The unexpected

Feliz ano novo com tudo de bom

It can take ages to see something in front of your nose. First our neighbours from Lisbon told us that our house had replaced a rather fine old one, somewhat dilapidated but not a total wreck and in fact the best of the three houses here. The other two were renovated using the existing stone structures; ours was rebuilt from scratch in concrete. Then a neighbour from over the river came to our garden and pointed out that the edges of the lower garden steps are cantarias: the typical stone window and door frames of Portugal. And the reason why one is dated 1941 – I had never been able to answer this question before when guests asked it – is clearly that it came from the original house: it would have topped the main door. I looked again at the steps and at the walls holding up the garden terraces and I finally realised that we are looking at the redistributed remains of the old house. I felt an agony of regret.

When during the recent, extremely heavy rain the hillside sprang leaks, I began to realise why the Sensibles had rebuilt the house, siting it further away from the slope. And when the flowing water routed itself around the house and down to the river, I began to be glad that they had done so, and to appreciate what we have. We made the sensible choice, I must remember, not the romantic one.

I promised news of the oil plans for the Algarve. It is not as good news as we activists first thought. Great excitement was generated by a national newspaper headline on 14 December (Diário de Notícias), announcing that the government was halting the exploration of oil in the Algarve. It turned out to be more complicated than that. Sousa Cintra’s compromised contracts for onshore exploitation covering almost half of the Algarve are to be rescinded, not having been correctly awarded in the first place – as is by now well known – and as usual the very next day the man himself threatened a legal fightback and declared everything to have been above board. As for the offshore contracts, the process for stopping those of Repsol-Partex was to be advanced, based on their not having yet done the promised drilling. So the government is sticking to their line about needing the oil companies to do their drilling in order to reveal what the nation’s subsoils contain, and since Repsol-Partex hadn’t done so in the agreed timeframe – and I’d love to think it was the protestors who hindered them – then the government has the excuse to start procedures to annul the contracts. And if I’ve understood this correctly – which is by no means certain – then the government is playing a clever, face-saving game, in which they have the chance to get rid of these irksome contracts without having to back down on the reason they said the contracts were useful to the country in the first place. And what’s more, they should be damn grateful to the activists for their part in it. There has also been news that the ENMC (national fuel entity) is to be broken up, and the grinning villain (my description!) Paulo Carmona is out of job. However, like a zombie he seems to keep popping up.

I went for a walk up the hill and came across one of the red-legged partridges whose territory this is. Mutually startled, we stopped and stared at one another. The bird has – besides its red legs – a red bill and red-ringed eyes, with a dark crescent of feathers running from the base of the bill through each eye to meet at the neck, below which it disperses into an elegant pattern of black and white. The throat is white. It was in the movement of the throat more than anything easily audible that I realised the bird was making a disconcerted sound, a tiny whisper of its usual Chuck-chuck-chuckah-chuckaaah! We eventually broke eye contact. The bird ran off and I carried on walking up the hill.

On New Year’s Day we woke up not long after 8 a.m. – despite a well-oiled and hugely enjoyable evening the night before, ending with fireworks in Tavira – and sat in the wooden chairs on the front veranda to watch the sun come up over the Meditation Hill. We have much to be happy and excited about this coming year. Wishing you a happy new year, with all good wishes.

Barril beach on New Year’s Day; many people came to mark the day and left footprints

I am always fascinated by the old anchors once used by tuna-fishers for their net-frames

Rusty close-up



On the first of November 1755, on the holiday of All Saints’ Day, one of the world’s most deadly earthquakes had its epicentre in the Atlantic Ocean 200 kilometres south-west of Cabo de São Vicente, at the extreme south-west of Portugal. Modern seismologists estimate its magnitude to have been 8.5–9. Shockwaves were felt throughout Europe and North Africa. A 3-metre-high tsunami is said to have reached Cornwall in south-west England.

The quake, widely known as the Lisbon Earthquake, opened up 5-metre-wide cracks in the centre of the Portuguese capital city and gave rise to a tsunami that engulfed the city’s harbour. Areas of the city that were not shattered or drowned were destroyed by the many fires that broke out, probably caused by the church candles lit for All Saints’ Day. Eighty-five per cent of the city’s buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands of people died.

Because the earthquake happened on an important church holiday and destroyed so many churches, divine judgement was read into the broken stones and broken bones. At the very least, this was surely evidence that a benevolent deity did not look after the world and its people. Philosophers across Europe were powerfully affected by the earthquake; for some, it shook the foundations of their beliefs. In Germany, in particular, Leibniz’s optimistic, sentimental world view held sway, the idea that human beings – creatures of reason, loved by a beneficent god – lived in a world that was the best it could possibly be. Voltaire’s ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’ and his novel Candide are satires on this world view. (Candide regularly features in lists of the best and most influential books ever written. It’s also very short and very funny and if you haven’t read it yet you can surely find time to squeeze it in. I’m going to include a small extract at the end of this blog post.)

