Back in time

The first and before 2016 only time I stepped from a plane in Portugal was in 1978, four years after the final countdown of the fascist dictatorship that had lasted fifty years. Portugal by the second half of the 1970s was becoming an acceptable destination for civilized, left-of-center European tourists, so Ans and I decided to have a look. In those days we, like all Europeans from the north still are, were obsessed by sun, sea and surf, which had us decide to travel to the southernmost and warmest Portuguese coast, the Algarve. Along that coast we could not detect many of the “wild tourist tribes” that later invaded and overwhelmed the area, which members “behaved like they owned the place and had every right to do with it whatever they wanted.” We, though, belonged to a different tribe with respect for the customs and culture of a foreign country—but I have to admit we spent more time in the sand and the waves than admiring Portugal’s cultural history. I am trying to make good now.

We landed at Faro airport. Took a bus along the coast to the west. Blue ocean, white-plastered villages, orange trees, donkeys and mules on the narrow roads. We had rented a small apartment in a brand-new resort somewhere between Portimão and Lagos. A short walk on a sandy path took us to cliffs surrounding a hidden beach where we encountered no more than three or four others sunbathers. Paradise. Strolling in the other direction on a wider sandy road in fifteen minutes would have us on a long and wide immaculate beach where we never saw more than twenty or thirty people; we all went for lunch and drinks to this beach tavern where the wine was cool, the sardines came fresh from the ocean, and the bill was lower than low. Paradise. Tourism hardly existed; mass tourism was far in the future. We did not see much building activity, only one unfinished and unattended structure, a skeleton of what might have been destined to become a small hotel or apartment building. We rented a Mini Cooper and drove to the most western tip of the European mainland, at Cabo de São Vicente, and looked over the waves in the direction of the intriguing continent where, later, we were to find a new homeland for twenty-five years. We were the only dreamers that day at Cabo. We continued north and followed a coast road devoid of traffic all the way to Aljezur, and were amazed by the number of deep sandy beaches on our left. Paradise. On our way back we took roads leading inland. We passed through picturesque villages with white homes and hovels without glass in the window frames where most people were photogenic and dressed in black and where mules would dominate the road traffic, and we decided this too was paradise.

Maybe it was the remembrance of “this paradise on earth” that drew us, forty years later, after having lived on that in 1978 so intriguing continent across the ocean from Cabo, that steered us to select Portugal as the European place to resettle. No longer being beach dwellers we decided to find a location in the center of the country from which all of (small) Portugal was within easy reach. So far we explored quite a few regions. But we never made it back to the Algarve. We prefer to live with the good memories of a Portugal that had not yet been flooded by the wild hordes of today. The images we see, in books, on the Internet, tell us plenty, including that we will neither find any trace of the old peace and quiet, nor of the then experienced romance of primitive life. Fat chance we would stumble over golf-playing and beer-drinking “Brexpats”. The once beautiful coastal highway is nowadays by far the most dangerous route to travel in the nation (thanks to all those old Minis and MGs and 4WD Landrovers with a steering wheel on the right side the Brits insist to drive on the wrong side of the road).

Before 1978 the Algarve was even quieter. In ‘Oldest Ally’, a book written by an English-Portuguese couple of experienced travelers about their experiences on the road in Portugal in 1960, Peter Fryer and Patricia McGowan Pinheiro paint a most primitive portrait of a nation and society comparable to any in then contemporary Central America. A journey by public transport bus brought them hours in close company with whole families of noisy gypsies, the olive-skinned women dressed in long, shabby skirts and torn blouses and wearing long flamboyant ear rings, their half-dressed kids not attending any school; they made some money by trading colorful fabrics at bus stops or by smuggling across the border from Spain (although most smugglers avoided the buses and drove ostentatious Cadillacs and Buicks fast on the dusty roads). Most Portuguese farmworkers living in the towns and villages where the bus driver took a break proudly kept their low dwellings, which sometimes were hovels, painted white and yearly applied fresh blue or yellow paint to the window and door frames. Inside the authors found no running water, no electricity. Outside, many domiciles had elaborately decorated stone chimneys.

The Portuguese of 1960, at least many of them who lived in the cities and almost all living in the country, dressed poorly. The men wore wide-rimmed black hats, check shirts, and an overhanging epaulet-shouldered black sheepskin coat cut like a vest or bolero in front and with a long tail (not split) in the back, Their pants were repaired many times, their boots made of skinny rubber, and most had a black umbrella for company come rain or shine. The women’s attire was… picturesque, even on days not being religious festivals or saints’ name days. A black top hat resembling a trilby over a shawl (which when riding side-saddle on donkey or mule became a veil covering most of their faces), a wide blouse, a long skirt, all the deepest of blacks. No television yet to bring a far-away world into their lives. Hanging out at street corners (hawking and spitting) and watching the daily bus arrive at the town square were the main events. The bus delivered all sort of goodies and the mail, if any, and with it came strange folks such as Fryer and McGowan to be for a short moment the center of all gossip. They attracted small hordes of bare-foot children begging for a tostãozinho to contribute to the family income. All bus passengers would be offered lottery tickets, cakes, tangerines, chestnuts, and some of them had their own wares to sell. Many farmworkers would wear shoes only on Sundays; on other days their feet would be wrapped in rags bound together with strings. Tools were not readily available whatever the profession; the tenders of old steam-engine trains were loaded bare-handed.

