(This article first appeared on the website of AMOVATE, the Association of Residents and Friends of Vale da Telha and is reproduced here with their kind permission)
By Matt D’Arcy
John Morgan’s parents moved to their new holiday home in Vales in 1970 on the car ferry MV Eagle which sailed from Southampton to Lisbon, and on to Tangier. While on board for the three-day, two-night voyage they were able to buy cigarettes—British or American—for 16d a packet of 20 and to enjoy drinks like whiskey, port, gin, vodka at 10d a glass or 12d for a Martell or Courvoisier cognac.
If you wanted a cold beer that came at 8d for a half pint of Double Diamond, and remember–this was when £1 comprised 240 “d”, or old pence! All meals were included and fares were offered from £49 for a 6-night mini-cruise. Yes, it WAS that long ago!
It was the pre-decimalisation early 70s to be exact—the MV Eagle’s service ran from May 1970 to September 1975, departing every Saturday—and decimalisation day was February 15 1971. (Incidentally, I think most of us wish there still was a UK to Lisbon car ferry service each week!—Memo to Brittany Ferries and P&O)
But John’s parents, Gerard and Mimosa (“Mimi”), had already been coming to Portugal for almost 15 years, after tossing a coin before one holiday to decide whether it should be spent in France or in Portugal.
This was 1958 and after ending up in Caxias, Lisbon—not far from the old Ponte 25 da Abril bridge across the Tagus—they met a young, just-engaged Portuguese couple, Amando and ‘Ciette Lamego, who were to become lifelong friends of the Morgan family. In fact Amando and ‘Ciette would visit the Morgans in South Wales, sailing from Lisbon to Tilbury, another alternative route in those days.
But more importantly they also introduced John’s mother and father to Vale da Telha in 1969, because they enjoyed coming to the area on holiday to hunt wild game and wanted to share the experience.
They all stayed in what was to become Gabriel’s restaurant in Vales (originally Vales da Fontes and since shortened to Vales) but was then a bar and b&b. It was also the district post office where locals picked up their mail, and left items to be collected for delivery. There was also a beer garden fronting the road, and sacks of rice, grain and animal feed were sold to the locals who farmed land that ran in strips down towards the sea.
The Morgans fell in love with the area and decided to have a holiday home here, eventually buying a plot of land in the lane behind Gabriel’s in 1969 and having a house built—the house that still exists today, albeit modernised and enlarged.
The Morgans and a German family, the Schumanns, are believed to be the first foreigners to settle here. In fact, when John’s parents moved into their new holiday home there was no other property between that house in Vales, and the main road! The Schumanns house is the one now owned by Doug “the Dish”. At that period in the 70s the minimum amount of land you could buy was 5000 m2. This was so you could be self-sufficient.
And because of the limited availability in the area of items like building materials, fuel oils etc, they would bring many items with them on each visit…in, or ON, the car! At that time there was only one builders’ merchant in Aljezur, with Alfredo eventually being the first in Vales, followed by Lagoa. They had no access to electricity, using oil or gas lamps for illumination, and they had to dig a well in order to get their water.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the power company finally laid down a basic but somewhat primitive and limited electricity service, including the sub station tower in Vales. At the time Aljezur didn’t even have a bank or a petrol station—you had to go to Lagos for the nearest bank and to Rogil to fill up your car. The Bombeiros was located on Rua de Abril 25th in a small building, long demolished, on the right-hand side between Primaveira and the bridge. From there they moved to the garage which is the last building on the right as you leave Aljezur towards Lagos. The Bombeiros actually opened Aljezur’s first-ever petrol station on that site, before eventually moving to their current purpose-built HQ.
Forty years on, and John, now 68 and a retired electrical wholesaler living in Swansea, spends around six months a year here, spread over two or three visits and, as his father did before him, is constantly improving the villa, recently installing a swimming pool.