In the Algarve, many of the coastal towns and villages were affected by the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. Only Faro largely escaped, protected by the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa. To commemorate the date, the town council of Tavira organised two talks around the subject this month: the first was on the geology of the area. When you see on a geological map the fault line that hugs the Algarve coast, you are caused yet again to question the sanity of anyone who wants to drill for oil or frack for gas in this area. Just how much rationality are they capable of ignoring? So of course Husband raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, and the otherwise excellent lecturer did her best to evade it. It’s a rotten job being a geologist; you have to sell your soul to the fossil fuel brigade who are almost certainly paying your salary, directly or indirectly. The second talk was about the extent of the damage as revealed by extant parish records. We learnt that in our local village – quite some kilometres inland – a single death occurred: at the door of the parish church as a stone was dislodged and came tumbling down. At the end of this talk it was the turn of another audience member to raise a provocative question about the area being earthquake-prone. At least it raised a laugh.

Fortunes can change in an instant and human rationality cannot be relied upon. We’ve just seen this in another earthquake: the political one that happened in the US this month.

As the old Greek said: ‘Wise men argue causes; fools decide them.’


A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn't get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this. It was a great demonstration: a few hundred people and much enthusiastic support from people on the street. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling

A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn’t get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this on my phone. It was a great demonstration: hundreds of people and much enthusiastic support from shoppers and workers out and about in the streets. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling – in spite of it all


I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station after our weekend in Lisbon at the time of the moon-rise and so missed the best views - which would have been in our valley

I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station on Monday evening after our weekend in Lisbon and we missed what would have been the very best view – the moon-rise over the Meditation Hill in our valley


From Candide:

Chapter V

Describing tempest, shipwreck, and earthquake, and what happened to Dr Pangloss,
Candide, and James, the Anabaptist

… Candide was in time to see his benefactor reappear above the surface for one moment before being swallowed up for ever. He wanted to throw himself into the sea after the Anabaptist, but the great philosopher, Pangloss, stopped him by proving that Lisbon harbour was made on purpose for this Anabaptist to drown there. Whilst he was proving this from first principles, the ship split in two and all perished except Pangloss, Candide, and the brutal sailor who had been the means of drowning the honest Anabaptist. The villain swam successfully to shore; and Pangloss and Candide, clinging to a plank, were washed up after him.

When they had recovered a little of their strength, they set off towards Lisbon, hoping they had just enough money in their pockets to avoid starvation after escaping the storm.

Scarcely had they reached the town, and were still mourning their benefactor’s death, when they felt the earth tremble beneath them. The sea boiled up in the harbour and broke the ships which lay at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares. Houses came crashing down. Roofs toppled on to their foundations, and the foundations crumbled. Thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins.

The sailor chucked:

‘There will be something worth picking up here,’ he remarked with an oath.

‘What can be the “sufficient reason” for this phenomenon?’ said Pangloss.

‘The Day of Judgment has come,’ cried Candide.

The sailor rushed straight into the midst of the debris and risked his life searching for money. Having found some, he ran off with it to get drunk; and after sleeping off the effects of the wine, he bought the favours of the first girl of easy virtue he met amongst the ruined houses with the dead and dying all around. Pangloss pulled him by the sleeve and said:

‘This will never do, my friend; you are not obeying the universal rule of Reason; you have misjudged the occasion.’

‘Bloody hell,’ replied the other. ‘I am a sailor … I’m not the man for your Universal Reason!’


Secret compartment

Three years since my father’s death. Being with him when he died, having that close experience of a parent’s death, started a tremor that continues to pulse through my life. The reverberations are positive. He was not sentimental about death; he’d embraced the idea of it early on.

He liked to fish, and he liked to work with wood; he self-deprecatingly called himself more ‘wood butcher’ than carpenter. He made his children and grandchildren wooden chests, many of which had secret compartments. He showed me how to access the secret compartment in mine: via a peg in the floor, hidden beneath a velvet lining, which when lifted out released the drawer in the plinth. One of the first and largest boxes he made was to house certain family treasures such as his family bible – a huge volume with a leather spine but missing front and back covers, allegedly destroyed in a bomb blast during the second world war. This chest was rumoured to have a secret compartment, but one for which access had not been detailed, and none of us knew if it really existed.

As short-notice plans for a lunch to mark the third anniversary grew, I decided to find a last-minute flight to England and join in.

