From wildfires to expensive hummus, the reality of a sun-soaked life in the Algarve has proved very different to the reality for Danu Stratton-Kent
September 9, 2023 6:00 am(Updated 12:35 pm)
British winters debilitate me; the dark skies dampen my determination. Short winter breaks in the Algarve had always infused my fatigued cells with sun rays – until just visiting was not enough.
One warm February sunrise, I boarded a boat in Faro to explore the salt pans and marshes of the Rio Formosa, an 18,000-hectare reserve for more than 200 species of birds, such as oystercatchers, avocets and little egrets.
I sauntered through mosaic-patterned streets and buildings clad in vibrant azulejo tiles. In the macabre Chapel of Bones, an ossuary of the femurs and skulls of 1,245 monks, a sign reminded me to consider the fate that befalls us all. To seize the day.
An idea whispered: perhaps I could live here. The Algarve promises around 350 days of sunshine. Would I find 350 days of happiness here among the luminous wildflowers, trees laden with figs, oranges, almonds and olives, the perennial scent of rockrose and widescreen indigo?
During the pandemic, the anchors of office and mortgage dissolved. My mind wandered to that southern European utopia. With a political deadline, I popped to a council office in Albufeira to collect a residency certificate before the Brexit gate slammed shut.
In 2021, I took a whitewashed cottage in Ferragudo, seduced by bougainvillea arches and golden beaches.
Yet, after nearly three years, I simmer with disillusionment. Adopting a shimmering holiday destination as a home has faded it to familiar patina. It is symbolic that the pretty, Instagrammable calçada (pavement) is quite calamitous, and piled with dog poo.
With my broken rose-tinted sunglasses, I will sound ungrateful listing my gripes.
The sight of mistreated animals in the Algarve is so pitiful I balked and nearly returned home, until I decided to stay and help rescues instead.
Navigating Portuguese bureaucracy is famously bewildering and I am still struggling to understand the tax rules.
It is a myth that the cost of living is low. Unless you eat a local diet of salted fish and rice, you might pay €4 (£3.40) for a cauliflower, €5 (£4.30) for a pot of hummus and €4.90 (£4.20) for a loaf of gluten-free bread.
Rents are cruelly soaring; many Algarvians work several jobs to afford them. Summer villas are expensive iceboxes to heat in winter: the lack of insulation makes for bone-biting nights.
Largely, the Portuguese embrace their foreign guests, wanting to share their culture – yet nationalist sentiment oozes into public spaces in graffiti and social media. I sense a strained tolerance.
The weather lured me here and is now pushing me away. For under-clad holidaymakers by the pool, the high temperatures are glorious. For residents, a constant film of perspiration precludes comfortably completing the daily tasks of life.
Wildfires are so prevalent that many residents have an evacuation bag ready. With imminent threat of drought, desalination plants are being built.
I am ready to move north of the Algarve to cooler, wetter climes – but my time in Portugal is not over. Still, I am not sure I will ever feel completely at home.