The British couples who patronise Maria's Deli near Santa Barbara de Nexe are the sort who are not embarrassed to conduct conversations across the entire length of a supermarket. 'Tone? Do you want beefburgers or fish fingers?'

Tone is at the well-stocked international paper rack (everything from De Telegraaf to Le Parisien) deciding whether to buy the Daily Mail or Daily Express. 'Tone] Beefburgers or fish fingers?'

'Don't mind. Either.'

'Do you want cornflakes, Tone?'

'Yeah.'

'Do you want sugar with them?'

'Yeah.'

Just another summer supermarket scene in any Mediterranean seaside town, you might think - except Santa Barbara is no crowded beach resort but a small, charming village deep in the heart of the idyllic Algarve countryside. And Maria's Deli is no ordinary Portuguese supermercado. This became clear at the counter when, in halting Portuguese, I tried to ask the assistant for a wedge of their local finest.

'We have two sorts of local cheese,' she said in perfect English. 'We have Portuguese mild cheddar and Portuguese strong cheddar.'

Surely there must be something a bit more local - a cheese with a little regional colour? No. In Maria's Deli, the public gets what the public wants: ethnic they do not want.

Maria and her husband emigrated to New York but eventually returned to Santa Barbara, where Maria started to run a butcher's shop. 'People said to me: 'You speak English - get some British bits and pieces'.' Maria did. Now, seven years later, with her husband (a dead ringer for Spencer Tracy), she has a thriving business selling baked beans, fruit yoghurts, Golden Wonder crisps, Branston pickle, Frosties, Woodpecker cider and all the other things the British are happy to pay over the odds for.

For a modest trolley's worth, she rang up a bill of pounds 60. A local resident Brit, a young, dropped-out London architect who now works as a house- and pet- sitter, told me Maria's was the most expensive supermarket on the Algarve. 'If I bought my baked beans at Maria's, I'd have to live off a bean a day,' he said.

I asked Maria what the local Portuguese thought of it all. 'The local Portuguese stay away, but what does it matter? There are not many of them left. It's all villas here now, mostly let to the British. That's the way it is.'

Happily, not all the locals have left - after all, the British, Dutch and Germans need maids for their villas, along with pool cleaners, gardeners and people to bring lorry-loads of water every week to fill cisterns that top up the swimming pools and feed the garden sprinklers. But there do not seem to be enough locals available to harvest the ubiquitous olive and almond trees. And the branches of the carob trees hang thick with the unwanted long, black beanpods that once served as a cheap foodstuff for animals.

The truth is that, superficially, Santa Barbara, with its neat, whitewashed church, may look like a real Algarve country village, but in many respects it is as real as a Disney World Wild West town.

Jose Luis Martins, a local estate agent, gazed up the sun-baked main street. 'The British are everywhere. Over there is a British bar, that's a British property agent, up there is a British shop, down here is another British bar.'

He explained that about 15 years ago, Brits moved inland to escape the tourist boom which was beginning to hit the coast. Santa Barbara became their main inland base. But after a decade of rapid sales and booming prices, the house market in Santa Barbara, like that in Britain, has taken a bath.

'Prices have not gone up for three or four years. The market is slow, very slow. The only people buying now are the Swiss,' Mr Martins said ruefully. 'You can have a farmhouse to restore for pounds 59,000. You want to buy . . . ?'

Without doubt Santa Barbara's most bizarre feature is Eddie's Bar. Owned by Steve Harris, the bass guitarist of Iron Maiden who has a villa nearby, Eddie's is Santa Barbara's heavy metal bar. (Everybody is into heavy metal round here, I was told. It seems unlikely.)

When I called in early one evening, loud music was booming out on to the street where an old lady was walking past with a heavy shopping basket and an umbrella to shield her from the sun. In the bar, MTV was showing on the large-screen televisions. The walls were full of Iron Maiden gold discs and other band memorabilia. A bored young girl behind the bar idly mopped the counter with a damp cloth. The music was far too loud to allow a sensible conversation.

Santa Barbara may be a big heavy metal place, but Eddie's Bar was empty. The heavy metal teen magazines on the tables were left unread. Like the property market, the heavy metal bar business seems to be facing depressed times on the Algarve.

'THERE are lots of British tourists who come to the Algarve and all they want to eat are plates of chips with tomato sauce. We don't want these people,' I was told.

The Algarve's difficulty is not that it does not get enough tourists: this year the region will probably receive a record 1.6 million visitors. The real problem is that they do not spend enough while they are here.

The local tourist board has calculated that in real terms tourists today spend 50 per cent less than they did 10 years ago. But 10 years ago the Algarve was still relatively unspoilt and succeeded in attracting a more affluent visitor.

In the mid-Eighties, developers changed all that by embarking on a property-building orgy of extraordinary dimensions. In the past five years, the number of hotel beds has increased from 170,000 to 264,000 and the number of apartment beds has gone up from 50,000 to 110,000.

While the number of visitors increased by an average of 5 per cent each year, the accommodation stock was growing up to three times as fast. British tour operators were more than happy to do deals for low-cost, low-quality, self-catering apartments to satisfy the British demand for sun-and-sand packages.

The Algarve was attracting more and more tourists - but they were spending less and less. Stretches of coastline from Quarteira to Lagos were being laid waste for people who were happy to dine out on plates of chips with tomato sauce.

By 1989, with development apparently out of control, the regional government decided urgent action was required. Protal, a master plan for the development of tourism on the Algarve, was drawn up. It set strict limits on future growth.

