A friend has a 53-foot sailing yacht. He keeps it moored in Portimão, a small town on Portugal’s Algarve. He recently invited me and some of our work colleagues on the boat, for a few days of strategizing and corporate team building (yeah, sure!).
I had never been to the Algarve region before, although I had been to Portugal once, about twenty-five years ago when backpacking in Europe. I have overwhelmingly positive memories of that visit, despite not being able to remember anything at all about the place, and was keen to go there again. Plus, one of the great features of being in Europe (as compared to Australia or the USA, say) is that everything is close. You can hop on a plane in drizzly London, fly for two hours, and step out into the bright sunshine of Portugal, and straight onto a yacht, no less.
So of course, I went. Who wouldn’t?
The Algarve is a region rich in history. For more than two millennia this 150km strip of Atlantic coastline has been a stomping ground for just about everybody. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans all came and went. They were followed by the Visigoths – seems that even then the Germans went south in search of sunshine. Next was the turn of the Moors from North Africa, who ruled supreme in the area for 500 years. They gave the region its name, from the Arabic term Al-Gharb, or “the West” (west of what I am not sure, seeing the Algarve is the southernmost part of Portugal, but still…).
From the 13th century, the Algarve became part of Christian Europe. It was a prosperous place back in the day, as a centre of trade and maritime activity. From the Algarve many great seafaring expeditions – Europe’s first forays into Africa and Asia – were launched, establishing Portugal as an imperial power of the age. Initially the area was an independent kingdom, later it was a semi-autonomous region, there was a brief period of Spanish occupation, and then about 200 years ago it became part of the country we know now as Portugal.
Given this rich and varied history, therefore, why was I surprised to learn when I got there that the Algarve has recently been comprehensively colonized, by yet another foreign occupying power. Only this time it’s the British.
You see, since the 1960s, the Algarve has become less of a Portuguese province, and more of a giant tourist fun park. Around ten million holidaymakers descend on the region each year, mainly in the summer time. They are attracted by the sun and the sea, the pleasant Mediterranean climate, and the low-cost of vacations in Europe’s poor south.
A goodly proportion of these millions, or at least so it seemed to me, are from the United Kingdom. Wondering round Portimão I couldn’t help but notice that there were English-speaking folk everywhere; armies of them, in the streets, on the beaches, at sea in the yachts, cascading out onto the pavements from every restaurant and bar.
As if that weren’t bad enough, all of these visiting Poms appeared to be practicing a form of tourism that is peculiarly British: “let’s go abroad, and let’s enjoy a holiday in another country, but let’s do it only if it is exactly like being at home”.
At the Portimão marina, where just about every vessel was owned by someone from the U.K., it felt like I was not in Portugal, but at the Southampton Boat Show instead. Ruddy-faced Englishmen were everywhere, parading up and down in neatly pressed polo tops, chino shorts and deck shoes. English, not Portuguese, was the lingua franca, albeit spoken with a full range of regional accents. Pimms and pints of beer were the beverages of choice.
We went out for lunch in Portimão town. The proprietor of the restaurant was a middle-aged lady, from the north of England. Photos of her grandchildren decorated the walls. She said she had moved to Portugal for the weather, and to make her savings stretch further. Without any particular skills or qualifications to rely on, she had opened a restaurant, where she now served up the food of her childhood, God help us. On offer were those not-so-classic Portuguese dishes of meatloaf, overcooked chicken, grilled-to-death fish, and that all time favourite, beef-bits-in-gravy. Horrifying to me, but it didn’t seem to bother the rest of the 100% Anglo clientele, who were thoroughly enjoying their meals.
One the first night we went for a stroll along the main pedestrian drag of Praia da Rocha, the beach-facing touristy part of Portimão. There were several fish and chips shops, several English tea rooms, more than half a dozen English pubs, and an equal number of Irish bars to choose from. We stepped into one, populated exclusively by elderly English-speakers, drinking pints of beer and discussing “things back home”. My Mediterranean complexion and dark hair meant I stuck out like a sore thumb, in and amongst the sea of pasty-white flesh and blonde hair. And our mere presence lowered the average age by twenty years.
Our final evening was an even bigger celebration of all things British, at the nearby seaside village of Alvor. Here we spent a couple of hours in a reggae-bar owned by a fellow from Blackpool; followed by a session in a pub called Charley’s, where a drunken, chain-smoking eighty-four year old from Cornwall button-holed me and delivered a near hour-long monologue about his fourteen years of life in the Algarve; followed by a late night session at an Irish pub, where a lively band played Irish folk tunes to the delight of an almost entirely Irish, Guinness-swilling crowd. The craic was wonderful, although it did feel just a tad odd to hear the only Portuguese people in the place – a group of swarthy back-up musicians – strumming mournful tunes professing undying love for the rolling green hills of County Cork.
