Feathered and painted friends

Bodies wrapped in black shiny fabric crawled or were pulled out of the sea; yellow and green-painted bodies in torn clothing and gasmasks staggered between people reclining on sunbeds. Ilha de Tavira was the scene of Saturday’s art attack, highlighting the perils to humanity of the proposed extraction of oil and gas from land and sea. For the crowds of holidaying beachgoers this distraction from the work of sunbathing was entertaining, puzzling or, in a few cases, alarming. I’m sure I’d have been horrified if I hadn’t known what was going on, but then I am a cautious type, which was possibly why I landed the role of ‘preparation of the site for the human slogan’. The sensible decision was taken to keep the slogan short, and in English, since the equivalent in Portuguese would have been twice as long. It was to declare: NO OIL NO GAS.

I bore the responsibility for this small task very heavily. First I researched online the making of letters with the human body. The more professional versions not only made athletic demands of the participants but also, for some letters, looked more fitting for the wall of an Indian temple. I found what I thought were the more feasible ones and set about creating a how-to sheet for the gutsy volunteers. My main task, however, was to mark out the site, so I mentally roughed out a size – 2 by 15 metres would do it, I thought – then cut canes into short lengths and tied them together at the right intervals with string.

I was assisted in this by a visiting friend. Some ten weeks earlier she had broken both legs when her large and boisterous dog had miscalculated an affectionate greeting and bowled her over at about 30mph. She was by now in leg braces with a crutch, but still managed the trip from London to the Algarve. Let’s call her the Hobbler.

We took the ferry to the beach. The Hobbler managed to get on and off the wobbly boat. I was carrying the canes, a heavy rope to form a baseline, and a device for smoothing out the sand. At the entrance to the line of cafes and bars we bumped into A, one of the organisers.

‘The beach is crowded. You’ll have to manage the people there,’ she said lightly.

The Hobbler and I made our way slowly to the site of the action. The agreed spot was hard to find. Husband had to be called from his other responsibilities to get me to the right location. It was a blazing afternoon and the sand was difficult to walk on for the Hobbler.

I managed to find an area that, although obstructing many people’s route to the sea, didn’t actually require my asking anyone to move. I set out the canes, driving them in with my palm. The Hobbler helped where she could, moving around the area on her backside. My sand-smoothing device was a children’s plastic toy rake; I hadn’t been capable of carrying anything larger. It soon broke. The heat was intense. Tears of sweat ran into my eyes. Using a piece of cane like a rolling pin, I made out the letters in the sand. Beach-users were puzzled but fairly unimpressed. Both the Hobbler and I were beginning to feel quite wretched, albeit for different reasons.

Then the bodies started to arrive by sea and across the sands, and the crowds gathered. Photographers came and people grabbed their mobile phones to record the event. Actor-bodyguards pulled bodies from the waves and assisted the poisoned. As the bodies staggered over towards me, Husband – by now at my side having completed duties elsewhere – whipped away the canes. The bodies threw themselves into their well-rehearsed shapes, a photographic drone moving overhead. They held the letter shapes for a while then arose, gathered banners and formed a chanting semi-circle in the sand. They went on to perform other art attacks on the lagoon side of the beach island, culminating in swimming out to board a solar-powered boat, dismantling a make-believe oil rig on it and covering the deck in banners.


Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday

Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday


The ‘bodies’, all those uninhibited members of Tavira em Transição, were amazing. And the protests are gaining ground all the time. After Galp/ENI’s indefinite postponement of their drilling plans came the news this week that Repsol Partex were ‘indefinitely postponing’ their October plans too. They have the concession to drill in the sea off the Tavira/Faro coast.

But they also serve who only kneel in the blistering sand for an hour raking smooth an area of 30 square metres using nothing but a broken piece of plastic little bigger than a human hand. Afterwards I found that I had burnt both knees and taken a patch of skin off my right palm. O, the mortifications of that day.

