Accidental tourist

Rob Blackhurst books a family break at a Portuguese resort - and finds himself babysitting in Praia

My girlfriend and I had planned a quick week away with Kitty, her four-year-old. Cash-strapped after moving house, we'd heard of the travel company Mark Warner's middle-class holiday camp regime: sun, sailing, tennis, good food, children's meals and a well-staffed kids' club that lasted all morning. We signed up to the 40 per cent reduction offer (it normally costs around £1,000 each) before someone else snapped it up.

It was only when we googled the "Upscale Ocean Club" in Portugal that it dawned on us: we were taking a four-year-old to the same complex, with the same company, as the McCanns had visited a year ago. This took some finding, as there was scarcely any mention of Praia da Luz on its website.

We are normally pretty risk-averse, but - with a combination of lethargy and an unscientific hunch that lightning doesn't strike twice - we decided that we'd go ahead. After all, we told ourselves, we wouldn't be leaving her alone in the apartment. Reactions of families and friends varied from the gut response "You are sick" to (more commonly) a philosophical "These things can happen anywhere". From our parents, there was just a tight-lipped "Be careful".

We wondered whether the weight of the abduction and the expected media scrum would hang over the holiday, but it is easy to forget when you are there. Praia da Luz itself is stripped of the striking photos of Madeleine that were everywhere a year ago. The only image we saw in the entire village was a sun-bleached poster on the church noticeboard. Next to it was a diary of the weekly services in English and Portuguese - including a vigil every Friday evening for "Made leine and all the missing children".

With its crushed-diamond sand, cloudless skies, sprinkled green gardens and English pubs serving toad in the hole, Praia da Luz (Portuguese for "beach of light") feels too pretty and too perfect to be the theatre of nightmares. Above all, it felt safe: the beach alone could have been designed by a risk consultant - small, with water that is too shallow for anyone to get into trouble, and a rescue boat on permanent standby. It was the logistics - making sure the children's factor 30 was packed in the bag - and the eye-watering strength of the euro against the pound that occupied our thoughts, rather than any ruminations on missing children.

The slew of media images from last summer made me expect functional, high-rise apartments that had sprouted up recently - a large-scale suntrap built in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the village is small, full of character and history. Next to the beach are the remains of Roman baths. And although two-thirds of the population is English (mostly Telegraph-reading expats in their sixties), a Mediterranean sleepiness pervades the town. There was a cash drought for four days this past week when both cashpoint machines ran out of notes, making us empty our pockets, hoard our small change, and borrow from Kitty's purse to pay for meals. It's a public holiday, the waiters shrugged; no one will come and fix them.

But the ripples of Madeleine's abduction were just beneath the surface, and not just the journalist from Smooth FM who pursued us across the rock-pools in search of an interview. When we took Kitty to her kids' club, we shivered when we realised that it was the same bright room - with buggies and dolls, mini-furniture and finger paintings - in which Madeleine spent that last afternoon. We had expected to see it full of children, but there was only one other child enrolled in the below-fives club last week. The lack of visitors was clear wherever we went on the Algarve: on a day out to the local water park, Splash and Surf, we had the slides to ourselves.

We, too, found the uphill walk from the apartments to the Millennium Restaurant too far for a cantankerous four-year-old exhausted from a day at the beach. It was this gruelling journey, said Kate McCann in the documentary shown on ITV at the end of last month, that made the couple decide to dine at the tapas bar near to their apartment instead. But rather than leave Kitty alone, we put her in the "sleepover service" - a sleeping bag in front of a DVD and a nanny - while we ate our evening meal.

Inside the apartment, paranoia ruled. Like the McCanns', ours was on the ground floor, with public paths on either side. We hardly needed the hastily added security notices: "Do not leave your doors unlocked - even for a minute." My girlfriend swiftly abandoned me in our bedroom and decided that she would sleep in the twin bed next to her daughter instead.

The handful of other families that had booked with Mark Warner were no-nonsense, phlegmatic, with large broods. They weren't the sort to be easily spooked by irrational fears. But although it felt like a taboo to discuss Made leine, every parent shared their own heart-stopping moment after a few glasses of wine. Ours came in the village supermarket when Kitty disappeared behind a stand of beach balls and we lost her for 15 seconds. Another father reported leaping out of bed when he saw a man's silhouette fall across their curtains - only to find it was one of the black-clad security guards that Mark Warner has hired this year to patrol the apartments at night. The local English population was clearly jumpy, too. When Kitty and I were playing her favourite game (hiding in the bushes together and pretending to be escaping from giants) there was not the indulgent smile that adults normally give other adults playing with children. Their gaze lingered, obviously wondering if the scene was as innocent as it initially appeared.

And when I wandered around Praia da Luz in search of cigarettes late at night, it felt a very different place. The streets that were so dazzlingly whitewashed and carefree during the day, the walls that radiated heat like a hot stove, felt sin ister now: deserted, unlit and anonymous. The fairy-tale land had turned into a dark wood where strangers could come and go unnoticed. I hurried back to the apartment and double-checked the patio doors.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything