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Ivan Little: Whatever happened to Madeleine McCann?

Twelve years after the three-year-old Leicester girl disappeared from the Ocean Club Resort in Praia da Luz, Ivan Little returns to the Algarve and finds a community which is still struggling to shake off its notoriety

Praia Da Luz
Praia Da Luz
Ivan Little.
Praia Da Luz
Madeleine McCann.
Kate McCann.
Jim Gamble
Police search for Madeleine McCann.
Gerry and Kate give a press conference at the Amsterdam Hilton on the final leg of a two day trip in Europe to spread the word about Madeline's disappearance.

The breathtaking beauty of its soaring cliffs and golden, sandy bay running alongside the shimmering azure waters of the Atlantic Ocean is surpassed only by its notoriety.

Even now, 12 years after Madeleine McCann vanished from her family's holiday apartment - and, apparently, off the face of the earth - I discovered that the impossibly picturesque village of Praia da Luz still can't shake off the shackles of its tormented past.

If the 4,500 villagers - locals and ex-pats - who choose to live a world away from the more boisterous resorts of the Algarve believed in ghosts, they would undoubtedly say the spectre of that fateful evening on May 3, 2007, still haunts them.

The 'missing' posters, with those seared-into-the-memory photographs of an angelic three-year-old blonde child, no longer plaster the walls of businesses like the popular Ice Cream Factory and the tiny Bull Tavern around the corner, but no one has forgotten about the disappearance. How could they?

Barely a week goes by without a new story about Maddie appearing in the papers.

A virtual library full of books has been published on the subject and there are daily updated websites on the internet exploring the endless theories about the most famous, or infamous, missing person case of recent times.

Earlier this month, Portuguese police said they were investigating a "new clue and suspect", lending weight to the contention that Maddie was kidnapped.

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Away from Praia da Luz, the disappearance may have dimmed just a little bit in some people's memories, but a recent Netflix documentary restored any gaps in the global recollection.

The eight-part TV series, revisiting every twist and turn in the case, got thousands of people around the world talking again about Maddie, but it came no closer to establishing the truth of what happened.

Child protection officer and former Ulster policeman Jim Gamble, who's now head of a British safeguarding group, featured heavily in the documentary.

He thinks Maddie is still alive and that the mystery of her disappearance will eventually be solved through advances in technology.

Holidaying just a few miles from the village, it is almost impossible to avoid the conversations about her disappearance and the theories that still hold sway among Portuguese people and visitors alike.

On a private tour of the area around Lagos, where I was based, our guide, Antonio, took us to see the "most charming village on the western Algarve", as he called Praia da Luz.

We travelled on the quiet rural road from Lagos to Luz through the unseen Algarve, past wild pomegranate trees and sprawling fennel bushes, gawking at mansions that wouldn't have looked out of place in Beverly Hills.

When I asked where the money came for one massive house, just visible behind a huge wall that Donald Trump would have envied, our chatty guide went quiet.

"I don't talk about that," sniffed Antonio, who was to repeat the comment in relation to Maddie just a few minutes later, though he wasn't to maintain his monk-like silence. Far from it.

Unprompted, and for no obvious reason, he suddenly let loose and for 15 minutes regaled us with his true feelings about what he believes happened to the little girl, who vanished from her holiday apartment as her parents had a meal with their friends in a tapas bar in the Ocean Club Resort, where they were all staying.

Antonio said he believed that Madeleine was dead and that she had died as the result of an accident.

However, he went on: "I wouldn't want to see prosecutions. I don't think anyone intended for Maddie to die."

Before leaving Praia da Luz, Antonio took an unsolicited detour past the Ocean Club.

Even for someone who has witnessed countless scenes of atrocities in Northern Ireland, it was a most uncomfortable place to see.

While the Ocean Club isn't quite the draw for tourists that it once was, the internet is full of ghoulish pictures and videos of people posing outside the McCanns' apartment, 5A.

