Madeleine McCann: Few people rent apartment 5A since Maddie vanished
Residents of Praia da Luz are trying to return to life as normal -- but the resort changed forever on that fateful day, writes Neil Tweedie
The garden of Apartment 5A Rua Dr Agostinho da Silva, in the resort of Praia da Luz, is reasonably well maintained but, here and there, weeds poke up between the flowers. The property is preserved but not used, as if frozen in time.
Five years ago this week a little girl, nine days shy of her fourth birthday, disappeared from this ground-floor holiday flat in the Algarve. Madeleine McCann was, according to her parents, spirited away in the night as they dined with friends in a neighbouring restaurant.
Kate McCann, Madeleine's mother, describes the moment of discovery in her book, Madeleine. Explaining how, during the meal, she, her husband Gerry and a friend took it in turns to check on Madeleine and her twin brother and sister, she writes: "When I realised Madeleine wasn't actually there, I went through to our bedroom to see if she'd got into our bed. That would explain the open (bedroom) door. On the discovery of another empty bed, the first wave of panic hit me. As I ran back into the children's room the closed curtains flew up in a gust of wind. My heart lurched as I saw now that, behind them, the window was wide open and the shutters on the outside raised all the way up. Nausea, terror, disbelief, fear. Icy fear. Dear God, no! Please, no!"
No trace of Madeleine McCann has been found since that night, despite the expenditure of vast amounts of effort, time and money. Like all great mysteries, it divides, between those who champion one explanation and those who favour another, darker one.
It also occupies its own landscape: as the Kennedy assassination has the Texas Schoolbook Depository and the Grassy Knoll, so the Madeleine McCann disappearance has Flat 5A and the Ocean Club tapas restaurant, where Mr and Mrs McCann dined on that fateful night.
The people of Praia da Luz would prefer it otherwise. They have no wish to be a destination for ghouls -- or journalists. For many of them, May 3, 2007 is a day they would rather forget. Some residents retain the sympathy for the McCanns that was universal in Portugal before they were declared suspects. Others are hostile, accusing the couple of everything from neglect to concealment of a death. Most, though, are apathetic, wanting it to go away.
'It's over," says Paul Luckman, publisher of the English-language newspaper in the Algarve, the Portugal News. "The shock factor has been replaced by apathy. Nobody is interested. The attitude is, 'It's gone, it's over, can we please get on with our lives?'"
Over in Portugal, perhaps, but not in Britain. Pressure from the McCanns and News International, which is said to have donated £1m to the Find Madeleine fund in return for exclusive access to Mrs McCann's book, has led to a fresh inquiry by the Metropolitan Police. Authorised personally by the prime minister, Operation Grange has so far consumed £2m and the services of 29 detectives and seven civilians. Abduction is the favoured theory and a new portrait of the missing girl as she would now appear has been circulated. And still the sightings come in.
The account of Antonio Castela, a taxi driver in the Algarve, is typical of the leads being pursued by Scotland Yard. He says he picked up a girl resembling Madeleine and four adults the night after her disappearance, driving them to a hotel near Faro, where they got into a blue Jeep. Castela contacted the police but was never questioned.
An Irish family, Martin and Mary Smith, who live in Drogheda, Co Louth, were holidaying in Praia da Luz with their children on the night Maddie went missing.
Their recollection of seeing a barefoot child fitting Maddie's description being carried by a man in the town at 10pm that night will be a major part of the new investigation. Mrs Smith told the Evening Herald yesterday: "It's such a tragic and saddening incident -- what happened to that family is not nice at all.... We have not been contacted. However, when we are we will co-operate fully."
The authorities in Lisbon remain to be convinced by such accounts. They have undertaken their own review of the investigation, but see no reason to reactivate it.
"The Portuguese police have been led down the garden path, with supposed new leads and red herrings," says Mr Luckman, who is on close terms with some of the officers involved in the original inquiry. "There have been sightings from Brazil to Belgium and nothing has come of them. They are not against reopening the case for a valid reason."
British criticism of Portugal's handling of the case has left a bitter taste, he says.
"The people here they have taken a lot of stick. Everybody turned out for the search and police worked overtime for no pay. Yes, mistakes were made, but they genuinely thought they were searching for a child who had wandered off.
"The main criticism aimed at the parents is that they left their children alone and uncared for. For Portuguese people, that is almost impossible to understand."
The McCanns are not only pursuing the search for their daughter; they are also pursuing Gonçalo Amaral, head of the original inquiry. His book, The Truth of the Lie, accuses the McCanns of complicity in their daughter's death. The British couple are now suing Amaral for libel, claiming €1.25m. The case will not result in the couple being put in the witness box, however.
Isabel Duarte, the lawyer for the McCanns, says: "My clients are no longer arguidos, they are not defendants in a criminal trial and have the right to be respected. Mr and Mrs McCann will not have to give statements because Mr Amaral did not ask for them."
Praia da Luz is quiet now. The weather is changeable and the British families and pensioners who flock here for the sun have yet to arrive in any numbers. The streets are almost deserted.
The reputation of Apartment 5A goes before it. Put on the market by its owner, Ruth McCann (no relation to the McCanns), it was later withdrawn from sale. The flat's proximity did not deter Lesley Peeke-Vout, from Newcastle, from buying a neighbouring ground-floor property.
"Very few people rent 5A," says Mrs Peeke-Vout. "I haven't seen anyone in it since last year."
She believes Madeleine's disappearance has had a negative effect on Praia da Luz, but the current problem for the resort is recession.
"The locals don't like to talk about what happened in 2007," she says. "They think it damages their business."
Last night, a vigil was held in the resort's Catholic church, Nossa Senhora da Luz, to mark the anniversary of the disappearance of Madeleine. Haynes Hubbard, the Canadian vicar who is minister to the area, and his wife, became friends of the McCanns in the days after the disappearance of their child and are still close. The Rev Hubbard has no doubt about their innocence.
"Kate comes every six months or so. She needs to walk the streets she last walked with her daughter, to touch base, to look at the apartment and visit the church. She needs to know something is still here. Gerry comes less often -- he is busy.
"We arrived from Canada with our young children two days after Madeleine was taken. It was absolute bedlam. We walked into their chaos. We were with people who had lost their daughter. They weren't people who had done something to their daughter, they were looking for their daughter," he says.
"They were driven then and they are driven now."