We live here

Seeds

Our land – the straw-covered area – seen from a distance. It seems to have its own microclimate already . . . Photo taken in March

Green huntsman spider in the cabbage patch

 

A thoughtful conversation with a nature guide in the western Algarve – in Sagres, to be exact – went something like this:

Me – For me, this area is unbelievably beautiful, but I can understand why young people have the need or the desire to leave it to make money or satisfy their curiosity.

She – Yes, and often they are encouraged to do so. You know, I work in schools and sometimes I try to get different generations together. So I got a local woman of ninety years old to show the schoolchildren her garden. She was fit and well and she tended this beautiful garden that provided food and flowers. It was small but it was simple and perfect. And I thought, why isn’t that a worthy aim in itself? Why should that kind of life be denied to young people? Why can’t we dignify the process of making a garden, of growing food?

I’ve been writing this blog for three years now, and I’m about to stop – I’ll come to that in a minute – and while I want to stop, I’m also glad I started it, because it has helped give shape to the past three years and has given me, at least, a record of how I, and we, felt about this move, and why we did it and what it meant. Looking back, a pattern has emerged that I didn’t see at the outset. I wasn’t following a plan. It was an impulse. It was an impulse that grew out of being with my father when he died and gaining a visceral understanding that life’s strongest quality was that it was finite, that it would come to an end. This understanding, deep, sad, but also oddly freeing, was my father’s gift to me. It was a seed sown that grew quickly into a desire to sell up, to leave the big city, to leave stressful jobs and, on the basis of a short holiday in the Algarve, to move here. It didn’t make obvious sense, but I was impelled, and Husband was compelled, and it quickly became clear that it was as desirable an option for him as it was for me. A lot of people said this move was brave but it never felt like that.

The Algarve is a very beautiful and, in some areas, unspoilt place to live, especially if you manage to find somewhere quiet, like we did, but still not far – 45 minutes’ walk or about 15 minutes in Rollie, the Renault 4 – from a thriving small village. We went there on Friday night. Someone we know was playing music, keyboards and bongos, along with a drummer with the full kit, and it was a brilliant night. What is a café by day becomes a pub by night with all ages in it, and people anarchically smoking, and the woman from whom we pick up post in the junta de freguesia turning her hand to serving beer and making gin and tonics. At least, she made me a gin and tonic, while saying that she didn’t know how to make it, and that meant she made a very fine one and wasn’t mean with the gin at all. The very best part of the evening, though, was before we got there. Just a short distance outside the village, less than a kilometre, we were startled by movement beside us on the dark road. Seven wild boar, five of them humbug-striped piglets, were scrambling up the embankment to get out of our way. Nature is alive and well here, even if the hunters will be out to try to shoot them one day.

In all those years of living in the city and mostly enjoying the endless stimulation, I hadn’t realised how much I missed the natural environment. I had an undiagnosed craving for it: both physical and mental. Physically it was my lungs making the loudest complaint. Mentally: that’s a bit more complex to analyse and I don’t have the space here. A friend once said to me that all culture – the arts – was nothing but a substitute for nature, for man who has separated himself from it. She was quoting a writer I can no longer recall. It seemed a slightly outlandish idea then, but not now.

The city may be endlessly stimulating but it is also endlessly demanding: it insists that you consume, that you keep up; it forces you struggle to move through crowds, it forces you to struggle to breathe. It forces you to forget what really makes the world go round, which isn’t endless economic growth, despite what the newspapers and radio tell us. I tune into Radio 4 from time to time, and I am still dismayed at the need to report whether the UK economy has grown and by how much. According to the most recent report I heard just a couple of days ago, most of this limited growth was down to consumer spending, but that was all to the good, just so long as the confidence was kept up and the people kept spending, be it money or credit. The further away you get from this notion, the more powerfully insane it seems to be.

We have got rather far away from that. I find I want things much less than I used to; I need artificial/cultural stimulation much less, too. Having plants and animals growing all around me is stimulating. I have planted seeds and green shoots have appeared. Miraculous. I made lots of mistakes – and have many more mistakes to make, too – and one of those was planting too many seeds all at once. The profusion of shoots for which I feel responsible is rather overwhelming. Gardening advice is to thin them out. Thin them! That’s a euphemism for killing them, these tiny scraps of miraculous growth-potential.

Oh, I do have a tendency to take things too seriously.

I can see three stages, now, in our life here. The first was marked by curiosity. An abundant yellow flower with clover-like leaves coated the hills around us the first winter we lived here. I couldn’t identify it to begin with. It took me a while to pin it down as the Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae. Naming it was an important first stage in my life here. The fresh green cover it gave to winter land seemed such a good thing.

By the second year, I hated the plant. It was ‘a highly invasive weed’ that took over ‘disturbed land’. It was taking a hold in our garden. I spent a lot of time pulling it out by the roots. This second stage was characterised by activism. We were protesting against the plans to explore and drill for oil and gas in the seas around the Algarve and on the land. Learning that these contracts were in place was a terrible shock and we were determined to do all we could to stop them.