Antonio admitted that he felt uneasy passing the Ocean Club, "because I still don't want to imagine what happened there". He certainly didn't want to linger for photographs.

Our guide had earlier been in full hard-sell mode about Praia da Luz, even though its charms didn't need any bigging-up.

The views across its crescent-shaped beach to the renowned caves at Ponta da Piedade in Lagos sold themselves.

A rueful Antonio said that Maddie's disappearance "killed" the village for at least two years amid fears that a predator was on the loose.

The number of tourists fell alarmingly as terrified families cancelled their holidays, saying they didn't want to put their children at risk.

Reports said things got so bad that a number of shops which relied on the tourist trade went out of business.

The main visitors were journalists and news crews - the "pariahs of Praia da Luz", as some branded them.

Reporters still visit the village from time to time, but they are usually ignored.

The Netflix series seems to have deepened the locals' resentment.

Few people I approached were willing to talk about Maddie on the record.

"No offence, but we have had enough of the negative media spotlight," said one ex-pat from Leicester.

"We were very friendly and open to journalists at the start. We wanted to do anything we could to help bring the little girl back to her parents.

"But the longer this has gone on, the more tired we have become."

The focus of life in Praia da Luz is its place of worship, the 16th-century Catholic Church of Nossa Senhora da Luz, which sits just above the beach and which is dedicated to "Our Lady of Light" and doubles up as St Vincent's Anglican chaplaincy.

The white and mustard, yellow-trimmed church was instantly recognisable from the news footage of people arriving there to pray for Maddie's safe return.

Her parents were given a key to the building, so they could go there secretly in the middle of the night, away from the gaze of the cameras.

A little corner of the church, which was searched by police, was set aside as a prayer spot, but it is long gone.

My wife lit a candle for the missing girl.

Church officials, including the Anglican cleric Rob Kean, didn't respond to requests for interviews.

One exasperated official in the past told journalists that he would talk about potatoes, the internet, the sea, whatever, "but not Maddie".

English-language newspapers on the Algarve have made clear their frustration at constant approaches for comments from visiting journalists.

They have also attacked the British tabloids for their 'churnalism' - churning out unsubstantiated claims about the notorious case.

Praia da Luz wasn't busy on the day we visited, but on the beach there were clear indications that safety concerns among families have dissipated, as parents watched their children playing happily on the sand and in the sea.

But for a day-trip visitor, it was hard not to let the mind wander to 2007 and all the speculation about what might have happened to Maddie and where she might have ended up.

A number of people in the village have expressed alarm that so many resources have been devoted to the search when many other children have gone missing around the world.

"If Maddie had been the daughter of a poor couple, would so much have been done?" asked one woman.

The cost of the Portuguese and British investigation into the disappearance is staggering - an estimated £12m so far.

Earlier this month, the Home Office in London promised another £300,000 to fund the still-active probe by the Metropolitan Police.

In Portimao, 20 miles from Praia da Luz, the old police station that Gerry and Kate McCann were seen visiting regularly and where they were told they were 'arguidos' (official suspects) has been replaced by a £6m base (the McCanns later had their arguido status lifted).

Police in Portimao and at Policia Judiciara headquarters 200 miles away in Lisbon have always rejected claims that their initial probe was flawed.

They insisted that, at the outset, they were conducting a rescue operation, not a criminal investigation.

English-based friends who have a holiday home in Lagos admitted that the debate over Madeleine McCann's fate was still a live one.

Even the mention of her name sparked a lengthy discussion during our holiday there.

It was clear that opinions which used to be deeply divided aren't quite so split now.

A new official tourist guide goes to extraordinary lengths to assure potential holidaymakers that the reality of Praia da Luz today is that it presents no risks, hailing it as one of the safest places in Portugal.

But another reality for Praia da Luz, which means 'beach of the light', is that what happened 12 years ago may never allow it to emerge fully from the darkness.

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