We needed peace and quiet on Sunday. On the veranda I stooped to pick up a fallen hibiscus flower. Behind it was something mouldy-looking. I got closer. It was a baby bird, grey down waving above its incomplete flight feathers. A baby Red-rumped Swallow, fallen from the nest. Such consternation! Do we leave it, or feed it, or try to get it back in the nest? Swallows aren’t ground-dwelling birds. It wasn’t hopping about at the start of life, its anxious parents hovering nearby. Its parents were nearby but unconcerned. They had other chicks. They might even have chucked this one out as superfluous or inadequate. It did look a bit wonky, but then it had fallen from a height. The parents certainly weren’t wasting any resources over it now.

We dripped water on to its beak from a pipette. We caught insects and tried to get it to feed on them; it kept its mouth closed and shuffled into as inconspicuous position as it could find.

That night we drove out to a restaurant but our bird trials were not over. As we arrived in the almost full car park, I saw a rather odd-looking bird mascot on the grille of a Peugeot. It was quite realistic. No, wait, it was real. It was what was left of a dead bird. No, hang on, it was alive. It was the head and breast of a panting and panicking bird. Hobbler and I got out of the car while Husband went to find a space to park. We poked around in the radiator grille and got pecked at. Nothing wrong with the bird’s neck or beak then. To get it out without being savaged, we needed a tool. Hobbler withdrew a pen from her bag. I pushed the fingers of my left hand into the grille. I located a claw, which found purchase on my hand. I could feel the bird push its leg against me. On the other side, I wormed the pen in along the bird’s back. I gently pulled, the bird pushed, and it burst out of captivity and flew unevenly across the car park. It had managed deftly, ungratefully, to stab me as it escaped. I don’t know if it had a bright future or was going to be an easy meal. Either way, it had to be better than a slow death in the grille of a Peugeot.

Our fallen bird at home was still alive that night, and the following day. It shook barely perceptibly and made feeble noises when it could hear its clutch-mates calling to their parents. It was breaking our hearts.

Monday night was a thunderstorm and heavy rain. In the morning, the bird was gone. It had been assumed* into heaven by some agency, perhaps Little Owl.

*This is for the Catholics.

The doomed baby bird

The doomed baby bird


Human chain (again)

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings, during the day the sun is too powerful. These coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings; during the day the sun is too powerful. These times happily coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

This is Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I'm hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I’m hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio, to collect

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, which filled the kitchen one evening with the smell of vinegar

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, and filling the kitchen with the smell of vinegar


Occasionally a tiny piece of heavy machinery will hum past your ear and land on a nearby tree with great firmness as though suctioned into place by a force within the bark. It is a cicada on the move. It is a stout insect with a wide, squared-off head that has a large eye on each corner, and lacy, overlong wings. The males’ collective noise – it is only the males – seems to make the air pulsate. They do it, I have read, by vibrating a membrane on the abdomen. I haven’t been able to get close enough to see this in action, if it is visible at all.

For most of the year we experience silence and birdsong. The months of high heat and slow movement are filled with this plangent, plaintive sound. It is the inescapable sound of summer.

The Red-rumped Swallows do not yet have hatchlings, but they must have eggs, for they are being furtive and shifty. The confident industry of nest-building was a different mode for them. Now, if I look up at their nest as I leave the front door, I might just see a shiny blue crown at the neck of the tunnel, which will quickly withdraw. I wait, then it re-emerges, big round eyes checking me out, then disappears once more into the safety of the nest. If I stay put for a few more seconds, it realises it has to disregard me and fly off anyway. Sometimes in the evenings we hear them in their mudhouse, madly tuning their tiny analogue radio. They still can’t find that elusive channel.

I feel rather like I’m emerging from a tunnel of my own making, out of a mound of manuscripts. Clear blue space awaits me, several weeks without the ping of the email, a staycation here in this beautiful spot, starting at the end of this week.

But the oil and gas threat never goes away. There are reprieves: promises of judicial action to undo the unethical contracts, drilling start dates delayed, government debates that suggest a degree of awareness at least. While I was buried in manuscripts, Husband, when not similarly buried under a mound of bread dough, was out on the anti-oil beat. The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, visited a nearby town of Loulé and was met by protestors. He shrugged off their concerns with a rather puzzling comparison between finding oil in the Algarve and flying to the moon. It isn’t possible to analyse this gnomic comment with any degree of success, so I’ve given up trying. The facts remain that deep-sea oil drilling – of an ‘exploratory nature’ – is due to start off the western coast of the Algarve on 3 August, while oil company Repsol have been rubbing their hands with glee for several years in the knowledge of a vast gas field containing half a trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the coast nearer to us, related to a similar field in the bay of Cádiz.

