Monthly Archive: April 2015

Week 49: Carnation Revolution

Dia da independência, commemorated at the town hall with over-size carnations

Freedom Day (25 April): commemorating the Revolução dos Cravos (Carnation Revolution) 41 years ago: a peaceful military coup that overthrew a dictator, followed by the transition to democracy and the ending of the country’s colonial wars in Africa – at Tavira town hall

Taking a closer look

Taking a closer look at the model gun

Celebrating with traditional dancing

Traditional dancing

I love the hats

I love the hats

 

Peak wild flower seems to have been reached. I shall have to scale back on the posies around the house. The gusts of citrus scent have tailed off too, allowing the steady background note of resinous Cistus ladanifer to dominate once more. We got the land cleared on the hill behind us: fire prevention. When summer really sets in, all the greenery between the trees could turn to tinder, waiting for a stray match. I have heard people’s tales of a major fire in this region a few years back, and how they feared for their lives. It’s not just us, of course; bit by bit, all around us parcels of land are being ploughed over. Marking of plots is another thing happening all around; one of our next jobs to do. A new regulation means that all landowners must identify their plots with numbered and initialled white stones/posts. Who-owns-what has long been an issue and the local government is trying to introduce some kind of system. It’s fascinating to see the initials appearing. The land we ‘own’ is behind our house; there’s a small patch of land in front, by the path down to the river, that is rumoured to be ours, too. The fact that no one else yet has claimed it suggests it might be so. It’s one of the places Horse used to graze when he was here.

At our house, the sparrows have been busy. Many fine strands of nest-lining have been selected and carried in through the mud tunnel. I imagine they have quite a few eggs in there by now. We should hear hatchlings before too long . . . unless, that is, the swallows get their way. The swallows are now bombing the nest. My sympathies have switched from the swallows to the squatter sparrows. Such drama, all on our front terrace.

Red-rumped swallows on our telegraph wire

Red-rumped swallows on our telegraph wire

A good scratch, which seems to have dislodged something substantial

A good scratch, which seems to have dislodged something substantial

Red-rumped swallow bombing the sparrows who have nested in their mud-building

Swallow attempting to take back the nest

 

And not the only drama around here lately. I don’t know quite what happened to me but one day this week I had a total collapse of morale. Things got on top of me. I’m not sure what it was about. All I know is that I was very much out of sorts. In this state I drove home in Rolie and decided not to reverse into the garage in the usual fashion but – inexplicably, other than being-out-of-sorts – to try a new way, and in so doing reversed Rolie into the millstone instead. Small damage to Rolie; ruination of my self-belief. By chance, one of my sisters called that night. I was still in pieces. Having moved country herself, she understood. ‘I have backing-Rolie-into-millstone days too,’ she said. (This is not literally true, you understand. 1. She’s an amazing driver. Used to drive a double-decker bus around London. 2. She does not drive a Renault 4. But you get the drift. Rolie-reversing as metaphor for life wobbles.) I guess moving country does give you a lot of work to do and a lot to think about. It’s not the easy choice. Do I regret it? No, not at all. Living here feels like the biggest treat in the world. I just have to make sure I’m up to it.

Talkative, French-accented Costa, from whom I bought the car, has recommended a mechanic to fix Rolie up. We’re going to meet at the garage tomorrow so he can introduce me. Tomorrow also sees the beginning of the building of the wall that will separate off Husband’s bakery; once that’s done, and the final, three-phase electrical connection is made, he can buy the oven he has long wanted and get baking properly.

The celebrations of 25 April, Freedom Day, are over and the next big event is the first of May, Labour Day. Maria tells me our river valley will be full of people having a festa. That will be something to see.

 

Week 48: Ricochet

Our home between meadow and sky

Our home between meadow and sky

Wild flowers in our garden; when I think of how we tried to grow this lavender in London - and failed - and how prolific it is here without us lifting a finger!

Wild flowers in our garden; when I think of how we tried to grow this lavender in London – and failed – and how prolific it is here without us lifting a finger!

