Praia da luz, Portugal, May 1 – Scarred by Madeleine McCann’s disappearance 10 years ago, the seaside resort town of Praia da Luz in southern Portugal is struggling to shake off the mystery surrounding the British toddler.
“The residents are all fed up… 10 years later we want to forget all this. It’s a shame that this case shed a bad light on this lovely place, it’s totally unfair,” says Ron Clark, a 68-year-old retired British soldier.
“Praia da Luz doesn’t deserve this. There has been too much fake news,” said David S. Jones, 72, a writer from London who has lived there for 45 years.
Many British expatriates in the city gather in the shady courtyard of the Baptista supermarket, spending mornings buried in British newspapers and drinking tea.
But the subject of “Maddie” rouses the group, interrupting the calm routine.
About 200 metres away (650 feet), the blinds of apartment 5A at the Ocean Club hotel complex are closed. Madeleine disappeared from one of the apartment’s rooms on May 3, 2007, days before her fourth birthday, while her parents were having dinner with friends in a nearby restaurant.
Was it a kidnapping? An accidental death? Homicide? After ten years, hundreds of hours of questioning and numerous searches, the case remains a mystery to Portuguese police and Scotland Yard.
The girl’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, say they are convinced their daughter was kidnapped and have vowed to do “whatever it takes” to find her.
British police scaled back their search in 2015 after launching a new investigation in 2011.
Scotland Yard said this month that they were still pursuing “critical” lines of inquiry.
– ‘Stolen time’ –
The tenth anniversary of her disappearance is a “horrible marker of time, stolen time”, Kate McCann wrote on Facebook.
There are no more photos of the blonde girl on Praia da Luz’s cobblestone streets or near the whitewashed church frequented by the McCanns.
“We haven’t forgotten her. We still pray for Maddie every Sunday as we do for all missing children,” says John Payne, 76, a member of the Anglican parish.
The only visible trace is on some traffic signs, where “STOP McCann circus” is spray-painted in stencilled white letters, reflecting the frustrations of many in the city.
The McCanns seem to have few supporters in the ancient fishing village in Portugal’s southern region of Algarve. It is a slice of paradise for the overwhelmingly British population, which makes up two-thirds of the town’s 3,500 inhabitants.
The huge amount of media attention spooked vacationers, especially families with young children, in the years after the girl’s disappearance.
“The hotel sector suffered for three or four years. The Ocean Club lost a lot of clients, which had a ricochet effect on other hotels too,” says the town’s deputy mayor Nuno Luz.
The Ocean Club laid off workers, Luz said, paring staff levels back to just 20 employees from 400.
“But meanwhile, tourism has returned to normal levels,” he said.
– Mystery tours –
Holiday-makers stroll along the palm-lined promenade that borders a sandy beach where children play on a cloudy day ahead of the high tourist season.
“It’s a safe place. I have been coming here regularly with my children aged of seven, five and two years,” says Jo White, a 38-year-old Briton with a big smile.
There are some tourists, however, who want to know more about the mystery.
One British resident in his sixties is engrossed by the story, and offers guided tours for the curious.
“It’s not a tourist tour but I am showing places of interest to experts of the Maddie case,” says the man, who declines to give his name but says he does not accept any money for the tours.
His tour starts in front of the apartment where the McCanns had been staying, and continues along the street where a man was reportedly seen carrying a child the night of the disappearance.
It eventually leads to scrubland surrounded by villas and apartments where police searched for the child’s body in 2014. Horses graze there today.
Facing criticism over his tours, which strike many as morbid, the guide stands his ground.
“I would like to help to resolve the case,” he says.