It was a great gathering, almost complete in close family members, and we decided once and for all to investigate the bible chest. Two keys fixed to the base behind the decorative plinth looked intriguing but were decoys, sawn off at the ends. The decoys – a very Dad thing to do – raised our expectations. We knew then we were on to something. A suggestion of space between the interior and exterior of the box’s base was promising. We fetched screwdrivers and tackled the interior compartments, unscrewing and gradually freeing them until we could pull them out. There it was: in the shallow base of the box lay newspapers, special issue stamps, packets of seeds, a John Donne poem, a self-penned poem and an envelope – ‘This letter will have some interest if left sealed before the year 2000’. Since we were sixteen years beyond that date, we opened it.

The letter, dated 22nd Aug 1985, began: ‘Welcome to the past. I hope a considerable period of time has elapsed since I closed this compartment . . .’

It went on: ‘I offer you seeds in the hope that they may germinate. A living piece of my present, to your present . . .’

I brought these seeds home to Portugal to plant in our garden: pennyroyal (poejo), oregano (oregão), dill (aneto), caraway (alcaravia). Wish me luck because I’m not the best plant nurturer. One can only learn.

It ended: ‘I wish you good health and the wealth to enjoy it, and bid you a distant farewell.’


Swallows and ants

Red-rumped Swallow on the washing line with a beakful of mud

Red-rumped Swallow on the washing line with a beakful of mud

The nesting site on the wall

The nesting site on the wall


In the two weeks since I last posted, while I have had my focus exclusively on work, the weather has become hot and the river almost dry. The Red-rumped Swallows have been bringing beakfuls of mud to our front terrace, much of which has ended up on the floor. The first few random splodges on the wall served as claw-holds for more delicate constructive work. Then they spotted a hook on the ceiling. I have long had my eye on this hook. It was put in by our predecessors and is strong enough to hold a swinging chair. One day I knew that I would find such a chair, in rattan perhaps, maybe in a teardrop shape. I would occupy the future leisure days of my imagination devouring books in my suspended, pod-like nest.

The swallows got there first. They gave up on the wall and turned their ambitions to the hook. They are slowly covering it with mud, while a small mud mountain grows on the floor beneath. The Red-rumped Swallows are known for their distinctive home. It is a closed cup shape with a tunnel entrance. I cannot figure out where the hook fits into the classic design. Time will tell.

Attention switched to the hook in the ceiling

Attention switched to the hook in the ceiling

Adding mud to the hook, and dropping plenty on the floor

Adding mud to the hook while upside down, and dropping plenty on the floor


The ant-spewing volcanoes have continued to erupt. We reconquered our kitchen, but we didn’t notice that in a rear-guard action the ants had taken over a spare bedroom. It was our luckless guests, H and D, who woke up in the night to a strange sensation of rustling and shifting pillowcase, and found a line of ants marching across it on their way to the spare bathroom, where perhaps an insect carcass had attracted their attention. Our guests knew where to find the hoover and set to vacuuming the little beasts up. We slept soundly on the other side of the house.

We have now resorted to the medieval castle-holder’s solution and are pouring boiling water on the ants’ heads, down the various holes in the garden out of which they emerge.

Currently emerging from holes across the United Kingdom are racists to whom the winning ‘Leave’ result in the referendum has given some kind of mandate. I was in London on the day of the result. I’d gone there for a meeting. My postal vote had long ago been sent off and the timing of my visit was pure chance. It was not until I heard the result over the radio in my minuscule hotel room that I realised how little I’d considered the possibility the United Kingdom might actually vote itself out of the EU. I could hardly believe it, and I still cannot. Rejoicing in the result is the biggest grinning villain of them all, one Nigel Farage, leader of a party of jokers, who failed to win a seat in Parliament. Among his many declarations since the result was announced is that people used to laugh at him but they don’t any more. How true. We are not laughing.

The two main political parties are collapsing from within. The prime minister declared his intention to resign, leaving others to sort out the mess he engendered. Conversations on the street show how little people understand the process. ‘Now that we are no longer in the EU,’ I heard. (We are still in the EU. A process of dismantling our membership has to be initiated first.) Newspapers and social media are reporting ‘go-home’ taunts shouted at ‘foreigners’. Triumphant ‘Leavers’ are not so much taking leave of Europe as of sanity, morality and intelligence.

I never heard a note of triumph on the streets of central London. I did hear notes of fear. Many of the service jobs in the city are done by people from mainland Europe. After greeting me in the friendly way that their jobs required, remarking on how much better the weather was than the day before – when flooding in South-east England had affected flights and caused my own to arrive two hours late – a look would be exchanged, an almost imperceptible widening of the eyes, and we would admit to our shared horror at this result.

