The sea

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

 

Culatra: a Ria Formosa island

Arrival on the island

Ferry arriving on the island

ferry side

Around the ferry port in Culatra, with Olhão across the sea in the background

Atlantic side of the island

Atlantic side of the island

Atlantic side2

Atlantic light

 

Atlantic waves break on one side of the barrier island of Culatra. The other side is a sheltered lagoon that faces the fishing town of Olhão, from where you catch the ferry. On the interior of the island, some thousand inhabitants live in mostly simple, one-storey houses with sand gardens. No cars; no roads. The houses have old wells but now the water is piped from the mainland. Garden plants, such as showy bougainvillea and hibiscus, thrive as easily in the sand of people’s gardens as the hardy saltwater species do on the island’s edges.

It’s about a five-hour walk around the entire island. Going west from the main settlement of Culatra you first reach the tiny village of Hangares, then the island’s second ferry port – Farol, with its lighthouse – before you come back to where you started. We didn’t walk the full circuit when we were there this weekend, but we saw most of the island. The lagoon side is the breeding ground for seahorses and I searched among the weeds that mark the tideline for a dead one to bring home, but I found none. Didi’s house on the island is decorated with them; you mustn’t look too hard, she said. They find you.

Much of the coast of the eastern Algarve is a zone of sandy beaches and marshes, barrier islands and lagoons, known collectively as the Ria Formosa. Culatra is one of these barrier islands; Ilha de Tavira, with its beautiful and popular beaches, is another. Officially the zone is a Parque Natural and a Ramsar site (protected wetland); it’s a flyway for migratory birds, and it’s rich in fish and shellfish. It’s also close to where oil companies hold concessions to explore for oil and gas.

Garden in the sand

Garden in the sand

Cistanche

Cistanche

Nacre on the lagoon side

Nacre on the lagoon side

Bar, closed out of season

Bar, closed out of season

The barbed wire marks an old military training site

The barbed wire marks an old military training site

Boules is popular on the island; here is someone's score

Boules is popular on the island; here is someone’s score

 

We stayed on Culatra with our friends Didi and her Swiss husband. Didi was born on the island, the second generation of her family to grow up there. Culatra is not a picture-postcard place. It’s a working island of fisherfolk, inhabited for perhaps a couple of centuries. Most came originally to work the tuna season – April to September – as short-term employees of the big tuna companies, before the industry collapsed in the 1960s. During the tuna-fishing times, some of the fisherfolk decided to settle on the island for good. Didi’s grandparents were among them. Her mother grew up there to develop her own business in mussels and get married to a fisherman. It was in their home, where Didi was born, that we stayed. The government now declares much of the ad hoc housing to be illegal and liable for demolition; the simpler the house, the more likely they are to want to demolish it. There have been stays of execution, but it remains a live issue.

The island is hugely popular with holiday-makers at the height of summer but in February it is quiet. A fisherman mends his nets by stretching them out with his bare feet for tension. Cats wander around freely, masters of their domain. The island’s inhabitants file along concrete walkways or boardwalks between the houses. Didi’s childhood sounds idyllic: living on an island beach, playing hide-and-seek with cuttlefish and octopus in the sea, reading the sand to find where the cockles and clams were and digging them up for lunch. For Didi and her siblings their biggest excitement was when storm or high tide washed bits of plastic up on the beach. They didn’t have any plastic at home; this was magical, fascinating stuff, instant play material.

Didi’s family had to leave the island in the end. The four children needed more education than could be supplied on the island – the earlier generations didn’t have any education at all, but in the 1970s you could get four years of schooling before you had to go to the mainland, while schooling is now provided up to the sixth year, with free passage on the ferry to the mainland for older schoolkids.

In the 1980s a young Swiss man swept Didi off her feet. In a sideboard drawer in the Culatra home is a curled and faded colour photograph from the time, featuring the sole visit to Olhão of the in-laws. There on the pavement is a slender, dark-haired and dark-skinned fisherman in a checked shirt. Next to him is a plumper man, with white hair and a red complexion, dressed in a plus-fours suit, pipe in his hand. A meeting of two worlds.