Joaquim Cabrita Neto, the Algarve's civil governor and president of the hotel association, admitted that mistakes had been made: 'There was too much construction - but now we have learnt our lesson.' Horacio Cavaco, the Algarve tourist board president, agreed: 'We need to keep out the mass market.'

The idea is to shift growth away from cheap and cheerful self-catering by developing more up-market hotels. The Algarve government is hoping that 100,000 beds, currently accommodating self-catering tourists, will be converted to residential use for Portuguese workers.

Three years ago I came to Algarve's coast and wrote a piece about the overdevelopment, an article so damning that it ended up being featured on Portugal's national evening television news. (The feature also turned up in a recent textbook, Recreational Tourism: a social science perspective, focusing on the ecological impact of tourism: the Algarve had become a textbook example of uncontrolled development.)

There is another side to the Algarve, people have told me since: go inland where things are quite different, to on the hills near Sao Bras or Loule.

Indeed, the Algarve's master plan for attracting up-market travellers identifies the potential of inland Algarve. If the seaside is the stomping ground of the chips-and-sauce crowd, it is believed that more prosperous business may be generated by attracting people to places such as Monchique, Silves, Loule, Sao Bras and, of course, Santa Barbara - Maria's Deli and Eddie's Bar notwithstanding.

THE local government estimates that at least 10,000 new villas have been built on the Algarve in the past 10 years. In the lush hills and valleys south of the Loule to Sao Bras road, the scenery is thick with white blobs that signify a new villa complete with its own pool, each building topped with the distinctive Algarvean lace-work chimney - most also topped with a large satellite TV dish.

At Loule on Saturdays, the villa crowd comes into town for the weekly market. The British, recognisable by their pink, sunburnt cheeks and their impoverished wardrobe, enjoy the spectacle of the fruit and vegetable stalls and their vendors: smiling men in trilby hats, women in funereal black with lined faces.

Everywhere there are mountains of home-grown strawberries and blackberries, rivers of figs and plums, cascades of red apples, peaches, bananas, melons and olives tumbling over clifftops of tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots. Smallholders come with their honey, olive oil, goat's cheese, beans, cabbages, sweet onions and grapes. Cockerels stand proudly on top of wicker baskets, pecking at the pieces of dried salted fish on neighbouring stalls.

The British seem to view it all with bemusement. ('They're gonna sell all them animals, ain't they?' mused one lady in front of the cockerel stall.) They come with videos and cameras to view, rather than with shopping bags to buy. Perhaps they would prefer to shop for fish fingers at Maria's Deli.

Tour operators are keen to promote this part of the Algarve as a kind of cut-price Tuscany. Villas, pools and endless sunshine but with a slice of unvarnished continental life. Sadly, not much unvarnished continental life remains here. If parts of Tuscany have become Chianti-shire, south of the Loule-Sao Bras axis you can find Algarverset.

Pop into a Sao Bras pub for a quiet drink and you are likely to find, as I did, that you are in the midst of the Tuesday night general knowledge quiz (I slipped up on the height of Mount Everest and the capital of North Korea) followed by a Yorkshire Elvis Presley impersonator at the karaoke.

Julia was the maid who came to clean my villa. Like many Portuguese, she had spent several years working in France, so we were able to converse in French. For her, the presence of so many Brits in so many new villas was a cause for neither pleasure nor regret. They were just a feature of the landscape, a fact of life as unregrettable as rain or trees.

If she regretted anything, it was leaving France (her brother lives in Lyons). The woman who owned the Savoy restaurant in Sao Bras had spent 17 years in Swansea and yearned for the Mumbles and rainy days on the Gower. In Portugal, which 500 years ago was the richest country in the world and is now the poorest in the EC, regret must be a common emotion.

The one thing that astonished Julia was the double-decker bus. Parked in the middle of a field near the villa was such a bus, once owned, according to a small sign still visible, by Jones Bros of Malvern. How had it got here? I asked Julia. She laughed with delight. 'Il est arrive]' The arrival of a spaceship could scarcely have provided more entertainment. At Joao's Bar in Corotelo, old men supping their 20p bottles of beer chuckled at the memory of this strange bus, which had been driven by Englishmen into the field but could not be driven out again.

Another of their kind, a diminutive goatherd, came by our villa most evenings surrounded by his bleating flock. He would stop beneath a tree and sit on the shade picking at figs or chewing on almonds.

Once he leant over our wall and gazed with polite interest at our other villa world. 'Hello,' he said to my daughter, holding out a clump of almonds for her. 'Taste,' he urged. 'Good]' he chuckled with pleasure as she took them. The only heavy metal he seemed interested in was his milking pail.

Flights: Frank Barrett bought a Gatwick to Faro seat- only deal from Falcon (061-831 7000) for pounds 109.

Villa rental: The villa near Sao Bras was arranged through Something Special (0992 552231), which has a choice of 150 villas on the Algarve. Properties are a available on a rental-only basis or as a part of flight-inclusive package. Rental-only prices range from pounds 250 to pounds 1,250 a week.

Car hire: Seven nights' car hire with Hertz (081-679 1799) through its Europe on Wheels programme costs from pounds 105, including unlimited mileage and all extras.

Books: Most Portugal guides are a bit thin on the Algarve: the best is probably The Cadogan Guide to Portugal (Cadogan, pounds 11.95) by David Evans.

Further information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE (071-494 1441).

(Photograph omitted)

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