The EU isn’t perfect. I suspect sound and even humane reasons can be argued for leaving, but they were not made. The campaign was a racist one. Hideous fissures have opened up in the ground of a country that once prided itself on decency. Not such a great accolade, ‘decency’, but one we are going to miss now if it’s gone.

And here I am back in Portugal, where I have known nothing but kindness, friendliness and tolerance of my poor grasp of the language. Time to apply for a new passport, perhaps.


Our second visit to Culatra; we took friends from Berlin with us

Our second-ever visit to Culatra; we took friends from Berlin with us

Farol lighthouse

Farol lighthouse

Hottentot fig: these were all over the island

Hottentot fig: these were all over the island

Birds in Olhão: gulls

Returning to Olhão from Culatra: gulls by the ferry point

Birds in Olhão: gulls with backdrop of masts

Birds in Olhão: gulls with backdrop of masts

Birds in Olhão: swallows on the wire

Birds in Olhão: swallows on the wire

Figs are ripening; seen in Olhão

Figs are ripening; seen in Olhão

A close-up of Paronychia argentea, a ground-hugging plant that grows by the river and that I find quite beautiful

Back at home: a close-up of Paronychia argentea, a ground-hugging plant that grows by our river. I’ve just noticed how exquisitely beautiful it is; you need to get close to it to appreciate it

Silky spelt dough

Silky spelt dough

Spelt bread, wonderful with melting butter and drizzled honey

Spelt bread, wonderful with melting butter and drizzled honey


We had little time this week to witness the many offerings of Holy Week, but we did manage to go to the procession on the evening of Good Friday in Tavira. It began around nine. We waited patiently with many others until a sermon was broadcast over a loudspeaker, then the streetlights went out and the candlelit procession arrived. One of the most charming moments was the priest himself, in his purple sash, who’d clearly been told a very good joke and was having trouble displaying the necessary degree of solemnity. Because of the eeriness of the event, and not because of the laughing priest, Husband said he felt like he was in a Fellini film. I felt differently. I like a bit of religion. I grew up under benign Catholicism. This meant three things: for big worries, the good Lord would take care of them; for little worries, one had one’s very own guardian angel to take care of them; and for oneself the main requirement was to be ‘good’, which could be achieved through careful examination of one’s own conscience. But the thought did drop unbidden into my mind, standing here in the crowd in Tavira, that it would be rather better if this procession was all about praising the vastly intelligent natural system of which we humans are just a part, rather than a god we invented for ourselves and in our own image. And that if we humans hadn’t somehow decided that the Earth was all about us, and for our benefit, we perhaps wouldn’t be making such a mess of it, extracting every last, non-renewable, one-time-only resource from it and allowing a tiny few to get rich in the process. (Writer Arundhati Roy calls this resource extraction ‘a dream come true for businessmen – to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.’)

And I realised my transition into a tree-hugging hippie was almost complete.

Good Friday procession

Good Friday procession. Candlelight is hard to photograph, and has given one woman a halo

Letters to the president

I kept my promise to myself to participate in the Tavira Câmara’s ten-year policy review. I used the participation forms and followed the instructions to deliver comments in a three-part format: Framework, Consequences and Proposal. I shared with the president (aka the mayor) my thoughts on organic agriculture, the market hall in Tavira, tourism, oil/gas extraction, plastic greenhouses, and plastic waste. I did all this in very bad Portuguese, like an earnest but dull schoolgirl. I’m glad I bothered to take part, but I don’t think I’ve changed the world.

Music and protest

The churches of Tavira at night, one: the surviving Gothic door of Santa Maria do Castelo

The churches of Tavira at night, one: the surviving Gothic doorway of Santa Maria do Castelo

The churches of Tavira at night, two: the church of Santiago, stacked up on a slope

The churches of Tavira at night, two: Santiago, stacked up on a slope (with Santa Maria do Castelo behind)

The church of Santa Catarina, in the sunlight

The church of Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, in the sunlight

Two concerts this week: an organ concert in the beautiful, Baroque-tiled-interior of the Misericórdia church of Tavira (more of that in a moment), and a Christmas concert by the Banda Musical de Tavira in the church of Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, our local village. Heaven-sent rain ruled out the walk we thought of doing on Sunday, and that’s how we got to go to the Christmas concert. It was billed to start at 3 p.m.

We arrived in the village at about ten to three. The church doors were firmly closed. A lonely musician stood outside a side entrance. We went to the café instead. At two minutes to three, several battered vans rolled up in the village, full of musicians. Now we understood that three o’clock had been the meeting time for the band, not the start of the concert. Something new to learn every day.

The band arrived

The band arrived

We finished our bicas and went to see what was happening. It was clearly still too early but with the wooden church doors now wide open we went in. Like many Portuguese churches it is over-decorated and under-used, full of musty air, marble-effect flourishes and gilt scallops and swags. Pews were being moved back, chairs scraped and instruments tentatively parped as the concert band got themselves ready. At around three dozen members, they were going to outnumber the audience. Most of the musicians were young.

