Monthly Archive: July 2015

Week 62: Sunshine and water

The riverbed

The riverbed

The ever-reducing spot in the river where we have bathed, paddled and gone turtle- and frog-watching

The ever-reducing spot in the river where we have bathed, paddled and gone turtle- and frog-watching

You looking at me?

You looking at me?


First Friends’ neighbour keeps a temperature diary, and confirms that this July has been fully 10°C hotter than July 2014. Last July was unusually cool, we were told; this has been unusually hot, and dry. Eleuterio and Maria don’t like it, and no wonder. Their workload doesn’t let up. They are also running out of water, as are we. Our well, the one that serves the house, is running dry. The next time we fill the cistern under the front terrace will probably have to be by tanker.

We have the use of a second well, which fills the cistern in the garden, and which is purely for the benefit of the garden. This is the well on a patch of Eleuterio’s land by the riverbed, and it is still going strong. So although the river itself has disappeared but for a few vanishingly small pools, rich in frogs and tiny turtles, the underground water seems to be reasonably plentiful – so far.

I love the heat and the light, even though above about 36°C it can be debilitating. Not only do I love it, but now we are also about to make use of it: we are investing some money in having our own solar power. So far we have solar panels that heat the water for the house. (In the height of the winter, however, we had to use the back-up of a boiler running on bottled gas.) Now, we will use solar power to generate electricity. It won’t supply all our needs, but it will supply some and – perhaps more importantly – should the mains electricity ever give out for any reason then we will have our own source. We need electricity to pump water around the house, so being without electricity would also mean being without water – we’d have to haul it up out of the cistern using a bucket.

We can’t be fully self-sufficient because we are limited in the size of the batteries required to store the power. The limitations are mostly financial. Otherwise, it’s looking good. Second half of September is when this happens.

As for the pool, we currently have an engineer supplying a report to the council, after which we will get – i.e. pay for – a building licence. In addition to generating our own solar power, we are going to have a solar-run pump for the pool, and solar-powered heating so the pool is usable for more of the year.


Funny how things work out. Last week I described the calls of the bee-eater as like the plink-plonk of a toy piano, and then we went at the weekend to Sines on the Atlantic coast for a world music festival, where we fell in love with a Japanese band who played, among other instruments, a toy piano – and rubber ducks with bells on, and a fat man’s belly (he was one of the band), and other brilliantly bonkers stuff. They are called the Pascals (homage to Pascal Comelade, I believe), and here they are:

The Pascals: the leader of the orchestra

The Pascals: the leader of the orchestra

Toy piano visible behind the leader

Toy piano visible behind the leader

Here's the fat man, who played a tune on his belly

Here’s the fat man, who played a tune on his belly

The leader, who spent most of his time with his back to the audience, wore oversized culottes in a sprig pattern and home-knit socks. From time to time he turned to the audience to share a few words, and quite often they were words of thanks in Japanese and Portuguese: ‘Arigato! Obrigado!’ He was clearly getting fun out of the fact that the two words sound oddly alike. In fact, ‘arigato’ sounds exactly like ‘obrigado’ given a bit of Japanese treatment, which has given rise to the idea that the word was adopted from early Portuguese explorers (being possibly the first Europeans ever to reach Japan).

This idea struck me as both delightful, and plausible. For a culture with such elaborate, formal social rules, a one-size-fits-all* ‘thank you’ might have seemed rather useful, especially for dealing with this odd bunch of characters who’ve landed on your shores. And why not adopt it for home use, perhaps for situations outside the normal social structures?

But no. It seems the similarity is coincidence. Arigato has its own Japanese etymology, and existed in written records long before the time of the Portuguese arrivals. Oh well. A puzzle . . . but one I shall not give up on.

* Not strictly one-size-fits-all since ‘obrigado’ is a past particle (from ‘I am obliged to you’) and agrees with its subject, which is why women say obrigada, and men obrigado.

Week 61: More heat

Good morning!

Good morning!

Our red-rumped swallows still visit us every day: they swim in the heavy air under our veranda at the front, and over and under the sunsail we had put up at the back

Red-rumped swallows still visit us every day: they swim in the heavy air under our veranda at the front, and over and under the sunsail we had put up at the back

The meditation hill, early evening

The meditation hill, early evening


Rolie, my lovely Renault 4, is of course a stranger to air-conditioning, and also has plastic seats. The ways around this are to have all the windows open and the seats swathed in towelling. But up here in the hills, having the windows open serves only to allow hot air to pour in, like driving with hair-dryers on all around you. The temperature gauge on our front veranda read 39 degrees in the shade in the early part of this week, for most of the day. By midnight, it had cooled to 34 degrees. It’s dropped a few degrees now; it’s only reading 36 degrees at midday. The heat is no doubt more powerful up here in the hills than down on the coast. This is slightly unexpected, slightly counter-intuitive. So is keeping windows and shutters closed during the day to keep the heat out and the cool in, but it seems to work. The house is cooler inside, though not hugely so. Because I have a lot of work on I’m using the air-conditioning unit in my study, which was installed by the Sensibles, to maintain a steady, cool 28 degrees and facilitate brainwork. Funny how one cannot think in the heat.