Last week Portugal’s environment minister came to Tavira to enjoy a sunny afternoon in the company of the town mayor. Together they were to open the new boat departure area for Ilha de Tavira (namely, a concreted-over stretch on the mouth of the river). Neither of them was expecting to be met by an anti-oil protest. It is amazing how effective six people can be when they show up at the right time and position themselves and their banners behind politicians on a photo shoot.

What else is to be done? How about all getting together and holding hands on the beach to form a human chain? Yes! Anything is better than nothing, and this turned out to be very good with hundreds of participants, perhaps a thousand if you include the many beachgoers on the hugely popular Ilha de Tavira who were persuaded to hold hands for a while in between running to the sea and back. A couple of press reports can be seen here and here. Typically of such events, estimates of numbers involved vary widely . . .

I was back from London in time for the beach protest. As I arrived at the beach site where protestors were gathering, someone from Tavira em Transição spotted me – this is a citizens’ movement I am part of – and asked me to take hold of the bamboo pole supporting one side of a large protest banner so she could run off and do other stuff. Husband and our two Lisbon friends had gone elsewhere in the line. The other side of this banner was held by someone I didn’t know, but who was fabulously vocal in the anti-oil chants and gave good interviews to the press. I held on to my bamboo pole from then on, and didn’t let go until it was time to roll the banner up and put it away at the end. I politely declined to be interviewed when a TV reporter came to me with his red microphone; I put this down to my lack of Portuguese, but it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that I don’t much like talking. Holding on to a banner: it’s a great role for an introvert at a manif. Just shove me in that direction and I’ll be there, hanging on, for as long as it takes.


On Sunday, when Eder scored a goal in extra time, I got up and put my head out of the door to listen to the sound of the world outside. I wanted to know if the cheers reached down to our valley. They didn’t. Nothing but the warm wind gusting about. Ten minutes later, when Portugal became European champions, I did the same: still nothing. Only the sounds of our own cheers. We are remote here. This proves it.

The main story here at the end of the world remains that of two swallows building a nest. Gobbets of heart-shaped mud have been arriving at our veranda roof at intervals as regular as a London bus: every ten or fifteen minutes and in pairs. They are brought in tirelessly by the two Red-rumped Swallows. Each gobbet is pushed out with the tongue and drilled into place with horizontal movements of the head and sprays of tiny droplets of saliva. (Do birds have saliva? They must do. Or else it’s the moisture in the mud that gets forced out.) They choose their material from various spots in the land around where we live. It can be red, brown or grey. The nicest-looking stuff, the red mud, comes from a place by Eleuterio’s water tank; he told me so. He looked quite chuffed about the swallows too. They have built their upside-down dome gobbet by gobbet, layer by layer, like potters who eschew a wheel. Plant fibres make up part of the building material.

As the days went by it became clear that the tunnel entrance wasn’t to be at the back after all, as I had assumed. The buttress sticking out at the rear is an architectural or engineering feature impenetrable to the human mind. Perhaps it’s a veranda. At the other side of the nest, ‘our’ side, they gradually narrowed their dome to a tiny bottle-neck, facing our front door.

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday: building

Wednesday: building

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday: 'Ick'

Thursday: ‘Ick’

Friday: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday 8 July: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday: not much more to go

Friday: not much more to go

Saturday 9 July: landing

Saturday 9 July: landing at the increasingly narrow entrance


Sunday 10 July: completion

Sunday: time for a rest

Sunday: time for a rest

... and some preening

… and some preening


By Sunday, it was done. The last of the mud had been spat out and driven into place. Stalks of dry grass were taken inside for padding. Now, in the morning, I look up at the nest to see one or sometimes two pairs of round eyes, under blue-shiny crowns, at the entrance to their home. And they look down at me.