Vale da Telha and the area has been a key part of his life for more than half a century and he says: “Aljezur has a lot of reasons to be grateful to Vale da Telha. It brought in a lot of people and really lifted the economy of the area, which back then was almost at a subsistence level. If anyone thinks this is an isolated area today, if not exactly the back of beyond, they should have been here then.
“When you think that it wasn’t until the start of the 60s that the Algarve was ‘discovered’ and its first golf course wasn’t opened until 1964, the west coast up here was still rooted in the early part of the century. In fact the journey from Faro Airport to Vales would take the best part of 2 hours 15 minutes—if you were lucky!
“There was hardly a road to speak of from Lagos to Aljezur and anyone living or staying in Vale da Telha would not be able to drive to Monte Clerigo the way you can today. There was no access, apart from a few tracks through what were extensive pinewoods beginning near the schoolhouse and covering the entire area where the Pines roundabout, Roque’s supermarket and the tennis courts are now located.
“The only way to get to it, apart from walking or using a donkey cart, was to turn right at the top of the hill,” he went on. “That meant, to drive from Vales or Vale da Telha to Monte Clerigo, you had to go back the way you’d come and drive past the top of the hill.
“And the hill! The road up to the top now is like the M1 compared to what it was back then, a series of hair-raising switchbacks and hairpin turns, wending their way upwards. The road from the bottom of the hill through to Arrifana was only widened, resurfaced and upgraded about 15 years ago, and when we first came it wasn’t possible to drive through to Monchique from Aljezur. That road from Monchique ended at Marmalete. So, to drive to Monchique you either had to go down into Lagos and Portimao and work your way up from there, or go north to Odemeira, take the Aljustrell road and drive down past the Barragem”
Long-time resident Faith Clement, once a fashion photographer for Woman’s Own, remembers driving through Aljezur from Lisbon for a fashion shoot in Sagres in the 60s. “The roads, frankly, were terrible,” she says. “They were cobbled all the way down from Lisbon, very bumpy and not good for cars.”
Back in those days Vale da Telha was just a tiny area flanking the lake towards the edge of what is now Sector E. The ground is heavily clay-based around that particular spot and was used for making clay roof tiles—hence the English translation, Valley of the Tiles!
But it wasn’t until businessman José de Sousa Cintra and his Somundi development company began to map out the urbanisation in 1978 that the name was adopted for the entire development, losing the reason for its original meaning.
Sousa Cintra, as he is best known, is a former President of Sporting Lisbon who was born in Raposeira, Vila do Bispo in 1944 and who became a property developer and a brewing magnate both here and in Brazil.
He saw the West Coast of the Algarve as the ideal place for a purpose-built community just as someone had earlier had a similar vision for Vilamoura, originally a tiny fishing village. And in 1977 he began what one Portuguese commentator described as “the genesis of the mega-urbanisation of Vale da Telha,” where there was talk of providing 16,000 beds!
Says Faith: “They used to bus people down from northern Portugal and entertain them very well, hoping to sell them plots of land.”
There were many questions asked about how Cintra was able to get planning permission for such a huge development which, in some earlier incarnations, included a golf course, bowling alley and cinema, a church and even a small airfield, not to mention several thousand villas and apartments creating, in effect, a new town on the National Park.
But maybe it was his development that in 1988 brought into effect the Protected Landscape Area of the Southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina Act!
Several further acts were passed relating to the area as the years passed…and now we await the newest Government plans concerning the future of Vale da Telha and surrounding districts.
But John and his family have seen Vale da Telha change from a remote community of just a few dozen tight-knit Portuguese families to the multi-national, multi-cultural community that it is today.
“I suppose you could say it was a difficult birth,” he recalls. “There were a lot of false starts and some really terrible fires during the early to mid-80s and the 90s, which destroyed a lot of property over a wide area, not to mention the pine forests.”
Faith, who was having a house, M16, built in Sector M at the time before having her present house in Paisagem Oceano built in 2004, was forced to flee through the flames in the last really serious outbreak, on July 23 1993.