King Cat

King Cat

Young gull

Young gull

On the boat back to Olhão

People on the boat back to Olhão

Week 70: The sea

In many areas along the coast in the eastern Algarve are salt pans, like this. Now is salt harvesting season

In many areas along the coast in the eastern Algarve are salt pans, like this. Now is salt harvesting season

Salt mountain near Tavira

Salt mountain near Tavira

Saltscape

Saltscape

Abandoned boat on a bed of samphire in the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa natural park

Long-abandoned boat on a bed of samphire in the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa natural park

Fine veils of rain hung in our valley in the early part of this week, moving gently in the breeze, slowly drenching the land and releasing its earthy perfume. It was the kind of weather the Irish call ‘soft’. It was very much needed, and gave us a few days’ break from watering the garden ourselves. The sun returned the next day, and has continued to shine every day since, but it is a slightly less ferocious sun than the one of high summer and we no longer need to have windows and shutters closed all day to keep it out. It is perfect sun for the beach.

I would spend every day by the sea if I could. When we fell in love with this country, this province, indeed this particular valley, almost two years ago, it was over the course of a single grey week in January. We never went to the coast. We were some way advanced with our purchase of a house without ever having been to the sea. Now that we’re here, it is going to the sea that I love most of all. This week we managed one visit to the glittering, entrancing water and the glistening sand. We switched our beach habit from an early morning to an afternoon one, arriving after lunch and staying until the end of the day, which in September is 6.45 p.m. when the last boat returns to Santa Luzia from our favoured spot. As the afternoon wore on, more birds appeared. Winter-white sanderlings tore up and down the water’s edge, playing catch-me-if-you-can with the waves. Turnstones, rather drab without their breeding colours of oranges and reds, examined the sea’s terminal moraine for whatever it was they had lost. If they found it, they rushed away from their companions to examine it more closely, in case it was a precious thing to be kept from greedy eyes. Two Mediterranean gulls spent some leisure time at the sea’s edge, showing off their fancy red legs. Their head is black in the breeding season; out of season all that’s left of the colour is what looks like a pair of headphones. One was ringed; it will have a story to tell. And all afternoon long a slim, waxing moon hung over the sea like the ghostly remains of a paraglider.

At home, to our joy, the red-rumped swallows have been back to visit. Such independent-minded birds they are. We thought they had left with the rest of the summer birds, but no. Just as they arrived later than their swallow brethren, it seems they will leave later too. They perched on the wire and babbled, then swam into and out of the veranda, and glided up and down the valley, their feathers wet in the sunlight. When our neighbours arrived this summer, we finally learnt where the birds had nested: the enclosed mud nest with its tunnel entrance had been newly built under their eaves. Given the regularity with which the birds check out our site, we cannot have totally lost favour. My plan is to destroy their old nest so that the sparrows – who lack such nest-building skills – cannot take it over next year. Plus we want to paint the front veranda, which we can’t do with a mud nest in the way. Swallows will be welcome to rebuild on the freshly painted surface if they choose. The sparrows can find themselves a new site.

The first pomegranate from our tree. The seeds were little bursts of flavour

The first pomegranate from our tree. The seeds, though pale in colour, were little bursts of flavour

Cork oak near our house: such a craggy, unkempt-looking tree, whether with its full covering of cork or, as here, with its trunk stripped

Cork oak near our house: such a craggy, unkempt-looking tree, whether with its full covering of cork or, as here, with its trunk stripped. It always reminds me of the old drawings of Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter)

Week 69: Soundscape

Autumn asphodel

Autumn asphodel

Beach prints

Beach prints

Beach detail

Sand detail

Late afternoon by the sea

Late afternoon by the sea; the days are still bright and the water is warm

We returned to our valley from the clamour of London and as our senses readjusted we noticed how much our home soundscape has changed since autumn arrived. The cicadas are gone, taking their strident abdominal amplifications with them; their young, the nymphs hatched from their eggs, have burrowed underground and we won’t see or hear from them until next summer. The many different visiting birds who sang their way to a mating partner, then filled our valley with the calls of their family life and group activities, have gone. The stout-bodied Thekla lark with its pointed head crest never went away but we couldn’t hear it for all the other birds. Now in the relative silence its song is audible again. The woodpeckers are pecking the trees around us, not drumming to advertise their presence, just feeding – a much gentler sound. All is peaceful – or might be, were it not for two building projects we are about to undertake.