By the third year, I started to see the Bermuda buttercup in a different light. It was a pioneer. It came to disturbed land to clothe it fast; Nature hates bare soil. The oxalis came to sink roots and stabilise and nourish the exposed earth. The bare track made across our land by the builders of our swimming pool became covered with the yellow flower, and I looked upon it favourably. When it started to die down, many other plants – weeds, too, to some of you – started to fill up the area that had been rescued and made more habitable by the Bermuda buttercup.

Our third stage here is characterised by acceptance – not a giving in but an acceptance of limitations. I’m even more conscious that the ever-increasing speed of human ‘growth’ is destroying the very soil we live on. I’m signing petitions and marching against the destruction of the environment and the hastening of man-made climate change when I can. I’m still utterly opposed to the Algarve being turned into a region of hydrocarbon production, and I know the government cannot be trusted because they respond to the same ‘economic-necessity’ argument as everyone else in power around the globe. But I’ve also come to understand that what we do here in our backyard is what matters most. We – Husband and I – are only a short way into our lives here. We have so much to learn; perhaps we will never stop learning. What matters to us is to leave this patch of land a little better than we found it, with richer soil, all the better to hold and release water (and sequester carbon), more microbes, more growth of every botanical kind, more insects, more birds, more life . . .

I’m still not above a bit of natural engineering when I can and I was very happy when I managed to dissuade the barn swallows from taking over the red-rumped swallows’ nest. Now we have both birds. We can sit on the veranda at the front of the house and have barn and red-rumped swallows swimming through the air around us and filling it with their distinctive voices. Soon they will be raising young. The red-rumped swallows have learnt from their mistake of last year when the tunnel entrance to their mud nest faced our front door. Now they have canted the entrance around by more than 90 degrees so that it faces along the length of the veranda. In fact, it faces where the barn swallows are. This might be passive-aggressive.

Golden orioles have arrived in the valley with their eye-catching lacquered yellow bodies and black wings. Bee-eaters float overhead, their sound like children practising playing the recorder. Nightingales sing from stands of cane by the river. Birds everywhere are in full voice. I’ve only just noticed that a bird can sing without opening its beak. A blackbird, its beak full of nesting material, sang a beautiful song this morning, the movement of its throat the only clear evidence that it was the source of the music.

Writing this blog helped me understand what we were doing, it helped me to keep in touch with old friends and even to make new ones, but now is the right time to stop. After all, I have so many things to do.

‘I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.’

Henry David Thoreau

Red-rumped swallow finishing off the nest. You can see the footprint of the old entrance about 90 degrees to the right

Off to fetch more mud. When completed, the nest was lined with straw. Feathers will be the final touch

Barn swallow on the washing line

May Day figure. ‘Old as I am, I’m cooking snails, and you who’ve stopped for a look, would you give me a hand because I can’t quite remember the recipe’

Her great-grandson with a modern media message

Who keeps putting these stickers on Stop signs?

Anniversary

rosemary

Rosemary for remembrance. The plant is highly scented, dripping with flowers and humming with bees just now

 

On 21 November we celebrated (with a fine bottle of Alentejo red, ‘moon-harvested’, and a log fire) two years of living in this house in the Algarve, a move we’ve never regretted, a change that turned out even better than we thought it would.

Recently we have had plentiful rain – exactly like when we moved in – soaking the red earth and bringing dormant seeds to life. The cabbages and lettuces we planted look pert and healthy. No snails crawling over them but I’ll have to keep my eye on things. We haven’t established an adequate rainwater-collection system yet. Ideally we would have a system that funnels harvested rain straight into the cisterna under the front veranda. We’ve been making do with a water butt at the back of the house, which we dip into. The water running off the front roofs was not being captured. For now at least, we decided to buy some more butts.

‘Did you look up the Portuguese for water butt?’ asked Husband at the wheel of the car.

‘Oh, I forgot, and I forgot to bring a dictionary too.’

‘You could try your phone.’

Google Translate duly delivered bunda de água.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Me too. Notoriously unreliable means of translation, and it’s American English, which means a whole different take on ‘butt’. So I reverse-translated bunda and came up with ‘ass’, and I believe it’s not of the donkey variety. So if we’d trusted Google we’d have gone into the DIY place and asked a nice young man for some arse.

We weren’t born yesterday.

Not to say there aren’t a million things we still have to learn, and many more pitfalls to encounter. That’s just one we managed to avoid.

My list of things-to-learn gets longer all the time. Portuguese language remains top. The lessons with the new teacher, of whom I had such high hopes, have not gone well. No sooner had she bumped me up to level two than she decided I’d be better in level three, this being ‘conversation’, which is something of a stretch. I think it’s because – and I’m ashamed to admit it – I wore a rather impatient face throughout the lesson at level two. The class was largely conducted in English, with lateral conversations in French and Dutch, and I did get fed up.

Finding the right teacher and the right method of learning is surely more challenging than the language itself.

