Yearly Archive: 2015

Natal

Santa Luzia on Christmas Eve, where we went to eat fish for lunch

Santa Luzia on Christmas Eve, where we went to eat fish for lunch

Christmas tree

Christmas tree

Last year I didn't know what this was. It's oxalis, or Bermuda buttercup, a invasive plant but a beautiful one too, which furls its yellow flowers at night and opens them to the sun in the morning; seen on the Christmas Day walk

Last year I didn’t know what this was. It’s oxalis, or Bermuda buttercup, an invasive plant but an attractive one, which furls its yellow flowers at night and opens them to the sun in the morning; photographed on our Christmas Day walk

The rising sun after a night of heavy rain caused steam to rise from this cork tree

Cork tree steaming in the rising sun after a recent night of heavy rain

 

Christmas Day was winter-sunny and bright. Spotless starlings gathered on the telegraph wire in front of the house to whistle their high, ascending calls, like in-drawn breaths. The seasonal light favoured the azure-winged magpies in the valley, lowlighting their air-force-blue feathers to great advantage. We walked eastwards into the neighbouring valley, deeply cut with a tiny stream that feeds desultorily into our river. Within twenty minutes we had left all civilisation behind: not a single person to be seen, nor a house, though a few ruins and one well, deep with water. Several black, skeletal trees told the story of fire, no doubt the terrible one of 2012. How close it had come.

The extraordinary peace of Christmas Day was exchanged for something more lively on Boxing Day as friends arrived from Germany. Our jeep journeys henceforth have included two pre-teens, who relish fording the river and skittering over the stones of the smaller dirt tracks, something the hire car cannot do. One such stone was our undoing: as easily as though it were an axe, it ripped a tyre right open. It seemed best to abandon the jeep for the time being – it was too dark to contemplate tyre changes – while we walked the rest of the way in the gathering gloom, hoping the two fathers in the hire car, now sure to reach home before us, would not be anxious. Lucky that Husband keeps a torch in the car.

That walk home in the near dark might well turn out to be the highlight of the holiday. The air was luxurious: soft, scented with Cistus ladanifer and lavender. One pre-teen managed to stop her foot landing on a moving beast just in time. We shone the torch beam on it: a lustrous black and yellow Fire Salamander, so magical to see. Its rubber-shiny black skin was reminiscent of a brand-new tyre, as though it came out to mock our man-made ills with its god-given gifts.

Presépio de Natal

The bombeiros (firefighters) of Tavira have created a spectacular nativity scene at their station. Occupying the space of two fire engines, it tells the story of the nativity within a colourful, global background. Anachronisms, geographical implausibilities and out-of-scale figures fill the holy scene with both wonder and humour, and in some places, I suspect, are evidence of indulgence towards children whose toys had been redeployed. My particular favourites were an Alpine village on the hill and a tiny robot turning a carcass-laden spit. Love, patience and attention to detail had been poured into this grand work. The day we saw it was Christmas Eve, so the crib in the manger was still empty; we need to go back and see the new-born in place.

The carpenter's

The carpenter’s

The manger on Christmas Eve

The manger on Christmas Eve

 

Horse

Christmas would not be complete without Horse. It was this time last year that the mystery horse turned up in our valley and stayed for the best part of two weeks, occupying pretty much my every waking thought as I puzzled over whose he might be, was he all right, had he been abandoned, did we have enough carrots in, and so on. Now I know his owners, know where he lives, occasionally pass by his place and have been known to take a few carefully chopped up carrots and apples his way. At the end of November, when we were in Germany, we heard from the owner that Horse had escaped again; had we seen him? He returned within a matter of hours. (I like to think Horse came to see if we were around and, finding us away, gave up and went home.) Since then, his opportunities for escape have been firmly cut off by extra-secure fencing. Not that he suffers; this horse lives the life of Riley, making people love him and refusing to do much in return apart from supplying large amounts of s**t. Dear Horse.

Horse

Took the pre-teens to see Horse. He says, ‘Bom ano novo.’

