A stretch of Portuguese coast with no golf course? Surely not

Go east from Faro towards Tavira, says Michael Church, to find a land untouched by high-rise developments - and time itself

Faro airport is full of butch gentlemen – white on arrival, lobster-pink when they depart – carrying big bags, but there is a steadily growing contingent which turns east when the golfers go west. For while the coast from Faro to Lagos is all concrete and rented-out patches of sand, the coast from Faro to Spain is – both in space and in time – a world apart.

Faro airport is full of butch gentlemen – white on arrival, lobster-pink when they depart – carrying big bags, but there is a steadily growing contingent which turns east when the golfers go west. For while the coast from Faro to Lagos is all concrete and rented-out patches of sand, the coast from Faro to Spain is – both in space and in time – a world apart.

This year we caught the autumn games in the hamlet where we stay – name withheld to protect its innocence, but it is protected anyway, because even the map spells it wrongly. Here the hunt means chasing a pig smeared in grease, with the winner being the man who can successfully pin it down. Driving prowess is measured by how deftly you spin your tractor round bales of straw arranged like the pillars of Stonehenge, and by whether you can get it on to a giant seesaw, to balance perfectly in mid-air. Co-ordination of hand and eye means hurling heavy lumps of iron at little wooden sticks.

In this cock-crowing conurbation of 60 souls, iron wheelbarrows predate the era of rubber tyres; dogs sleep trustingly in the middle of the road, and behind the counter of the all-purpose shop – selling everything from dried cod to exercise books – Sara acts as post-box, and as minder of any livestock which needs to pause in transit. Next door is the launderette: five stone troughs arranged in cosy proximity, where women put the world to rights while scrubbing their husbands' shirts. The wells are still operated by iron wheels reminiscent of penny farthings, while the figures you encounter in the fields are from another century, notably old ladies with bonnets, dark frocks nipped in at the waist and shepherdess-style crooks: black-clad Bo Peeps.

Ten miles to the south lies Tavira, which has scarcely changed since the days when it was Portugal's chief trading post with Brazil and North Africa. Sipping your coffee on the palm-lined avenue by the river, on which everything in this town focuses, you notice something else: there is absolutely no music. Nor does this town seem bothered about tourism – an impression reinforced by a visit to the laid-back tourist office.

What's on tonight? We are referred to a brochure, which informs us that a concert will take place at Carmo church. Since neither brochure nor official can say what kind of concert, or when, we find the church and look for a poster. No luck: the place is locked. Following the sound of trumpets, we discover Tavira Town Band dispersing after a rehearsal: come back and hear us on Saturday, says a young lady saxophonist, so we promise we will. Then suddenly Carmo church is opened, to reveal a Baroque wealth of statues and paintings in gilded light; the concert – of chamber works by forgotten 17th-century Portuguese masters – is itself the revelation of a secret.

The Gilao river flows out to sea past salt pans which have been used for 2,000 years. Catching some salt-workers as they meekly line up by their shining white mountain for their pay, I do a vox-pop: they all growl about their wages, but the man who growls loudest turns out to have worked there for 30 years.

This coast both is, and is not, a coast. When the tide goes out, it leaves mud-flats ribboned by canals whose main inhabitants are herons, flamingos, and crabs by the million. When the tide comes in, you just see a string of islands. On the largest of these – Culatra – the seafaring inhabitants have their own language, Culatrens, and a ferociously protective attitude to their way of life. And after decades of campaigning, they have finally struck lucky, in that the coastline has now been declared a nature reserve. But there are clouds on the horizon. Golf-blight is scheduled to make a substantial mark just west of Tavira, with a further big course to the east. A marina is mooted. The Foupana valley, 30 miles to the north, is threatened with a dam which will inundate villages and turn the landscape from tawny brown to green. No, I know nobody will complain if dry lands are irrigated, but a way of life, once lost, can never be reclaimed.

Keeping our tryst on Saturday with the Tavira Band, we are ushered into a rehearsal. After a few false starts, an irascible senior tubist accuses his leader of not knowing his arse from his elbow. The bandmaster picks up his score, and walks out. For a few minutes nobody can quite believe it, then they all sadly melt away. Yes, there is strife even in heaven.

Michael Church travelled to Tavira with Destination Portugal (0870 744 0050; www.destination-portugal.co.uk), which offers tailor-made tours to all parts of the country. A seven-night break in Tavira costs from £212 per person, based on two sharing, including return charter flights from Gatwick, b&b accommodation in Vila Gale Tavira and car hire.

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