Optimism on the Algarve

Photograph of the silhouette of a man standing on a dune watching the sunrise

There it was: the man raised his head, a serendipitous seagull soared above him and the sun finally pierced the surface of the sea. High above Lagos in southern Portugal, I breathed in a moment of sunrise exhilaration, a fair reward for a photographer who’s dragged themselves out of bed in the small hours and walked some distance on unfamiliar cliffs in the dark. Dawn set the scene for my assignment: an upbeat story about a new start for the buyer of a luxury hotel on the Algarve.

Photograph of the silhouette of a man standing on a dune watching the sunrise

A new dawn

Most beautiful hotel

One could be forgiven for doubting the positivity of a story centered on a hotel right now, as travel, culture and events have been among the industries that have suffered the most during the global Covid pandemic. Freddy Burger, however, the new owner of Boutique Hôtel Vivenda Miranda, defies pessimism. A big name in music management and large-scale events in his native Switzerland, Freddy decided that, Covid or not, 2021 was the year to start out in the hotel trade – in style. Magazine Die Weltwoche‘s attention was caught by the signs of economic upturn inherent in this piece of Swiss business news and I was sent to Portugal as photographer to make portraits of Freddy and, what the editor had gushingly referred to as, “The Most Beautiful Hotel in the World“.

Double page spread from Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche showing photo of 2 men and a woman in front of their hotel

Freddy Burger (centre) with his wife Isabella and the hotel director, Andy Stocker

Most beautiful coast

Having ignored my pre-travel questions about the assignment, magazine editor Roger finally called to give me the photographer briefing when I landed at Faro airport. I did my best to overcome my multitasking shortcomings and pay adequate attention to him, while filling out a form to declare the loss of my suitcase (full of photography equipment; somewhere between Nice and Faro), and signing a contract for the hire of a car that I hadn’t known I was to have (I’d assumed that my suitcase and I would take a taxi). “The story is not just about Mr Burger, or even the hotel – this is one of the most fantastic coastlines of Europe! Capture the cliffs, the wildness, the edgy beauty of the place, too!“, Roger enthused, demonstrating his predilection for superlative adjectives again.

Photograph through a bedroom window of palm trees and a coastline

A room with a view

It was my first time on the Algarve and any preconceptions I’d had about overcrowded beaches and rows of timeshare apartments in featureless landscapes were proved wrong – in Freddy’s Algarve anyway. Two hours after landing, I stepped onto the terrace of my exceedingly plush suite at The Hotel and what I saw below was spectacular. The coastline was quite unlike the South of France’s: surf crashed at the base of ochre cliffs as far as I could see, and I was sorely tempted to enrich my experience with the bottle of champagne that’d been sent to welcome the photographer.

“Behind every great man…”

Portrait of a man sitting on a grand chair with his wife leaning behind him

“‘Behind every man is a great woman”

Next morning, after my dawn photography mission, I drove back to the airport. My errant suitcase was there to be collected, as was journalist colleague Thomas, and we set straight off to meet Freddy. “He’s pretty well-known in Switzerland, you know“, said Thomas, who’d grown up in the same village as the Burgers (and is pretty well-known too, in his own domain). Freddy and his wives (ex and current) have spent a lot of time in the Algarve, mostly in the villa he bought 40 years ago. “Mr Burger will probably show you around, so capture the Algarve through his eyes” editor Roger had said. Sure enough, after a tour of his home, local walks and viewpoints, we were taken to lunch at Freddy’s favourite beach haunt (described by Roger as “the best seafood restaurant in Portugal“).

Over fine fish and Douro wine, we talked. Freddy was more than happy to regale us with stories about bringing Cliff Richard to Switzerland and working with Tina Turner. Yet, as they say, “behind every great man….” and Freddy’s wife, Isabella, is not only at the heart of the Algarve project (they make quite a team), she is also a practising psychoanalyst with extremely interesting things to say. From old age and reprogramming neural pathways to the benefits of cold water showers and the psychology of optimal experience, she and I covered some ground over -and after- lunch. We must’ve been lingering in the carpark for quite a while, exchanging book recommendations, before I noticed Freddy inside his car, thumping the steering wheel and loudly mouthing his impatience.

Double page spread from Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche showing photo of the backs of a man and a woman standing together looking out to sea from a cliff, and text

Freddy and Isabella’s Algarve coast

One Freddy Burger, well done

Sometimes, briefings evolve during the course of an assignment. Over dinner on the first evening, Thomas and I were perhaps too quick to congratulate ourselves on progress towards the portrait piece that we were building about Freddy and his Algarve life. However, in the morning, we had to rethink. While happy to welcome us to his home, Freddy had apparently only agreed to participate in the article on the understanding that the focus was the hotel and his purchase of it – not him and his private life, as I discovered. Getting my camera out during a photogenic breakfast scene at his villa, I was told in no uncertain terms that Freddy did not want any domestic pictures taken of him or Isabella. After some discussion, the magazine’s editorial team in Zürich was consulted. It was agreed that I should indeed re-direct my camera towards the hotel and smiles were restored.

It was to be the longest feature in that week’s edition of the magazine and so I shot a broad variety of images: real estate-style photography; food photography in the restaurant; reportage photography of hotel life; and portraits of Freddy and Isabella, inside and outside the hotel. So much there was new: staff, interior decoration touches, the menu… Freddy and his team had got a lot done in a few short months. As a work location, the hotel offered plenty of perks, not least the fine meals we had at the restaurant, including an extraordinarily good burger that Thomas and I managed to get an assurance would be renamed the Freddy Burger. Eating Freddy Burger became a source of endless mirth among us all.

Double page spread from Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche showing a montage of 5 photographs of a hotel and text

Some say Hotel Vivenda Miranda is the most beautiful in the world…

Flying in style

Two women and two men pose for the photographer on a lawn overlooking the sea

Family photo for the album

The next morning was our last. Freddy and Isabella had stayed the night so that driving home wouldn’t interfere with their enjoyment of the hotel’s fine Portugese wine at our dinner the night before. By the time they showed up to breakfast, Thomas and I were already full of home-baked pastries and exotic fruits, nattering over a second coffee in the Algarve sunshine. Freddy didn’t let the fact that we weren’t all sitting at the same table, or that there were a few quiet diners around and in between us, interrupt the flow of table-to-table conversation. He shouted genially over at one point, à-propos of nothing, that I ressemble a truffle. I shouted back that I wasn’t sure how I felt being compared to a an extremely smelly mushroom that lives underground (and I still don’t know why).

It had certainly been a short but intense experience. Thomas, Isabella and Freddy felt almost like family by this point, and the hotel like home: it was clearly time to leave. As I drove away from the hotel, waving goodbye, I felt a twinge of nostalgia at leaving the kind of luxurious conditions that an editorial photographer rarely encounters on assignment. But there was one more perk still to come. It wasn’t until I was seated on the plane, heading back towards Nice, that I realised that a curtain was being closed behind me, not in front. I had to pinch myself: I was flying back business class.

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