Former banker and musician Paulo Ferreira had a dream. He wanted Algarve holidaymakers to experience the best the region had to offer in terms of heritage, culture, nature and gastronomy, while enjoying the freedom of the road.
Happy Van – the business Paulo launched in 2018 – focuses on injecting that element of freedom, fun and nostalgia into someone’s holiday. At the end of each tour, he hopes they will have a better understanding of the Algarve’s heritage and local identity.
The ‘happy vans’ are three vintage Volkswagen Type 2 vehicles (known as pão de forma in Portugal), which first went into production in 1950.
Paulo has been passionate about the model for years and bought his first van Maria Rita – who at 52 is the oldest of the trio – when he was living in central Portugal.
“I’d always wanted a Volkswagen van and I paid 4000€ for her. The owner had done her up and put carpets down. There was also a small kitchen and a bed. He had lots of love for her and didn’t really want to part with her but he needed money for his wedding.”
Paulo, who was born in Malawi and moved to Portugal when he was eight, bought a second van and originally started using them for weddings in Guarda.
He bought a third vehicle when he set up Happy Van and has named all three. Maria Rita is named for a friend and he chose Maria Inês simply because he liked the name. Happy Van’s tour guides are experts in their own field. João is an actor and drama teacher with a passion for history, while Ana and Neide lead nature tours.
But it’s the charismatic Volkswagen vans which are the true stars of the show and Paulo believes it’s the feelings of nostalgia, freedom and positive vibes associated with them that his customers love.
“If you look at these vans from the front they look like they’re smiling at you,” he laughs. “Lots of my customers tell me they would love to own one. Or they recall older family members – perhaps their parents or grandparents – having one. At a guess, I’d say around 80% of my customers are linked to the Volkswagen van in some way, so coming along on a tour brings back good memories for them.”
Settling onto the back seat of Maria Luisa to join a Dutch family for a private tour, I think I understand. We didn’t have a Volkswagen in my immediate family, yet Maria Luisa still evoked strong feelings of yesteryear in me.
With the wind blowing through my hair, I wondered where we were heading? My tour companions had expressed their interests and told Paulo how long they wished to be out: the rest they’d left to him. I was reminded of the mystery coach and train trips I’d loved so much as a child.
Our first stop was Quinta do Francês, a nine-hectare winery nestling in the hills around Silves. The winery was established in 2002 by a French doctor and his wife and now produces 45,000 bottles a year.
Our tour guide Tanea explained how wine is produced and showed us the huge stainless vats where the fermentation process – the transformation of the sugar into alcohol – takes place and then took us down to the cellar where the wine was ageing in bespoke French oak barrels. I found it fascinating – particularly the discovery that it is possible to turn a red grape vine into a white grape vine using a process called ‘grafting’.
Then came the best bit … the wine tasting. There were five wines to taste in all – two whites, a rosé and two reds – and all were excellent. Needless to say, Paulo did not partake in the wine drinking!
The next destination on our itinerary was Silves castle, but not before we were provided with biscuits and a shot of medronho, a Portuguese spirit mostly produced on a small scale by local people.
Fired up (there’s a reason medronho is known as ‘firewater’), our group made short shrift of the climb through Silves’ cobbled streets and we soon reached the castle entrance. Here, Paulo told us a little of the history of Silves, the ancient capital of the Algarve.
After a tour of the castle, we visited the nearby archaeological museum, where we learned more about the region’s turbulent past and peered into the 20-metre well which dates back to the Almohade period of Muslim rule (12th to 13th century).
Paulo is not an obtrusive host. In truth, he feels more like a knowledgeable friend than a tour guide as he wanders around with you, sharing his knowledge and responding to questions.
Back at Maria Luisa, he produced some much-needed bottles of ice-cold water and we set off again with ‘Walking on Sunshine’ blasting over the sound system.
Unhappily, my own Happy Van experience came to an end in Portimão; however, the rest of the group went on to enjoy a gastronomic tour before watching the sun set in Ferragudo (with more wine) and then ending the day with a beach walk at Alvor.
Booking a Happy Van tour is an excellent way to see more of the Algarve and to better understand its history and culture.
“I like to learn about my customers, where they are from and what their traditions are,” says Paulo. “I see a tour as an exchange of cultural experiences between us.”
Tours run both day and night and customers can choose between existing tours, e.g. food and wine, heritage and handicraft, nature and sunsets, or book a tailor-made tour with a personalised itinerary.
To offer a truly diverse and rich experience, Paulo and his team work closely with other professionals and artisans who happily share their expert knowledge, e.g. wineries, canneries, restaurateurs, producers of herbs, teas and other infusions, makers of spirits and liquors, bakers and talented craftspeople. Before the pandemic, Paulo partnered with 365 Algarve to create artistic tours which recounted the Algarve’s story using theatre and music, e.g. fado musicians talked about the musical influences which led to this distinctive form of Portuguese singing. He hopes these trips will resume later this year.
For private tours, Paulo can structure the day to reflect each group’s interests and wishes. It’s not unknown for him to change an itinerary during the tour once he has a better understanding of a group’s interests and needs.
One of Happy Van’s most memorable tours of 2019 was when a Russian tour guide booked two vans to take twelve passengers on a tour of the Algarve’s lighthouses. Fortunately, the St Petersburg tour guide provided the expert commentary … in Russian.
“Social distancing brings some challenges; however, here at Happy Van we believe in being responsible and altruistic human beings,” says Paulo.
His business has accepted the Tourism of Portugal challenge for the Clean & Safe seal and the rules, which guarantee the protection and safety of customers and staff.
Happy Van operates all year with departures from Albufeira, Portimão and Lagos. For private tours, customers are picked up from their hotel.
The final word must go to the Dutch mother who noted how few of the other plane passengers were likely to have enjoyed as many diverse experiences in the Algarve as she and her family. It was hard to disagree.
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Thank you so much for this beautiful article!