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

 

Protest

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

The life of the valley

We went for a walk and found Camilla, the dog I looked after a little while ago, playing Grandmother's Footsteps with us

On a walk we turned to find Camilla, the dog I looked after a little while ago, playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with us

Misty Sunday morning

Misty Sunday morning

The sun breaking through. I apologised to visiting family from Sweden for the overcast weather, but they were thrilled just to see daylight

The sun breaking through. I apologised to family visiting from Sweden for the cloudy weather, but they seemed thrilled just to see daylight

Our valley might look like the end of the world but it has many stories to tell. Only a couple of decades ago there was just one car here, a beaten-up one at that. Donkeys would have done the work of taking people and produce into the local village. Now there are Land Rovers and jeeps, family cars and, of course, a Renault 4 (Rolie, who is mine). We have a neighbour who keeps sheep, who has probably lived in the valley his entire life. We have tried hard to engage with him but he’s not too impressed by us. This week I saw him smile for the first time. I slowed Rolie down to a crawl so as not to alarm his sheep on the dirt road. The big beasts didn’t look too bothered either way, but two tiny, white, nervous faces looked up from just below the level of the road on the river-side of the track: lambs. My face melted and my expression was caught by the old man. That was when he smiled.

I am fascinated by other Renault 4 drivers, though usually too shy to openly demonstrate solidarity. Husband doesn’t have the same reserve. Recently we drove past a yellow R4 that we usually see parked outside an equally yellow house on the winding route into the town of São Brás de Alportel. So happy we were to see the vehicle in use that Husband – unusually, he was at the wheel of my car – beeped the horn to say hello. By chance the next day, alone in Rolie, I saw the car again. The driver’s hat was barely higher than the steering wheel. As we drew level, an old, crabbed hand was lifted in greeting.

Wheat

Not long ago, wheat was grown here in the valley. People harvested their own crop and a portable mill arrived by truck in the season to grind it for them; like all country people they understood crop rotation and knew what the land was capable of. The women made bread in wood-fired ovens and it tasted like heaven, I’m told. But cereal-growing didn’t last: two, opposing forces killed it off. A drive of Salazar’s, Portugal’s ascetic, etiolated twentieth-century dictator, to turn the Eastern Algarve into Portugal’s bread basket led to wide-scale land clearing for intensive cereal production that gave little consideration to the reality of the soil. The earth here is perfect for olive, carob, almond, medronho, fig, cork oak, and for subsistence vegetable farming. The drive failed. After only a few years of year-round production the land was exhausted; it has since reverted to more appropriate use. Somewhere along the line cheap flour imports became the model instead, and that put paid to people growing wheat for their own sustenance. Why work so hard when you could buy the stuff so cheaply, even if it didn’t taste as good or have anything like the same nutritional content?

This might have been a field of wheat at one time

This might have been a field of wheat at one time

The path to the river

The way to the river

An abandoned watermill exists at the end of our footpath to the river. I can’t imagine there was ever water enough for a millrace, so perhaps this was part of Salazar’s failed vision too, but I don’t know. It’s a puzzle. The millstone, which doesn’t look well used, lies decoratively but uselessly outside our garage and we and our visitors occasionally reverse cars into it. For us it is a reminder that not everything goes well, even in our little paradise.

I found this line in a photographic book about the Algarve by a Dr Marjay, published in 1968, in what would have been Salazar’s thirty-sixth, and last, year as Prime Minister: ‘Living in the heart of this perennial spring the people of Algarve hardly feel the bitterness of life.’ A glib sentence like that would surely have had the approval of Salazar, whose regime openly cultivated a ‘conservative, paternalist and, bless God, “backward”’ country. Salazar didn’t have time for people’s innate wisdom and need for self-determination. (I’m grateful to Becky of Hidden Delights of the Algarve for The Algarve book tip; the words of Salazar are from a letter he wrote in 1962 and are quoted in Barry Hatton’s very readable The Portuguese.)

