Albufeira: Little Britain in the Algarve

by JoHarrington

As a Briton abroad, I wanted to immerse myself in the local culture, sample Portuguese food and discover Portugal. Instead it all looked very familiar.

I have a friend in Lisbon. When my family all decided to book a holiday together, I excitedly contacted him. "I'm coming to Portugal!"

"Oh? Where are you going on holiday?"

"The Algarve!" I was such an innocent.

His response was blunt. "Then you are not coming to Portugal." I didn't understand what he meant by that at first. It took three days of exploring the streets about our villa in Galé, then a couple of trips into Albufeira to finally accept the truth.

The Algarve is Britain with sunshine.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Portugal

British Restaurants in the Algarve

We were based in Sesmarias and Galé, close to Albufeira, but apparently British food has overtaken the entire Algarve.

Image: Scoobys Bar in AlbufeiraMy cousin had flown out a couple of days before the rest of our family. He'd already grabbed the hire car and explored the immediate area. He'd found the nearest restaurant and enjoyed the food.

Upon our arrival, we descended en masse on Scooby's Pool Bar, in Galé. It was owned by a British couple.

The menu looked exactly like any you might find in a pub anywhere in Britain. The bulk of it was *insert meat* with chips and peas, or vegetables. Which isn't to say that it wasn't delicious.

My father was practically drooling at the sight of his steak and kidney pie with chips and peas. He uttered a satisfied sigh as soon as he dug in. Then recommended it to everyone in the vicinity.

I fared less well.  As a vegetarian, my only options were a jacket potato with cheese, cheesy chips or a salad. For someone who had been anticipating fine Portuguese cuisine, it was less than underwhelming. (I had much better luck around the corner at JKs.)

But it was also a story repeated just about everywhere else we went. You couldn't have chucked a stone in Albufeira, Sesmarias, Galé or Joinal without hitting some purveyor of staple British food. It was actually intensely difficult to eat anything but British food.

Even the handful of Dutch restaurants in the town seemed to cater for the British. Their walls were orange and photographs of the Nederland royal family adorned the menu. Yet the food was British.

Which is all a great shame because, as my friends from the rest of Europe diplomatically tell me, Britain is not known for its cuisine.

'Albufeira is even more of a Little Britain when it comes to eating and drinking. The roster of British-style pub restaurants serving all-you-can-eat Sunday roasts, fish and chips, pizza and pasta is ever-changing, though there are some long-established stalwarts.'

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Albufeira Travel Guide

How many (potential) Britons can you spot in this guide to a Portuguese travel destination?

British Newspapers and Groceries in Albufeira

You don't even have to pack your tea-bags. Anything and everything British is stocked on those shelves in Portugal.

Image: Algarve StreetIt became a beautiful, little morning ritual. As the villa stirred with people rising, a group of us would meander down the road to the mini mercado to buy baps for our breakfast.

We had been told in advance that our villa was situated in a residential area. Most of our neighbors were Portuguese people working in the tourist spots of Albufeira. Therefore we expected that their local shop would focus upon Portuguese groceries. It didn't.

Flanking the entrance door was a rack of English tabloid newspapers. Inside you could purchase baked beans and other British favorites. Behind the counter, whole shelves were devoted to the brands of chocolate found in any British supermarket.

At least the lady serving behind the counter provided a little Portuguese flavor. She taught us a word or phrase in her language every day, then greeted us each morning with a hearty 'Bom dia!'

Every grocery shop that I entered in the Algarve appeared to import its stock from Britain. When my mother announced her intention to cook a Sunday roast, she was able to purchase Bisto gravy and cranberry sauce. As a vegetarian, I had a choice of Quorn products in the larger supermarket Apolónia.

Everyone Speaks English

There was not a single occasion in the Algarve when language became a barrier to communication. Every Portuguese person I met spoke fluent English.

Nor was it only the Portuguese. I was bimbling along the Coelha Beach, when I came across a German couple taking it in turns to photograph each other before the stunning scenery. As I have no German at all, I mimed my offer to take a picture of them together.

Immediately the pair switched to flawless English to accept.

It's embarrassing that us Britons are so lazy in learning any other language. It's not even encouraged in our schools. That's just wrong.

Determined to rectify this situation, I picked up a Portuguese phrasebook in Apolónia. I would be fluent before the day was out, if it killed me.

Unfortunately, the price of the book suddenly doubled at the check-out. I was mortified, as I didn't have enough Euros on me to buy it at double the price. We tried showing the manager the printed price on the back, but he wasn't interested.

I guess that the last thing that the Portuguese want is all of the British tourists understanding their language.

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Cliff Richard in Portugal

The sound quality is a bit dodgy, but you get the general idea.

The British Algarve: It's All Cliff Richard's Fault

The British singer is very well regarded in Albufeira. He owns a home and a vineyard there, and one of the main streets is named in his honor.

Image: Rua Sir Cliff Richard"We're all going on a summer holiday," sang Sir Cliff Richard. He apparently had Albufeira in mind at the time. "Fun and laughter on our summer holiday, we'll make our dreams come true."

My family and I piled into a tour bus to learn more about the area. As we were conveyed along the picturesque cliff-top road, linking the marina with the old town, we were on Rua Sir Cliff Richard.