I read somewhere that the birds don’t mate on the wing or on the wire, they wait until their home is built and mate inside. The first egg might already be laid. Incubation takes a couple of weeks. You can hear the birds chattering to one another inside. It sounds like they are zooming through the stations on a tiny analogue radio, the sound muffled by the chamber. They never seem to find the station they want.

No blog next week because of another work-related visit to London. Back by the time of the first hatchlings.

Industry in another corner of the: focaccia dough

Industry in another corner of the house: making focaccia for a party


Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Friday 1 July

Friday 1 July

Saturday 2 July

Saturday 2 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place


Now that it is high summer we live with the plangent sound of cicadas. The Golden Orioles add their whistle, and the Bee-eaters test their collection of recorders as they pass by overhead, like a junior school orchestra getting ready for a concert. Two Short-toed Eagles can be seen gliding silently along the valley. A female Blue Rock Thrush dips and bobs on the corner of the front veranda, within view of my desk. She says chuck-chuck, and looks like a miniature cormorant. I was missing the heartbreak jangle of the serin. I wondered what had happened to him. Then we spotted a nest in the smallest and thinnest of our cypresses, one that we pass within inches of several times a day. All his frantic singing paid off. Tiny grey beaks surrounded by feather-stalk antennae poke waveringly and unsteadily out, glimpsable only with patience and good binoculars.

Very close to home, right outside the front door, the Red-rumped Swallows are hard at work. I stand at the door and poke my long-lensed camera in their direction for two or three minutes a day. They put up with it. Besides, they know that in a few more days the upside-down dome will be complete and we will no longer be able to see them. As their nest grew, they had more to balance on, and less mud landed on the veranda floor. On the other side of the nest, not visible from inside the house, is what will be the tunnel entrance. Access will require them dipping through here and under the original hook, which they infilled with mud like a reinforced internal wall. It’s all well planned and highly skilled. Work only slowed down on Sunday. I imagine this was more because of the ricochet of hunters’ shots than the imposition from on high of a day of rest. We were happy to see them back on Monday.


Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building

Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building


Two weeks ago we were in Lisbon, part of a group to present the government and the DGRN (directorate for natural resources) with thick files of petitions and arguments against oil exploration in the Algarve. We were in the support section. Husband waved the box lid from a set of scales that has become his protest ID. If you look at it from the right angle, it says Rasga O Contrato (‘tear up the contract’). From any other angle, it is simply the box lid from a set of weighing scales. The mayor of Aljezur came up to say hello; he recognised Husband by the box lid. The Mad Hatter letters spelling Frack Off in my trilby, never that effective, came to a damp end on a café floor.

On Friday 1 July the topic came up in Parliament. The drilling off Aljezur had already been postponed from 1 July to 3 August. The session voted for the immediate suspension of the development of oil and gas exploration by means conventional and unconventional. (A suspension only, but still good.) Environmental Impact Assessments are now to be made obligatory from the exploration phases (required by an EU directive but hitherto ignored by the ENMC, the fuel entity). The likely impact of oil development on tourism is to undergo a proper socio-economic study. And the process of the original issuance of the contracts is to be searched for irregularities, which could allow the contracts to be declared null and void.

These achievements have been forced particularly by people on the ground in the Algarve, most but not all Portuguese. As for us two, we’re cheerleaders. We wear our silly hats and wave our box lids, and as such have been caught by press photographers rather more often than I would have thought likely.

I have turned my attention away from the farcical developments in the current madhouse that is my country of origin, where the people most shocked by the Brexit outcome seem to be those who instigated it, who have been passing on responsibility and resigning at shameful rates. At this point, I’d rather look at the birds.

Serin nest, but you probably can't make it out

Serin nest, but you probably can’t make it out

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.


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


Oil and water

River at its peak this week

River at its peak this week

Another view of the swollen river

Another view of the swollen river

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode this week

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode


It carried on raining for a few more days. Our river got higher and browner and swirlier. We went to Tavira on Thursday and the tea-coloured river was brimming. It was freshly poured Assam, with a dash of milk, the surface still moving after having just been stirred.