The first is the installation of the solar panels. Part of the terrace floor and a garden wall will be taken up to connect up the solar panels, which are to be laid on our hillside, with the batteries, which will be housed in a hitherto unused storage space at the back of the garage that is accessed from the rear terrace. (We’re lucky that storage space is there. I don’t think the solar panel engineer could believe his, or rather our, luck when he first came to assess our site.) The panels and batteries were delivered today, from Germany via a business in Spain, and our own electrician and builder also came by to determine what needs to be done. The languages spoken during the course of this were German, Swiss German, Portuguese, Spanish and English. Our own little Babel.

Solar panels stacked up

Solar panels stacked up

Solar batteries awaiting installation (and Rolie)

Solar batteries awaiting installation (and Rolie)

Battery storage space on the back terrace (conveniently - we'd been wondering what to do with it!)

Battery storage space on the back terrace (conveniently – we’d been wondering what to do with it!)

When this is all done, we can look into getting the swimming pool built. This will also involve taking up part, indeed most, of [what’s left of] the back terrace. We have to reduce our built area before we can add something new to it because we are already at the limit of what we are allowed. In fact, we’re over the limit. This would not have mattered had we not wanted to add to it. Increasing our built area means complying with current regulations, not those that were in place when our house was originally constructed, when the allowance was a little more generous than it is now. The front terrace, which has proper Santa Catarina terracotta tiles, manufactured just a few kilometres away, will remain unchanged. For the back terrace floor, we’ll think of something.

A little reminder for us of a favourite bakery/cafe in Soho, London: a tray of almond croissants, just baked

A little reminder for us of a favourite bakery/cafe in Soho, London: early morning, and a rack of freshly baked almond croissants

Week 67: Scents

Morning sky as seen from our bank garden

Early morning sky as seen from the back garden

Focaccia in the new oven: a trial, which turned out to be delicious

Focaccia in the new oven: a trial, with delicious results

Levain from the new oven

Levain from the new oven

The salt pans of Tavira being worked this week

The salt pans of Tavira being worked this week

The thing about writing a weekly, real-time blog is that at any time you can be tripped up. Such as saying, as I did last week, that the intense heat of high summer had left, and that it might be months before we had any precipitation. No sooner had I spoken than the intense heat came back, followed by a thunderstorm and a heavenly downpour. It was brief, but enough to raise a fresh red-clay scent from the parched earth around us.

Rain!

Rain!

Gummy Cistus ladanifer still clothes the hills behind our house. Though it has paled and shrunk in the summer heat, it has not entirely lost its resinous scent or its stickiness of leaf. It’s a year-round aroma, it would seem; stronger or weaker but always there. Other smells are shorter-lived. Smoke that filled the valley several weeks ago turned out to be from a fire in the town of Vilamoura some 40 kilometres away, oddly funnelled up our valley by the patterns of wind movement that day. It had us scared for a few moments before it got blown away again. A few days after that we woke up to a warm, sugary smell: the roasting of alfarroba (carob) in a nearby mill, carried over on the breeze. The dark brown carob pods are collected in the month of August. At a mill the seeds get extracted and it is the pods that are roasted and ground to make carob flour for cakes and bread. It’s a worthwhile crop for people here: even a modest-looking tree produces a sackful or two.

The heat and thunderstorm were a temporary burst. Now the nights are undeniably cooling and we wake up to dewy mornings and a spicy vegetal scent that I cannot precisely identify; it takes me back to mornings in southern India, and reminds me of turmeric, but I don’t know what it is, nor whether it will last more than a few days.

One set of our neighbours has gone, the others are about to leave; we’re sad to see them go. The heady rush of high summer is over. Autumn is here.

The sea

Between Husband’s baking schedule and my work diary we had few occasions to experience the beach in high summer, but we made good on the last day of August, taking the boat from Santa Luzia and the short boardwalk across a Helichrysum-clad, curry-scented barrier island to the sandy beach. We like to take the first boat of the day to experience the beach while it is quiet and the clam-diggers outnumber the sunbathers.

