You may have detected a tone in my previous blogs, that I’m a huge fan of the ‘underdog’, for the person that despite determination always seems to come second or a runner-up, for the business that never quite manages to get a prime pitch or for the town that despite all it does, it never shakes a reputation (however maligned).
I don’t fully know the roots of this particular celebration, as I’m an ambitious, driven and sometimes competitive person, but know what it’s like to be in second place. I can see the secondary school report for PE now “David has no aptitude for football or rugby but tries hard”. When I was selling stuff for a living I can recall a minor celebrity hosted black-tie ceremony where “David almost got salesperson of the year, but no cigar this year”. You’ll also know that however proud I am of my roots in Walsall, any mention of the Midlands when combined with my accent normally prompts “you’re a Brummie then”….And I’ve begun to tire of the blank looks or the ‘must just talk about something else’ that normally ensues following my speech about the (few) plus-sides of Walsall!
Anyway, enough of this ramble! What I particularly wanted to talk about today is towns, civic pride and recently found love (yes, you heard it here first!) of a town in the Algarve.
My closest friends will know that we were fortunate enough to invest a little money in a small apartment in Weston-super-Mare in North Somerset some two years ago. We particularly wanted a place where not just we could go and get some respite, but so could my sick Mother and her friends.
The reason for the Weston super Mare investment was based on an immediate love for the town. It’s down to earth ambience combined with the knowledge that what you see from the sparkling new pier or newly regenerated seafront is not what you find in every backstreet. It’s those small neighbourhoods that give Weston (now abbreviated!) it’s character and characters!
The fact is that Weston, like many seaside towns in the UK has its problems. These problems came to a culmination a few years ago when its reputation was further damaged by national press coverage of the drug rehab business in the town and latterly, the fire on the pier – which unfortunately left Weston without a tourist focus.
Thankfully, that is all history now and whilst Weston could not be called a ‘boomtown’, many of its present issues stem from the current economic climate and significant growth in housing which the ageing infrastructure is unable to support.
My support for the underdog means I’m a staunch and stoic supporter of the town and am proud to say that (at least for some of the time) I live in a place that I’m proud of.
I then take this ‘underdog journey’ south, about 1100 miles, to a place on the south coast of Portugal, called Albufeira. Albufeira roughly translated to English means a ‘lagoon’ or ‘bayou’. Whilst this conjures up a less than beautiful image, the many bays of azure sea, set against golden or terracotta coloured cliffs and beautiful sandy beaches make this place an attractive watering hole, most of the year round.
Our first visit to the resort was a little over 18 months ago and unlike the almost universal support for Portuguese cities of Lisboa and Oporto, I had some scepticism about my first visit. My view was slightly hackneyed in that I believed the beauty of the Algarve had been wiped away by concrete mixers and golf courses during the boom years. My dislike of anything golf and anything that resembles a high rise suburb of Hong Kong is not my ideal holiday town!
I was also aware that Albufeira was a town of at least two halves. One that supported the 18-30 set (message me if you don’t get what I mean, but one day, I’ll write about that holiday demographic!) and one that promoted itself to families on a budget in the summer and month-long stays on a budget to OAP’s in the winter. Infact, Albufeira to some people could be seen as the underdog to those slightly more upmarket resorts of the boating / tennis playing / golf club swinging set in Vilamoura.
Of course I’d love it. It was already apparently ‘second best’ and had a personality of it’s own….
So, just two-and-a-half hours from Weston super Mare on one of many budget airlines, we walk into the relative warmth of Faro airport. Whisked to the resort by fast and frequent ‘tourismo’ buses in less than an hour, Albufeira greets you like a warm scarf in winter or a G&T on a summer afternoon.
The naturally friendly Portuguese locals mix well with tourists from a plethora of countries with bars, restaurants and hotels catering for all. I’ve not seen a ‘dirty’ hotel or a bar looking dishevelled there, and whilst the European graffiti artists have too made their home in the town, it’s not offensive nor overt.
I can feel myself becoming the ‘Judith Chalmers’ of WordPress and this is certainly not an advert for the local Albufeira tourist office, as there are clearly signs of the recession hitting hard in some neighbourhoods. There are empty apartment blocks, unsold flats and some concrete shells around the place, but no more than you’d see in any coastal town in Iberia. One feeling you don’t get here is that of abandonment, of bins not collected, or hordes of gangs marauding, but you do notice that it’s market is mid-market and frankly, proud of it!
And then there’s the cats. And a dog called Richard.