At about 3.40 p.m., the final music stand was tightened and the last of the instruments tested. The dapper but teacher-like conductor stepped up and the first piece began. A lump came instantly to my throat; tears pricked my eyes. I knew without turning my head that it was the same with Husband. I couldn’t look at him or we’d make a spectacle of ourselves. More people were being drawn into the church by the sound. The band were good, very good. It was unexpectedly moving. At intervals the conductor and a woman who was in some way responsible for the band gave impassioned, anti-consumerist speeches about the joy of music and the inner peace that is the essential message of Christmas. This country has soul.

Sound check

Sound check

The band played

The band played beautifully

The organ for Friday’s concert in Tavira’s Misericórdia church was a tiny, eighteenth-century one. The visiting Hungarian organist had wanted to play the music of Bach, Händel and Scarlatti, all born exactly 330 years ago, but a last-minute transfer from the nearby church of Santiago, whose eighteenth-century organ had a malfunction, meant a change of programme. To keep Händel in, the only possible piece for this organ was music he wrote for a musical clock. Nevertheless, it was all enchanting. Somehow the thumping in and out of organ stops only added to the exquisite atmosphere.

The organist, Gyula Szilágyi, making his introduction

The organist, Gyula Szilágyi, making his introduction



Husband and I made a fleeting appearance on Portuguese television this week. This is quite exciting – though you would have to be very determined to spot us in the crowd – but, much more importantly, it means that the campaign against oil exploration in the Algarve is gaining in exposure.

'An Algarve free of oil industry'

‘An Algarve free of oil industry’

We were in Faro outside the offices of the association of Algarve mayors (AMAL), waving banners in a gesture of both protest and solidarity while a meeting went on inside. It is quite difficult to show solidarity and make a protest at the same time, but since our gathering was conducted in a love-and-peace way it worked out all right. We were there to support the goodies, the mayors of the Algarve, who have just found out that they’ve been sold down the river, their beautiful land handed over by central government to a bunch of oil and gas companies for exploration and exploitation, and simultaneously to register our protest against the baddies, the Entidade Nacional para o Mercado de Combustiveis, a sort of quango of dinosaur-like, fossil-fuel crazies. The baddies’ leader, Paulo Carmona, came out of the meeting saying: ‘But if we find lots of oil and gas we’ll be rich!’, showing himself to have been blind and deaf for the last few decades to anything but the sight and sound of money, and even there he’s missed the mark: which is that there’s a glut of oil on the markets right now and it’s never been cheaper nor – surely to God, in the light of the recent Paris agreement – less desirable. Perhaps he wants to turn Portugal into a pale imitation of its former colony Angola, whose capital Luanda is currently the most expensive city in the world to live in thanks to oil; whose country is despoiled and whose people, the vast vast majority of them, are ever further removed from a decent future. But, remember, Portugal has soul, and soul will win the day . . .

Bom Natal

Bom Natal

Back again


Dancing on the square in the sun: this was how the climate march on 29 November began in Tavira

Dancing on the square in the sun: this was how the climate march on 29 November began in Tavira

Our local version of the march was focused on the protest against the oil companies who’ve been given fracking rights in the district of Tavira

Our local version of the march was focused on the protest against oil companies who’ve been given fracking rights here

No Oil in the Algarve

No Oil in the Algarve

I’m very happy to be writing the blog again. Technical problems caused a two-week break in transmission. (No help from the site hosts, who in fact made the problem worse. Resolved in the end by a family member. Thanks, Simon!) Being forcibly offline taught me something: that I can’t relinquish this blog easily. By coincidence, the technical problem arose at exactly the time when I would have stopped writing if I had stuck to my second promise: to keep it up only for a full Algarve year. Our first anniversary of living here was on 21 November. It is not given to us individually to know when our days on earth will end, and I have realised that nor is it given to me to know when this blog will end. It has a life of its own.

Also, I’m stopping counting the weeks. I only started that because of the first promise, when I began the blog in London, which was to write once a week for a year and cover the whole process of selling up and moving and settling in to a new place. (I got to Week 52 and found I couldn’t give up then.)

So, to catch up. A couple of weeks ago we drove north into the Alentejo plains. It’s an extraordinary place of big skies and dazzling light. You feel like you are standing on a giant upturned bowl inside a blue glass dome. It was an appropriate setting for the big birds we saw there: Cranes and Great Bustards. (Around a week later we would be at the other end of the Crane migration route in eastern Germany, as part of a trip to see friends and family.) And it was home to big, fat, jazzily striped spiders like this one, which it turns out is very common hereabouts.