Our abundant prickly pear: two kinds growing close together, and producing both buds and new pads

Our abundant prickly pear: two kinds growing close together, and producing both buds and new pads

We hear plenty from these, but this is the first time we saw one: the Iberian pool frog, or Pelophylax perezi

We hear plenty from these, but this is the first time we have seen one: the Iberian pool frog, Pelophylax perezi

 

How foolish of me to have said last week that we hadn’t heard the hunters since January. How easy it is to tempt fate. Our Sunday morning peace was shattered by the sound of gunshot ricocheting around the valley. Sunlight glinted off weapons on a nearby hill. We decided to pack up and go to the beach. In itself, not a bad thing.

On the way to the sea, we stopped to see some Dutch friends and take them a new loaf of bread to try out. We told them about the hunt we’d heard earlier. Our friends are well-informed and have a no-nonsense way about them. Hunters are only allowed to shoot at certain times of year, and this time – breeding season – is emphatically not one of those times. Should we wish to discuss this with anyone, here’s the name and number of the local mayor, who is very highly regarded.

We haven’t made a call yet; thought we’d wait and see if it happens again. We don’t want to make enemies – certainly not of men with guns. I don’t, for the record, object to hunting. I’d rather eat wild boar that’s succumbed to shot than a factory-farmed beast any day – for both my sake and that of the animal. But the hunters should follow sensible rules, and it seems as though they don’t. Even our Portuguese neighbours think the hunters are crazy.

Beach

The beach was beautiful and swept all cares away. Things are hotting up there now, but we walked past the recently installed lifeguards and sunbeds until we were free of everyone else and stretched out on the warm golden sand by the blue-green water under a mackerel sky. (We had bought fresh mackerel ourselves from the market the day before. Its iridescence was enough to light up the sky; clouds are but a poor imitation of it, really.)

Birds

The other sound that ricochets around our valley these days is the ‘fee fiyoo’ whistle of the golden oriole, which has arrived in numbers. Husband mimics the sound quite well and it seems that he sometimes gets an answering call. He has also seen plenty; perhaps the whistle gives him privileges. I haven’t seen one yet this year, but it can’t be long. Since their Portuguese name is papafigos, or fig-eater, I’m keeping an eye on our fig tree. Husband’s best friend from Berlin, staying with us this week, also got a good view of the bird and could hardly believe that such a gloriously yellow-lacquered creature was real. He was equally enchanted when we got a clear sighting of the little owl, which arrived on its telegraph post before dusk had quite fallen: such a beautiful thing, and so small, like ‘an owl that has been shrunk in a hot wash’, he said.

As the hunters threaten decrease, Nature all around is on compensatory increase. The space around our front terrace has been fertile ground for coition: lizards, sparrows and serins. The oh-so-elegant – though inelegantly named – red-rumped swallows continue to appear on the telegraph wire, swifts criss-crossing the air behind them. The swallows babble at high-speed, their black-capped heads and long piercing wings glossy in the sunlight. One morning this week, the male was there alone, preening. Along came the male sparrow and shuffled towards him inch by inch, with each hop swiping both sides of his beak on the wire, as though sharpening a blade, until he closed in and the swallow gave up and flew off. It is the sparrows who have won the mud-tunnel nest. The heavy whirring of their wings as they approach and leave it suggests they only just have the flight dexterity required. I’m a little prejudiced against them; it’s not their nest, after all.

One bird, however, has not been seen for many weeks now: our very own black redstart, the bird that drank daily from the water bowl I put out for him, and roosted under the terrace roof. It seems he only winters here. I will be happy to see him – or his kin – again, even though by then summer will be a distant memory. Summer. We have yet to experience a full Algarve summer.

PS The jeep (see last week) is fixed; it wasn’t a big problem and was very satisfactorily dealt with by the garage.

Week 47: Taxi driver

Thanks to recent rain, the swimming spot is even clearer and deeper . . .

Thanks to recent rain, the swimming spot is even clearer and deeper . . .

