Monthly Archive: June 2015

Weeks 56–7: Animal families

Cork oak at daybreak

Cork oak at daybreak

You can just about make out the oriole - they hide surprisingly well for all their fresh lacquer colour

You can just about make out the oriole – they hide surprisingly well for all their fresh lacquer colour. A few yellow leaves on the trees aid their disguise

Estrela greeted us as we came back from our daybreak walk

Estrela greeted us as we came back from our walk

 

We celebrated the longest day of the year by making it even longer: we got up with the birds to take a daybreak walk upriver. The orioles in their family groups filled the valley with calls, which after a short while started to sound to us like recognisable conversation. The adults giving food to the young: ‘Here you go!’ The youngsters’ ungrateful response: ‘Whaddya mean?’ The irresistible urge to anthropomorphise. Another family group out that morning was the turtles: the big, old turtles slid quickly into the pools away from us but the little, fresh ones took longer to move: curiosity, or inexperience. Our very own sparrow family is closer to fledging clutch number two, and continues to be highly, almost comically alarmed every time we step out on to our front veranda. They don’t seem to have become accustomed to us yet. I wonder if it’s a new female. (I’m pretty sure it’s the same male.) She’s anxious and voluble. Perhaps it’s her first clutch. Altogether less in-your-face have been the Sardinian warblers, who nested in one of the rosemary bushes in our back garden, and whose young have now fledged.

Peaches almost ready to eat

Peaches almost ready to eat

Plums need a little longer

Plums need a little longer

Feigensenf/fig mustard

Feigensenf/fig mustard

Fruit

Our fig tree hasn’t let us down. Those early, mysterious (to me) ‘buds’ turned into beautiful green fruit which we’ve eaten – and shared, whether we like it or not, with azure-winged magpies, orioles and blackbirds. Husband made delicious fig mustard, like a sort of piquant jam, which is superb with mature cheese. Many more tiny new figs have appeared on the tree, so it seems we shall be well supplied for weeks to come. Our three apricot trees have finished fruiting; now the peaches are ripening well, and they will be followed by plums, then apples. But our lemon trees, so heavy with fruit for so long, have no more ripe ones. I am not above stealing from a nearby ruin which has a prolific tree, but Husband prefers a more legitimate route. So we went to see Flaviano, in case he had lemons for sale, and also in case we’d heard from the town hall about our swimming pool. There was no post for us of any description. As we stood at the bar drinking beer and port, I said to Husband: ‘E limões?’, and he replied that there appeared to be none. Flaviano heard. He disappeared into the back and returned with a plastic bag heavy with sharp scented lemons, about twenty, for which he would receive no payment. Lemons he had plenty of, he said. We paid for the drinks we had had, and the new fly swat selected from his goods on display.

Summer is here, but Santa still holds court in the coolness of Flaviano's shop interior

Summer is here, but Santa still holds court in the cool and dark interior of Flaviano’s shop

Colour

On the evening of the shortest night (assuming that’s the night before the longest day) we had watched the setting sun highlighting the few, scattered clouds in colours of gold, pearly-pink and – most surprising – blue. Blue clouds against a dark blue sky. Magical. But colour is deceptive, isn’t it? Husband and I often disagree about it. Neither of us is ‘colour-blind’, so far as we know, and yet we don’t agree about anything in the transition from violet and blue to green. We do agree, however, that colours are deeper here in the Algarve than they are further north. When I arrive back in England, I am still surprised at the change in the light. I assume the difference to have been temporary, or temporal, or seasonal, and yet there it is again. Several wavelengths of light seem to have been removed from the sun, making England a watercolour, whereas here the medium is oils.

In thanks for our work on the Marie Curie cookbook Everything Stops for Tea, the photographer, the designer and I were each presented with this sumptuous English-oak cake stand at the book launch.

In thanks for our work on the Marie Curie cookbook Everything Stops for Tea, the photographer, the designer and I as the editor were each presented with a sumptuous, carved English-oak cake stand at the launch in Norwich. I carried mine back home in my hand luggage for safekeeping, and photographed it here in the Algarve sun

 

 

Week 55: Riverbed

Wild carrot seedhead

Wild carrot seedhead

Riverbed stones

Riverbed stones

Translucent grasses, late afternoon

Translucent grasses, late afternoon

Algae-covered pool, rich in life

Algae-covered pool, rich in life

Two geckos, well camouflaged

Two geckos, well camouflaged

 

This landscape is ever changing, though it’s been hard this week to find much time away from my desk to explore it. The dry riverbed continues to fascinate me. I can walk in areas I couldn’t go before. As I approach an algae-filled pool, if I’m careful enough I will catch sight of the turtles just as they slide into the water to hide. Soon after, a single footfall will touch on the invisible electric current that sends all the sunbathing frogs arcing into the pool. By the slimy water’s edge I can watch fish shooting like arrows into shade, small snakes wriggling under rocks. Such rich pickings, they have every reason to be afraid, though not of the clumsy human.

The days get hotter, but refreshing breezes keep them bearable. The evenings are beautiful: warm and starry. We heard rumour of rain; it finally fell, but in so few drops it would have been possible to count them.

