I live in Andalucia, and write about it for a living. So when it comes to holidays, my first instinct is to head in the other direction – in this case, Portugal. I still take endless photos (because I enjoy it, as much as for reference and family albums) and collect every leaflet I see, but at least I feel no direct obligation to write about my trip/the apartment/ hotel/ town/ bars/ restaurants/ beaches/cultural highlights etc.
Portugal is a breath of fresh air after Spain for a number of reasons.
1) The TV isn’t dubbed. English films are in English, not the same Spanish voices you hear voicing every single foreign film on Spanish TV.
2) The people speak English, which makes a nice break for me from always having to speak Spanish – not easy first thing in the morning, or when you’re tired, or are trying to keep your rag while controlling uncontrollable small children.
3) They give you that gorgeous sardine paste (sooooo much nicer than it sounds) in little packets, along with butter (yes!), and yummy fresh bread rolls (not the packeted white sawdust-flavoured variety available in restaurants all over Andalucia).
4) The extremely pretty mosaic pathways and pavements.
5) The beaches have lots of strange rock formations, rock pools, and no unsightly high-rises directly behind them.
6) In the evening, the women don’t dress up to the nines in skimpy dresses and heels, with full make-up and perfect hair, making me (au naturel in a cover-all maxidress and flip-flops) feel fat/dowdy/under-dressed.
7) It’s a foreign country, and therefore more interesting.
This summer we had two short breaks on the Algarve, in Albufeira, which is about two hours’ drive away, straight down the motorway – well, two motorways, if you differentiate between the Spanish and Portuguese sections. Happily, there’s no border control, you just whizz straight over the bridge spanning the Guadiamar river, which marks the border between Spain and Portugal.
The first was in Olhos d’Agua, a delightful little town just east of Albufeira, with lots of apartment blocks (mostly low-rise) and a small main street leading down to the beach. This, like many beaches, has a packed part with sunbeds-for-rent, and a virtually empty part, with towels-on-the-sand. As always, we chose the latter, and explored caves and rock pools galore, although the sea itself was a bit nippy and not really calm enough for little kids to splash around in safely. No matter, our apartment had a pool (three, in fact), which kept the kids happy, and a view through palm and pine trees down to the sea, enough to feed my soul. It was a small block, too, so not far to get to the pool.
The decor was hilariously 70s (beige plastic towel rails and loo-roll holders, Western saloon-style swing doors to the kitchen) but it had a massive balcony – an extra play area, though always with the added potential panic factor of child/chair/climb/fall. “Do not leave unattended at any time.”
The stairs down from the apartment to beach felt Caribbean, being wooden and passing little houses with cute gardens. After a fabulous though rather expensive meal, we took the kids to a bar where a not-bad singer was keeping the boozy expats entertained with the likes of Don’t Worry, Be Happy. They enjoyed it more than I had expected – no running around, shouting, screaming, or knocking over people’s drinks. Happy kids, happy parents. I even had a cocktail. We didn’t have to use the car for two whole days – restaurants, beach and shops all within walking distance. Bliss for a suburban mum who lives down a dirt track and needs to use the SUV to get anywhere.
For our second break, we were in a much posher place (got a great rate, though) for four days. It was a big development of low-rise blocks, painted white, with lush green lawns and loads of bouganvillea, fig trees and adelphas. We had a big apartment with two beds and two baths (very lucky to get upgraded, having booked one bed), and a kitchen with counter leading to the sitting room, which had a fireplace. All much nicer – bigger, newer, in better condition – than our own house, which was kind of depressing. We even had a dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier (the weather was iffy, with rain showers, so that was invaluable).
The development had various freeform pools, one of which had a snazzy swim-up bar with underwater stools and cocktails bursting with decorations, though sadly I didn’t frequent it, spending all my time in or next to the kiddie pool. It also had a shop with English press (hallelujah!) and mini-golf, if that’s your bent.
We went into Albufeira in the evenings, which was very lively – it was a weekend – with an entire kids’ entertainment programme in the main plaza: balloon animals (the lady spoke excellent English: “doghorsecrocodileflower?”), puppet show, life-size Spongebob/Hello Kitty, huge bubble-blowers… We ate typical Portuguese stew, cataplana; we even saw some folkloric dancing, complete with castanets and “owld buoys” (has to be said in a rural East Anglian accent) in hats playing their accordions, accompanied by a warbling lady who sounded as if her cat had just died.
The centre is fun to wander around, with the usual tourist tat (orchid hair clips were this season’s on-trend accessories), but also some tasteful interior decor shops and trendy boutiques – Havaiana fans will be delighted by the entire shop dedicated to every conceivable style and colour. Don’t miss the tunnel which takes you to the beach. You walk from the town centre – shops, restaurants, bars, with no hint of the sea – to the beach in a minute. Further along the sea front, where the walkway is much higher above the sand, there is a lift to carry you down in comfort. How thoughtful, especially since endless steps are not much fun when you have a child’s buggy.
The beaches around Albufeira are fun, as long as you don’t want to wallow in a warm, gentle sea – which is where the Cadiz beaches have the upper hand. These praias have cliffs, caves, arches and stacks (pillars), and we played endless games of chase and hide-and-seek and monsters. Of such happy simple pleasures are happy childhood memories made.
If you don’t have kids, I also spent some great holidays in Albufeira as a party animal. These days everywhere serves caipirinihas for 3.50 euros – from bars to little stalls on the street.
Albufeira is fairly touristy and has a big, brash “main drag” packed with bars, and one on the main square had a band playing decent cover versions of rock classics on its outdoor rooftop terrace. We sat on our apartment terrace in the evening, glass of chilled Douro white in hand, kids in bed, listening to Smells Like Teen Spiritwafting up the hill from the centre of town. Close enough to get a free concert, but far enough away not to be irritating or wake the kids. Music, wine, balmy sea air. The stuff holidays are made of.
Our one disappointment was that were weren’t able to catch this class act. Popular crooner Rouximol Faduncho (yes, that’s his real name) was playing on our last night, but the kids were shattered so we had to take them home. I’m confused. I thought Ali G’s creator was shooting the Saddam Hussein movie?