On our way to Paradise by Karen Telling
I sat in the car and watched as Nick shut and locked the front door. It was 11 o’clock on a normal Thursday morning in early October 2003 and the neighbours had all left for work as usual. The first chill of autumn had crept into the air, leaves fell in the nearby wood and we had even noticed a touch of early morning frost.
As Nick got in the car, he sighed and looked around at the dogs snuggled into old duvets and blankets in the back. We had folded the back seat down to give them as much space as possible. They looked slightly puzzled, car journeys were normally reserved for unpleasant things like going to the vet, they weren’t used to this level of space and comfort.
Nick started the car, reversed out of the drive and we turned away from our home for the last ten years. We had been very happy here in the small village he’d grown up in. We had really good neighbours in our small semi-circle of houses and regularly got together for drinks and a chat, usually on a Friday night in summer. As everyone came home from work, they’d quickly re-emerge with a bottle of beer or glass of wine in hand, ferrying bowls of crisps and peanuts and we’d all congregate on the ‘green’, the patch of grass in the middle of the six or seven houses and stay there until long after dusk fell. We also enjoyed the annual barbecue held in June or July; invariably it would rain but we’d shelter under a selection of gazebos and watch the chefs cook under umbrellas, whilst the rest of us produced salad, fresh baguettes, baked potatoes and home-made - or perhaps, artfully distressed - supermarket desserts. It wasn’t easy to leave but we’d made up our minds.
We headed up the High Street and found a parking space close to our immediate destination. As we walked in, a young man came towards us, smiling,
“Everything Ok Mr Telling?” he said, shaking Nick’s hand. “When’s the big day?”
We had already exchanged contracts on our house but completion would take a few weeks, so we had decided not to wait and just get going.
We looked at each other, then gestured to the car, visible through the office window. He followed our gaze and took in the roof box, the two dogs, not daring to take their eyes off us and then at the keys in Nick’s hand.
“We’re off now,” said Nick.
A look of disbelief crossed the young man’s face and his smile faltered.
“Yes,” I replied. “We’re leaving for Portugal today!”
We walked out of the estate agent’s office, got back into the car and Nick started the engine. With just enough packed into the roof box to get us through the next three or four days travelling, we headed out of the village and onto the motorway, next stop Folkestone. This promised to be a very different experience from our first trip to Portugal and I couldn’t help my mind returning to those heady, carefree days of sixteen years ago. The past suddenly seemed incredibly important. Had I known what our future would bring, that I would find myself lying in a hospital bed, not knowing if I would ever walk or even sit upright again, I wonder now if we would have embarked on this venture at all. But hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing.
1987 - Portugal first time around
A friend had just invested in a holiday home in Portugal and offered it to us any time we wanted a break. We had never been to Portugal, never even considered it. We enjoyed holidays in France, Croatia, Italy and even a few trips to Florida but the resort sounded appealing, so we decided to take him up on his kind offer. We arrived at Gatwick before dawn, coincidentally on my birthday. As we headed through customs and passport control, a young woman with a bright smile and a clipboard popped up.
“Can you spare a minute to answer a few questions?”
At 5.30 in the morning, I couldn’t guarantee it.
“Can we start with your date of birth?” she chirped.
I stared at her blankly. Nick shook his head with a mixture of amusement and then disbelief as it dawned on him.
“It’s today!” he exclaimed.
The girl’s face fell as she looked from him to me, unsure who should win the prize as Idiot No.1.
“Oh yes,” I said, lamely. “So it is.”
She looked enthusiastic but how on earth could I answer her questions if I didn’t even know it was my birthday?
We managed to dodge the survey and after a quick trip to Boots to stock up on insect repellent and sunscreen and a breakfast of coffee and a croissant, I headed to WH Smith for a browse through the paperbacks. A holiday isn’t a holiday for me without a solid stack of fresh, new books, half a dozen at least to last the week. The hardest part is always deciding where to start first, like opening a box of delicious chocolates.
