Belfast Telegraph

Madeleine McCann: 'Why would you leave a child like that? Anything could have happened to her'

On the 10th anniversary of Madeleine McCann's disappearance Lindy McDowell reports from Praia da Luz, the resort at the centre of the unsolved mystery.

Early evening in a family restaurant in a small town in Portugal. This isn't especially a tourist restaurant; most of the customers tonight are locals.

There are a bunch of English expats at one table - an elderly man complaining noisily that when friends come down to stay they want to be entertained and taken to the tourist hotspots and really he's fed up with it all.

A child skitters past him, a little local boy trying to do slides on the tiled floor. The boy narrowly misses a toddler from another table, an infant of about 18 months old with that still unsteady gait of the learner walker seriously hampered by large nappy.

A couple of little girls are running around, too; the waiting staff expertly swerving to avoid collision as they exit the kitchen with stacked trays of "prato do dia" (dish of the day).

Behind us there is a big table with an entire family tree dining together. Children, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, possibly great-grandparents ... and one little old lady who looks to be of similar vintage to Methuselah.

Everybody is talking at the same time. Sure, there are a couple of younger teens in the packed restaurant, silently staring as though hypnotised by their phones, like their counterparts everywhere else in the universe.

But, as a vignette of the Portuguese approach to family dining, this noisy, crowded, laid-back scene says it all.

It's a bit of a stereotype, yes. But the Portuguese really do dote on their children. They adore children. They include them.

In Portugal, of all places, the idea that you would head out for the night leaving your children behind - and even worse, unattended - is just utterly unthinkable.

Especially since restaurants and bars (which are also, in general, eateries) are so very much geared towards family groups.

Particularly in holiday resorts. All of this goes towards explaining much of the great antipathy there still is among many people in Portugal towards the parents of Madeleine McCann and, indeed, the so-called "Tapas Seven", who dined with them that fateful night 10 years ago.

No conversation about that missing little girl ever fails to evoke that timeworn exclamation of genuine bafflement: "How could they?" In Praia da Luz, there is, understandably enough, a strong sense that they're just sick of it all.

But this week once again, on the 10th anniversary of the story that made global news, Luz is once more at the centre of international focus.

Yes, of course, there is genuine dismay in the town about the disappearance of the child. But this small resort which was forging a sound tourist trade was badly hit in the immediate aftermath. As a result of the downturn in trade that followed, people lost their livelihoods.

It didn't help that this was at a time of recession - a recession that rebounded upon Portugal, Western Europe's poorest country, exceptionally hard. The average monthly pay for workers in Portugal is said to be around €600-€800. It is a bit of an understatement to point out that tourism, in this part of the world, is a vital trade.

And many of the tourists attracted to the region come from Northern Ireland. You can hear the local accent dandering around just about any town in the Algarve - Albufiera, Portimao, Lagos.

In Alvor, which is half-an-hour from Luz, there is a Made in Belfast restaurant. Whether related to those of the same name in Belfast, I have no idea. The place does an Ulster Fry for breakfast.

Praia da Luz is just a few miles down the road from the much larger, more garishly touristy Lagos, which is especially popular with visitors from Northern Ireland.

Luz seems to attract more the English, who also form a large part of the local expat community. At the Bull bar, customers down pints of English bitter as they chat on its spectacular terrace overlooking the ocean.

Getting people in Luz to talk about the Madeleine story at all is difficult.

When I tried to raise the subject with the owner of one local business, her previously impeccable English suddenly failed her. She couldn't quite understand what I was talking about and oh, look, there are potential customers at the door, so I'm sorry I have to go.

Others just shake their heads and tut. What more is there to say that hasn't been said?

But worldwide interest in the story shows no sign of abating.

Luz is forever as tightly linked with the mystery of Madeleine as that television team is to the camera they clutch as they circle round the back of the Ocean Club resort, past the big Spar shop, heading down towards the sea.

I doubt if there are statistics to back up this theory of mine, but I imagine there are visitors who now come to town specifically just to have a gawp at its most notorious landmark, Apartment 5a.

Hands up - I count among them.

And to mark this week's 10th anniversary, there have been countless media crews in town, homing in on that infamous apartment, with its high hedge and dark secrets, trying to unearth some new nugget to share.

The anniversary has, of course, also made headlines in the local Portuguese media - on television and in the papers.

Correio da Manha (Morning Mail) has carried a front page splash and no less than four inside pages based on the claims of Goncalo Amaral, the police officer originally in charge of the investigation and author of a book, The Truth of the Lie.

The McCann family successfully sued Amaral for libel over the book's contents, but he has since won on appeal.

The English language Algarve Resident, meanwhile, has a swipe at ongoing British media coverage of the story.

Len Port, a journalist and author based in the Algarve, singles out a recent report in a British tabloid based on an interview with a nanny "breaking her 10-year silence" to reveal that she found the McCanns the "picture-perfect family" and to claim that the resort was so unsafe nannies such as herself were given rape alarms and warned never to go anywhere alone.

Port points out that in Praia da Luz the report of the nanny's claims has been "viewed with derision".

He adds: "It was seen as yet another attempt to brand Praia da Luz as a den of iniquity, which it is not, and never has been."

In another article in the same newspaper, about a lurid Australian "landmark television event" to mark the anniversary, journalist Natasha Donn reports: "In the Algarve, locals took to Facebook to vent their outrage, with comments boiling down to the perennial frustration that Praia da Luz has been presented as a form of village of the damned."

Expats are generally a bit less reticent to be drawn on the subject than locals. Again, the overriding feeling is real sorrow about what happened to Madeleine.

But sympathy, too, for the Portuguese police, the Policia Judiciaria, who many believe have been unfairly portrayed as buffoons in the British media.

(Down the years, there has been a significant input from people from our own part of the world into the search for Madeleine. Former RUC Detective Inspector Dave Edgar has been among private investigators employed by the McCanns. And the then chief of CEOP - the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre - Jim Gamble, another former RUC man and one-time assistant chief constable in the National Crime Squad has also been involved in the official investigation).

One Scottish woman I spoke to here described how having reared her daughter in Portugal she knew only too well how family-orientated, how child-orientated the Portuguese are. And how horrified and baffled so many are that the McCanns and those with them that night would leave their own children unattended.

"It just makes me feel so very angry every time I think about it," she says. "There was no need for it, that's all I can say. The Portuguese people I know, they just cannot, cannot understand why you would leave children like that. Anything could have happened to them."

She adds: "This is generally a safe place. That's why it's so popular with families. I feel so sorry and so angry about the way this place has been portrayed these last few years."

Its reputation for safety has much to do with the Algarve's increasing popularity as a destination particularly for tourists from the UK and Ireland - particularly in the last few years as other once-popular resorts in Turkey, Egypt and even France have been hit by terror attacks.

The weather's reliably lovely. Prices are still relatively cheap. The wine's good. And the locals are friendly and courteous.

But while trade in the little town of Luz has undoubtedly regrouped in recent times, the shadow of the mystery of what happened to that little girl that night will always hang over it.

No matter how much Luz just wants it all to go away.

Across the Algarve, I've noticed there's a quite comical trend of adding words to "STOP" traffic signs to send a message.

I've seen a couple now reading "STOP Fracking." And a few amended to "STOP Eating Meat."

There's also a fading one in Praia da Luz, the message spray-painted a couple of years back.

"STOP McCann Circus", it says.

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