Argiope bruennichi

Argiope bruennichi. The abdomen is about the size of a thumbnail

Another view of Mrs Argiope and her dinner

Another Mrs Argiope, and her dinner

We visited Mértola on the way back to the Algarve. Like Tavira, our beautiful local city, and many other Portuguese towns, it dates from long before the founding of the nation of Portugal in 1143. Despite being some distance inland, Mértola was a trading port used by Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Knights of the Order of Santiago and on into recent times by copper traders, thanks to the navigability of the Guadiana river. A typical Portuguese city layout is of narrow winding streets and many small squares, with commercial activities on the riverside and administration and authority (be it religious or other) on the hill: Mértola fits this model, and so does Tavira.

I’m in the process of exploring and learning everything I can about Tavira for reasons I will explain in a future blog. It was largely as a ploy to get inside one of Tavira’s many churches – the big wooden doors usually remain resolutely shut – that on Saturday 14 November I went to see a Fado singer at the Igreja de São Francisco on Zacarias Guerreiro square.

It was the day after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Husband didn’t feel up to the sadness of Fado, though as Portuguese writer and poet Pessoa explained in a magazine article he wrote in 1929: ‘Fado is neither happy nor sad … [it] is the weariness of the strong soul.’ And, like I said, I was mostly just keen to see inside the church. The concert was part of the Música nas Igrejas (Music in Churches) cycle of Tavira’s music academy.

What a joy it was. The fadista, Sara Gonçalves, filled the crumbling, neglected Baroque interior with her fine voice. A couple of songs even had sing-along choruses. It was a truly uplifting experience.

Fado in the church

Fado in the church

Sara G1

The music of a strong soul


Solar power

The solar panels were installed on the hillside a good few weeks ago, and the battery of batteries, converters and transformers arranged in the control shed soon after, and ever since I’ve been quiet on the subject. That’s because it didn’t work at first. We would run the house on solar power and as soon as one of the big electrical beasts came into operation, like the dishwasher or the oven, the whole system would trip and we’d be powerless, lightless, waterless and phoneless. Get it back on and it would trip again. It seems that to begin with, the distribution around the various circuits wasn’t set up optimally. It took another couple of visits from the two experts, a lot of head-scratching and a fair amount of cussing, but now, finally, it works. We’re on solar power! It’s a really good feeling.

Week 60: Cherubs

The beach: it might be the height of summer, but there’s still plenty of space on the sand

The beach: it might be the height of summer, but there’s still plenty of space on the sand

The inviting sea

The inviting sea

Husband’s new recipe dinkel/spelt bread: taste and texture perfect

Husband’s new-recipe dinkel/spelt bread: taste and texture perfect

We said goodbye to our latest family visitors – parents and three small children – and sat in the back garden, the din slowly receding from memory. The despotic rule of tiny, highly mobile and newly verbal human beings was over, though it’s worth pointing out that, judging by the eldest child, the development trajectory into reason and reasonability seems to be a short and fast one.

As our eardrums readjusted to the quiet, we noticed something moving up the trunk of the carob tree a few feet away. Its disguise was perfect; it looked exactly like the bark. If it hadn’t been moving, we’d never have noticed it. It twisted its neck and showed the side of its face, a chocolate-brown stripe running down through its eye. It was a wryneck (Jynx torquilla): little bigger than a sparrow, and a member of the woodpecker family. A bird not often seen.

I mention the Latin name because it’s an interesting one. We get the word ‘jinx’ from here. In ancient Greek and Roman times the bird was believed to have magical powers, enabling lovers to win the heart of the one they wanted. This called for some jiggery-pokery involving tying the poor bird to a wheel and spinning it. The second part of the name, torquilla or ‘little twister’, describes the behaviour that might have given rise to its reputation for supernatural abilities. When threatened, the bird can twist and squirm its neck like a snake, hissing and darting out its long, ant-eating tongue.

Ants are, apparently, the wryneck’s favourite food. If that’s the case, then frankly it could be eating them a whole lot faster. I’m generally at ease with the insect life around here but ants inside the house have only themselves to blame when they get squashed or sprayed. Interestingly, the more despotic the child, the more keen they were to save the ants. The oldest one, the one subject to reason, was happy to assist me in killing them. Whether this is down to innate character or development stage, only time will tell.