We’re waiting for the river to arrive. So too are the local junta de freguesia, who have been digging up the river bed while they still have the chance. They do this to get material to repair the parish roads – so I was told (in Portuguese) by the JCB driver when I went down to see what they were doing, and to give them a hard stare in case it was anything illegal or dodgy that was going on. He assured me it was all good, good for the riverbed and good for the roads. He was avuncular and polite and he opened the conversation with me and I appreciated that. He even said my Portuguese was good, which it is not, and might call into question the value he attaches to the word.

This is my last post for this year. I shall bring the blog back in 2017. I wish I could say ‘Happy new year’, but it would feel a bit fatuous. Such global uncertainties await us all, but Husband and I have finally opened our eyes to something close to home: our land. We’ve been treating the hillside we ‘own’ as a sort of embarrassment, describing ourselves as fleas claiming to own the dog. Well, no more fleas. We’re going to take that land on and nurture it. We’re going to create a ‘food forest’, following the principles of permaculture. It will take time to establish, and the list of things-to-learn just got impossibly long, but we have experts to learn from. Wish us luck!

PS Just before posting this blog, I drove off to see some neighbours. Rolie had a flat tyre and replacing that made me late but we’re all on Portuguese time so that was OK. Coming home, back down the track, I saw one lorry, then another, hauling away loads of the riverbed. I’d pulled over to let them by but the second truck came so slowly I wondered what was holding him up. Had he pulled aside and was waiting for me? But no. It was a hare, a beautiful, mottled-brown Iberian Hare with tall, black-fringed ears. He was zigzagging in front of the lorry and only when he came alongside me did he finally jink and run up the hillside. Little Edith’s heart was all a-flutter! This felt very special.

The neglected land . . .

The neglected land . . .

. . . and another view

. . . and another view

Chains

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the 'ghost' nest again. We still hope they will rebuild it. Plenty of mud by the river . . .

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the ‘ghost’ nest again and, what’s more, carrying mud to it in their beaks. Spots of the mud have fallen to the ground. I guess it takes a while to get the foundations to stick

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

 

We wake up to birdsong. We get up to find the kitchen covered in thrumming wires of ants. They crisscross the floor and travel up the walls. It doesn’t matter that we leave the kitchen spotless at the end of the day, it only takes a homeopathic trace of something sweet in an overlooked spot to bring them in overnight. Confident in nature’s sustainable surplus, we vacuum them up, the sound of the hoover drowning out the birdsong. This goes on for half an hour as they continue to stream in. Not only are we confident that the species will survive whatever we do to it, we are also confident that our own colony will survive whatever we do to it. Somewhere beneath the soil in the garden is an ant volcano, spewing ants.

After four days, they stopped coming in. The lava flow dried up. The message filtered back to the colony that the house was out of bounds.

Another distinctive note in the house’s soundscape this week has been a snake throwing its body against the garage door. I heard the strange bumping noise before I saw the cause. At the moment our eyes met, it stopped what it was doing and shot off to the other end of the garage wall to disappear around the side. Dark silvery grey on top, pale silver underneath, about 120cm long; I don’t know what kind of snake it is, but I did later discover what it had been trying to do. It had been trying to get back inside the hollow of the garage door.

The snake must have had a few days of calm when we weren’t using the garage. Probably thought it had made a very clever choice, this thoroughly modern dwelling, all angular and metallic. Then the solar engineers arrived and needed to use the garage space, and up and down, up and down went the door, the poor snake’s tail protruding from one side, its home turned into a hideous fairground ride. I think it’s gone somewhere else now. Human beings – we’re not easy to live with, are we?

These speak for themselves

Aljezur protest crosses

Human chain

We travelled east to west, to Aljezur on the other side of the Algarve, to take part in an anti-oil human chain. Aljezur is close to where the first offshore oil drilling is due to take place in July. The meeting time and place was three o’clock outside the town hall. It was quite a long drive but we arrived in good time at about twenty to.

Will we never learn? There was nobody there. Really, not a soul. We went away to drink coffee and came back at five past three, rather guiltily late, and now there were three or four souls there, quite a long way off the amount you’d need for a decent chain. So we hung around, and kicked our heels, and got into a conversation or two, and over the course of the next couple of hours the other links in the chain rolled up. It ended up as a very good solidarity event. Several hundred people, including the local mayor and other dignitaries, and plenty of press too. We made a good display, waving banners and singing and dancing.

It has to be said, it was not a risky chain. We were not surrounding an oil drill or heavy machinery or hostile operators. The only risky part was when two ends of the chain were instructed to move and set off in different directions, and Husband and I and our immediate neighbours somewhere in the middle got stretched out slightly more than was comfortable. The problem was resolved with the help of a loudspeaker, and the chain began moving with more singularity of purpose. We probably need to take chain lessons from ants.

The petition I mentioned last week needed at least 4000 signatures to give rise to a debate at the Assembleia about the west coast drilling plans. It has exceeded its minimum target.

No blog next week because of another kind of overstretch – workload. This means that the next time I write, the results of the UK’s referendum over its EU membership will be known. My postal vote has already been returned to Tower Hamlets in east London. I’ve voted to remain, but in two weeks’ time I might find myself out of sync with my countryfolk, and be typing through a veil of tears.