Then on Sunday it began to turn into the May we expect. The sun shone brightly and the days warmed up. The water in the river reduced and turned clear. We filled our cisterna from the well, which was more full than we’d ever seen it. Crystal water gushed into the cisterna and showed no sign of faltering; after three hours and twenty minutes we decided it was enough. The over-large cisterna – 30,000 litres – that supplies the house was almost at capacity. I continue to filter and boil the water for drinking, then chill it. It’s a chore, but not only does it save a little money, it also avoids acres of plastic waste. Best of all, our water tastes heavenly. It’s the most delicious water ever.

The streaky yellow serin continues to punctuate our days at home with its break-neck song. It sways from side to side, for the broadest possible cast of its notes. It resists my attempts to get near to photograph it.

Prime minister and priest

On Saturday the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, came to Loulé, a nearby town, for a Socialist Party meeting. Naturally enough, the various activist groups gathered at the site to let their feelings known. We were there – Husband, Mother and me – as part of the Tavira em Transicão (TT) group, waving anti-oil banners. I wore my protest hat. My protest hat is not entirely successful. A few months ago Husband and I made ‘protest selfies’, and I adapted a pink trilby for the occasion. I fancied a Mad Hatter look, so I stuck letters around the brim. The hat remained on the hat stand in the hall until my eyes alighted on it as we leaving on Saturday. I thought it might serve the purpose for Loulé so I grabbed it and put it in the car.

When we got there, Mum took a restful position on a concrete bench at the back of the protesters, TT banner aloft. It was in this slightly out-of-the-way spot that she managed to be caught by a TV camera and thus made an appearance on Portuguese television news. The islanders – the people of Culatra and other sand-bank islands who are protesting against the demolitions taking place there – made the biggest splash. All in black t-shirts, marching in a group, they chanted ‘Ilhéus unidos jamais serão vencidos’ as they got into position. The chant was picked up on our side with ‘Ilhéus’ changed to ‘Algarve’, and the islanders joined back in with us.

‘Algarve unidos jamais serão vencidos!’ A united Algarve will never be defeated!

I glanced back at my mum. She was wiping away a tear from her eye. Her first demonstration, and she found it very moving.

PM Costa arrived and, to my surprise, and I imagine others’ too, he went around the ranks of protestors, smiling and talking to people. I waved and grinned as he came in our direction and he made his way towards me. Panic settled on my face at the thought that he might talk to me and catch me out as a non-Portuguese speaker. The letters on my hat had by now rearranged themselves, several slithering down into the hatband, and no longer read ‘FRACK OFF’ but the rather less effective ‘RACK’. My disconcerted features and my ambiguous hat were enough to deter the PM, who moved on to talk to someone else. He then invited a representative group to talk to him within the building. (See Asmaa’s site for an account of this.)

Mass on Sunday capped an emotional weekend. It was Pentecost, the last day of Easter, and my mum was keen to celebrate at a Portuguese church. I’d been told that Mass started around eleven. After coffee and pasteis at the café amid the sound of church bells, we entered the church at ten to eleven and selected prime pews, aisle-side for easy access to Holy Communion. Eleven o’clock came and went. I have still not learned the lesson that the start time means the time the people who are involved start to gather and get ready. Microphones were placed on the altar and two pulpits. A multimedia screen was lowered from the ceiling. A group of children – boy and girl scouts who were to take part in the service, with much obvious stage direction from the priest, and to receive special blessings – were photographed in front of the altar. The image was soon on display via the screen above. Old Portuguese ladies descended on our pew in a pincer action, squeezing us into the middle. The church slowly filled. Plastic chairs were being brought in to supplement the pews. The Mass finally got under way at about quarter to twelve. My mother likes Portuguese time, and is thinking of introducing it to Father John back in Lincolnshire.

Mandai, Senhor, o vosso Espírito e renovai a Terra

was one of the responses during the Mass. ‘Send your spirit, Lord, and renew the earth.’ We could do with some of that, I thought, and found myself wondering if the priest is up to speed with the oil exploration plans for the Algarve.