Early morning beach, the sun shining on the wet sand

Early morning beach, the sun shining on the wet sand

The freshly cleaned beach in the morning

The freshly cleaned beach first thing

The clam-diggers move like wading birds along the shore. They loosen the saturated sand with paddle movements of their feet, then – instead of a beak – pull up the little telline clams using a long-handled sieve. Being by the sea is such a perfect experience: the susurration of the waves, the scent of the salty air, the silver flakes of the sunlight dancing on the water. We might have missed lots of the festivals of summer; we might be about to miss our neighbours, but I welcome the month of September. It’s one of my favourite months of the year, and I think it will be beautiful here in the Algarve. I hope we can find more time to spend by the sea.

Tiny telline clams

Tiny telline clams

Cliff has been re-employed to advise shoppers in a local supermarket not to help themselves to the frozen fish: 'Don't mess with the fish, or I'll sing'

Cliff has been deployed to advise shoppers in a local supermarket not to serve themselves from the frozen fish, or as Husband has it: ‘Don’t mess with the fish, or I’ll sing’

Week 64: Greasy pole

Our well ran dry, so we got two lots of 5,000 litres delivered by tanker; the water comes from the Bishop’s Font (Fonte da Bispo), and the skill of the tractor driver in manoeuvring the tanker in the small space at the front of our house was a joy to see

Our well ran dry, so we got two lots of 5,000 litres delivered by tanker; the water comes from the Bishop’s Font (Fonte da Bispo), and the skill of the tractor driver in manoeuvring the tanker in the small space at the front of our house was great to see

Sourdough ferments very quickly in the August heat

Sourdough ferments very quickly in the August heat

Woodchat shrike, a newcomer to our garden

Woodchat shrike, a newcomer to our garden

Whimbrel, seen in the mudflats at Santa Luzia

Whimbrel, seen in the mudflats at Santa Luzia

 

It’s getting ever harder to ignore the fact of August. If we go into town the roads are full and it’s difficult to park. Many of the new road-users are hire cars who, naturally, don’t always know where they are going; others are expensive cars driven in from richer places, who are inclined to think that small cars – such as my dear Rolie – don’t have quite the same road rights as they do. We do not let it get to us, because we live here and we will have it all back to ourselves soon. Besides which, the valley in which we live remains absolutely peaceful.

Among the good things about high summer are the non-stop festas and events, and the restaurants and shops that have miraculously appeared from behind wooden doors and dull facades, absorbing the excess population and adding new life to the towns.

We went to the Festa dos Pescadores at Santa Luzia to see the boat race and got unexpectedly caught up in the contest that preceded it, the pau de sebo, or the greasy pole. Not caught up to the extent of taking part (maybe next year . . .) but we were enthusiastic spectators. It’s surprisingly entertaining to watch willing participants attempt to traverse a lard-smothered pole suspended from a fishing boat over the water. The object is to grab a flag from the end of the pole. You are going to land in the water whatever you do, but if you take the flag with you, you’re a winner.

Santa Luzia: the boat with the pau de sebo

Santa Luzia: the boat with the pau de sebo

A great effort, but he didn't make it

A great effort, but he didn’t make it; in the background you can see the old tuna-fishing village of Barril, now a beach resort

Another loser

Another good loser

A winner

A winner

 

Best of all was seeing Os Cavalinhos, the restored fishing boat I wrote about last week. Here is the beautiful boat, tuning up and getting ready for the race:

And here is the team with an unassailable lead, soon to cross the finishing line in first place:

O regresso do guerreiro: the return of the warrior. Almost too good to be true, huh?

‘O regresso do guerreiro: the return of the warrior.’ The renovation was completed only the day before, and in the race the boat came in first. The story is almost too good to be true. (But true it is.)

This dog was so thrilled to be at the water's edge he couldn't stay silent or still for a minute

This dog was so thrilled to be at the water’s edge he couldn’t stay silent or still for a minute

Nightjar

Another of the pleasures of the summer has been the starlit film showings in the cloisters in Tavira. We returned home this week after one such film, a two-hour one, in the early hours of the velvet night. Along the dirt track to our home, Rolie’s headlights picked out a bird in flight, which at first we thought was an owl. The bird came to the ground and we stopped the car. It sat in the dirt like a tiny, slightly rusty boat. It was a red-necked nightjar. We watched for a while, then turned off our lights so as not to alarm the bird any more than we already had. The night became very still.