P1050969At home the bakery has taken shape: the door has arrived (it look a long time to come) and the window is now complete with its glass. However, inexplicable delay has once again beset the new electrical connection, just when we thought we had finally jumped through all the hoops required to complete that circuit. It would be so good to get this finished, just as interest in Husband’s bread is growing.

Maria has started to wear the tall straw hat of many Algarve women, and I would like to know where she got it from. (I do like hats.) I haven’t seen this style in the shops that sell hats to tourists. Maria and Eleuterio pass by our house quite regularly these days, usually on the tractor, with the dogs, Lordy and Estrela, running behind. Estrela is still cheeky and excitable and comes into the house when she can, but she doesn’t steal shoes any longer. She must have outgrown that phase. Handsome Lordy is as coolly independent as ever. He has no interest in exploring our domain. A few wags of the tail to acknowledge our existence, then off to do his own thing. Even the dog treats we specially got fail to appeal to him, though Estrela is always keen to have a few if they are on offer. A couple of times Maria and Eleuterio have told us that Estrela is pregnant, but then each time she has turned out not to be. They know we adore the dogs and I think they’d like to give us a puppy, but I haven’t been too disappointed at the failure of this to happen. I don’t know if we are ready for a responsibility like that yet.

Next week I shall be in England. One reason is to attend the launch of a cookbook I worked on, Everything Stops For Tea, whose publication is to raise money for Marie Curie. I’m looking forward to that. I won’t be writing a post from there, so the next time I sit down at my desk to write – with its view through the bougainvillea to the meditation hill beyond – will be in two weeks’ time.

The window above the bakery door has been fitted with the glass made by Taran Flaten

A colourful corner of our home, with the glass for the window above the bakery door made by Taran Flaten

 

Week 54: River valley

Sweet-smelling wild oleander

Sweet-smelling wild oleander

This stork came to fish at our shrunken river pool a couple of weeks ago; for him, it's like shooting fish in a barrel

This stork came to eat at our shrunken river pool a couple of weeks ago; for him, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel

 

Oleander in the riverbed

The riverbed

Our house is in a wide, shallow valley. It faces south-east, looking down over the river. Just past the house the river bends sharply southwards. This bend in the valley and the fact that the ‘road’ stops just outside our house are probably what gives it its fim do mundo – end of the world – feel. The front veranda, with its floor of red Santa Catarina tiles, looks out down the path to the river, over the riverbed and across to a hillside beyond, a pleasingly undulating, red-earth hill spotted with trees. The play of light across the hill over the course of the day can bring about a meditative stillness in the onlooker. (We have witnessed this effect on a number of our visiting friends.) Golden orioles occupy this hillside, and occasionally we see the flash of their yellow-lacquered wings on our side of the river too.

The river itself is almost non-existent now. It has dwindled to a few algae-filled pools, rammed with fishes and frogs, easy pickings for passing wildlife. Sweet-smelling wild pink oleander is blooming all over the dry and drying bed.

At the back of the house is another paved area, part of which we have just had covered with a sail shade; behind this is steeply rising land. The lower part is terraced into beds and forms our garden. After that the land becomes rougher and stonier. All the way to the top of the hill this land is – ludicrously! – ours. We bought a bench the other day from an antiques/junk shop: new wooden slats on an old curving iron frame. It’s comfortable, and we’ve placed it on one of the higher terraces in the garden, from which you can see over the house to the meditation hill beyond.

This attempt at a description of our setting is because we have had a number of visitors recently, and almost all of them have said, ‘But I didn’t imagine it was like this.’

We sat out front on the veranda on Sunday evening, enjoying the cooling air after a hot day. True to form, just before dusk the little owl arrived. Its behaviour, however, was untypical. It perched on the wooden telegraph post, then the concrete one, then fluttered ineffectually down to earth and back up again. It didn’t let out its usual lament. In short, it didn’t seem to know what to do, and we realised that this must be little little owl, scion of our noisy friend, working out how to manage its gift of life.

Zitting cisticola

Each visitor brings something special to this place: a new perspective, a particular expertise, a unique curiosity. Among recent visitors has been one with an extraordinary knowledge of birds, who observed, by sight or sound, forty different species around our house. I have learnt many things. For example, that the long, pure whistle I sometimes hear is part of the nightingale’s song. Just beyond the bend in the river is a thicket of reed which is a nightingale’s territory, where his complicated song can be heard in all its variety. Another is that our house is on the bee-eaters’ commute. They pass high overhead in the early evening, their bubbling call revealing their presence. At night the red-necked nightjar moves around, its sound like that of a puttering two-stroke engine reluctant to start. And all about us during the day is a bird I had never heard of before: the zitting cisticola. It’s nothing to look at – assuming you could even get a good look at the tiny brown thing – but in breeding season the male’s song and flight are distinctive: he flies in small loops, emitting his single-note song on each rise, the sound more of a ‘dzip’ than a ‘zit’. He’s been zitting away so close, and I never even knew the bird existed.

Stork parent with baby (these photos by Mike Unwin)

Stork parent with baby (these photos by Mike Unwin)

Bee-eater drinking

Bee-eater after bathing (near Olhão)

Azure-winged magpie, a regular visitor to our garden (these photos by Mike Unwin)

Azure-winged magpie photographed near Olhão; this bird is a regular in our garden

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