In short, Portimão could just as well be renamed “Little Britain by the sea”. Not exactly what I was expecting, although for the hordes of Anglo tourists and long-term residents, it is a wonderful, near-perfect place. Here, both the weather and the beer are warm, here everyone speaks English, here quaint pubs play Irish standards into the wee hours, and boiled vegetables rule the table. Really, the only thing stopping it from being absolutely perfect is all these annoying Portuguese people, milling about like the own the place….
We have all seen the news reports of the economic malaise in the south of Europe, which has engulfed Italy, Greece, Cyprus, southern France, Spain and Portugal. One-third of companies in the region are saying they cannot meet “operational expense”. To the financially uninitiated, this is a polite way of saying they are more or less bankrupt. Unemployment is at record levels (in some countries, pushing 25%), and youth unemployment has reached almost 60% in most places. Regional GDP is shrinking at around 3% pa; manufacturing is declining; bad loans are mounting; people are withdrawing money from the banking system at record levels. By any measure, this is a full-blown raging case of economic dysentery.
And these are just the ‘blander’ statistics. The human toll is far, far worse. In Spain, whole tracts of real estate have become essentially unsalable due to being taken over by squatters, creating informal slums, bang in the middle of modern-day Europe. In Greece, child-hunger has reached third world levels, with reports from teachers of children begging for food at school. And possibly the most depressing thing I have read lately – apparently a new drug has hit the street in some parts, a cheap and nasty high that is super-addictive, and which has resulted in young women prostituting themselves for as little as $5, being the price of a hit.
It is the kind of wholesale economic meltdown you might expect to hear of in Cambodia, or the Sudan, or Bolivia, but most certainly not what you’d expect to hear of in what we like to refer to as “Western” Europe. And hearing about it is one thing, but it is not until you actually go there that you get to see up close just how utterly, completely wrecked the south of Europe is.
Something that any eight year old child knows is that if mum gives you ten lollies every day, but you eat fifteen, you will eventually run out of lollies. Somehow, this simple truth never occurred to Europe’s southerners, and for two decades the people there enjoyed an orgy of consumption and construction. Now, finally, the party has ended, leaving behind in its wake half-completed apartment blocks, empty housing estates, and a glut of unoccupied, worthless real estate that still has to be paid for.
Then there is the big brother of all this unchecked “development” – outrageous, over-the-top infrastructure projects, that were built without the slightest concern as to economic viability. Like the magnificent eight-lane freeway that runs three-hundred kilometres from Lisbon to the Algarve. It is brand-spanking new and cost billions to build. Which would be fine, but for the fact that it is practically unused on account of the tolls. They aren’t expensive by international standards, but are prohibitive for the impoverished locals, who thus avoid the freeway like the plague, causing crippling traffic jams on the adjacent toll-free municipal roads. Economics gone mad, but good for us though – we were able to fly along the near deserted highway like it was a private racetrack, and at 160km/hour, our journey down to Portimão took less than two hours.
The impact of all this past overindulgence is plainly visible. Tourist areas might still be bustling, but beyond them it is like entering into a twilight zone of economic devastation. Away from the sea the physical landscape of the Algarve is dotted with abandoned farms, crumbling buildings and piles of ruins. I went for a walk through the part of Portimão that the locals shop in, and which the tourists don’t usually get to. Here, every fourth shop was boarded up. In the local supermarket, bottles of wine were going for as little as €1; a tray of eight pork chops was of offer for just over €2. Seriously, even in the boondocks of China you’d be hard pressed to see prices this low.
We had lunch one day at a place on the main square of a beautiful seaside town, which cascaded down a hill to a small, scenic fishing harbour. A three course seafood feast, washed down with endless carafes of wine (lemonade for me) came to just under €8 per head. Or walking back to the marina one afternoon I stopped for a coffee at a tiny hole-in-the-wall, literally, the cafe built directly into the wall of the old Portimão fort. There I enjoyed three espressos and a hefty serving of rice pudding. A hand-scrawled bill came, for €2.80. So I told the dread-locked surfer dude at the cash register that he had made a mistake, having only charged me for one coffee. He looked at me like I was touched. “Sixty cents per coffee, one euro for the rice-pudding, two euro-eighty – no mistake sir”, he explained cheerfully. I paid, and left a seventy percent tip, and still didn’t use up the loose change in my pocket. I felt almost guilty.