The protest trilby

The protest trilby

Husband's walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated bread by carrying in a loaf, wine with a bottle, music by holding aloft a guitar, and love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek to face the congregation

Husband’s delicious walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated the riches of life: Bread, by carrying in a loaf, Wine with a wine bottle, Music by holding aloft a guitar, and Love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek so as to face outwards to the congregation

Robalo and nespera

Flamingoes over the salt marshes of Olhão, on a gloomy day

Flamingoes over the salt marshes of Olhão on Saturday

Not far away from the flamingoes, a Black-winged Stilt, whose reflection makes its legs look longer still

Not far away from the flamingoes, a Black-winged Stilt, whose reflection makes its legs look longer still

Common Vetch blazing like a fire in front of the old mill

Common Vetch blazing like a fire in front of the old mill

Down on the ground, away from the glamour of the big blooms, are tiny plants like this Hop Trefoil, whose flowers are 3–4mm long

Down on the ground, away from the glamour of the big blooms, are tiny plants like this Hop Trefoil, whose flowers are 3–4mm long

Another, tiny flower, a few millimetres long: the Lesser Snapdragon

Another tiny flower, a few millimetres long: the Lesser Snapdragon

Nespera (loquat): we do eat them, but we are making little impression on the volume

Nespera (loquat): we are eating them, but making little impression on this great abundance. I cut them in half, slip out the shiny brown seeds, of which there might be one, two, three or four, then peel off the skin, which I find tough. The resulting semi-circle of almost translucent yellow flesh is juicy and tender, with a sweetness that is cut through by a hint of acidity. My taste for them is growing . . .


On Saturday we visited the salt marshes at Olhão, before going to the fish market. It was an overcast day. Black-winged Stilts and Flamingoes cast pale shadows on the grey waters. Low-flying House Martins and Barn Swallows knitted the air around us along the path, as though closing us in an invisible net.

In the market we bought stout, firm, shiny robalo (sea bass). They came to 27 euros, and we gave the man forty. ‘Vint’-sete,’ he repeated, holding the money we’d given him back out towards us. We explained we didn’t have anything smaller, but he just looked at us. Puzzled, we abandoned talking and resorted to gesture, a lifting of the chin to encourage him to check again the money we had given him. The penny dropped: he realised we’d given him two twenties. His expression softened, and he drew the forefingers of his raw, red hands in circles around his face to indicate tiredness and confusion. Nor does it look like an easy life, to be a fishmonger. I wouldn’t last thirty minutes with my fingers in crushed ice, guts and scales.

Since the weekend, it has turned warm. There is no longer any need, or excuse, for a fire at night. The wild flowers are still dazzling. It’s been an exceptional year for them, we’re told. Certainly they are more impressive than last year’s. Lordy is given to lying in the meadows, his kohl-rimmed eyes above the flowers, looking even more louche than ever. Alternatively he makes himself comfortable in the road and isn’t in any hurry to move when you drive up. Such a cool character.

The two dogs hadn’t been to our veranda for a while, so the slices of old bread we keep for them had become rock hard. I couldn’t even snap them into pieces. I gave them to the enquiring dogs this week regardless and they tackled them with the enthusiasm, and the dentition, they have for bones. Husband’s bread is eternal. If exposed to the air, it doesn’t go mouldy, it just slowly desiccates: a sign of very good sourdough bread.

The other visitors to our veranda are a pair of Red-rumped Swallows. They fly in and out all day long. They swim over us while we’re at breakfast, and cut in front of my study window – which looks through the veranda and down the path to the river – all the rest of the day. On the wire, they babble; in flight they call to one another with little bird barks. They fly right up to the mark left behind by the old nest, even seem to bump their faces on the wall. We’ve seen them fill their beaks with mud from the building site of the swimming pool, but it hasn’t been deployed on our veranda yet. They are sleek and shiny in the sunlight, such elegant and beautiful birds.

