Fancy a foreign break? Who can blame us really when it is so wet and cold in Blighty. Just when you think things might be improving, a hailstorm crashes down.
If you want to get away, there are currently very few Government-approved destinations. There’s Australia and New Zealand (who clearly don’t want us), Iceland (pricey and hardly balmy), Gibraltar (yuk!), Israel (at war with Gaza at time of writing), and a few frankly unattractive or unfeasible options, such as Singapore, Brunei, the Faroes and the Falkland Islands – which all sound like makeweights in a World Cup qualifying group. Hard to please, are you? How about Tristan de Cunha, Ascension Island or the South Sandwich Islands?
But then there’s good old Portugal!
A proper holiday destination: warm, cheap, sandy beaches – and Portugal includes Madeira. They really do want our money. How they must be rubbing their hands and raising a glass to the Treaty of Windsor. Good for them: they’ve obviously been doing something right. If we are to believe their stats? Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.
For most British people, a Portuguese holiday still means the Algarve, though there are sandy beaches and lovely towns and villages all down the coast. I’m a big fan of the Algarve, or I used to be. Andy Cross and I spent a couple of nights in Faro en route from Lisbon to Seville back in 1976. It would have been just the one night, had I not left my passport in the hotel by accident. We had to get off the train and go back… Andy sang “it’s a jolly holiday with Colin”.
By then I’d been learning Portuguese for a couple of years so I was fairly fluent. There did not seem to be many foreign tourists around and we had no difficulty getting a cheap room, even though it was the end of June.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was employed by the Travel Club of Upminster, a tour operator based in… you guessed it: Upminster, Essex. The Travel Club, (founded by pioneer Harry Chandler in 1936), was an innovative and well-respected family business. At one time nearly half of all British tourists to the Algarve went under its aegis. The Chandlers had more or less “discovered” the Algarve, or so it was claimed.
Quite unexpectedly, studying Portuguese had turned out to be of some use. My main job was to liaise with the hoteliers and write the biannual brochure. Working for a tour operator has its obvious perks, and Hilary and I bagged a free apartment in the height of summer at Praia d’Oura, with a Mini thrown in. It was very hot and sunny for two weeks. We were happy and had a wonderful time, apart from contracting gastro-enteritis and spending two days trotting from our beds to the bathroom and back.
Hil came from Gloucester. I’d met her at Queen’s at the start of my final year. After my exams were done in June 1977, having no job and no plans, I took up an offer to spend a week at her parents’ house. One evening we went to dinner at her married sister’s house in Cromwell Street (as someone kindly reminded me at Hilary’s funeral) some years ago. Almost everyone over a certain age will associate the street with those unspeakable monsters Fred and Rosemary West. Sad to relate, he has been in the news again, 26 years after his unlamented suicide, as Police unearth the remains of another of his many victims. I am not especially squeamish, but the thought of Hil’s 11-year-old sister walking daily past the Wests’ house at 25 Cromwell Street still makes me feel sick.
Let’s move on
I was saying that I “used to be” a fan of the Algarve. My last visit was in 1989, just before Anne and I got married. Back then I was shocked at the changes to the coast I had driven along in the 70s, when there were almost as many donkey carts as motor cars. One apartment complex began at the outskirts of a small town and joined up with another development and the next little town, and so on. It was everything I had dreaded.
The fact that a motorway now runs further north through the region may have mitigated the effect, but I doubt it. It would take a lot to entice me back.
But yet… was it really that bad? Looking through photographs from three decades ago, I can see that there was (and hopefully still is) a fishing industry and many beautiful streets and old churches and squares. And the climate is pretty hard to beat, with hot days and those lovely evening inshore breezes. I can almost taste the grilled sardines.
Maybe I was too hasty in writing it off. Nowhere stays the same for ever, and who am I to insist that Algarvian peasants ride donkey carts rather than Toyotas?
Anyway we won’t be going this year
Because we are still hoping to get to France, which is currently in the amber zone. Whilst our government is telling us that we should not be going, for the sake of public health, it is only advice after all. Is it selfish to travel to France, when you have the thumbs up to go to Portugal?
This traffic light system is something of a blunt instrument, isn’t it? You could get your two jabs, drive to France in your own car to a rural location (like the Charente) and stay is a small gîte or your own place, if you have one. Or else you could follow government advice and you could turn up at Gatwick Airport with thousands of other people, share a plane with 170 of them, then descend on another airport and holiday resort. How safe is that? Driving to France (avoiding Paris, Marseilles and a few other hotspots) is probably safer than getting on a London bus.
Talking of which, I have finally started to take the occasional bus again. I try not to let my anger and frustration show but I see “deniers” quite blithely getting on without a face covering and even conducting conversations with each other. No one says anything – for fear of being attacked, I suppose. And yet, locally, infections have been rising. The Indian variant is more transmissible. And London’s vaccination rate is perilously low. Are there still such people as bus inspectors?
As a friend said the other day, it is so hard – impossible, in fact – to understand other people’s mindset. If they don’t believe in wearing masks, they probably don’t believe in vaccination, which means they are more likely to be carriers and infect other people, including friends and family. As, I’ve said before, they don’t get it. No pun intended, of course.