A glance at the overhead screen showed the gate number for the flight to Faro and we joined our fellow passengers on the interminable walk along the airport corridor. The flight took off on time and proved uneventful, apart from the slightly hair-raising descent, where we believed we would land on the sea but at the last minute the runway came into view and with a gentle bump, we hit land. The sky looked so blue, not a cloud anywhere. As we stepped out of the plane, the heat swarmed over us and a slight shimmering haze hovered above the tarmac, all before 10 o’clock in the morning. We’d left a chilly autumnal morning and just over two hours later, emerged into a summer’s day.
The whole place felt deserted apart from the buzz around our arrival and each side of the runway looked more like a beach and a lake than an airport. The ground crew, stylish even in their hi-vis jackets, welcomed us to the Algarve. We had no idea of the significance of that first visit, it was just a last chance to catch some sun and chill out before the onset of the freezing temperatures and foggy gloom of an English winter.
At the foot of the steps from the plane, we queued to get onto one of the waiting buses, engines pumping out diesel fumes, while passengers rounded up bags and children, most of us already overheating in our thick jumpers and heavy coats. The bus looked full to me, all the seats occupied, but more and more passengers squashed on until there was no standing room either. It didn’t matter whether you had a strap to hang onto, we were so tightly packed in, there was no chance of falling. The bus lurched away from the plane but we couldn’t see anything resembling a terminal building, just some sheds with corrugated metal roofs. As we drew closer, we could make out FARO proudly spelt out in big white letters.
The bus stopped suddenly and we realised the shed was actually the terminal building. We gathered our hand luggage and waited to leave the bus and join the queue for passport control. Behind the desk sat a solitary, bored-looking official, slowly checking passports. We shuffled along while he studied each one intently, then stared at its owner, then back at the passport. He seemed constantly surprised and more than a little disappointed, that each one was valid. Maybe he longed for a little excitement in his job. At last, it was our turn to be scrutinised; he reluctantly handed our passports over with a heavy sigh and gestured for us to join the growing line to his right. We grabbed a trolley and wandered over, expecting to see a conveyor belt, groaning with luggage but only discovered a row of shelves, two high, and behind them strips of plastic curtains, of the type used in a doorway, to keep flies out. Suddenly we heard a vehicle draw up and the engine idled, humming away, as pairs of hands pushed through the plastic strips and placed our suitcases onto the waiting shelves. We all had to walk up and down, anxiously trying to spot our cases. We had never been to an airport where the passengers moved and the luggage sat motionless. Everyone tripped over everyone else, retrieving bags, pushchairs and random pieces of luggage, whilst trolleys clashed and tangled themselves in other people’s belongings. It was chaotic and we felt grateful no other flight had come in at the same time. I couldn’t imagine the drama in high summer; no wonder that system didn’t catch on.
We successfully navigated the baggage hall and exited the shed, following the signs for our car hire company and soon set off on the open road. Our destination, a former fishing village called Praia do Carvoeiro, lay 50 Km to the west along the N125, the Algarve’s ‘Road of Death’ with the highest number of fatalities in Europe. You could tell the tourists, driving carefully, obeying all the road signs, from the locals, swaying from verge to verge, arms out of windows, all hands off the steering wheel to light cigarettes. As we witnessed overtaking at the last minute, overtaking a car already overtaking, on a bend, on a hill, it grew increasingly obvious how the N125 had earned its grisly reputation.
Finally, we made it to the village, by now it was mid-morning and the temperature rising well into the 20s. We looked ridiculous dressed up for a UK autumn, and couldn’t wait to change into something more appropriate for the climate. Our directions told us to turn off the main road, down towards the sea and through the small village streets which led to the stunning beach, a beautiful curved bay with cliffs on either side. We crossed the small village square, not at all sure who had right of way as four or five roads led into the square and it looked like a free for all. We glimpsed the rolling waves through the confusion of parked cars and market stalls at the edge of the square, the latter selling brightly coloured clothes, beach towels and traditional lace tablecloths. Beyond the stalls stood a couple of bars and restaurants, already busy with tourists drinking in the sun, the view of the ocean, the atmosphere – and the local beer and wine.