At Aljezur câmara

At Aljezur câmara

No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies

‘No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies’

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

 

When the heart is full . . .

. . . the tongue is empty. This is a saying from the Philippines, or at least how I remember it after many years. This week my heart is so full – with visits from friends, trips to places new and old, the extraordinary, ever-increasing spectacle of spring flowers – that my fingers are silent on the keyboard and pictures can tell the story instead.

At home:

lizard

Lizard. Photograph taken on front veranda by Joseph Karg

lavender2

Lavender

cistus

Rock rose: Cistus crispus

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Asphodel

Asphodel

Meadow

Meadow with shadow

Going back to Culatra:

Man on jetty

Man on jetty

Man on boat

Man on boat

Child on boat

Child on boat

Throwing rope

Throwing the rope

Century cross

Century cross

Worn umbrella

Worn umbrella

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Man in Olhão

Man in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Thank you for your support

Thank you for your support

 

Algarve watermill

The crumpled-tissue-paper flower of the gum cistus

The crumpled-tissue-paper flower of the Gum Cistus

Lavender is in flower now

Lavender is in flower now

Moorish Gecko and Common Fumitory

Moorish Gecko and, half in shade, Common Fumitory

Turtle in the river, pretending to be invisible

Turtle in the river, pretending to be invisible

 

Last Friday we rejoiced in the torrents of rain that hammered down for the whole day and much of the night. An even greater joy followed: the limpidity of the rained-out atmosphere. The past few days have been bright and clear, and the nights so dark and star-speckled they are, well, heavenly. Two babbling swallows alighted on the telegraph wire in front of the veranda one morning: the first swallows to arrive in our part of the valley. They are Barn Swallows; the Red-rumped we don’t expect to see for a few weeks yet. Our faithful Little Owl is becoming increasingly vocal, day and night. Its repeated ‘weeow’ call sounds like a yo-yo whistling through the air.

Husband is hard at work in the bakery as I type. The latest batch of loaves includes dark-rye Borodinsky breads for a Russian friend of a friend, for whom they taste of home. Some of these loaves will be swapped for a handmade Hoopoe nesting box. Hoopoes occupy the farmland just over the river, but this side is a bit too rough and ready for them with their elaborate, cabaret get-up. We are hoping to persuade them it’s quite refined over here really. As if we didn’t have enough birds! It’s pure greed. Keeping the sparrows out of the nest will be a job, too.

Abandoned millhouse

Abandoned millhouse

Watermill

I haven’t paid too much attention so far to the ruined watermill I pass every time I go down to the river. The gradually rotting caravan in one corner of the grounds, evidence of someone’s long-dead ambitions for the site, is off-putting for a start. Plus the land is, of course, private property. The ruin itself isn’t so eye-catching, nor are ruins a rarity round here. I couldn’t figure out how it could be a watermill anyway. Where was the race? Where would the large, vertical wheel have been positioned? Perhaps it was someone’s fanciful idea it had ever been a watermill. Then one day I noticed, having taken a little detour, that at the back of the ruin was a large, deep, rectangular depression: some kind of water storage.

Curiosity gradually got the better of me. This week I persuaded a friend with an interest in mills into trespassing with me. After all, the mill is unoccupied and for sale, so surely it’s OK to take a look. I not only had the benefit of his judgement on site, but also the resource of a splendid book he got hold of (being in fact an antiquarian bookseller rather than a mill engineer): Portugal’s Other Kingdom: The Algarve, published in 1963. The author is Dan Stanislawski, an American professor of historical geography. The book is brilliant. (Thank you, Robert Brown, and Becky B.)

Professor Stanislawski wrote: ‘A typical water mill of the Algarve is built with a vertical shaft. The grinding stones are at the upper end of the shaft, and at the other end are horizontal blades against which the force of water is directed. … [This] simple type … is certainly as old as the first century BC.’

So, nothing like the kind of watermill I am familiar with.

Inside the main room of the mill: there is a large cavity beneath the floor

Inside the main room of the mill: there is a large cavity beneath this floor. The beam here has descended from the roof

The back room of the mill

The back room of the mill

The streaked walls of the mill interior

Streaked walls

Bits of old millstone

Bits of old millstone in the main room

A cavity we found under the floor of the main room must have been where the horizontal blades operated. Among the rubble on the floor were segments of chased stone, which could only be from a broken millstone. The single room behind, several steps up, has a shaft at the rear, where perhaps a sluice-gate controlled the flow of water from the holding tank beyond. Later Husband pointed out that the water reservoir was just downstream of both a deep channel in the river and our neighbour Eleuterio’s abundant well. The mill could have operated not only when the river was running but also in the dry season, using the underground springs that feed the well. He also spotted, among the weeds in the grounds, two entire, pristine-looking millstones, which I had never noticed.

millstones in the grass

Millstones among the buttercups, ruin in the background

Recessed window

Recessed window in the main room

The roof falling in. You can see the structure: beams supporting canes, with semi-tubular handmade tiles from local clay arranged on top

The roof falling in. You can see the structure: beams supporting canes, with semi-tubular tiles made from local clay laid on top

River channel and well pump-house

Nearby river channel and well pump-house; as viewers we are standing downstream and the mill is behind us and to the right

I am the last person who should be trying to describe the workings of a watermill. My engineering skills are, let us say, undeveloped. I have the technological nous of a water rat (but that’s a little unfair on the rat). None the less, I am fascinated by this mill, and its technology that was – if the American professor is to be believed – in continuous use for two millennia, only to be abandoned in my meagre lifetime.