The English language commentary blithely informed us that the singer 'discovered' Albufeira during the sixties, then the rest of Britain followed him.

From that moment on, Albufeira grew from a sleepy fishing village into a massive tourist town. The reason why the Algarve feels so incredibly British is because the bulk of the tourists are from the United Kingdom.

The second largest cohort are from Ireland. Despite the handful of Irish bars sprouting up, no-one bothers to translate any menus into Gaelic. The Irish speak fluent English. (Though, to be fair, I did see menus in French and German, so those nationals could enjoy the British food too.)

Everyone could top off their meals with a nice Vida Nova - the wine made at Adega do Cantor, Cliff Richard's own vineyard and winery in Albufeira.

Image: Albufeira Old Town, Portugal
Image: Albufeira Old Town, Portugal
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Looking for Portugal in Albufeira

I'd come abroad to expand my horizons and experience how another country does things. I didn't want British. I have that in Britain.

Image: AlbufeiraI wasn't really hungry. My family had colonized half of the outdoor seating area of a beautiful restaurant in Albufeira. I gave the menu a cursory glance over. It was the usual British fare, but most of all, I wasn't ready to eat again just yet.

Instead I set myself a mission.  I would wander off alone through the winding alleys and broad avenues of Albufeira. I would find Portugal. After all, how hard could that be? I was in a Portuguese town!

Just in case I did get hungry later, I even jotted down what I wanted to eat: 'comida de vegetaranio à Portuguesa'. I hope that said 'Portuguese vegetarian food'. I never did find any.

In fact, I found little which appeared at all foreign to me. The architecture was the main exception. It was wonderful and so much prettier than you'd find in Britain. No two buildings appeared the same. Designers out-did each other to create truly unique edifices, which were really pleasing to the eye.

But they were all adorned with signs which were sometimes bi-lingual, but often merely English. There was nothing that I looked at which I couldn't read. I even came across a job vacancy notice for a waitress. It was in English first, with a Portuguese translation directly underneath. The final line returned to my language. It said, 'Applicant must speak English.'  That pretty much said it all.

Later on, I spoke with the owner of JKs Restaurant and Bar. He was born and bred in London. I asked him where I could find something authentically Portuguese in the Algarve. He told me that the whole region is British now. He appeared quite sorrowful, as he added, "I do wish that there was more of a return to the old Portuguese. It needs it."

Updated: 06/09/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 06/15/2013

Ah! Come on, yesterday was history, as was two seconds ago. It's when your memories get to be ancient history that the trouble starts! :)

whitemoss on 06/15/2013

Mmmm I'm a historian too (ex teacher as well) .....rather worrying to think that I'm so old that my own memories are now history! Thanks for the suggestion though- I might have a go at this sometime.

JoHarrington on 06/14/2013

That one was courtesy of my mother. :)

Mira on 06/14/2013

:-) I love it :) "It's a bit naughty of us, really, isn't it?" :):)

JoHarrington on 06/14/2013

@Mira Some preliminary questioning amongst family members:

"We don't like change."

"It's a bit naughty of us really, isn't it? Arrogant. I guess we just like what's familiar."

JoHarrington on 06/14/2013

I don't really know how to advise on starting here. It's not been my field of expertise. But I do know some sociologists. I'll ask them for you. :)

Mira on 06/14/2013

I'll try to find some books as well -- coming from Britons who do analyze this aspect of Britishness. Don't know where to start though. :) You're right about Britons being born in a culture that still remembers the ways of the British Empire in the sense that they expect a whole lot of the world to speak English and be British to an extent.

JoHarrington on 06/14/2013

I strongly suspect that it's because it wouldn't occur to a Briton to want anything other than British while abroad. We're not so far out of the British Empire to have enacted that great a sea-change in world view.

Britons expect every country in the world to speak English and provide something familiar to home. They wouldn't even consider that to be arrogant or unadventurous. They wouldn't analyze it at all!

However, that might just be me presuming too much about my fellow Britons. I will ask your questions for you here. :)

Mira on 06/14/2013

This is really interesting. I could see myself doing a study on it, going to Britain and interviewing people on the topic :-). It would be easy to find out their preferences but it would be harder, I think, to discover the motivations. I see a lot of British travelers reaching to far-away places like Asia and all kinds of islands, going to retreats in India, so there definitely are people like that too. But why do you think the majority of Britons want a version of Britain?
Is it
a. they really love their country, with all it involves in terms of experiences in the day-to-day life (it sounds corny, but it can be a reason)
b. they want something familiar because it's less stressful, and you do go on vacation to relax
c. they want something familiar for other reasons -- such as . . .?
d. they want a place where people speak good English
e. they find comfort in British food. On this topic, I find that many Romanians abroad continue to eat just like at home; that includes one high-powered executive I know, who travels a lot and has lived with his family in various European cities
f. other reasons

These are questions to you and all the British Wizzleyans who might be reading. I would really appreciate any responses, besides those I've already seen here so far!

JoHarrington on 06/12/2013

Since I've been home, I've had plenty of people ask what Portugal is like. When I reply, 'Britain with sunshine!' They've invariably gone, "Good!" It's what the majority of British tourists seem to want, so fair enough on the Portuguese for providing it. It's their livelihood at the end of the day.

It's good to hear that at least one other Briton would have liked to experience other cultures.

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