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



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.


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:


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


And here is what remains of another . . .


with, if you zoom in closely . . .


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



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:


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:


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?

Music and protest

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

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

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

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

The church of Santa Catarina, in the sunlight

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

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

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

The band arrived

The band arrived

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

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

Sound check

Sound check

The band played

The band played beautifully

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

The organist, Gyula Szilágyi, making his introduction

The organist, Gyula Szilágyi, making his introduction



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

'An Algarve free of oil industry'

‘An Algarve free of oil industry’

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

Bom Natal

Bom Natal


Mornings in the valley are misty these days

Mornings in the valley are misty lately

We still have sunny days

We still have sunny days

Ancient, powerfully strong oak tree, stripped of its cork, bent over a path

Ancient, powerfully strong oak tree, stripped of its cork, bent over a path. Seen on a recent walk in new territory

The base of a stripped cork oak tree. Cork is fascinating and endlessly useful - postcards made of the stuff were to send me time-travelling this week

Remains of the cork layer at the base of a tree. Postcards made of cork were to send me time-travelling this week


The valley is full of quiet and peace. Passerines braid the air between the trees. The rosemary in the garden is dense with flowers and bees. The sun isn’t shining all day long every day, unlike December last year when each hour of daylight was an hour of blue skies. December last year . . . I was drawn sharply back to last year for a moment in the post office in Tavira. We spent a lot of time there when we were new, organising rental of a post box, sending important documents off. I even bought a few Christmas postcards printed on cork. Since then we’ve had little business to do in there, but yesterday I received notification in our post box of a parcel and went in to pick it up. There on the counter were Christmas postcards printed on cork. Instantly, I was dematerialised and transported back a year. I had to kick back to the surface, rushing through the events of the past year to remind me that it did happen. Fifty-two weeks condensed into a single moment. Lucky I’ve got this blog as proof that it isn’t all a dream.

Adventures in Portuguese

I continue with my forays into the Portuguese language, even without the benefit of real immersion – it’s too quiet where we are – or any systematic approach to learning, thanks to the continuing pressure of work and other demands. I was encouraged by a short conversation I had with a very nice woman, who wanted to know how long I’d lived here – a direct question which I managed to answer – and declared my Portuguese to be, after such a short time in the country, ‘espectaculo’. So encouraged, that I went off to buy something I needed, determined to do it in Portuguese. I’d already constructed a mnemonic for the name: a fruit + a museum in New York + thingummybob. (I’m not telling you what it was. A little puzzle.) So I walked in, went up to the counter and said I’d like to buy a fruit-museum-thingummybob, please. She knew exactly what I wanted. Success! I’d be out of the shop again in a moment.

Alas, I’d managed to give the impression of being a competent Portuguese speaker. She went to the shelf and took down the two versions of the fruit-museum-thingummybob they had in stock. She proceeded to unpack each one and describe in great detail what it did, the differences between the two, the variations in price, the advantages and disadvantages of each style, and so on. Unfamiliar with the thingummy anyway, I decided to nod and hope for the best until I could simply buy the version that came with the nice little zip-up case for storage, which was the basis on which I was making my choice, then leave and read the instructions in English. But the fatal moment came: a direct question. I had no idea what she was asking me. Her face soured. (Not typical Portuguese, this. These are the friendliest people ever.) ‘English?’ she said. I shook my head firmly. No way was I admitting to speaking English. Not a word. I managed to conclude the purchase, but she wasn’t pleased. I think she felt I’d cheated her. Next time I’d better admit defeat earlier on.

I made this tiny and precarious sculpture by the river a few weeks ago . . .

I made this tiny and precarious sculpture by the river a few weeks ago . . .