No, I cannot buy the mill. It is for sale at a commercial price on a tourism-potential ticket. One day someone will build a lovely house there, and the mill will be history.

Bufo bufo

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins were swimming through the air, sunlight turning them liquid

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins filled the air above, sunlight turning them liquid

River sparkle

River sparkle

Wading through the river in my new wellies

I can wade through the river in my new wellies

 

I arrived back from England wearing a pair of new, knee-length red wellies, which I’d found on sale in my mum’s village. I had worried about arcane airline regulations that prevent the wearing of long rubber footwear – who knows? – but they weren’t confiscated, though I did have to take them off to get through security. They are the Best Thing. The calf-length wellies that landed me in such cold water a couple of weeks ago have been cast aside, and in my knee-length ones I can wade properly through the river. I was happy to see the river hadn’t dried up in our absence, but equally it has never gone into spate like it did last year, when a torrent of brown water came down and filled the wide, shallow river bed from bank to bank.

At least there was enough water for the toads (Common Toad, Bufo bufo), who came into the water to mate. It was last week, just before we left for England. I saw something moving in the river: a squat and immobile thing, which pulled its head underwater on the approach of a human being but didn’t swim off like a turtle does. It turned out to be one of about half a dozen toads, each the size of a fat fist, waiting around for something to happen. The something was happening in one spot only, as you can see from the picture below. Whether there was only one female – the large one underneath is the female – and the others were males waiting their turn with her, I don’t know. I was disconcerted that they’d chosen one of the fording routes as their mating site and hoped they survived. Mind you, there is only about a car a day – usually ours.

Mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Underwater mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Bufo bufo waiting and hoping

Waiting and hoping

 

So when I returned from England in my wellies I went to see how the toads had got on. Clearly, mating had gone well. They must have all returned to their dry land sites because they were nowhere to be seen, but their translucent tubes of black eggs were left carelessly all over the place. The tubes often lay in pairs, looking like traffic-heavy dual-carriageways, following straight routes until forced to loop around rock obstructions, or piling up into occasional spaghetti junctions. This is Nature’s sustainable surplus at work. If all these eggs resulted in toads, the hillsides would be carpeted with them. As it is, only a tiny few of this vast number will survive. I had a go at working out how many eggs there might be; I quickly gave up. Even estimating the total length of tube wasn’t easy: certainly dozens of metres, maybe even a hundred. With so many eggs, and so few toads needed to sustain a stable population, the parents can afford to abandon them to fate – including the chance of being run over.

Toad egg roads - found on our return

Toad egg roads all through the river at the ford – found on our return

Toad eggs: Nature's miraculous abundance

Toad eggs: Nature’s miraculous abundance

 

Lemons

The lemon trees around here are doing a good job of sustainable surplus too. We had a picnic with friends among sobreiros (Quercus suber; cork oak trees) just before we left for England. It was a perfect day for walking and sunny enough for picnicking. On our way there, driving up the two-kilometre dirt track that is the high street of our local community, we passed Maria and pulled up for a chat. I had a Bulgarian cheese pie cooling on my lap – my contribution to the picnic. ‘She makes nice things,’ said Maria to Husband. (When your Portuguese isn’t that good, you get talked about more than to. I’m happy with that – I can listen in, like a child, trying to learn.) Husband said it was for a picnic, and then Maria insisted we take armfuls of their oranges to add to the spread. Theirs are the sweetest, juiciest oranges, so we were happy to. She also exhorted us to help ourselves to the abundant lemons. As we reached into the trees, gently twisting the fruit to see which were ready to fall into our hands, Maria said how much she liked a chocolate cake I’d made recently. It had been too much cake for us – the mood to bake a cake had arrived but without enough mouths at home to eat it – so when Eleuterio appeared on his tractor I had offered him a quarter to take away. It was very well received. ‘I like to bake cakes,’ I explained to Maria, in a sudden burst of Portuguese. ‘And I like to eat them,’ she replied, grinning broadly. She was less impressed, however, with my plans to preserve the excess of lemons with salt. Sweetness rules the day.