Another afternoon, while strolling though the small fishing town across the river from Portimão, we came across a magnificent old house facing onto the main square. Its facade was decorated with the most gorgeous, multi-coloured glazed tiles, typical of the region. A sign hung on the heavy-wood front door. It said that the house had three bedrooms, showed a few photos of the pleasant-looking interior, and advertised that the property was for rent, at the princely rate of €350. Not per night, however, and not per week, but per month. It was so cheap as to be almost ridiculous. I immediately began hatching a plan to chuck it all in, pre-rent the entire house for three years, and take up residence as a reclusive writer. All for the equivalent of less than two month’s rent in Singapore.
But the thing that stuck in my mind as being emblematic of the economic catastrophe that is the south of Europe – more than the crumbling buildings, the unused infrastructure, and the giveaway prices – was the absence of youth. In the Algarve there is a noticeable shortage of young people, besides from the budget-conscious holiday crowd.
In London, waiters and service staff are very often sub-25 year olds, economic refugees from the continent seeking work abroad in view of the unemployment back home. Portimão, on the other hand, was the flip side of the coin. Here, the waiters and hotel workers were almost all aging old men and women, trying to earn a few Euros in their retirements gone wrong.
Like at one restaurant where the waiter – a stocky little man with slicked back greying hair, probably mid-sixties – told us how he had spent twenty-five years working on a cruise-ship. He had dutifully sent his wages back to his wife each month, she had saved it, and when they had enough of a nest egg he retired, returning to his home village. Just in time to watch his life’s savings implode in the crisis. He had now taken the waiting job to make ends meet. Every other staff member in the restaurant was over the age of fifty, except for the proprietor’s twenty-year old daughter. She clearly didn’t want to be there, and left us in no doubt that at the first opportunity she would be packing her rucksack and making her way north, too.
Watching this young woman as she skulked around sullenly, it dawned on me that the Algarve has somehow managed to pull off a pretty awful switcheroo, trading the best and brightest of its youngsters for a brigade of aging, semi-alcoholic English retirees. That’s not something that “austerity” programs will fix quickly. The south of Europe is fucked, well and truly, and my bet is it will remain that way for a generation, at least.
Regular readers of this blog will know that wherever I go, I seek out, if not bump into, things of Jewish interest. And the Algarve a long and rich Jewish history dating back almost two thousand years. So it seemed a near certainty I would find something of Jewish interest in Portimão.
Well, not exactly.
Lagos, one of the larger cities on the Algarve, was a major trading hub for centuries, and attracted so many Jewish merchants that in 1481 the town authorities established a “new Jewish quarter” to house them all, replacing the one which had existed for centuries before that. In Faro, the capital of the Algarve, there was likewise a Jewish quarter from at least mediaeval times. Here, in 1487, the first book ever printed in Portugal was pressed – the Bible, in Hebrew. Jews were expelled from Portugal in 1496, although semi-clandestine communities remained. Many more left at the end of the 15th century, when King Manuel issued an order to baptise or go. Jews began returning to Portugal in the second half of the 1700s, after the splendidly named Marquis of Pambal invited them back to help rebuild the country after a massive earthquake had reduced half of Portugal to rubble. Jewish communities sprang up again across the Algarve – not just in Lagos and Faro (the latter came to be known by the locals as “little Jerusalem”), but in many smaller towns as well.
Right up until the 1920s, there was a small but thriving Jewish community in the Algarve. There were synagogues and community centres and even a kosher butcher servicing the region’s Jewish residents. But like in so many other parts of the world, younger Jews made their way to bigger cities, to study in universities, to work, and to be part of a bigger community. Bit by bit the synagogues and community facilities vanished. Those Jews who remained in the Algarve grew old, and slowly died out, and with them, centuries of Jewish history and heritage died, too. By 1960 there were almost no Jews left in the Algarve, and Portugal’s Jewish community is now primarily found in the two main cities of Lisbon and Porto.
I did however learn that in the past twenty years there has been a mini-Jewish renaissance in the Algarve, with about 60 Jews now resident there. These are almost all retirees from the Anglo-Saxon world, and include in their number a Rabbi from New York.
There is an old Jewish cemetery in Faro, with graves dating back centuries, and which was restored in the 1990s. Apparently there are still lots available if one wishes to be buried there (the last known burial was in 1932). I read that following its restoration, Faro’s Jewish cemetery had become something of a hub for the ‘new’ local community, who “often meet up at the cemetery in Faro and afterwards go out for lunch”. Intrigued as I was at the prospect of socialising in a cemetery, I didn’t have the time to get to Faro to investigate further.
I also read about a Jewish couple from South Africa – Ralf and Judith Pinto – who had retired to the Algarve from Cape Town in the late 1980s, and became the de-facto guardians of the region’s Jewish heritage until Ralf’s death several years ago. The Pintos were the leaders of the cemetery restoration project, organised community get-togethers on major Jewish holidays, publishing information on the Jewish history of the Algarve, and even ran the occasional Jewish interest tour.