The rosemary bush in our burgeoning garden; I love this herb

The rosemary bush in our burgeoning garden; I love this herb

This is Christmas for us: the medronho with its fruit baubles and its flower bells

This is Christmas for us: the medronho with its fruit baubles and its flower bells

Lordy came to visit. He did not want to look at the camera, but he sat with his leg pressed against my shin in a companionable way. Estrela came too, and Eleuterio confirmed what was evident: she is pregnant, and we are in line for a puppy or two

Lordy came to visit. He did not want to look at the camera, but he sat with his leg pressed against my shin in a companionable way. Estrela came too, and Eleuterio confirmed what was evident: she is pregnant, and we are in line for a puppy or two

 

Peace

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

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

Back again

 

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

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

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

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

No Oil in the Algarve

No Oil in the Algarve

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

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

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

Argiope bruennichi

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

Another view of Mrs Argiope and her dinner

Another Mrs Argiope, and her dinner

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

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

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

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

Fado in the church

Fado in the church

Sara G1

The music of a strong soul

 

Solar power

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

Week 77: St Martin’s Summer

Early morning river

Early morning river

Sweet-smelling loquat blossom

Sweet-smelling loquat blossom

Cat and cactus; my neighbour is back, and I will miss feeding the animals

Cat and cactus; my neighbour is back, and I will miss feeding the animals

Other cat, on a sack of alfarroba - I will miss him too

Other cat, on a sack of alfarroba

My companion of the last ten days, coming to our terrace in the hope of a bread snack (which she got)

My companion of the last ten days, coming to our veranda looking for a bread snack (which she got)

 

Quite a lot of the entertainment round here takes place in Flaviano’s shop, that multi-purpose venue with the year-round singing Father Christmas. Sometimes that entertainment is me. This week I was met in the covered exterior of the shop by a seated group of three: Flaviano himself, the camionista whose drunkenness was the cause of disapproval a few weeks ago, and the round lady on her old office chair, her favourite because it’s padded and she can swing from side to side on it. I was wearing an ankle-length jersey dress. The round lady, wearing trousers, looked me up and down and said, ‘Nice dress but you can’t do this in it!’, then leaned back and scissored her legs up in the air. An impressive display for an elderly and stout person. So I stood on one leg and lifted the other straight up to the side, a sort of a half-scissor, to demonstrate that I had plenty of stretch in the fabric of my dress. Nods of satisfaction all round. As I walked by the round lady, she held out her hand for mine. Apologizing, she squeezed my hand: ‘You’re OK, aren’t you? I don’t really mean to make such fun of you.’ Teasing is a form of acceptance, isn’t it?

My Portuguese is still very limited. In the towns, especially a place like Tavira, much visited by foreigners, most people speak English. In general the Portuguese are willing to speak English and very good at it too, and it’s too easy to let them. Here in the campo, however, it’s a different matter. Here the language is deep Algarvian, and it’s sink or swim for me. I have to rely on body language, and hope no one asks me a direct question that needs an answer beyond how I am that day. So it’s perfectly possible that something else altogether was going on in Flaviano’s, but I don’t think so. Sometimes you don’t need words.

I rather like going around in a fog of incomprehension. It stops you taking life too seriously.

One day this week a flock of birds about a hundred strong flew down the valley, sunlight shining on their wings. Binoculars were needed for a better look: woodpigeons. They are either northern European birds migrating south to the Mediterranean for winter – a sensible move – or local flocks on a feeding frenzy, their numbers swelled by the surviving August-born young, filling their crops with acorns for later digestion. They landed fleetingly on the oak trees in our part of the valley and moments later were gone, moving on downriver. Always something new to see here.

New output of tin loaves

New output of tin loaves

Round loaves

Round loaves (and empty tins)

O Verão de São Martinho

I was wrong – and not for the first time – when I said that the Algarvian ‘spring’ in October was likely to reverse sharply into winter. Blazing sunny weather has returned and lunches can be eaten outside again. I hadn’t taken into account Saint Martin’s Summer. St Martin’s Day – 11 November – is celebrated in northern and southern Europe, but with a few interesting differences. (In the UK we pretty much ignore it, having lost touch with the traditional agricultural calendar, and having eclipsed St Martin’s Day with Remembrance Day.) Take Germany. Here St Martin is lauded for cutting his coat in two and giving half to a freezing beggar so that each of them might have some warmth. In Portugal St Martin is celebrated for giving half his to coat to one beggar, then the other half to another beggar, after which the good weather returns and bathes the coat-less man in sunshine. How pragmatic are our religious beliefs! Summer returning to northern Europe in mid-November really would be a miracle. Here, it actually happens, and people celebrate with roasted chestnuts and agua-pé (‘foot water’): young wine from recently trodden grapes, fortified with aguardente.