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, along with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Two cities

Output from Husband's Pica-pão bakery

Recent output from Husband’s Pica-pão bakery

Peak almond has been reached. The petals are falling, and new trees will step into the blossom breach

Peak almond has been reached. The petals are falling, and new trees will step into the blossom breach

 

I had no idea when we moved here that I would love it quite so much. It was a gamble, and an adventure. We chose to live in a place that was remote. It couldn’t have been more of a change from living in the heart of London. You can’t nip out to buy something you forgot. You can nip out to see what bird is calling, though. Serins are now filling the air with their glass-beads-breaking songs. Husband, who seems to have distance hearing – while not always hearing what I have said when standing next to him – says he has heard both cuckoos and orioles in the valley this week. Frogs have started up their rattling noises. The pervasive Bermuda Buttercup is starting to share its realm with more, and more interesting, flowers.

We went to Lisbon for the weekend. Lisbon was a small place to my London eyes, but now it has grown. We arrived by train, travelling over the Twenty-fifth of April bridge across the river Tejo. Beyond the industrial riverside, you see the coloured frontages of the old buildings stacked one on top of the other. The big city!

The Torre de Belém, half a millennium old (I confess I didn't go inside; even out of season there was a queue)

The Torre de Belém, half a millennium old (I confess I didn’t go inside; even out of season there was a queue)

The rose window of Lisbon Sé

The rose window of Lisbon Sé

Lisbon tiles

Building in Campo de Santa Clara. Tiles by Luis Ferreira, aka Ferreira das Tabuletas

Old commercial tiling

Old commercial tiling

Old tram route 28: a favourite for tourists, including me

Old tram route 28: a favourite for tourists, including me

Old Lisbon tram

Old Lisbon tram

Lisbon theatre lobby floor

Lisbon theatre lobby floor

I slot back into city life very easily. City modes make sense to me. I have city clothes, which need an outing. I have a city outlook. I put on my city goggles and wonder if it made sense to leave city life. Then after four days we came back home late in the evening to a black sky glittering with stars. I gulped lungfuls of clean air and remembered all over again why we live here.

No blog next week because I shall be in England, and I’m keeping this one short because last week I wrote way over my self-imposed limit. I was, and remain, very exercised about the possibility of fossil-fuel zombies moving into the Algarve. Living close to nature forces you to cherish it; you cannot put on city goggles here among the trees and the birds. The zombies haven’t gone away. An oil-rig spotted off the coast of Tavira caused a lot of anxiety but it seems to have been a rig being transported to another area – not that that makes it better, but it does make it a zombie out of reach of our own wooden stakes. We can’t kill them all; I’m not sure if we can kill any. One political party, part of the governing coalition, has come out saying that it is in favour of cancelling the existing oil contracts; will it happen? Please god let it happen. The ENMC (the fossil-fuel authority) still don’t ask the question why they exist, only how they can keep doing what they do. Cars are a problem. My own beloved Rolie will be redundant one day, and that day shouldn’t be too far away. Car-ownership is expensive in Portugal because of high duties – a golden opportunity to bring in electrical cars at lower duties and enhance their take-up? Who knows.

The road to nowhere

I can never tire of our river

I can never tire of our river

river1 river2

Some of this week's bread

Some of this week’s bread

We may be at the back of beyond but many roads lead here. For Rolie, the Renault 4, the only possible route is our ‘main’ one; you need an off-road vehicle for the rest. You take a turning off the main east–west road, close to our local big village. The road condition deteriorates somewhat but it’s still a road. It goes up to a pass – not too high, we’re in the hills not the mountains here – then drops down, past Flaviano’s emporium with his never-ending Christmas, until it reaches a concrete bridge over the river. It’s a simple bridge with no sides. It probably never had any sides but a visiting boy, thinking it looked dismantled, asked us if that was because James Bond movies were filmed around here.

From there it’s a fairly steep ascent and a sharp bend, then you come to a turn-off. Now you are off the tarmac and on to the dirt. It’s a couple of kilometres along this track until you reach the river, where we live, and where there are two fording points if you want to go on any further. The second of these fords is the closest to our house and it’s the one strangers come a-cropper on. They will have driven on until the dirt road runs out and must either give up, turn round and go back or attempt the route to the river, which means driving over a rocky lip and down a footpath. Farmers can do it in their tractors and pickups; saloon and estate-car drivers cannot. It’s worse for people coming up from the river, which happens in the summer sometimes. The lip at the top of the path will defeat them. We come out at the sound of spinning wheels and spitting pebbles to recommend they reverse out of their predicament and take another route.

If you can get across the river, which is still possible even now, while it isn’t in spate, there’s an immediate choice of three dirt roads, which branch off into more and more tracks, some of ever-decreasing size. From here you can end up in neighbouring villages or eventually re-emerge at some point along the main east–west road. It was one of these routes that led a couple of weeks ago to the burst tyre, and the spotting of the fire salamander when we completed our journey home by foot.

In winter, without our neighbours here, we see an average of one vehicle a day, and it’s probably a tractor. Occasionally on a weekend there is the short-lived nuisance of a dirt bike. We don’t hear any other vehicle; the main roads are too far away for even a distant hum to reach us. We live with birdsong.