“The flames, fanned by a warm Spanish wind, were igniting the tops of the pine trees, just rolling overhead, and we drove through what was almost a tunnel of fire in a desperate attempt to get to Arrifana beach,” she told me. “Fortunately, we made it.
“The woman who grazes sheep and the man who herds his cattle both just made it to the beach with their livestock ahead of the flames which burnt themselves out on the hills above Arrifana once there was nothing left to burn.
“The pinewoods had stretched from near the stables almost as far as the Pines roundabout and after spending the night on the beach we emerged to look out over what looked like a moonscape. There was black ash blowing everywhere for months afterwards but on one sense it was almost a cleansing process, with everything growing back quickly. A lot of people sold up and left after that, afraid it would happen again.
“But those were the last serious fires up here, 18 years ago, and it is extremely unlikely that it would happen again, with so much of the pinewoods now gone, and the authorities carefully creating fire breaks and keeping a close eye on things.”
Faith smiled: “In an odd way it proved to be a huge benefit to Vale da Telha. The services and infrastructure here were very poor. For example, when I was building my house in Sector M I was told I would never have mains electricity as there wasn’t sufficient power to the area.
“But the President of Portugal came down after the fires and very quickly realised the area was in trouble. He met the residents who raised various issues and he put pressure on EDP to increase the number of transformers up here, boosting the power supply.
“We moved into M16 in 1994 and although there was no electricity for six months we were eventually connected to the supply.
“It still wasn’t perfect. Everyone’s water was pumped from the lake and was quite often brown. Whenever it rained we lost electricity, phones and the water supply, because the pumps also failed, and the situation has only improved to the current high standards in the last six or seven years.”
John also recalled the fires, saying: “A house just by Roque’s burned down, the Somundi foreman’s house close to the Pines roundabout and a house halfway between there and the schoolhouse was also destroyed. You can still see the boundary wall on the left as you drive in from Vales. Our garage doors were destroyed when the fire jumped the road and set alight a large stretch of Pampas grass. The Pines roundabout was part of the woodland and the trees there are the only original pines left,” he added.
“One night you could stand by the water deposit and pumping station (where the ’phone masts are located) and see fires burning all the way across to Monchique. The following day helicopters were scooping water from the sea, and from swimming pools, to fight the fires. Thankfully that particular fire never reached Vales or VdT.”
The area around the Pines roundabout was the first to be developed by Somundi, and John recalled:
“When the work began in 1977-78 the building that was the Medieval nightclub was one of the first to be finished—José, who has recently opened it as a bar-restaurant worked there as a waiter at one time—and the hotel and swimming pool also went up very quickly.
“There was also an Adega opposite José’s at the beginning of the road to Sector E, built as a double round house with a thatched roof, which was used for banqueting and for public gatherings. It was a highly popular place and the focal point of the whole area.
“The President of Portugal came down to a presentation there one year. but that burned down, too, in 1993. Before all that, it wasn’t until Somundi began the work at the end of the 70s that the area had a decent road network, and the new properties began to fan out from that central point, the roundabout. A lot of the initial houses are the ones around Roques. The apartments were built at the start—they were part of the original plan.
“Houses were going up quickly and there were some fly-by-night characters coming into the area, trying to make some easy money. Building standards in those early days were not great, but fortunately a fair amount of that property from the early 80s has now gone.”
Faith remembered: “The original plan was for Vale da Telha to be just a holiday complex with properties only being vacation homes—there were a limited number of designs to choose from—to be used in the spring and summer months. So the exterior walls were single brick, not cavity, and were highly susceptible to damp. Now the houses are being built for residential use, so the planning and building standards reflect that.”
John went on: “When the work started the place really came to life—the campsite was vibrant after being built around 1977 with the aim of attracting people here for holidays, and hoping they’d like it so much they would then invest in the new property going up.
