No shrill sound pierced the silence of the room as our eyes opened slowly, adjusting to the darkness around. We laid in bed for a few minutes, luxuriating in the fact that we didn’t have to get up for work. As we rolled out of bed and opened the curtains, we were greeted to a clear blue sky and a bright yellow sun. We couldn’t resist, opened the French windows and stepped onto the balcony. It was warm. I closed my eyes and smiled. It had been months since I had been able to stand outside in nothing more than a t-shirt.
A castanets like sound broke the peace and I jerked my eyes open. I scanned the horizon to find the culprit. A couple of white storks had invaded the top of a house to build their nest and where now clapping their beaks to their heart content – this was to become a very familiar sight and sound during our holiday, one I would come to cherish and identify with Portugal.
After a hearty breakfast we headed out to explore Faro. The streets were strangely devoid of life and filled with parked cars. We couldn’t quite explain this paradox but decided not to ponder much over it – we were later to find out that the old town had been taken over by tourists, secluding the locals to the new town built with concrete and metal. Empty streets meant that we had the place to ourselves. Old houses adorned the streets with their patterned tiles, and historic buildings gathered around plazas lined by orange trees and populated by Spanish tourists. We joined them to climb a church tower and I sat on one of the walls, my feet dangling in the air. I waved at the people on the ground and they waved back. It struck me then that there had been no fences to stop me sitting on the wall, no security guard rushing up the stairs to demand I climb down. I grinned and waved some more until eventually a man did appear to worry and seemed to want me down.
The following day we made our way to the train station to explore more of the Algarve. We wanted to head for an island just off a nearby town. It is no secret that I like trains and their stations. So I was quite curious to experience the rail system of Portugal. The wagons were old and battered, the doors barely remaining open long enough to let everyone in. To change platform we had to cross the rails which filled me with a childish sense of excitement every time we had to do it. But my favourite part of those Portuguese stations was the lack of signs to indicate where the trains were bound to. Sometimes we would hear a guard announcing the platform but more often that not, we would be left to our own devices, having to guess the right platform. And you would be mistaken in thinking that arriving on one side of the station meant you were going to depart from the other.
We eventually made it to the island after braving the trains. A handful of people had shared our boat but we soon lost sight of them as we crossed the thin stretch of land leading to the beach. Once we were past the deserted bars and shops, we were greeted to a postcard picture of a beach. Gentle hills undulated along a wooden path to guide us to the shore were the warm white sand provided a landing space for the waves of the clear blue sea. We had both forgotten our swimming suits but it didn’t matter. We got into our underwear to plunge into the water – or rather I did while my girlfriend dipped her toes and legs unwillingly. It was still a bit nippy but I didn’t care. I felt like a child again. I jumped above the waves and sat down in the sand to wait for them to tumble me over. I laughed, choked on sea water, and stopped caring about anything else but the present moment.
The rest of the week unfolded in a similar fashion with us playing Russian roulette with Portuguese trains to explore ghosts towns, historic buildings, and deserted beaches. We were endlessly welcomed by scenery of green trees lining ochre dirt paths while in the evening everything would burn red as the sun set on the horizon.
By the end of our holiday, I was thoroughly smitten with Portugal.
We had chosen the location almost on a whim and I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did. As a rule, the more South I go, the less likely I am to enjoy myself, but the Algarve felt different. They were a reflection of another time when advertisement wasn’t placarded on every walls and where cities didn’t grow to become all-encompassing monsters. It gave me a glimpse into a simpler life, re-awakening childhood instincts, and for the first time coming back to London didn’t feel a happy reunion. The endless grey skies, the chill in the air, the cluttered rows of houses and shops, as well as the always present signs and announcements made me yearn for the natural sounds and light of Portugal.