It's still there! Didn't take much to restore it

It’s still there! It didn’t take much to restore it


Bread for other people

Olive and tomato bread with rosemary from the garden: irresistible

Bread for us: olive and tomato with rosemary from the garden

Week 75: Going to church

Medronho (Arbutus unedo; strawberry tree), with fruit and flowerbuds at the same time

Medronheiro (Arbutus unedo; strawberry tree), with fruit and flowerbuds at the same time

Loquat in flower

Loquat in flower

A Great Grey Shrike* appeared at the top of a spindly oak in our garden this week, rather puffed-up and self-important, its black eyeband suggesting a tonsure so that it looked like a medieval monk surveying the monastic lands from on high. Its acolyte, a tiny – by comparison – Blue Tit, capered from branch to branch below, hoping for favour. The shrike had an apricot tinge to its belly feathers, identifying it as the Iberian sub-species (called Lanius excubitor meridionalis) and enhancing its well-fed look. In the carob trees on the other side of the garden two Blackcaps appeared, a male with the black cap its name predicts and a female with a red-brown cap. They, too, have a rather clerical appearance, with their plain colours and their neat zucchetti skullcaps.

Could it be that I have spent too long recently thinking about churches? …

… Because I have been finding out as much as I can about our beautiful local town of Tavira, starting with its abundant religious buildings: nineteen churches/chapels in the town itself and two chapels of pilgrimage just outside. The town flourished from the late medieval period until about the middle of the eighteenth century. It was the richest and most populous town of the Algarve, serving as a jumping-off point for Portugal’s expansion into North Africa. The churches represent power as often as they do piety: established to celebrate a victory in Morocco, or to provide physical and spiritual relief to returning adventurers, or to showcase a family’s or brotherhood’s wealth. They are absorbing windows into the past, as well as still in some cases being places of worship. In Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance, Plain and Baroque styles, from the gorgeous to the hideous, each one is fascinating.

Tavira's beautiful 'Roman' (actually medieval) bridge

Tavira’s beautiful ‘Roman’ (actually medieval) bridge

The Chapel of Santa Ana, one of the oldest in Tavira – and a yellow Renault 4

The Chapel of Santa Ana, established in the thirteenth or fourteenth century (and a yellow Renault 4)

Seventeenth-century tiles inside the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation, which once gave succour to the town's prisoners

Seventeenth-century tiles inside the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation, which once provided succour to the town’s prisoners

Rua D. Paio Peres Correia, a street named after the Master of the Order of Santiago, who took the town from the North African Muslims in 1242

Rua D. Paio Peres Correia, a street named after the Master of the Order of Santiago, who took the town from the North African Muslims in 1242

The typical Algarvean chimney is white, with a lacework design, and reminiscent of Moorish style. In Tavira, the traditional chimneys are four-sided, like these, and not round - though you see many examples of both kinds

The typical Algarvean chimney is white, with a lacework design, reminiscent of Moorish style. In Tavira, the traditional chimneys are four-sided, like these, rather than round (though you do see both kinds in the town)

Another Tavira chimney, near to the castle wall

Another Tavira chimney, near the castle wall

A four-sided chimney in our valley (which is in the district of Tavira)

A four-sided chimney in our valley (which is in the district of Tavira)


On 25 October we celebrated our first anniversary. It was a year since we had driven over the Spanish border in an over-full black Polo and arrived in Portugal to begin our lives here. It was a month later that we completed the purchase of our house and moved into this spot in the valley (giving us another anniversary to celebrate in four weeks’ time). We haven’t regretted the move for a moment. As I write, Husband is singing while he works, preparing his biggest batch of loaves so far, while I sit amid growing piles of books and leaflets for study.


*I decided, after some internal struggle, to use the proper nomenclature for birds: i.e. giving their species names in capitals. This makes it clear that our little owl, while being a little owl, is also a Little Owl – and who, by the way, after some silence over the late summer is now, happily for us, back in full throat at the close of every day and during the night.

Our lunch spot by the sea on beautiful day this week (at Fábrica do Costa)

Lunch by the sea on a beautiful day this week (at Fábrica do Costa)

Our local Climate March, taking place in Tavira on Sunday 29 November

Local climate activists. A march takes place in Tavira on Sunday 29 November, in line with others all over the world

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