After a while we faced up to the inevitable. We had to get ourselves, and our vehicle, home. We turned the engine on again, and pulled forward slowly to creep around the nightjar. Not waiting for us to go by, it took off, lifting and turning its long wings, their bright white patches like broderie anglaise, scooping and beating away the air until it had disappeared.

Week 63: Sea fishing

The beach (at Terra Estreita) in the morning

The beach (at Terra Estreita) in the morning

Another view of the beach in the morning

Another view of the beach in the morning

Plum tree ready to harvest; the hint of white in the top right-hand corner is the moon

Plum tree ready to harvest; the hint of white in the top right-hand corner is the moon

Plums that look like chocolate eggs (according to my great-niece)

The plums look like chocolate eggs (according to my great-niece)

The tourist season is at its shimmering, simmering height, but you’d never think so where we are. We still go out if ever we hear a car go by because it must be someone who’s come to visit us or got lost. The bee-eaters are the only hordes to descend on this valley. Their numbers seem to be increasing. Where we used to hear them only in the evenings, now we hear them at any time of day. Their calls sound like a toy musical instrument, their shape against the sky seems composed of the protractors and compass points of a geometry set and their colours are as bright as a box of crayons. They seem to be formed from the contents of a schoolchild’s satchel. We watched them from the back terrace this morning. We also saw, over the space of a few minutes, the red-rumped swallows, many house martins, two tumbling, twirling golden orioles, a languid hoopoe and a darting blue rock thrush. Good company to have at breakfast.

Snapped in Santa Luzia. This vessel's name, Atum (Tuna), suggest its occupation, but tuna-fishing is on a much reduced scale these days

Snapped in Santa Luzia. This vessel’s name, Atum (Tuna), suggests its occupation, but tuna-fishing is on a much reduced scale these days

Another fishing boat in Santa Luzia

Another fishing boat in Santa Luzia, taken on a rare overcast day this week

Wooden boats

Why would a wooden fishing boat be any better than a fibreglass one? I asked this question provocatively of an earnest photographer and environmentalist on Saturday, ignoring my own feelings on the subject: which are that my heart lifts at the sight of an old wooden fishing boat, and it does not do the same at the sight of a fibreglass one. Husband and I had found ourselves at a hotel on the outskirts of Tavira, an old tuna-fishing village converted into a holiday centre, attending the presentation of a new association aimed at protecting the marine environment in all its aspects. A series of chance contacts brought us here; we were interested to find out what the project was all about. The proposed association – they are still jumping through bureaucratic hoops to set it up – arose out of the voluntary work done by an archaeologist, a teacher, a photographer and a tourist guide to preserve and restore an old octopus fishing boat from Santa Luzia: Os Cavalinhos (The Little Horses). About 6 metres long and 1.3 metres at its widest, it was part of the traditional octopus fishing fleet and in its time the fastest rowing boat in Santa Luzia. At sixty years old, it had fallen into disrepair. The volunteers, two of them the daughters of Santa Luzia fishermen, attempted to raise the funds to restore the boat to take part once again in the annual fishermen’s race. They succeeded, though only just in time. The race is on Monday 10 August and we plan to go and see it.

Why all this interest in an old wooden boat? It seems the government is in the process of encouraging the fishermen to get rid of their old boats, burn them on the beach if necessary, and accept some money towards the purchase of a fibreglass replacement. I haven’t been able to find out what is the official thinking behind this policy, but, as you saw, I did get the chance to ask the volunteer at the association what he had against it. Obviously, heart-lift cannot be a factor on either side. So, is a wooden boat really any better than a fibreglass one? Well, yes, he said. First, it’s sturdier, and much safer in a heavy sea. Secondly, besides strength, it has give: wood will flex in response to the movement of the sea, which fibreglass cannot. And this means, in turn, that the fisherman is better off. In a fibreglass boat, he – or, rather, his spine – becomes the most giving point of contact, which soon leads to a ruined back. Thirdly, a fisherman has a long relationship with a wooden boat. With love and care it will last for decades and be like a second skin. Not so a fibreglass boat. I was glad I’d asked. We will be interested to see the association get up and running and to find out if there’s any way we can contribute.

My father in a wooden fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden half a century ago. He loved sea fishing in his spare time

My father in a wooden fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden half a century ago. He loved sea fishing in his spare time

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