Checking the directions, we turned up the steep hill to one side of the beach, along a road flanked by shops, bars and restaurants. Families strolled down towards the beach, laden with buckets and spades and cool boxes full of picnics. Most stopped and studied the menus outside the restaurants, deciding where to eat that evening. We carried on up the hill; however, at the top, where our directions said turn right, we couldn’t find a signpost for the development. We turned off anyway, hoping to come across it and found ourselves on the headland which curved along the cliff top then dropped down and of course, we found ourselves back at the beach.
We checked the directions once more, up the hill, turn right and into the development, so we set off again thinking we must have missed the turning. Back up the hill, past the same families looking in the same restaurants, we scoured every signpost and every turning only to arrive back at the headland again. We must have gone wrong, but couldn’t work out where. Back down to the beach, back up the hill, almost on nodding terms with the beach-bound families, feeling quite at home here now but this time we decided to keep going further on.
The early start combined with the heat and the confusion over the directions hardly created the happiest of atmospheres in the car. This time we didn’t turn off at the cliff top but kept on up a steep, winding road edged with white-painted villas, which became more and more sparse. How could we have gone wrong again? It’s a small village and we were looking for a fairly large complex of apartments, villas, tennis courts, restaurants, swimming pools - where could it have gone? Was it an Algarvean Brigadoon, only appearing every 25 years in the mist?
Nowhere to turn off existed, so we motored on. Suddenly we rounded a corner and faced a sheer drop with no barrier and our road skimming the cliff edge. We gasped and looked at each other, what a nightmare! We were in the middle of nowhere, no sign of our villa and threatened with instant death at any minute over a cliff. We should have stayed at home. The road straightened out and we climbed even further uphill until I felt sure we had to be back in Faro, then suddenly, up reared a huge billboard, bearing the words we had longed for: Rocha Brava. We had arrived.
The villa looked lovely; it stood in a quiet spot, down a shady footpath just a few minutes’ walk to the pool, according to the map handed to us when we checked in. We unlocked the door and put our cases down with a huge sigh of relief, at last, our holiday could begin. We quickly changed into shorts and t-shirts, dug the flip flops out of the case and went for a stroll around the complex. It was beautiful, with hibiscus and oleander flowers everywhere in all shades from delicate pink to robust red and striking purple. The pool was huge, set on different levels with a waterfall in between and surrounded by loungers draped with sunbathers. The original farm building overlooked it, now converted into an attractive restaurant with a large terrace. The stresses of the journey started to fade away and we relaxed into the holiday mood.
Later in the evening, we got ready to head back into the village to investigate those restaurants we had passed earlier, making sure to leave plenty of time for the long drive. We turned left out of the development and almost immediately found ourselves back at the dangerous bend, at least this time we were on the inside and Nick hugged the rock face of the cliff that jutted upwards to our right. Around a couple of bends and suddenly we arrived back at the top of the hill where we had taken the wrong turn twice that morning. How could we have reached it so quickly? We only left the villa five minutes ago. It’s so strange how once you are familiar with a road it seems to take no time at all.
We carried on down the hill; cars filled the parking spaces on both sides of the road. It was late in the season but still very busy and parking obviously came at a premium. Suddenly, Nick swung the car off to the right and squeezed into a narrow gap, the only one available for miles and parked right outside a restaurant called Casa Algarvia. The waiters stood outside, with their arms folded and unsmiling; they looked vaguely intimidating. It was still quite early as we had expected a much longer drive and although we could see lots of people walking up and down and studying menus, the restaurants were only just starting to fill up. We weren’t sure if these spaces belonged to the restaurant, given every other space was already taken and whether we could just walk off, so we looked at the menu displayed in a glass case on the wall. The waiters watched us approach, no friendlier than before, but the food looked interesting so we stepped up onto the terrace and immediately they broke out into wide smiles, reaching to shake Nick’s hand and guide us to a corner table.
The week fled by, the holiday a dream, one of the best we’d ever had. We tried as many of the restaurants as we could and none disappointed. We walked on the beach, swam in the pool and relaxed on the terrace. The sun shone every day, the locals were extremely friendly and it just felt perfect. As we drove through the square on our last morning, on the way back to Faro airport, I gazed up at the blue sky, said goodbye to the beach and knew this would not be my last time here.