. . . and much, much colder. A wetsuit would be required to swim now

. . . and much, much colder. A wetsuit would be required to swim now

Convolvulus (bindweed): a newer flower on the block

Convolvulus (bindweed): a newer flower on the block

Borage doesn't show its pretty face to the world; I propped this flower up on a stalk of grass

Borage doesn’t show its pretty face to the world; I propped this flower up on a stalk of grass to photograph it

 

Our car – the big jeep, not Rolie the Quatrelle – developed a noise as we were driving along: some kind of bearing. We dropped it off at a garage, got a lift from the mechanic into town and a taxi ride back home from there. The taxi driver, a smooth-talker wearing a large gold ring, drove his big car along the final stretch to our house, the two kilometres of dirt track, at something like walking pace. He raised not a speck of dust. I might have suspected him more of concern for his suspension than for the natural environment were it not for what he was telling us. He had by now switched from English to Portuguese and picked up a bit of Fado-like melancholy too. He told us something that made us rather sad. I’ll come back to it.

Birds

Our little owl has been very perky and active these past few weeks, particularly at around 3am. At this time of night, its call is like that of a drunkard who has lost his keys, or at least lost the dexterity to use them. It emits a long whistle in the direction of the bedroom, hoping to raise the occupants of the house. I imagine it lurching from side to side as it does so. It thinks the whistle is fine, low and perfectly directed to do its job. In fact, the whistle is uneven and raucous enough to raise the entire street (were there a street to raise). After many repeated whistles, all clearly being ignored, it gives up. It sits back on its feathery haunches. Luckily, it is a contemplative drunk, not an aggressive one. So it entertains itself for a while trying out a few other, gentler sounds: various kinds of ‘Ooooh’. Then, finally, it flies off.

We sometimes hear the little owl during the day, too, but haven’t yet seen it in clear light. I guess it doesn’t want to make itself known after its carry-on in the night. No doubt a bit of shame attaches to its feathery mien of a daytime.

The serin is another bird we have become accustomed to: a small, yellow creature, brown-streaked, bustling and busy. What identifies it strongly is its manic song. Imagine a glass-bead necklace breaking and the beads shattering, one by one, on a tiled floor. Then speed that up about twenty times and repeat it. There you have it: the call of the serin.

We are also getting plenty of visits from a pair of red-rumped swallows, who swoop in under the terrace roof and check out the nest. Splats of mud below tell a tale of home improvements under way. The sparrows also continue to show an interest in the same spot, and their recent broken egg – tragedy or mistreatment? – was evidence of their stake in it. The two couples, sparrow and swallow, are often to be seen on the wire together. Is it some kind of stand-off?

What the taxi driver told us was that our valley was once much more full of wildlife than it is now, and he put the blame firmly on the hunters. This made me look at the abundance of our birdlife in a different way. Perhaps it’s not that abundant. Some of the birds we know individually – can that be right? The skies should be a flight path of birds migrating north from Africa now, but we have seen only one booted eagle. Then again, some species hang out on their own. It’s breeding season, so none of the birds will be going round in flocks. We don’t scan the skies all day long for migrants; far from it – there’s work to do. But still. Even in paradise, one worries.

The only time we’ve been aware of the hunters ourselves is when they made Horse bolt (see Week 32). Apart from that day, we haven’t heard gunshot. What we have heard is plenty of negative opinion about hunters, and from many different people. Then again, you can’t have your wild boar and eat it, can you? And I’ve eaten some delicious wild boar since we’ve been here. If the hunters are after boar, rabbit and partridge, would they have an effect on small birds too? I’ve got so much to learn. Talking of which:

The remarkable fig tree, Ficus carica

continues to absorb me. My inexpert summing up so far goes like this. You don’t see the flowers on the fig tree (see Week 45) because they are inside out or, rather, outside in. They are hidden in a structure called a syconium. Fertilisation is by a specialised insect, the fig-tree wasp (a entire, tragic, fascinating story in itself), which can get in but not necessarily out. The syconium increases in size and becomes ready to eat: the fig. Cut a fig open and you expose the flower for the first time. Staggering, and wonderful. And apparently this has been going on for tens of millions of years.