And then I read that the Pintos had lived in Portimão. In 1995 they had assisted with arranging a bar-mitzvah in the town, the first in 75 years, for the son of a Jewish family from Leeds who had moved to the Algarve. Five years after that, the Pintos had hosted the wedding of one of their children in Portimão, making it the first Jewish wedding to happen there in over 500 years. The small print included frequent mention of the Mariner’s Restaurant on Rua Santa Isabel, as being the place at which these festive events began or ended, because it “is housed in the last remaining building of the Judiaria (the Jewish ghetto [of Portimão that existed] before the 1496 Edict of Expulsion)”.
It seems I had found my Portimão Jewish angle.
Next morning I woke early, walked from the marina into town, and following the map made my way to Rua Santa Isabel. At number 28 I stopped in front of the Mariner’s Restaurant – or Marinheiros in Portuguese – an entirely ordinary, non-remarkable building. Its exterior IS covered in faded white and blue tiles, and a simple green hoarding advertises the restaurant within. It was an old building, for sure, but no different in appearance to any other building in the street.
I pulled out my camera to take a photo, but then paused. This hobby / obsession of mine – to hunt down sites of Jewish interest wherever in the world I am – had reached a new low point. I had woken up early, skipped breakfast and walked for over an hour in the heat and dust, simply to find a restaurant that a random internet post has said was of some remote Jewish relevance. And all so I could stand in front of it and take a photo? “This is ridiculous”, I thought to myself, and in a moment of rare self-defiance I put away my camera, turned around, and walked away. (The picture is courtesy of Google maps….)
The White Stork (scientifically, the very poetically named ciciona ciconia) is, as the name would suggest, a member of the stork family, with mainly white plumage, although accented with long red legs and pointed red beaks. It is a migratory bird, travelling massive distances each year between its wintering grounds in Africa and its breeding grounds in northern Europe. Along the way, the White Storks enjoy the occasional stopover in the Algarve, just like those other snow-white creatures with red noses who like the place (ie: the English).
And just like the visitors from the U.K., some of the storks like it so much they stay on permanently. Except that the feathered interlopers are interested less in the warm weather and low-cost living, and more in the abundant crayfish and “junk food” from rubbish dumps. As a result, Portimão has become home to a permanent population of around 4,000 white storks. Thanks to the accumulated crap we produce, these storks have been able to overcome their genetic programming, and have in one generation swapped annual migration in favour of permanent residence on the sunny Algarve.
All of which has created some interesting dilemmas for the human residents of Portimão.
You see, white storks like to build their nests up high, right at the top of tall trees. Except that there are no more tall trees in and around Portimão. So the storks, inventive little creatures that they are, have taken to building their nests on top of old chimney stacks, on the poles that support power-lines, and on top of street lamps. And these are not small constructions, either. A typical stork nest can be around two metres in diameter, made of twigs and sticks and leaves and weighing up to twenty kilos.
Now, while we humans are not a protected species (meaning we feel at liberty to trash our own habitat) the storks very much are protected, and so is where they choose to live. Therefore, once a stork builds a nest on your chimney or lamp-pole or power-line, you’re stuck with them, and you have to make sure nothing happens to disrupt their cosy little life of sun-bathing and crayfish guzzling.
This has been a bit of a bummer for the national Portuguese energy company, given that an estimated 40% of all stork nests are now located on their electricity pylons. Over the years they have been required to undertake work so as to make the pylons more “stork friendly”, as the storks have a propensity to electrocute themselves on the live wires. Property developers, for their part, have had to preserve crumbling, century-old chimney stacks on which storks have made their homes, and incorporate them into the design plans for apartment blocks and hotels.
This all makes for one of the more distinctive, if not slightly more bizarre, sights of Portimão. That is, a small forest of stork nests perched atop just about every tall man-made structure in and around the town.
The colonization of the Algarve by British tourists; the economic collapse of southern Europe; defunct Jewish communities and my personal obsession with finding them; white storks living on power-lines and chimneys. Could there possibly be a common thread in all this?
Not really. Although I guess they all speak to the subject of “migration”. Northern Europeans migrating south in their twilight years, chasing the sun; young Portuguese moving in the opposite direction in search of jobs and material wealth; Jews abandoning centuries old communities to establish new ones in the big cities. As humans, we seem to have a near limitless capacity to make profound, radical changes to how we live, and to continually reinvent ourselves in pursuit of more.
Although in Portimão even the storks are in on the act. Meaning that either these birds are more human than we may think, or chasing after a better life and an easier existence is something engrained deep in our DNA, an almost primal instinct that we share with all other living creatures.