A Common Buzzard has recently taken up residence here. Its Portuguese name – the ‘round-winged eagle’ – is so much more charming than its English one. It isn’t welcomed by the foraging flocks of smaller birds we have around: Goldfinches, Serins, particularly the Azure-winged Magpies. The magpies, in their smart uniform of fawn with air-force-blue wings and neat black cap, are a rather military bird. Impossibly elegant in their dress uniform but with manners that do not match, they have taken to squawking at and mobbing the buzzard, who hunches rather pathetically in a too-small medronho (strawberry bush) until giving up and flying off. I wonder why the magpies are so bullish when they don’t have any young to protect. I guess it comes with the uniform.

The real road to nowhere: fossil fuel

And I can’t stop thinking about how all this could be lost, not just for us, but for everyone in the Algarve and for everyone who loves to come here. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet signed the petition against oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the Algarve, and would like to, please click on the link. Ta very much.

Tavira river

I never tire of Tavira either: the river Gilão reflecting the streetlights

tavira castle

Tavira’s castle by night. Original fortifications were built by the Moors, then rebuilt in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Portuguese kings

tavira parish church

Santa Maria do Castelo, the main parish church. After the 1755 earthquake, it was too damaged to be in use; the nearby Miséricordia took over as the parish church until 1800. The beautiful Baroque azulejos (tiles) of Miséricordia date from 1760 and perhaps it was the church’s elevated, albeit temporary, status that made their shipping in from Lisbon a possibility

 

Winter

Husband's bread

Husband’s latest bread

The rushing river

The rushing river

Clouds over the valley

Clouds over the valley

 

The river is very talkative these days. We’ve had so much rain that it babbles loudly. We can hear it from the front terrace, adding a new track to the bird sounds that accompany sunny breakfasts. Only two such breakfasts have been possible in this week of cloud cover. The well is liquid again and allowed us a second cisterna top-up of the month; this is the water tank under the front terrace, which supplies water to the house. A mathematical error in its building means that it is unusually capacious – 30,000 litres instead of the intended 15,000 – and we have managed to get it about three-quarters full, which is good.

Winter is a beautiful time in the Algarve. I love the cool brightness of it, the lushness of the hills, the crystal water that gushes from our well, the quietude in local towns; I love the fact that daytime is always temperate, if not warm, while night-time calls out for a fire to be lit.

Manueline

I’ve been exploring Tavira some more. The town was at the height of its success in the sixteenth century. Dom Manuel I was on the throne until 1521, and known as ‘the Fortunate’ for the wealth that came in through the spices and gold of India and Africa. His name was subsequently given to the predominant architectural style of the era, Manueline, also known as Portuguese late Gothic. The armillary sphere, a navigational device represented by a globe or half-globe encircled by bands, is a key Manueline symbol. No surprise there, with the astonishing success of Portuguese navigators and the riches pouring into the coffers of the Fortunate king. Other marine ornamentation – shells, pearls, rope, seaweed – also found their way into frothing, elaborate designs, but my personal favourites are the simpler examples of the style, ones which arguably show the calming influence of the Renaissance.

At this time, the Gothic pointed arch has been replaced by a rounded arch, often containing counter curves, like this one in Rua da Liberdade:

counter-curve

And here is another, the original doorway of a sixteenth-century inn, and now, as you can see, part of a chemist’s:

inn

And here is what remains of another . . .

counter-curve2

with, if you zoom in closely . . .

counter-face

a tiny, highly simplified, upside-down head – the discovery of which absolutely made my day. It’s on the house said to have been built in 1541 by André Pilarte, stonemason and Renaissance designer of the Misericórdia church.

Ever since the time of Dom Manuel I, the armillary sphere has been a key symbol of Portugal. It appears on the national flag, which dates to 1911 after the overthrow of the monarchy; the monarchy went but not their symbol. It was also, as I saw from this old postbox, once used for the Portuguese postal service, though a redesign has seen the end of it

Ever since the time of Dom Manuel I, the armillary sphere has been a key symbol of Portugal. It appears on the national flag, which dates from 1911 after the overthrow of the monarchy; the monarchy went but not their symbol. It was also, as I saw from this old postbox, once used for the Portuguese postal service, though a redesign has seen the end of it

 

Oil

So we went to the Sessão Pública de Esclarecimento, where representatives of various oil companies plus, my favourite fool, Paulo Carmona of the ENMC oil quango gave, after much public pressure, a series of talks to demystify what the process of oil prospecting and exploitation was all about. This is the cabinet of fools:

oilers1

The oil company representatives seemed to think they were there to give a geology lecture to a bunch of schoolchildren, or else to bring the good news to the benighted, and might have been surprised to be met with 250 stroppy, well-informed and angry members of the public. The presentation of the Italian rep, from ENI (Agip), was the worst, and ended with this spectacularly patronising picture:

oilers

whereupon he was almost laughed out of the lecture hall. However, it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all. These people have never heard of climate change, never heard of renewable energy, never heard of a global movement away from fossil fuel. Because if they did, they’d have to cease to exist. They’d have to uninvent themselves. We’re stuck with them. I’ll do everything I can to stop them despoiling this beautiful part of the world and to protect it for the future, but I know there’s not much I can do. So here’s the deal. I’m just going to enjoy the hell out of being in this beautiful place while we still have it – OK?