Last two logs: we need to get new supplies in ready for winter

Last two logs

Half an hour later

An hour later – now we’re ready for winter

 

Week 76: The river is back

I'm looking after a neighbour's dogs and cats. This one is always leaping with joy so I can only catch her mid-leap

I’m looking after a neighbour’s dogs and cats. This one is always leaping for joy so she’s difficult to photograph

She was pretty excited by the river, too, but also scared. She stayed in the shallow parts and whimpered if I waded too far

She was pretty excited by the river, but also scared. She stayed in the shallow parts and whimpered if I waded in too far

Much of October felt like a second spring. Showers were plentiful – such a relief, after all our anxieties about the aridity. Patches of bright green appeared on the hillsides. Tiny white snowdrop-like flowers emerged: Leucojum autumnale, the autumn Snowflake. Blue-winged Grasshoppers flew up from the riverbed and the paths around at approaching footfall; as good as invisible on the ground, it is only the flash of blue wing when they take flight that lets you know they are there. In our garden, it was possible to sit out in the warm sun and be surrounded by birdsong. At the front veranda, the sparrows flew in looking for the mud nest, as though ready for another brood. But the nest is gone. We took it down to get ready for painting the walls, and a smelly, wormy thing it was too.

But this is a spring in reverse, a spring heading for winter. On Sunday 1 November we woke up to thunder and heavy rain, and read of an extreme weather alert for the Algarve, especially between the hours of noon and 3 p.m.: up to 20mm of rain per hour, and gusts of wind at 80 kph. Here in our house at the end of the world the outlines of the hills dissolved and the sky vanished. The rain came down in torrents but we were safe and dry inside, and cosy with the fire lit. Flaviano and the nice round lady at our shop/letter-collection centre were very happy about the rain when Husband saw them two days later. People in local towns didn’t fare so well, especially the tourist developments on the coast, where streets ran with water and bars and shops and houses got flooded. The emergency services have been praised for their interventions. An Albufeira SOS page has been set up on Facebook: self-help for the families and businesses affected by the flooding. One visitor to the page lamented in Portuguese: It’s just sad that we are in Portugal but everything on this page is in English. I know nothing of Albufeira and its ilk; I’ve never been there. It is another side to the Algarve than the one we know. I am sorry for the people there, while I can’t help wondering what part the planners and developers played in creating the conditions for storm and heavy rain to turn into flood.

Monday saw more and more rain. It was intermittent, as though the sky takes a huge in-breath, then spews out rain until it needs to draw breath again. Husband had been out shopping. He was happy to arrive back in a dry spell. He got out of the car, picked up the shopping, then, in walking the few yards to the front veranda, got drenched. I opened the door to see him dripping wet, a surprised look on his face.

The river, having started as a trickle on Sunday, was in full flow by Monday. Its reappearance is a month earlier than last year.

The riverbed on Sunday after the storm - the river at this point is a trickle just behind me

The riverbed on Sunday straight after the storm – the river at this point is a trickle just behind me

The river on Monday: at last the fish from the pond get to go somewhere

The river on Monday: at last the fish from the pond get to go somewhere

The river on Tuesday, still flowing well

The river on Tuesday, still flowing well

Husband

Other news, besides his being caught in a sudden surprise downpour: he’s baking more bread than ever, and is also standing in as projectionist for Tavira’s Cine-Clube for a couple of weeks. In summer the club puts on the wonderful outdoor film festival I mentioned before (see Weeks 61 and 64), and the rest of the year maintains a weekly showing in the town’s cinema, a down-at-heel, atmospheric place, which could do with a few more visitors.