I’m a self confessed cat lover and have been since my earliest memories of having my little siamese with me as a child. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve also developed a fondness for dogs. Neither of these animal obsessions are for poncy poodles nor groomed pussies, but good old mutts and moggies!
So, if dear reader you combine my love off all things ‘underdog’ with the love of the street-cat (and yes, I follow Street Cat Named Bob on Twitter!), then you’ll understand the animal magnetism of my favourite Portuguese seaside town.
Theres the shabby tabby, the earless and now eyeless sleek white cat (Binky), the huge black brillo-furred male and the ginger tom. Then there’s those who look after them. The wonderful ladies with shopping trollies laden with crunchy goodies.
On my second visit to the resort, I’ve found out where the hidey holes are! There’s a load of cats on the cliffs and pallets next to the Sol E Mar, mainly ginger apart from a huge black Tom that resembles Tyson.
There’s a second family (including the most beautiful ‘Blinky’) living on the cliffs opposite the Rocamar and then a third cohort on the viewpoint near the superb Frentomar hotel. Each of these were visited and provided with catnip toys, jingly bells and patchwork mice, in addition to tune and other fish from the local ‘Alisuper’ supermarket!
Whilst the cats were ‘interested’ in the catnip pillows, it was obvious the seagulls liked these more and took them away to the nest. The jingly balls were a confusion and were discarded onto the nearby walkways, creating a hazard to passing tourists! The food of course was consumed at a considerable rate, with the resultant ‘cow eyes’ suggesting more comestibles were required!
A small donation to the local cat loving ladies on several occasions provided me with a little solace that our furry friends were to get fed in the winter months. It’s interesting to find out that these retired and sometimes widowed ladies have made it their lives work to look after the ferals of Old Town Albufeira and some of the history that these cats have.
It turns out that ‘Bruiser’, the black cat built like the proverbial ‘brick shithouse’ is a Tom that matured early and wasn’t spayed until quite late in life. His huge face and ‘smile’ come from additional male hormones that develop in his ‘complete’ years.
The white cats with no ears have all had a cancer of the ears brought on by years in the sun. They are actually quite old for ferals and have survived operations all paid for by the volunteers. Look out for these lovely cats by The Rocamar, they’re quite fussy when trusted.
The ginger cats, of both sexes (female ginger cats are unusual) are the mainstay of the resort, with all sorts of carrot coloured combinations visible. Only once has one feisty orange cat scratched it’s way out of my heart – albeit temporarily.
Upon further investigation, it’s apparent that many of these adorable creatures are once-loved family cats, who’ve spent most of their lives curled up in the sun or at the foot of an owners bed. The cat-lady has seen many a speyed animal, devoid of a collar but unable to fend for itself in the ‘wild’, with a particular surge in numbers once the recession begun to bite and expatriates forced to return to their homelands.
Of course, all this implies that you, like me, love cats. If you don’t appreciate these furry friends, then there’s still plenty of personalities across Albufeira! From the new Marina and enchanting district of Cerro Grande to the more built up ‘strip’ and Montechoro, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Albufeira.
Like all those cats, Albufeira may have had more than it’s fair share of ‘lives’ compared to the more cultured Algarve resorts – but it’s no stray, no feral and even if it were, it would love you back with hugs and purrs.
And (with a nod to ITN), finally…
It’s not just cats that tickle your fancy in Albufeira. Take a walk to fisherman’s beach any day and there you’ll find a gaggle of dogs (I’ll not use the correct term, as these don’t hunt together in a ‘traditional’ pack!) who clearly know each other intimately…
Theres an Alsation mongrel who is clearly in charge – you’ll know him due to his erect tail when running or sniffing. Then there’s a stumpy but stocky character, sporting a bow tie (or dickie bow) and now forever christened Richard (Ricardo!). There’s also a small, thin dog with a natural habit of adhering to his homeless owner like glue. He’s a real charmer and worth the odd Euro if you see him and his friend on ‘bar street’ on a cold winters eve.
These dogs however are not on their own. They not only have homosapien friends, but happily trot around the Old Town streets with two cats (a white and tabby) and share their food and other pickings with each other. This is a real disney-esque treat to watch, a real life film strip, possibly called ‘The Incredible Journey – Albufeira Edition’!
My discovery of this great place has truly changed my mood and it’s animal magnetism has helped me personally through some difficult challenges. It’s a place to sit, reflect and ponder the future. To think, to write and yes, to dream of sunnier skies, cooler beer and happier people.
It’s got a big ‘recommended’ sticker on it from me, and I’m happy too that not just my partner, but my sister have been captured by it’s allure…
See you there soon?
David Oxendale – AKA Judith Chalmers and a cat lover