Sunday 16 June 2019

David Robbins: So, what's your perfect holiday: The Algarve or Inishbofin?

The other night, we had a few friends over for supper. Or was it dinner? Apparently, whether you call your evening meal "dinner" or "supper" is a key indicator of background and class.

The Guardian newspaper devoted a whole magazine to the supper/dinner issue, and it is social quicksand. The code goes something like this: dinner in the middle of the day = working class; dinner in the evening = aspiring middle class; supper in the evening = toff.

So let's just say we had them over for a bite to eat. After a while, the conversation turned to holidays.

It transpired that, the very next day, two of those present were off on their holidays. One was off to the Algarve in Portugal. A dreamy look came into his eye and he described the villa he had rented in Quinta de Lago.

The other was going to Inishbofin, off the coast of Connemara. The look in his eyes was more steely, as if he were determined to enjoy it no matter what the weather. It was, he said, an authentic holiday.

As we were clearing up later, my wife asked me which holiday I'd rather be going on, and what our friend had meant by "authentic".

The Algarve, as far as I could make out from several visits there, consists of a chain of gated villa developments and golf courses.

Each development has a grand entrance, its name carved in rock perhaps, and is set off by manicured grass and topiary. Private security firms patrol ceaselessly and the sound of leaf-blowers drowns out the dawn chorus.

At the sea end of each of these developments stands the "village" -- a collection of shops, bars and restaurants, arranged around a courtyard or square to give the impression it grew up organically over time and was not sketched by a Lisbon architect and built in a single weekend.

Once, on a stay in Val de Lobo, a friend threw up his hands at the Stepford-Wives feel of it all, jumped in the car and announced he was off in search of the "real" Portugal. He returned two hours later, a beaten man.

The Algarve is not really "authentic". Its pretty fishing villages have been overrun. It is a place with a lovely climate and lovely people where northern Europeans have constructed their idea of a perfect holiday environment.

The contrast with Inishbofin is stark. I have been there many times, and I think it's one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But it's wet, and cold, and exposed, and you needn't bring your golf clubs.

My Inishbofin-bound friend dismissed concerns about the weather by saying it was really a matter of the right clothing. He saw kids being marched up and down the East End beach in lashing rain, zipped, hooded and sou'westered like North Sea fishermen, being instructed to "look at the lovely starfish". Now that, he said, was a real holiday.

In a way, I know what he meant. He probably wants his kids to have that same folk memory our generation has of a long Irish summer, mostly rainy but with the odd burst of transcendent sunshine.

Thinking of Inishbofin reminded me of many childhood holidays in caravan parks in Wexford, or in holiday homes in Donegal, or a cottage in Greystones (we weren't adventurous travellers) where there was nothing to do for days on end, but somehow the landscape burned deep into the mind.

The concept of authenticity and tourism is a slippery one: once we are tourists in a place, perhaps we are already corrupting its authenticity. Inishbofin seems more "real" than the off-the-drawing-board developments of the Algarve, but perhaps that's an illusion.

My wife was waiting for an answer. I looked at the rain streaming down the windows and heard the wind whistling in the chimney. "The Algarve," I said. "We all need a break from reality now and then."

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