Prawns, pines and construction work

Portugal's herb-scented central coast is at risk of becoming just another barren Euro resort, says Nigel Pollitt

Getting there: The nearest airports to Figueira da Foz are at Lisbon and Oporto. As mentioned in Departures (page 37), two people can fly from Heathrow to either airport for £122 each (including taxes) on a companion ticket from TAP Air Portugal (0345 581566). There are rail connections from both Lisbon and Oporto.

Recommended reading: 'Rough Guide to Portugal' (Penguin, £9.99).

Further information: Available from the Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22 Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE (0171-494 1441).

"Your apartment," the woman at the Portuguese travel agency in London had said, "is a stow nes through from the sea." She frowned a little, then added: "I don't know, what does that mean, 'stow nes through'?"

On a bright day last August, after a three-hour grind north from Lisbon by train, I could have told her. Our resort's esplanade was not even a stone's throw from the surf, so broad was the beach. And our apartment? Turn right by the building site. Oh, that was forest on the map.

Just in time for our visit, the last bit of green between the bright lights of Figueira da Foz and Buarcos, the fishing village along the coast, was being turned into Benidorm.

We are talking woods of pine and eucalyptus scented with resin and drying herbs, sheltering calf-high oak scrub (with miniature acorns), tiny blue butterflies, armies of fat cicadas, lizards and tangles of scarlet haws. There were pale yellow thistles, manicured to elegance by the heat, crumpled grey sea holly and an overgrown orchard bursting with olives, figs, ripening pears. A lone, magnificent oil palm perched on a carpet of ipomea, blackberries and trefoil.

If this were in Essex, I remarked, it would be a site of special scientific interest. And look what they do with those, my partner retorted.

From the top of a hillside, cleanly sliced by some earthmoving gear, clung a dying pine, its roots pathetically springing into mid-air. In trenches of dusty, dry earth ripped open by the bulldozers were sun-dried wild narcissus bulbs. Ironically, I had always wanted to see southern Europe in springtime.

Here and there were improvised developers' signs. "Pedido de licenciamento para bloco habitacional," said one ("Application for permission to build residential flats"). From a safe distance, as I read the pedido, a quizzical tail-less cat as damaged as the landscape surveyed me, then broke into a lolloping run.

On generous sands below the pines, human happiness spread out in the sun. Rows of cloth-sided beach canopies, like sugar twirls on a birthday cake, sheltered well bronzed limbs. (I was, for sure, the only milk bottle on this beach.) Lone Africans touted ice-cream or cheap keyboards for children. At dusk, pairs of oiled buttocks heaved sympathetically with the incoming waves, and just as naked. "Oi, keep your eyes on the Frisbee," said my partner.

In the beach caf a local station played the American top 40. There were Europunks-cum-indie rockers with Easy Rider mirror shades, mother's safety pins stuck to spindly blue jeans just below the knee. Removing their Walkmans, they ate plates of sauted sea-snails while four girls at the next table sipped four espressos. By the door sat the matron, with an Audenish face and one permanently raised eyebrow. Crocheting a white, woollen shawl she stared at everyone, us in particular.

In a small grocery in backstreet Buarcos, I asked, in my best Spanuguese, what people thought about the woods being destroyed.

Oh, we are very sad, we care very much. The fires are terrible things.

Sorry, fires? We were, it turned out, talking about different woods. The forests in the nearby mountains, despite the ministrations of the finest firefighters of Beira Litoral, the province, were being grilled to charcoal in a series of unquenchable summer blazes that led each evening's TV news (after Baywatch). No, this little wood they did not mind at all. After all, more dinheiro would walk into the shops, like ours.

On Saturday night we take ourselves and our dinheiro to the prom downtown. Foz means rivermouth and Figueira da Foz sits on a big one. The Mondego sweeps down from the ski-slopes and hairpins of Portugal's highest mountains, the Serra da Estrela, through its beautiful erstwhile capital, Coimbra, city of cake shops and workers' caffs, through dizzy gorges recalling John Major's favourite Portuguese river, the Douro, through rice paddies green as a maladjusted telly, to brush the industrial back lots of Figueira and out to sea by a lone, winking lighthouse. Apart from paddies, lagoons and empty beaches, there is not much else for miles, so all Saturday nightlife is here, on the esplanade with us.

The choice of eating places is is family, smart or trendy. Family looks cheapest. We ask for the menu. Waiter shakes head: "Only gambas." OK, we say, "gambas." And they come, many sweet pink prawns. The next night we request the same thing, two doors down, in the Galp-Bar Espanhol, where the young bloods hang out and hotpots of delicious arroz de mariscos (pronounced "urosh der mreeshcooosh", seafood with rice) appeared to be on offer. But it is Sunday, the cook is away, and the Euroglot waiter offers "Prorn" and "Carrabb" only. Not to be outdone, I confidently order one plate of gambas, and one of caneca. The waiter is puzzled. "Nao, carrabbb!" he insists. "It's crab, he's saying crab," says my partner. What I'd actually ordered was a plate of prawns - and a mug. Well, caneca (mug) sounds a bit like caranguejo (crab).

At midnight in mid-August it is an elbows job to pass through the town centre. If all life was down on the front, it is here, too, with most of its relatives. These include, in true Iberian style, the oldest and the littlest. Crowds from Caf Nicola in the main drag become the hordes coming in and out of the town's casino, where you can cash your chips, see a film or even, at half-past midnight, saunter through an exhibition. Tonight it is Cubist and extremely rude.

The sight of families happily socialising with their children at night is always a heartwarming commonplace in Portugal and Spain, but seems to make some Brits twitchy. "S'all for show," drawled the languidly upper- class, reluctant expat in the departure lounge at Lisbon. "After they get to 11, these little darlings are simply abandoned," she explained.

"Portugal," she intoned, suddenly fixing my alarmed partner in the eye, "pretends to be in Europe, but really, it's Africa, yah? Sershly and cultrly it's 20 yars behind."

The only quiet dive in this happy town, so socially backward compared with Blighty, where there would have been at least a few bottle fights by now, seemed to be O Escondidinho (The Hidden One), a Portuguese-Goan restaurant that offered a simple menu in all the main languages plus Finnish, and is reviewed enthusiastically by the Rough Guide. The proprietor, who is from Goa ("not India"), via Mozambique, and has a daughter in Kent, peers at me and says, "You've been here before, haven't you?" Well no, I just look like all the other blokes with Rough Guides.

More than once, I would find myself suddenly bagging my Rough Guide, when, studying a menu posted outside a restaurant, I spotted yet another coupld trying to work out, from their Rough Guide's glossary, what the soup of the day was.

It is just British snobbery. Brits on the Costas do not want anyone around who is not British. We inland Brits want to indulge in the sweet sensation that we are the only tourists in an undiscovered world. Yes, I guess I must have been here before.

Back in the mutilated woods, an undiscovered world hangs on. Will the tourist blaze swallow the whole coast, or fizzle out? It will be easier when there is nothing left to prod the Rough Guider's pale eco-conscience.

Anyway, there is still room on the beach, which is so wide that it takes five minutes to reach the water. And surely that can't be sewage cresting the surf? At any rate, not our sewage?

It is our last morning before we set off into the mountains: across the old orchard and the valley of wheeling house martins wafts a cloud of scented barbecued chicken smoke from the nearby churrasqueira.

It smells good, but so did what went before. We want the best of both worlds. Is that too much to ask?

F A C T F I L E

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