“Why is Portugal, the first modern empire-building nation, now so backward, so poor, so illiterate, so stagnant—and why has she submitted to a reactionary dictatorship for more than an entire generation?” This was what wondered the travelers of the 1960s and 1970s who noticed the spectacular beauty of the country and the visible wealth of the country’s history as well as the widest possible division between the few rich and the mass of poor with almost no middle class in-between. For ‘Oldest Ally’, the authors travelled everywhere and spoke to Portuguese men and women of all backgrounds and professions including quite a few “dissidents.” They discovered how tightly controlled the dictatorship was; they uncovered protest actions too, but had to camouflage the sources of their knowledge; they felt the political secret police PIDE’s presence even if only they tried to take photos of poor neighborhoods—they had to stop or have their cameras confiscated. Portugal was a country under siege with a government that couldn’t care less about the misery of the mass of their people. There were no lower standards that in Portugal: most of the population had to work on a miserable number of calories and were hungry, all the time; child death was high (84 of 1,000 births); almost 50% of the population was illiterate. Escape was practically impossible. Young guys and women hoping to study in other countries had to apply for a visa at Instituto para a Alta Cultura, a PIDE division where was decided who could be trusted, who not.

Fryer and McGowan visited several schools and hospitals. At many a Misericórdia hospital they found desolate, colorless wards that were not connected by hallways but by exterior balconies exposed to the elements; they found bed linens that had been repaired many a time and would never regain their original color by washing, bandages that were washed and rewashed, torn towels shared by two or three patients, children’s wards where six kids had to share one bed; they walked on splintery wooden floors that were dirty for the lack of vacuum cleaners. And they noticed the absence of adequate medical and nursing staff—and a budget good for much needed medications and decent food. In most wards, though, they found abundant religious statues and always a ‘The Last Supper’ reproduction in fading colors. These decorations were a standard feature on the walls of many simple restaurants too; they often appeared to be hanging above the proudly-owned Singer sewing machine, don’t ask me why. PIDE notwithstanding, there were a few “happy jails” to be discovered in different towns. With no glass in the windows, the prisoners in street-side cells would be in a lively communication through the bars with anyone passing by; they received cigarettes and foodstuff, and if theirs was a second-floor cell, the goodies would be pulled up in baskets.

The Algarve, as discovered Fryer and McGowan in 1960, was –imagine!– “the sad south coast” of Portugal. Lagos was a dirty, dusty town where they had let their harbor silt. Portimão was “a southern Hull on a small scale” without any brightness under the sun, with desolate industries between the old historic town and the seaside (their “Cannery Row”) where workers were forced to live in barracks and listless jobless men could be seen on every street corner. In boat yards, men worked bare-foot and it was shocking to see how close the chains or blades of the saws approached their toes. In Praia da Rocha, then and now the Algarve’s most famous ocean cliff area, the only visible proof of prosperity were the scant villas of Portuguese industrialists and the first British expats; its hotel, called Bela Vista of course, was not impressive enough to be mentioned on a postcard home. And in Silves, the town as important in past times as Lisbon, the port from which the famous earth’s discoverers sailed into the unknown, the only sign of economic life was, in 1960, the British-owned cork factory. Olhão: what a dead, miserable town, just smelling of poverty.

As said, in the late 1970s “my” Algarve was already different, but not much different, and not coming close to what I expect it is today. Portugal has come far in the past forty-some years. Brexpats and other expats and tourists find sun and sea and wine-producing fields and hillsides and old culture and sweet people here on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and for us newcomers to Portugal life is still cheap compared to wherever we came from. The poverty from the past may have disappeared, but is not gone. Not yet. If ever it’ll be just a thing from the past is the big question. For we lucky newcomers should not forget that in 2018 two of every ten Portuguese are still living on or below poverty level, and wages are the lowest in the civilized part of the EU (I am excluding most of the previously East Bloc countries).

One more thing—I mean, there is much more, for ‘Oldest Ally’ has more to offer than the few tidbits I picked up from its pages, it provides the reader with details of the Portuguese nation, its politics, people, lifestyles, its desolation and its hopes as expressed in 1960 with yet no end of the dictatorship in sight. It is even a good read for 2018 tourists, for the authors provide many a fascinating detail of places to see and admire. One more thing, I said: Fryer and McGowan while traveling left and right in Portugal noticed the rich wine fields, the abundant cork and citrus trees, the shady lanes. “And sometimes,” they wrote, “we passed through avenues of fragrant eucalyptus.” The word is: sometimes. Now, almost sixty years later, many Portuguese and almost all expats hate the eucalyptus tree; this fast-growing and fast-burning tree has taken over the countryside and is the main cause of disastrous forest fires such as the ones that last year killed more than sixty people in one blaze alone. This reminds me: not all progress is a sign of improvement.