ALBUFEIRA, PORTUGAL: Despite the fact that he weighs 120 pounds, Damien Fagan is a prodigious body snatcher.
From Trim, Ireland near Dublin, twenty-four-years-young and personable, he employs an impressive one-two punch: a broad smile and a charming accent. Wearing dark sun glasses in the omnipresent Algarve sun and a contrasting white golf shirt, Damien exhibits affable body language as he adroitly snatches our entire group of four.
Strategically positioned five paces in front of the Cais Velho restaurant, strollers are easy prey as they amble by,
enjoying scenery along Albufeira's boardwalk that fronts Fisherman's Beach.
He cannot lurch; he must appear casual and friendly. In twenty seconds, an expert like Damien ascertains where you live and what you eat, and with a beaming smile, its radiance suggesting that you are a life-long friend magically reunited, he plugs what's hot on today's menu. With the wide assortment of fresh fish, "There are so many heavenly flavours!" he exclaims.
Albufeira is centrally located in the
Algarve, 46 km (40 minutes) from Faro's international airport. I have never seen so many restaurants per capita; hence, the body snatchers.
Steven Barlow works harder than Damien, located at the northern tip of Old Town where buses and vans from hotels and resorts dislodge multitudes to descend upon shops and restaurants all the way south to the beach, 2 km away.
Geographically challenged, he employs as an aid, a life-sized statue of Rolling Stone's lead vocalist, Mick Jagger, mouth opened wide, ready to bite into the special of the day.
Steven prefers the term "tout" or "pr" person who caters to "clients." At 52 from Liverpool, his easy manner appeals to droves of Brits, Irish and Canadians who pass during a four-hour work period at The Central Planet restaurant, hawking one of Portugal's main dishes, "
Chicken Piri Piri" with a sizzling sauce one snatcher boastfully compares to "Portuguese Viagra." Roast pork, loin, chips and more dishes with a UK slant are also proffered.
One morning, I encounter Graham and Pat Cruliff from Burnley, North England, enjoying "breakfast with a view," sitting at a beachfront restaurant enjoying the dazzling Algarve surf, sand and cliffs. They visit annually in February and March, and acquaint me with the "blue flag" system which explains the absence of fishing boats.
It translates into superior beaches. Portuguese tourism gurus want the entire Algarve so designated. Accordingly, beaches are groomed daily by tractors and remain incredibly pristine with no detritus from fishermen allowed. So much for local colour.
We are here for 28 days in March and April, and encounter many Canadians, more Brits, a few Dutch and Germans with a pinch of Brazilians all taking advantage of shoulder season rates. (July-August is peak season)
In Old Town's central square, I meet Wanda Stratton, a retiree from Ottawa who, from 1996 onward, spent four months here with her husband, who unfortunately passed away last year. Brother Howie Coffey and sister-in-law Donna accompany her from Whitby.
Nearby, Johnny Hooper plays a mellow saxophone - familiar tunes such as "Tequila," the Righteous Brothers "Unchained Melody," "In the Mood," "Baker Street," "Misty" and "As Time Goes By" to a throng of tourists. Wanda tears up. Hooper is from Cardiff, and owns a "Saxophone Bistro" restaurant and bar near "The Strip" in New Town.
It reminds me of Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls with tacky tourist paraphernalia such as cheap T-shirts, postcards and brightly coloured towels with maps of the Algarve.
Wanda loves Albufeira: "It's clean, compares well to Canada, and the people are hard working and sincere." This is her "experiment" as a solo journeyer.
In the square, I encounter a gaggle of nine ladies from Brighton, celebrating Sue Barnett's fiftieth birthday, a common Brit expedition. I meet a group of 15 Brit ladies during "Happy Hour" at our hotel - celebrating an upcoming wedding. Return flights from London to nearby Faro are a mere £60.
At Buddy's Restaurant in the square, I meet 24-year-old body snatcher Rodney Willis from Brazil, at it for five years. He takes advantage of his multilingual skills. 34-yearold Jimmy Marshall has been snatching bodies for 16 years, but must send would-be patrons up a side street to the King of Chicken restaurant.
Next day, I hop on the shuttle from my Paraiso de Albufeira Hotel to lunch at Louisiana's, another restaurant at Fisherman's Beach where two years ago, locals parked their boats on the 200-metre long sandy strip, and after unloading their catch, repaired their nets. This area is now the exclusive domain of sun worshippers, amateur surfers, volleyball players, soccer players (on a massive adjacent square) and idle gawkers such as me.
What remains is an old boat, gaily painted and surrounded by statues of locals, where tourists take pictures, children play, and electronic addicts check the availability of WiFi, behavior not undetected by alert body snatchers.
What to eat:
Besides an ample supply of fresh fish, eels, squid and octopus, one snacks on tasty almonds and olives, but the ultimate experience is found at the Riviera Snack Bar & Gelataria, inside the
Hotel Briso Sol. It's akin to a religious experience. Originally from Lisbon, the ever-popular pastéis de nata are small and extremely rich custard tarts, often sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Delicious!
Where to stay:
There are 167 hotels in Albufeira; we stayed at the Paraiso de Albufeira, one of the largest with fully equipped apartments for long-stays.
Lisbon is only a 3-hour train or bus ride away. We enjoyed the market at nearby Loulé, the rugged coasts of Lagos and Sagres and Cape St. Vincent, the launching pad for
Henry the Navigator's caravels, plus a full day in Faro.
How to go:
We flew as part of a package on Air Transat, much like a can of Portuguese sardines with wings. Lufthansa and United also fly from Toronto to
Faro. Air Canada flies to Lisbon. One may walk everywhere from the hotel. Taxis are quite cheap.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
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