Cinema lobby

Cinema lobby

Two lots of antique projectors, and between them, hidden from sight at this angle, the modern, computer-driven version

Two lots of antique projectors, and between them, hidden from sight at this angle, the modern, computer-driven version

Bread

Bread

 

 

 

 

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)

Anniversary

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

Week 74: Rolie

For some weeks now, my Renault 4 has been misbehaving. This has entailed many meet-ups with Costa, my multi-tasking, extrovert R4 man, a Portuguese with a French accent and an outsider’s view of his own country. We meet at the Cooperativa, where he has a workspace arrangement with a mechanic, the same one who sorted out the R4 when I pranged the back end on the millstone outside our house (Weeks 49 and 50). The car issue at the beginning of this week – indicators that stopped working – was resolved in a matter of moments by Costa, his head under the steering-wheel column, a spanner in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. While fixing the lights, he delivered a non-stop commentary on the job in hand, on procrastination in sunny, southern countries (‘They say “Monday”, but you should ask, “Which Monday?”!’) and on some age-related concerns with his back that were hindering his positioning half in and half out of the car, all the while taking calls on the mobile, and grinning whenever his face was angled outwards so as to be visible.

The preceding problem had been an electrical one that caused the car to cut out. It would usually start again after a few moments, but this wasn’t much fun on the road in traffic. On my way to the Cooperativa that time Rolie had given up the ghost and I had been forced to leave him on the side of the road and walk the rest of the way. Costa came with me back to the car, laughing while perorating on the fact that he eats too much, that I give directions just like someone from the Alentejo (‘Oh, it’s just around the corner, no, not this corner, the next one …’), and that my ‘baby’ – babee, with the accent on the second syllable – was ‘a bad baby’. He got the engine going again and drove off. It took a substantial rewiring to sort out that problem, and it was the fixing thereof that had knocked out the indicator function. There had also been the rattling gear stick – now cushioned by a new rubber washer – and a flat tyre, a slow release caused by a tiny stone between the rubber and the rim.

The Cooperativa, with its huge, under-used (or unused) concrete silos and its Social Realist signage featuring a man and a woman in stout boots and with raised fists marching off into the future carrying a sheaf of wheat, offers space for many activities. While Costa fixes the indicators, a forklift truck manoeuvres sacks of sweetly pungent, freshly dried figs into a store-room. Wine barrels bob in water-filled plastic boxes under the water tank. The mechanic, a bear of a man – whose lateness caused the discourse on southern procrastination, though in the end he wasn’t really that late at all – arrives cleaning his sunglasses on his T-shirt, casually exposing his considerable belly, and joins in the conversation with the man under the steering wheel. Other people, to whom my car must be pretty familiar by now, come and go. Strange agricultural smells assail the nose. Mysteries unfold there. I don’t know the half of it.

Rain

Rain

Wet dog. Estrela, who so often comes to visit

Wet dog. Estrela, who so often comes to visit

These will be our first oranges of the year. I don't know what kind they are; they are an interesting drop shape

These will be our first oranges of the year. I don’t know what kind they are; they are an interesting drop shape

We will have many mandarins this year

We will have many mandarins this year

Grapefruit: the right colour already, but they need to grow a lot bigger

Grapefruit: the right colour already, but they need to grow a lot bigger

Rain

The real story this week has been rain. For days now it has done nothing but pour. Columns of rain have marched up and down the valley, thundering on the roof and hanging in sheets from the gutters. Surely the river will be back earlier this year. We expect it almost any day now.

Each time the noise of the rain stops, birds start up. Small birds are passing through in flocks and singly: wagtails, buntings and warblers; other birds are returning for winter. I opened the garage-type door to our ‘spare’ house one day this week for a yoga session, only for a bird to startle and fly straight into a window then land, stunned, on the floor. Thirty seconds later, it recovered itself and flew out of the still-open door. It was the redstart, my winter companion of last year when we had newly arrived in the valley at the end of the world. I’m so happy to see it back.

As I write I am deafened by the latest downpour and yet, incredibly, the internet is still functioning, allowing me to make this post. Equally incredibly, one day this week was hot and sunny enough for sunbathing at the beach. Our favoured beach at the height of summer is no longer easily reachable since the boat has stopped running, so we returned to our beach of autumn and winter: Barril, where the anchor graveyard is.