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread with gusto


One hundred

Backlit poppies

Backlit poppies

Backlit lavender

Backlit lavender


Common Vetch, uncommonly pretty

hairy lupin

The Hairy Lupin, at seed stage, in the rain

Quaking grass

Tiny lanterns of Quaking Grass which, true to their name, shudder in finely tuned response to the merest movement of air

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended. A second after this picture was taken, it had disappeared into the water below

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended; disappearance is imminent. A second after this picture was taken, it had dropped into the water below. I was surprised it let me get this close


Had I continued to keep count of the weeks, this would be number one hundred. I’m quietly celebrating that milestone. I’m celebrating the rain, too. The sky today has been dark grey, with blooms of white cloud and shafts of yellow light. Our dirt track is running with brown streams and the river is the highest I’ve seen it for well over a year. I dropped into Flaviano’s emporium to collect the post – Nada!, always more of a disappointment for Flaviano than for me, it seems – and the round lady greeted me. ‘How’s about this for rain then?’ she said. ‘Yes!’ I replied (my Portuguese still so limited), and we each raised a thumb, simultaneously. Shared pleasure over rain. Since the relationship between rain falling out of the sky, our well filling up and having water to wash in, cook with and drink is so intimate and direct, it’s impossible not to love the rain.

A few days ago at breakfast Little Owl arrived on his perch (a telegraph pole) and gave us a hard stare. I went to grab a camera but was too late, it flew off. Every day its calls rebound around the valley. At night, the Scops Owl adds its unique sound. We lie in bed at night and hear its solemn and restrained sonar beeps, so unlike the shrieks of the Little Owl. I looked the birds up in a book and discovered that the Scops Owl is smaller still than the Little Owl. Two tiny owls filling our days and nights with sound. We wonder if the Scops Owl, so present in our garden at night, is interested in the nest box we placed in a carob tree up the hill, not far from the bank of solar panels. The box is designed for hoopoes and small owls. I crept up for a look this week: no sign of any habitation.

Our little bend-in-the-valley world is filled with melodious nightingales, cisticolas (whose flight pattern and matching call seem to have tightened up: the loops are sharper and the calls more frequent), babbling swallows, whistling orioles and, impossible to ignore, the frantic call of the serin, that tiny, bursting bundle of yellow feathers. I feel for the serin. I hope its energetic song is born of triumph and not desperation.

The effort not to waste lemons continues. The pickled lemons I made a good few weeks back using a Diana Henry recipe, which involved briefly salting the sliced lemons then packing them up in paprika-dusted layers with oil, has been to my satisfaction, but not Husband’s. To appeal to his tastes, I’ve taken a recipe from the Prashad book, which comes from a small, northern English-based Indian restaurant. The first stage is under way: 1 kilo of chopped, pipped lemons – from Maria’s tree – are macerating in a terracotta sludge consisting of turmeric + salt + the juice that came off the chopped lemons. I give the plastic box a good shake every day, and after three weeks they will be ready for the next stage of flavouring.

I have turned my back on the nespera (loquat) tree, whose boughs are weighed to the ground with pink-flushed yellow fruit. There are just too many. The birds can have them. Our fig tree now has full-size, still-green fruit; not for nothing does the oriole (the papafigos, or fig-eater) turn up at this time. I’d like to get the figs before they do, though. They are so exquisite, and last year we had only the first harvest; the weather was too dry for the tree to manage a second fruiting.

We went this week to a day-long discussion session at the University of the Algarve about the ‘economic, social and environmental impact of hydrocarbon exploration in the Algarve in the 21st century’ – a long title for a well-presented but very ill-attended day. More disappointing than the lack of attendance was the presentation from the Portuguese Association for Renewable Energy, who are – it seems to me – failing to promote solar energy, while still spreading the now-discredited theory that natural gas is a halfway house between fossil fuels and renewable energies. We learnt the extraordinary fact that the solar contribution to energy in the UK is twenty-two times greater than it is in Portugal. I don’t need to tell you how much more the sun shines here than it does in the UK – even if this week might have been an exception.

One day this week I noticed something sticking out of one of the back doors. I bent down and took a closer look: it was a little skull. I opened the door to find the rest of the skeleton inside the door jamb. It was a small gecko that had been unintentionally garrotted. I detached its tiny skeleton from the door and let it be taken by the breeze, feeling out-of-all-proportion sad about this tiny, accidental death.