The câmara at Tavira has just completed the renovation of one of the town’s many churches: that of São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo, the mariners’ church. It’s fascinating – even if you don’t like chubby cherubs and gilt. For me the most interesting part is the wooden ceiling: a trompe-l’oeil effect intended to give the impression of much greater height than the reality. It was painted in 1766 – i.e. soon after the 1755 earthquake when so many buildings were damaged and had to be wholly or partially rebuilt – by one Luis António Pereira, and is said to be his only known piece of work. By the twenty-first century the wood had rotted but the paintwork had more or less held together. The entire ceiling got taken to Lisbon for renovation and then returned to be part of the restored and reopened church. The original work was not immensely skilled, I’d say, and perhaps that’s why Pereira wasn’t asked to do any more. Or did he have an attitude problem? It was very hard to avoid noticing these cheeky cherubs, after all …

Detail: trompe-l'oeil ceiling. Did the eighteenth-century painter have a sense of humour? Or have I spent too long in the company of children recently, such that in a beautifully restored church I could only focus my attention on something infantile?

Detail: trompe-l’oeil ceiling. Did the eighteenth-century painter have a sense of humour, or did he bear a grudge against someone? (Or have I been infantilised by the company of small children into being fascinated by this detail?)

São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo himself, thirteenth-century patron saint of mariners. Missing from his right hand is the candle he is supposed to hold – perhaps it’s just too hot and the candle would go limp . . .

Here he is, São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo, thirteenth-century Portuguese patron saint of mariners

Week 51: Penultimate

My beautiful bountiful bougainvillaea

My beautiful, bountiful bougainvillaea

Alfarroba/carob, laden with beans

Alfarroba/carob, laden with green pods

Our little jacaranda tree about to burst into flower

Little jacaranda tree about to burst into flower

Prickly pear growing like there's no tomorrow

Prickly pear growing like there’s no tomorrow

Among our fruit trees: don't know yet what it is

Among our fruit trees: don’t know yet what it is

We have registered our land at the survey office (cadastro) and have bought our marker stones

We have registered our land at the survey office (cadastro) and bought our marker stones


The sparrows continue to feed their offspring almost non-stop. The sounds coming from the mud nest are more sonorous, more mature, but no less demanding – if anything, more so. The open beaks appear right at the mouth of the tunnel; the parent birds no longer need to enter the nest as they deposit clusters of wings and legs into the gaping maws of their offspring as frequently and as fast as they can. How the soon-to-be fledglings can reach so high up from within their enclosure I don’t know. Three possibilities occur to me: 1) the bottom of the nest was largely filled in by all the finery the sparrows imported into it; 2) the babies are now strong enough to climb up the interior walls; 3) the birds are huge. Number 3 surely cannot be true. All the same, I imagine the birds now as gangly teenagers. Any day and they will emerge awkwardly and shrug, bored already, then fly off.

The red-rumped swallows have not abandoned us completely, but they are building a new nest elsewhere. I watched one collecting dust in its beak from outside our front terrace. It looked so formal standing on the ground, its shiny cloak draped over its square little shoulders, the matching cap perched so smartly on top of its head.


The Algarve is my home, this house here at the end of the world, but ‘home’ in a wider sense also means the United Kingdom; I realised that this week. I voted in the UK general election, having applied for a postal vote in London’s Tower Hamlets – the last place I was on the electoral register is where my vote counts – which arrived with its own pre-paid envelope for return. I don’t believe I can vote in a general election here. Also, I earn my income in the UK, and pay taxes on it in the UK. I now have an additional tax liability in Portugal, but it should be small. One day I hope to have a state pension from the UK. What happens in the UK matters to me in practical as well as emotional ways.

And therefore if, now that a referendum on EU membership is to go ahead, the country votes ‘out’, I shall be thoroughly fed up (but also glad in that event to be a resident outside of the UK). Then there is the matter of the Human Rights Act. I have carried this slip of paper around with me for a quarter of a century:

Speaks for itself

The thirty articles of the UDHR

It’s a sort of talisman. A reason to believe in the human race. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948 by the UN; it was then given a specific European context in 1950 in the form of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK was among the Convention’s founders and, in 1951, one of its first ratifiers. Later, the Human Rights Act of 1998 gave the European Convention effect in British law (and meant you didn’t have to go to Strasbourg for a human-rights case). The new government say they want to abolish the HRA and replace it with a bill of rights with ‘a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged’ (words from their own strategy paper, entitled, apparently without irony, ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’). And if the Council of Europe doesn’t like it, ‘the UK would be left with no alternative but to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights’ (same source). All of this is confusing and troubling. But perhaps that strategy paper is already in the bin for the rubbish it palpably is, its author Grayling now replaced by Gove. Perhaps it all looks worse from afar. Perhaps it looks worse from a country where dictatorship – and lack of human rights – is well within living memory.

Next week, whether it be the last of this blog or no – and I really do need to decide about that – I promise to go back to writing about the natural beauty of this part of the world, and how I love it and am sustained by it. And also my pratfalls in Portuguese, such as asking the vegetable seller in the market for half a kilo of chickens while pointing at the strawberries. I was searching for the word morangos (strawberries) when I got mental interference from French (fraises) and came out with frangos (chickens). It happens. She laughed.