Taken on a hot, sunny day at the beach this week

Taken on a hot, sunny day at the beach this week

The anchor graveyard at Barril. At first, I didn't know whether this was an art installation or a dumping ground. It turns out to be neither. The anchors were for holding net frames for tuna capture and slaughter. They were stacked up here at the end of each season, ready for the next year. But then, in the mid-1960s, the next year didn't come - the decades of abundant, cascading tuna fish were over. Since then dunes have grown up around the anchors. All this is a story for another time

The anchor graveyard at Barril. At first, I didn’t know whether this was an art installation or a dumping ground. It turns out to be neither. The anchors were for holding net frames for tuna capture and slaughter. They were stacked up here at the end of each season, ready for the next year. But then, in the mid-1960s, the next year didn’t come – the decades of abundant, cascading tuna fish were over. Since then dunes have grown up around the anchors. All this is a story for another time

Weeks 72-3: Water

Solar panels in place; not yet fully connected up, however

Solar panels in place; not yet fully connected up, however

Autumn breakfast table

Autumn breakfast table

Early morning mist along the valley

Early morning mist along the valley

Sunrise

Sunrise

Midday cloud

Midday cloud

When I’m in England, I can hardly believe this place in the Algarve exists. And then I return, and here it is. I loved my week in England, but relished all the more the peace and silence of this place.

I came home a few days ago to be greeted by rain – such a blessing. Lots of it, too: the very fine and long-lasting kind that gives everything a gentle but thorough soaking. From a meteorological map it appeared to be the tail-end of a hurricane, Joaquin, that had caused my sister to hunker down on the coast in North Carolina, straight across the water from us. Joaquin just missed them, thankfully, then came spinning over to Portugal, losing its damaging power along the way, and eventually drenching the Algarve with long-awaited rain. The riverbed turned several shades darker, the hills became instantly greener, the air filled with the scents of spice and pine, and water rose up in our well. Today, for the first time in four months, we got the pump running and had our own, fresh, clear water gushing from the well into the cisterna under the front veranda: sometimes water seems like a miracle.

Our pond, holding on

Our pond, holding on

The riverbed, moist enough for little mushrooms

The riverbed, moist enough for little mushrooms

Pondlife

Our pond has survived the drought. (I call it our pond but it is no more ours than the sky above it. But we get all the pleasure from it.) Its water is fresh enough that it must be being replenished by an underground source. Its frogs, turtles and fish are thriving, albeit in reduced quarters. Usually when I walk along the riverbed I head towards the sea, some inexplicable force pulling me the way the water goes, perhaps. Today I took a midday walk in the other direction. With autumn, walks in the middle of the day are possible again. The sun shone, breezes blew, and almost no water was to be seen along the course of the river until I rounded a bend and came across a deep pond rather like our own. On my clattering approach – impossible to walk silently over a rocky riverbed – about two dozen sunbathing turtles slid noiselessly into the water, like the habitués of an illegal drug den. As I waited by the water’s edge, peering into the depths, an occasional head would surface, check the scene, then disappear rapidly on discovering that I, the raider, was still there. It’s an even deeper pond than ours, clearly fed by its own underground source, and feeding someone else in turn: a pipe in the pond, and a pump on the hillside, meant it was somebody’s water supply. Satisfied that I’d found something new, that even a short distance from our house there is much to surprise, I turned round at Turtle Dive and went back.

Turtle Dive: habitués in hiding

Turtle Dive: habitués in hiding

Olives and figs

We will have no olives of our own this year. Our tree, acting according to its own nature, is taking this year off. It should bear fruit again next year. Only cultivated trees, pruned, fertilised and culled, produce fruit every year. Our long-expected second fig harvest never materialised either. The fruit reappeared (see Weeks 56-7), but gradually over the hot, dry summer it shrivelled and died, no more than a snack for a few hungry birds, if that. The same happened to other wild fig trees in the valley, I noticed: their leaves yellowed, their fruit was stunted. We had enough water to keep the tree going, but not enough to bring its fruit to maturity. Maybe next year will be different.

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