a 20 cent tip on a 50€ meal. Many leave nothing. Servers often work six long days at the standard wage of 900€ a month. Rueben gets one day off a week and has ambitions to go to California and become an actor. On a quiet night he confides yes, life here is a struggle, more so for a Black man. He believes Cailfornia will be better. If he can find a way to emigrate. The GOP does not intimidate him. We drive through hill and dale to Spain, stop in tiny Los Palacios and spend the night in a small, comfortable inn and have a decent meal in the fading sunshine and move on to Fuengirola, on the Costa del Sol, where I visited a friend 30 years ago. My only memory is of the olives at the restaurant outside the bull ring. I skipped the bull fights but have no memory of what has become another enclave of British and German vacationers who have dug into 10-storey condos and apartments and patrol the walkway by the sea and drink beer and eat “British breakfasts” and pizzas and burgers and exotic coloured drinks. It is Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale in peach-coloured stucco, along the water and up into the mountains. The tiny side streets remain, though there are cars jammed everywhere and parks built on underground parking garages where children play. One has a remarkable display of reproductions of paintings by the masters, weatherproof and bolted on stands screwed into the concrete. Equally remarkable is the park is open 24 hours a day and no one has taken spray paint to anything. The weather app warns the air quality is hazardous and our white tablecloth and plates at a forgettable outdoor café are speckled with black particulate of unknown origin. The waiter shrugs and pretends he’s never seen it before and whether it’s flown in across the sea or left behind by scooters and diesel engines is anyone’s guess. We take the rest of our meals indoors, the best being Asian and Swiss, though we had a good paella, which is hard to find. To do it properly takes time and, it would seem, most don’t have it. Servers always apologize if diners must wait for food. We wonder if everyone expects McDonald's speed. People treat their children with uncommon patience. No little one is dragged, yelled at, scolded. Toddlers toddle with parents calmly following, letting them explore their new world. But, at restaurants children are all, without exception, pacified by phones or tablets. They eat with the screens propped against glasses, fruit or napkin containers. As are their parents. Most are mesmerized and ignored but I am struck by what I believe to be a four-year-old who keeps looking up from her screen at her family of parents and siblings, all eyes locked on screens. I imagine she would like to speak to someone. We move back towards Portugal, stopping at an obscenely wealthy yacht club in Banus, Spain, to meet with Reisa’s vacationing in-laws. Mike is recovering from heart surgery and happy to be alive and in the glare of every sunny day. Here the one per cent of the one per cent park their yachts and cruise around in Bentleys and Lamborghini SUVs. The strip of stores overlooking the yachts are all of vaunted brands and, on the other side of what must be unbreakable glass storefronts, are diamond-encrusted rings and bling with price tags of 17,000€ or more. Africans offering cut-rate bags, purses and sunglasses are ignored, except by police in yellow uniforms over bullet-proof vests. The lunch for four, an Asian-fusion thing with fresh fish and dim sum and sticky ribs is 150€ but our lunch companions are lovely and find the scene obscene. I can't imagine what it costs to live in an apartment staring down at boats the size of our house. Michael suggests the gains that bought the toys and bangles are ill-gotten. It’s the same day the New York Times publishes a story on child labour in the U.S. being used by major multinationals, mostly in Republican-run states, where labour is never cheap enough. We decide to break up the five-hour return drive to Albufeira with a stop in a small town at an “auberge” we reserve on booking dot com, never a good idea, and spend a sleepless night in a freezing room on a bad mattress in the front of a home with no address on a street it takes an hour to find. Restaurants are not open yet, so we have to settle for their version of a hamburger made of ground retreaded tires, flavoured by packets of ketchup and mustard. We have little luck sleeping and get back on the road at 6 a.m, back and hips angry, eyes eager to close. Frightened of heights, I fight with the rented Fiat 500 around the tight turns through a fantastic mountain range I’m terrified to look down upon. I feel I’m driving the first of 24 hours of Le Mans, forcing the wheel right and left and trying not to look down at the bottomless drops unprotected by any kind of fence. But, doing the speed limit is insufficient for tailgaters and motorcyclists, who pass on curves, crossing solid lines, making me wonder what do they know that I don’t. Soon my lats and neck are stiffening and I’m dreaming of surviving the mountain road and 23 hours in bed. Our rented home in Albufeira is an ice box but it’s snowing in Madrid and at home. And Southern California. We unpack, crank up what little heat there is, return the rent-a-car and shop for a few groceries and come back and crash. Sun warms only the balcony but the sea sparkles like the jewels in the stores in Puerto Banus and the neurotic dogs that bark all day every day penned on a rooftop a stone’s throw away are still barking. Cold, sore and exhausted, we bury ourselves fullty dressed under layers of blankets and, for the first time, think fondly of the fireplace back home and of Sagres by the sea, the surfers riding the curls. And sleep.