Five loaves: walnut, olive & sage and many-seeded

Five loaves: walnut, olive & sage and many-seeded

Always my favourite

Always my favourite of Husband’s wonderful breads

Week 46: Easter egg

The streets of São Bras de Alportel decorated ready for the Festa das Tochas Floridas: the flower-torch festival

The streets of São Brás de Alportel decorated for the Festa das Tochas Floridas on Easter Sunday: the flower-torch festival

One of thousands of flower patterns

One of the many flower patterns

The firefighters' flower plaque: with a phoenix rising from the nasturium flames

The firefighters’ wild-fennel and flower plaque: a phoenix rises from the nasturtium flames

I think this girl knew she'd be photographed a lot, so she wore a shirt with a cheeky message for everyone

Hard at work early in the morning. I think this girl knew she’d be photographed a lot, so she wore a shirt with a cheeky message for everyone

The 'aleluia' moment

The procession: the flower torches must have been in their hundreds

Here and there in our valley, orange trees drenched in blossom are saturating the air with exquisite scent and competing with the hitherto dominant amber tones of the gum cistus. Even our own little mandarin tree is making a good showing.

On Easter Saturday I dropped in at Flaviano’s to check for post, and was met by three persons standing in a row: Father Christmas, Flaviano and a pleasantly round-faced woman of uncertain age. I greeted them. The woman returned the greeting in a very friendly way; Flaviano was reserved, as he sometimes is, usually just before breaking into a broad smile or a cackle. Santa was silent.

You might wonder why Father Christmas (see Week 31) is still in the picture at Easter. We did ask Flaviano a few weeks ago, and he said that Santa only lived next door in the store room – which is where we go through the piles of envelopes for any addressed to us. I had never noticed Santa lurking in there before he came out for Christmas proper, but never mind. The reasoning went: since he would only be in the next room anyway, he might as well stay out here in the front.

As I was checking for post, the friendly woman came and offered me a wedge of something to eat. With its cross-section of hard-boiled egg, it looked like pork pie. I rarely say no to food, so I took it and bit in. It was cake, with a rather bread-like texture, a hint of aniseed in the flavour and enclosing a boiled egg. Disconcertingly, the egg was still in its shell. The texture of the cake gave it away as home-made, which is always a pleasure, but grinding through the eggshell was less so. It’s a traditional Easter cake, folar de Páscoa, she said.

Back at home research revealed that a hard-boiled egg in its shell is part of the folar deal. In some versions the boiled egg is put on top of the cake and held in place with strips of pastry; in others, such as the one I had, it is buried inside the cake. My main question went unanswered, however. So I turned to the owner of a restaurant we went to on Sunday night – a beautiful place in the hills, traditional Portuguese with a fine-dining flair and one of our favourite places to go out to.

‘Are you supposed to eat the shell?’

‘No,’ he said immediately, smiling. It seems that this is rather like asking an Englishman if you are supposed to eat the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. Though how you delicately and discreetly avoid eating shell, I’m still not sure.

Early on an overcast Easter Sunday we went to São Brás de Alportel to watch the streets being laid with flowers for the Festa das Tochas Floridas. After Mass the men process from the church through the decorated streets, lifting their flower torches in response to the call, ‘Ressuscitou como disse’ – He has risen, as He said – and shouting three times, ‘Aleluia!’ The flowers on the tarmac soon get scattered, and by the end of the day are swept away. (With thanks to Fiona for the photographs; I had a camera/competence malfunction that day.)

Guarda Nacional Republicana

Easter festivities end on a Sunday; on Monday it is back to work. And on Monday we had a visit from a policeman. The GNR vehicle rolled up outside our front terrace and stopped. Unsure what else to do, I said good morning. The policeman smiled and returned the greeting. He asked for Mr Sensible; of course, we explained that we were now the owners, then he asked if he could come in.

Handshakes all round and first-name introductions. Our rising concerns were quickly dissipated. The purpose of his visit was to explain about the Programa Residencia Segura, the safe residence programme. All remote houses are allocated a reference number and a GPS setting so that they can be quickly and easily found in case of emergency. We now have a record of our number so we can quote it if needed.