I like a bit of religion. Here’s Mary in her grotto in the church of Santiago, the pilgrim, in Tavira

Back to the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Poppies (für meine Schwiegermutter); from a meadow by the river

Poppies from a meadow by the riverbank

Yellow lupin

Yellow lupin (Lupinus luteus), from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender, common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender (Lavandula viridis), common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

I pulled my first garlic from the ground - a little early, but it tasted heavenly

I pulled my first garlic from the ground – a little early, but it tasted heavenly

The apricot tree in blossom

The apricot tree in blossom: this is the one that fruits first

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called them Green Linnets

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called the birds Green Linnets


A blushing Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) sang on our wire this week: such a pretty song. I don’t think I’ve heard it before. No wonder ‘me old cock linnet’ was once such a popular caged bird, enough to have appeared in music-hall song. The little streaked yellow Serin continues to fill the air with its manic, high-speed, glass-beads-shattering-on-a-stone-floor song, and the Zitting Cisticola dzips as he rises and dips on his looping flight. A pair of greenfinches is considering the conifer at the front of the house as a possible nesting site, obviously not put off by the nearby posturing of Mr Cock-of-the-Walk Sparrow. All these little bundles of feathers bursting with life and song: it seems miraculous.

I’ve had time to go back to the river this week. The cold water slides slowly over the rocks with their streamers of weed. That the water is cold I can feel through my wellies. The toad spawn is largely gone: dispersed or eaten. I hope a few eggs have found their way under rocks to develop into toadlets (or are they called tadpoles, like frogs?). I can testify to the irresistible deliciousness of the eggs, however. Not personally, exactly, but by the fact that we got our first ever good look at the mystery wading bird thanks to the toad eggs. We were about to drive over the ford and there was the bird, quite unable to fly off into the distance in its usual way, with a flash of long white rump and a complaining kyew, because it couldn’t stop dipping for toad eggs. We grabbed the chance for a close inspection – binoculars thankfully in the car – then carried on our journey and left it alone.

It’s one of a pair now, though usually we see a solitary bird. We see it often; it can’t be migratory. It’s like a Greenshank, but smaller, with a distinctly straight beak. We haven’t settled on what it is, though it’s got to be something obvious; it always is. Therefore, it cannot be a Marsh Sandpiper, even though that’s the only bird in the book that fits the bill (or beak).

Water, fire and oil

The well was almost full and we ran the crystal water into the cisterna under the front veranda for two and a half hours. That’ll do us for a good while. And I have finally faced up to something that has been on my conscience: all that bottled water we drink, most of it in plastic. We had our well water tested and were advised not to drink it: it was pure of every contamination except, possibly, bacterial. We cook with it and clean our teeth, but were drinking from bottles. We recycled them afterwards, of course, but recycling plastic barely limits the damage. Then it clicked, at last. Good heavens: just boil our own water using our solar-powered electricity, cool it and keep it in the fridge. It tastes wonderful, and this is a big weight off my mind.

The days are warm under the sun but the wind has been chilly. We still light a fire in the evenings. The metric tonne of firewood we had delivered at the start of winter ran out and, rather than get a new delivery so late in the season, we’ve been scavenging. The old woody branches of Gum Cistus, the plant that grows in such richly scented, resinous profusion all over the hills, was once a common fuel, I read, so we went collecting uprooted or fallen branches of that.

On return we took a shortcut back to the house, straight down the hill, unwieldy branches in hand. It’s steep, but the horizontal plough lines make reasonable steps, and you just need to watch where you place your foot among the stones. But the driver of a JCB had been watching us. That was dangerous, he told us when we reached the house. I don’t think I mind that the driver of a JCB in our garden is excessively safety-conscious. And, should you wonder what he’s doing there: he is completing the rectangular hole for the swimming pool.

A last word, for this week, on oil. At the tourism trade fair in Lisbon last week, the mayor of Tavira gave a speech – the Algarve being the featured region of the fair. He nodded to us in the audience and said, in Portuguese, ‘Nice T-shirts.’ Afterwards he told us it was good we were there, good to keep up the pressure, but that he had it all in hand. On 9 March we read that the Assembleia Municipal of the Tavira district had passed a motion by the Socialist Party, with 24 in favour and only 2 against, to reject and condemn the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the area, both on- and offshore. This is, of course, wonderful. But is it enough? I wish I could believe it was.


Yours truly photobombing the Algarve stand in my protest T-shirt (this photo, of course, was taken by Husband)

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