“The Dinosaur nightclub was built and was hugely popular, packed every weekend with a good quality crowd. The tennis courts were well used and an Estonian by the name of Ivor Boman ran a huge tournament every year, which was very popular. He was also involved in establishing the original VdT Residents Association.
“The stables also went up very quickly and I can remember a time when there was a horse’s head poking out of every doorway down there. The guy who ran them would take some horses down to the car park at Café Zé on Monte Clerigo and put them through their paces, a little like the horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
“Café Zé was already there when Vale da Telha began to grow and so, too, were a lot of the houses on the headland to the left, from the 60s onwards. Arrifana was different. It was a working fishing port and there were just two or three cottages for the fisherman who used to haul their catches up by a winch-operated fish lift, whose foundations you can still see on the cliff just off the road up to the ruins of the old fort.”
This was all before the new Harbour was built and the access road was cut and laid down the cliff.
The roads to Aljezur and on to Arrifana were so bad produce and various goods were delivered by boat from Sagres to Arrifana rather than try to negotiate what were little more than dirt tracks.
The lady who owned the small restaurant next to the beach would sell 100 sandwiches a day to the fishermen, so many of them were there.
John went on: “Apart from that small restaurant by the beach at Arrifana there was another small one at the top of the hill, and over in the apartments a tiny bar that was to expand over the adjoining two properties (one of them a kind of tapas bar) and become the Piranha.
“And what was to become Graham’s Bar was opened by a Welshman (Gillard) around 1990. At that time there was also a late night cocktail bar called Face to Face run by an American.
“Sadly, there has never been a time when all the shops there have been occupied,” added John, who recalled a Music Festival being held in 1990 in what is now Lagoa’s big warehouse not far from the old schoolhouse.
Ironically although the owner of the building supplies company is named Lagoa, the area behind his business is also named Lagoa, due to the fact that the fields there tend to flood and were, indeed, used for growing rice many years before.
In those early days through the 80s and early 90s there were very few British expats living here—the mix of “incomers” was principally German, Dutch, Danish and Estonian. Alan Jacobson, a Dane, and his wife Grazza ran possibly one of the areas first Real Estate businesses from a villa opposite Gabriels, purportedly owned by a relative of the Spanish Royal family. But then things began to go wrong.
John recalled: “Cintra was using Brazilian investment as far as I can recall and because all the grand plans were not really coming to fruition as that investment dried up I think a lot of people lost heart and began to drift away.
“It started to decline and go downhill in the early 90s, building coming to a standstill, roads beginning to break up. The rapid decline was very sad.”
But the fortunes of Vale da Telha, having ebbed, began to flow once more as the area became what one British resident (ie. Matt D’Arcy, your writer!) recently dubbed: “The Plateau of Perfect Peace.”
Said John: “The turnaround and the climb back up to the Vale da Telha we see now is down to the British. There were a few Brits already here but more began arriving albeit only in small numbers from around 1996, seeing the potential of the place rather than the reality of the decline.
“They began to come in greater numbers around the Millennium. But from 2005 or so there was a big acceleration in numbers; house building not only increased dramatically but increased in quality and the trickle became a flood.
“The word spread and suddenly Vale da Telha became a viable option for people in the UK looking either for a retirement home in the sun, a holiday home or just a holiday destination. We even saw Fat boy Slim dining out in Gabriel’s in 2005 (he was headlining the pop concert at Zambujeira do Mar) as word began to spread.
“Those Brits who first saw the potential in the mid-90s when others were leaving have had their faith in Vale da Telha justified.
“For most of them this is no longer a holiday home—it has become their home.”
And Vale da Telha, whilst remaining a popular holiday destination, is no longer a tourist complex, but a well-balanced community with a high proportion of permanent residents.
That population is expected to be swelled still more over the coming years as Portuguese families in the ancient town of Aljezur, four miles away, begin to see Vale da Telha as a more attractive option to make their home.