O ano novo

Milreu, near Estoi: a Roman latifundia from the first century AD until the collapse of the empire, then in more or less continuous use until the middle of the twentieth century

This week we finally visited Milreu, near Estoi, a Roman latifundia from the first century AD until the collapse of the Roman Empire. The estate remained in more or less continuous use until the middle of the twentieth century: hence the relatively modern farmhouse

The mosaics at Milreu were created by highly skilled artists. With this bath filled with water, the fish would appear mobile and natural; without water they look odd

The mosaics at Milreu were created by highly skilled artists. Underwater the fish in this bath would appear mobile and natural; it’s only without water that they look odd

New Year's Eve at Fábrica, near Cacela Velha

The last day of 2015, spent at Fábrica, near Cacela Velha; here and below

Fábrica

NYE1

The sun setting on 2015

The sun setting on 2015

Our river on 5 January

Our river on 5 January

Gurgling water

Gurgling water

 

The river has risen and spread. It’s not in full spate yet. My ‘Love’ artwork is submerged; I recently had to replace the ‘L’ but otherwise it’s holding strong. I had never expected it to last more than a day and it’s been there for weeks now. The pre-teens got up early every morning and took themselves down to the river to see how the water level had changed, and to rearrange stones, create new water features and select heart-shapes to add to my collection. The ability of the river to entertain them before breakfast was a boon for slumbering adults.

I, too, spend time by the river most days. Now, after several days of heavy rain, I need to wade through it in waterproof sandals if I’m to get anywhere. It’s not particularly cold. In parts the flow is quite strong and pulls at my ankles; in other parts there’s no discernible movement. If the British government were here, no doubt they’d dredge the river to create a single deep channel that would act as a water chute and flood Tavira.

I have my binoculars on me when I go to the river so I can spy on the small birds: White and Grey Wagtails, Long-tailed Tits, Goldfinches, Stonechats and Corn Buntings are among the most easily seen and recognised right now. We also still have our lonely, piping wader. We can’t get close enough for a clear identification, but it’s sure to be something common. My rule of thumb is that if you aren’t sure what a bird is, it’s going to be the most likely option and not a rarity. In this way I have finally decided that the small, olive-brown birds, yellowish underneath and with a stripe through the eye, which fill the reeds with their energetic activity, are Chiffchaffs: common and widespread. You don’t get the opportunity to focus on them for more than a second or two because they are so busy. The best chance to see them is when they come to our garden to feed on the aloe, currently in flower in full view of our bedroom window. What confused me for a time is that they have a dark mark on the face and whiskery-looking feathers around the beak, but I’ve concluded that this is a temporary feature that comes from dipping into long, tubular flowers.

This week I spotted among the Chiffchaffs in the reeds by the river a group of birds of similar size but much stiller. I focused my binoculars on them and was astounded: a thick, orange-red beak and a bright red pennant over the eye. I’d never seen a bird like that before, neither in the flesh nor on a page. Not in Europe, anyway. They were a little like an African finch. How exciting. I went back up to the house in a hurry.

No such bird in our bird bible. I turned to the ‘extras’ at the back, and there I found it. It’s the Common Waxbill: introduced into the Iberian peninsula from Africa. (It would be interesting to know who by and what for.) And guess what? It’s common and widespread, especially in Portugal where it has got a firm claw-hold. No doubt I’ll see it everywhere now.

Estrela

Maria called. She wanted first of all to thank us for the Christmas gift. They weren’t there when we dropped by with it so we’d had to hang it from their gate. It included a loaf of Husband’s bread, which she said they very much enjoyed. (Their gift to us was a bag of lemons, a bag of oranges – and their oranges are the sweetest and best – half a dozen eggs from their hens and a plastic bottle of their own olive oil: heavenly.) Then she told me that Estrela had had her puppies – this was much sooner than I expected – and did we want any? We didn’t have to decide immediately but over the next couple of days. No problem if we didn’t want them, they just needed to know.

I was pretty proud of myself for getting through a telephone conversation in Portuguese, even if my side of it was stilted and garbled. Maria’s a smart woman and knows how to speak slowly and clearly for those with comprehension difficulties. But the puppy question . . .

We went to see them. Lordy and Estrela met us at the gate: Lordy barking dutifully but wagging his tail; Estrela, however, yapping like a wild thing. We asked Eleuterio if we could see the puppies. The home their mother had chosen, in spite of efforts to encourage her into something more suitable, was the narrow confines of the brick barbecue. She shot back inside at our approach and now she was silent, as though not to disturb her pups. One by one Eleuterio picked them out and showed them to us, while Estrela snatched at the tiny limbs to get them back. They were all returned and she settled down. ‘You’re sitting on one,’ said E to her, rescuing it. But we’d already decided: we were not going to take a puppy. We realised our roots here aren’t deep enough yet, and a puppy is too great a responsibility for now.

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