Friends have been staying with us this week. One of the great things about having friends to stay is the collective enthusiasm that gets generated. With Fiona and Mike, we did two things we had never done before:

  1. We finally swam in the river. It was lovely.
  2. We bought a chandelier.
Even our small but bountiful mandarin tree adds to the citrus blossom scent

Our very own small but highly scented mandarin tree

The chandelier, which came from a flea market in Tavira, will be the finished touch in the kitchen (note: the ceilings are very high)

The chandelier, from a flea market in Tavira, will be the finishing touch in the kitchen (the ceilings here are very high)

Week 45: Simple pleasures

A meadow in our garden

A meadow in our garden

Long shadows by the river. The weather has become warm enough at the same time that the river is still deep enough in places to swim in, though we have yet to try it out

Lavender

Lavender

I cannot resist the gum rock rose; the resinous scent of its sticky leaves fills the air

I cannot resist the gum rock rose, as commonplace as it is; the resinous scent of its sticky leaves fills the air

Bugloss on stony ground

Bugloss on stony ground

 

Most weeks this blog writes itself, which is lucky. Over the course of the week impressions coalesce, an idea forms, and when I sit down to write, the piece emerges almost complete from some unconsidered part of my mind. But not this week. This week there is such a clamour of impressions and thoughts that I don’t know where to start.

The week started cold. We lit the fire at nights, and a couple of times in the morning, too, to take the chill off breakfast. Now a fire is a laughable notion. Our lives have moved outside. The evenings are warm enough to sit out, wrapped in a warm breeze, stars alight in the deep-dark sky. (I have longed for this time.) The beach, empty and windy when we visited a week ago, is today full of people enjoying the heat, with sun-loungers and umbrellas spread out for hire. The sand glints and the sea is silver-bright. Hoopoes sit by the roadsides that lead to the beach, then fly up and display their 1930s-dressing-room glamour in peach and black-and-white feathers.

I’m learning to temper my impatience to know what everything is, though I was pleased to identify the curry scent along the tamarisk-lined walk to the beach as a plant: helichrysum. In the garden the scene changes daily: new leaves in vivid green; fattening clusters of carob pods; ever more blossom in shades of pink and white; increasing numbers of flowers, both garden – white iris has taken over one corner – and meadow. The vegetable beds are producing radishes and sugar peas, the first of our own crops.

The red-rumped swallows swoop in and out but still have not taken over the nest. House sparrows, on the other hand, are paying it intermittent but rapt attention. I noticed a yellow smear on the ground nearby, then bits of pinky-beige-speckled eggshell. The internet helped me out on this one: a house sparrow egg. An unfortunate loss on the part of the sparrows, squatters unaccustomed to a mud nest, or sabotage by the swallows, who, though they seemingly don’t want the nest, don’t want any other bird to have it either? Impossible for me to know.

And then a few days ago I spent a fruitless hour driving in circles around a large golfing and leisure resort, a Truman Show kind of setting. I never found the place I was aiming for, and I had to give up and go home. My internal compass (frankly, never that good) decalibrated itself totally in the midst of all the bright green grass, white mansions, polished pavements and clearly delineated but undifferentiated roundabouts. Another side to the Algarve; I prefer my lifestyle a little less luxurious.

Recycling

Recycling

The flourishing, if mysterious, fig tree

The flourishing, if mysterious, fig tree

False fruit?

False fruit?

Fig

From all this clamour emerges a small obsession with the fig tree. Ours, only weeks ago a bundle of smart but dead-looking sticks, is now covered in leaves and fruits. Leaves and fruits: how does that happen? The budding botanist is baffled. Alan Davidson, brilliant twentieth-century polymath and foodie, does not help. In Fruit he writes: ‘The fig is botanically not a single fruit but almost 1,500 tiny fruits, which are normally what are thought of as the seeds.’ I see. He goes on: ‘. . . its fruits [are] fixed to the inside of a vase-shaped structure, termed syconium. Earlier, at the flower stage, the syconium is the same shape but much smaller. The syconium contains both male and female flowers.’ I am no nearer to understanding this one. Clearly the only thing to do is to wait and see what happens on the tree.

Sleepy dog on a warm pavement in Tavira

Sleepy dog on a warm pavement in Tavira

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