Week 46: Easter egg

The streets of São Bras de Alportel decorated ready for the Festa das Tochas Floridas: the flower-torch festival

The streets of São Brás de Alportel decorated for the Festa das Tochas Floridas on Easter Sunday: the flower-torch festival

One of thousands of flower patterns

One of the many flower patterns

The firefighters' flower plaque: with a phoenix rising from the nasturium flames

The firefighters’ wild-fennel and flower plaque: a phoenix rises from the nasturtium flames

I think this girl knew she'd be photographed a lot, so she wore a shirt with a cheeky message for everyone

Hard at work early in the morning. I think this girl knew she’d be photographed a lot, so she wore a shirt with a cheeky message for everyone

The 'aleluia' moment

The procession: the flower torches must have been in their hundreds

Here and there in our valley, orange trees drenched in blossom are saturating the air with exquisite scent and competing with the hitherto dominant amber tones of the gum cistus. Even our own little mandarin tree is making a good showing.

On Easter Saturday I dropped in at Flaviano’s to check for post, and was met by three persons standing in a row: Father Christmas, Flaviano and a pleasantly round-faced woman of uncertain age. I greeted them. The woman returned the greeting in a very friendly way; Flaviano was reserved, as he sometimes is, usually just before breaking into a broad smile or a cackle. Santa was silent.

You might wonder why Father Christmas (see Week 31) is still in the picture at Easter. We did ask Flaviano a few weeks ago, and he said that Santa only lived next door in the store room – which is where we go through the piles of envelopes for any addressed to us. I had never noticed Santa lurking in there before he came out for Christmas proper, but never mind. The reasoning went: since he would only be in the next room anyway, he might as well stay out here in the front.

As I was checking for post, the friendly woman came and offered me a wedge of something to eat. With its cross-section of hard-boiled egg, it looked like pork pie. I rarely say no to food, so I took it and bit in. It was cake, with a rather bread-like texture, a hint of aniseed in the flavour and enclosing a boiled egg. Disconcertingly, the egg was still in its shell. The texture of the cake gave it away as home-made, which is always a pleasure, but grinding through the eggshell was less so. It’s a traditional Easter cake, folar de Páscoa, she said.

Back at home research revealed that a hard-boiled egg in its shell is part of the folar deal. In some versions the boiled egg is put on top of the cake and held in place with strips of pastry; in others, such as the one I had, it is buried inside the cake. My main question went unanswered, however. So I turned to the owner of a restaurant we went to on Sunday night – a beautiful place in the hills, traditional Portuguese with a fine-dining flair and one of our favourite places to go out to.

‘Are you supposed to eat the shell?’

‘No,’ he said immediately, smiling. It seems that this is rather like asking an Englishman if you are supposed to eat the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. Though how you delicately and discreetly avoid eating shell, I’m still not sure.

Early on an overcast Easter Sunday we went to São Brás de Alportel to watch the streets being laid with flowers for the Festa das Tochas Floridas. After Mass the men process from the church through the decorated streets, lifting their flower torches in response to the call, ‘Ressuscitou como disse’ – He has risen, as He said – and shouting three times, ‘Aleluia!’ The flowers on the tarmac soon get scattered, and by the end of the day are swept away. (With thanks to Fiona for the photographs; I had a camera/competence malfunction that day.)

Guarda Nacional Republicana

Easter festivities end on a Sunday; on Monday it is back to work. And on Monday we had a visit from a policeman. The GNR vehicle rolled up outside our front terrace and stopped. Unsure what else to do, I said good morning. The policeman smiled and returned the greeting. He asked for Mr Sensible; of course, we explained that we were now the owners, then he asked if he could come in.

Handshakes all round and first-name introductions. Our rising concerns were quickly dissipated. The purpose of his visit was to explain about the Programa Residencia Segura, the safe residence programme. All remote houses are allocated a reference number and a GPS setting so that they can be quickly and easily found in case of emergency. We now have a record of our number so we can quote it if needed.

Friends have been staying with us this week. One of the great things about having friends to stay is the collective enthusiasm that gets generated. With Fiona and Mike, we did two things we had never done before:

  1. We finally swam in the river. It was lovely.
  2. We bought a chandelier.
Even our small but bountiful mandarin tree adds to the citrus blossom scent

Our very own small but highly scented mandarin tree

The chandelier, which came from a flea market in Tavira, will be the finished touch in the kitchen (note: the ceilings are very high)

The chandelier, from a flea market in Tavira, will be the finishing touch in the kitchen (the ceilings here are very high)

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