A Life in a Year – 5th October, A First Visit to Portugal

On 5th October 1793 Portugal became an independent nation and I mention this because although I have visited country several times until recently I was ashamed of my previous ignorance about the place.  I had always assumed that because of its geography that it must be a lot like Spain with a few minor differences but I had come to understand that Portugal, its people and its culture and heritage is very, very different indeed.

In the 1980’s my brother Richard worked in a car sales garage in Rugby for a man who owned a villa on the Algarve in Portugal that he used to rent out for holiday lets and, as the property was in rather a remote location, included in the deal was the use of a car for getting about.   Gordon was a businessman who didn’t like unnecessary expenditure so as the car was UK registered he had to remove it from Portugal by a certain time each year so that he didn’t have to pay local vehicle tax and insurance.

Late in 1986 he asked Richard if he would do the job for him in return for a few days rent free holiday at the villa and Richard agreed so long as he could take his pals along to help with the long drive back.  So in October we made the arrangements and one Monday in November Richard, me and our two friends Anthony and Tony flew from East Midlands Airport on a cold wet morning and arrived two hours later in the sunshine at Faro.  It was about thirty kilometres to the villa, which was in a village called Alcantarilha so we found a taxi and set off.  Unfortunately the taxi driver wasn’t fully familiar with this particular part of the Algarve and he didn’t find Richard’s hand drawn location map especially helpful either so there was some confusion about locating the destination, which he only found at about the third attempt.

This was understandable because Villa Estrella was set back off the road with an entrance that was hard to spot and after that there was a short dusty track that led up past the swimming pool and around the back of the property to the car park and the entrance.  And that was when we first saw the car that it was our responsibility to get back to the UK.  An electrifying mixture of shock and panic set in when we realised that this was a ten year old automatic Ford Escort, which, it has to be said was not altogether in the best shape and with its best performance motoring years a long way in the past.  Under the streaks of grime and dust it was a curious lime green sort of colour that was badly faded by the hot Iberian sun and with various minor dents and scratches and missing wheel trims that made the poor thing look rather sad and forlorn and quite frankly a more suitable candidate for a trip to the scrap yard than a demanding two thousand kilometre journey all the way back to the United Kingdom!

Thankfully the villa was in much better shape than the car and inside there were comfortable furnishings, a well-equipped kitchen and a sunny balcony overlooking the garden and the pool and an orange grove next door.  It was a neat whitewashed house with a red tiled roof and brown shuttered windows and set in a slightly neglected garden with wild geraniums.  We selected our rooms, changed into holiday mood, settled in and then all agreed that we needed alcohol supplies so we locked up and walked down the track and down the road a short way to the village shop that we had passed three times on the way in.

This was one of those fabulous old-fashioned shops that you used to find all over Southern Europe but sadly rarely exist anymore due to the relentless march of the supermarkets that has swept them all away.  In fact we wouldn’t have known that this was a shop at all except for a tatty blue canopy advertising Portuguese Sumol soft drinks and a reference to Mercado Braz A Taverna that was flapping over a single door that gave access to the mini-market.  Inside it was dark and gloomy and we all needed a moment or two to let the eyes adjust to the light.  The place was chaotic and everything was piled on the shelves in a completely mad way that made shopping a very random experience indeed.  Vegetables, washing powders, dairy products, died meats all thrown together in a most confusing manner that made it difficult to find the things we were looking for. 

Actually we didn’t need a great deal, the two main items on our shopping list were beer and bread, in that order!  We found the beer and quickly calculated how much we would need for three days and set about assembling the purchase at the counter.  The shop keeper seemed a bit agitated by this but all she was trying to make us understand was that she would rather like the bottles back when we had finished with them because there was a deposit on them.  And then we turned to bread and spotted it on a shelf behind the old lady and by pointing and shouting, in the way that we do when we can’t understand each other, we drew her attention to it and asked for twenty mini loaves.  Now she was alarmed because this was only a small community and this would have cleaned out the entire days supply for the village and we had to seriously negotiate with her to get her to release only about half of our requested quantity.

Back at the villa it was really quite warm in the early afternoon sun and this meant that we could sample the Portuguese beer while sitting around the pool and on the sun terrace on the top of the building.  Three of us were content to sit and do very little but Richard, who is by nature a hopeless fidget, quickly got bored and soon disappeared to carry out a more thorough inspection of the car.  He was gone for quite some time and first of all he gave it a good bonnet to boot clean, which seemed to cheer it up considerably and it began to look a great deal happier.  It wasn’t all good news however because Richard advised that a quick mechanical check had revealed that one of the headlights didn’t work and there was no heater because the pipes had been disconnected and sealed off with a bit of wood, which wasn’t a repair process that you would find in a Haynes do-it-yourself workshop manual but nevertheless appeared to be relatively effective.

At this point things, it has to be said, didn’t look good for the journey home and we wondered how difficult it would be to get a flight back instead.

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