A struggle with a sombrero hat

IAN COLLINS With maybe 50,000 Portuguese people now living in Norfolk, five of us have just returned the compliment via a long (and loosely) working weekend in the Algarve.


With maybe 50,000 Portuguese people now living in Norfolk, five of us have just returned the compliment via a long (and loosely) working weekend in the Algarve.

I'm writing a book about the East Anglian bird sculptor Guy Taplin, who has been visiting the Ria Formosa national park for materials, inspiration and relaxation since the 1970s. This was to be an adventure and a chapter.

Dropping into Faro, and a bleached, beached world of dunes, lagoons, tidal channels and barrier islands, all strewn with salt pans and clam beds, I am instantly mesmerised (as always) by proximity to the sea.

Researching in advance, I downloaded text on a twitcher's paradise from the Portuguese National Tourist Office, posted on the web with "minimal corrections". This told me to expect "dwarf sea swallow, grey plover, tailorbird, waders, common hawthorn, straight beaked kingfisher, ducks, water cocks . . ."

Ho hum. So that's ducks and waders for definite then. As for the rest, best to wait and see . . .

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Our rooms on the roof of a white-washed guesthouse have views over blindingly bright laundry lines and terraces. Swifts screech overhead - their nesting colony is in the soft sides of a nearby date palm (below which we will find the perfect white oval of a fallen egg).

The local fruit, vegetable and fish markets are a joy. A kilo of gala melons costs one euro (70p), a box of fat green figs and a bag of golden-fleshed plums just pennies more.

The poor Portuguese can't afford the bad English habit of putting the die into diet: they buy good, fresh wholefoods, cooking what they don't eat raw. As a result, they look lively and healthy - being spared the mad aggression that comes from grazing on processed pap.

We forage for a picnic before taking the ferry to an island, where we walk and gawp and beachcomb. Here I find three little tern ("dwarf sea swallow") eggs in a shallow sand scrape, and watch Kentish plover ("grey plover") courting. Guy spots the flashes of a stone curlew and a swallowtail butterfly.

Trekking through semi-desert scrub we finally reach the Atlantic, where every blue and green seems compressed into waves capped in white and with occasional silver flecks from leaping bass. Plunging into a breaker, I look back to see a mini rainbow arched above foaming water.

On day one the edge of this fathomless liquid chasm is in playful mood. Day two it's more boisterous. And on the third day it cuffs as a polar bear might (before biting your head off).

No wonder that in an August religious festival, a statue of Our Lady of the Sailors is carried to the mainland for a service of blessing.

The chapel in the town square, in which the corpses of three elderly ladies were laid out for neighbourly inspection last weekend, has borne the bodies of many young men.

Still, I entertain my recurring fantasy of retreat to a boat berthed in some remote creek, or a hut above the shoreline. But in the end, the only English people for miles around, we are merely passing through, enjoying an out-of-this-world Monday morning.

Beyond a harbour wall I hear a gentle lapping, but when I look over the ridge I see hundreds of mullet with heads out of the water. They are feeding on the surface of the incoming tide, making one massed sucking sound like a one-note fishy choir.

And later, while we wait in the queue for the ferry on our last evening, there is a commotion on the jetty ahead. Amid a great deal of shouting and pointing, I assume someone has dropped crucial keys into the briny deep.

Suddenly a teenager dives into the waves, directed down, down, down by all the yells and guiding fingers.

Peering into the clear depths, searching for a glint of metal, I can just make out the diver retrieving what looks

like a sombrero hat in bright colours (purple, orange,

pink, crimson).

But when he breaks the surface he is wrestling with an octopus. It has fastened on - and, for a moment, appeared to swallow - his arm.

Forcing back the Technicolor tentacles, the boy seems to be trying to turn the writhing beast inside out. But then I am pushed away, propelled onward by a human tide for whom this primeval struggle is nothing out of the ordinary.

They are all ready for their supper.

But I can't help recalling, and now rather queasily, the octopus salad I'd so enjoyed for lunch.