The mystery of the tiles

Over the past few weeks, maybe longer, a few tiles on our roof have been gradually displaced, even broken. It happens at night and we’ve heard the sounds of scrabbling. One night Husband got up and looked out in time to eyeball a creature, a mammal about the size of a cat. Whether that’s the creature that makes the roof noise at night we don’t know, but we were hoping it was, and we were hoping it was a genet, because you do get them around here. (Then again, it might just have been a cat.) Genets are their own distinct genus (Genetta), but they look like cats: only leaner and meaner, with a longer neck, a beautifully spotted back and a thick, hooped tail. They are better known in Africa, and probably made their way over here from Morocco at some point.

But early this morning, early enough to avoid the worst of the heat, Eleuterio came over to help us place our marker stones, and while we were at it we pointed out the roof. (I say ‘we’ but I was still very much asleep at this point.) He offered to help fix the tiles, and he did so, and he told Husband what was causing the damage. No genet, he says it’s an owl, and it wants to eat the wasps that are nesting there. A roof full of wasps and a nightly visiting bird that’s big enough to shift the terracotta roof tiles – perhaps not the best news I’ve ever woken up to. But love one, love all – can’t just admire the cuter aspects of Nature . . .


It would be impossible not to love the bee-eaters, though their collective calls do sound like a child’s toy instrument, such as an ersatz piano, one on which a bunch of children are repeatedly going plink plonk. Around seven in the evening is a good time, heat-wise, for a walk up the hill behind our house, and also a fabulous time to spot the flocks of bee-eaters. Their calls fill the valley, and they swoop along the riverbed and up over the hills so from a good vantage point you can see them from above and below, and watch how their colours change as they flap and then glide, turning into and away from the sinking sun. To have a bee-eater float directly overhead, to see its sharp, geometric, double-pointed outline and its beautiful turquoise belly with black throat stripe against the deep blue of the sky, is wonderful. And then to see it twist against the light, or fly down into the valley, and flash the vivid blue, yellow and red colours of its back and head – just joy.

Another joy, of a more human cultural nature: in Tavira an open-air film festival is taking place. European films are shown in the cloisters of the Convento do Carmo, each screening at 9.30 in the warm star-studded night. In August is the second film festival, this time non-European films. Reasons to love living here . . .

Broken tile, taken from the roof

Broken tile, taken from the roof

Wasps on an overhang at the edge of the veranda: live and let live

Wasps on an overhang at the edge of the veranda. They aren’t aggressive and haven’t given us any bother. They let me stick my camera (standard lens) in their faces like this . . .

Putting the marker stones up on our land, to meet the demands of the new regulations (and bit late, too). Next, the stones will be painted with our initials and numbered clockwise

Putting the marker stones up on our land to meet the demands of the new regulations (and bit late, too). Next, the stones will be painted with our initials and numbered clockwise

Week 60: Cherubs

The beach: it might be the height of summer, but there’s still plenty of space on the sand

The beach: it might be the height of summer, but there’s still plenty of space on the sand

The inviting sea

The inviting sea

Husband’s new recipe dinkel/spelt bread: taste and texture perfect

Husband’s new-recipe dinkel/spelt bread: taste and texture perfect

We said goodbye to our latest family visitors – parents and three small children – and sat in the back garden, the din slowly receding from memory. The despotic rule of tiny, highly mobile and newly verbal human beings was over, though it’s worth pointing out that, judging by the eldest child, the development trajectory into reason and reasonability seems to be a short and fast one.

As our eardrums readjusted to the quiet, we noticed something moving up the trunk of the carob tree a few feet away. Its disguise was perfect; it looked exactly like the bark. If it hadn’t been moving, we’d never have noticed it. It twisted its neck and showed the side of its face, a chocolate-brown stripe running down through its eye. It was a wryneck (Jynx torquilla): little bigger than a sparrow, and a member of the woodpecker family. A bird not often seen.

I mention the Latin name because it’s an interesting one. We get the word ‘jinx’ from here. In ancient Greek and Roman times the bird was believed to have magical powers, enabling lovers to win the heart of the one they wanted. This called for some jiggery-pokery involving tying the poor bird to a wheel and spinning it. The second part of the name, torquilla or ‘little twister’, describes the behaviour that might have given rise to its reputation for supernatural abilities. When threatened, the bird can twist and squirm its neck like a snake, hissing and darting out its long, ant-eating tongue.

Ants are, apparently, the wryneck’s favourite food. If that’s the case, then frankly it could be eating them a whole lot faster. I’m generally at ease with the insect life around here but ants inside the house have only themselves to blame when they get squashed or sprayed. Interestingly, the more despotic the child, the more keen they were to save the ants. The oldest one, the one subject to reason, was happy to assist me in killing them. Whether this is down to innate character or development stage, only time will tell.


The câmara at Tavira has just completed the renovation of one of the town’s many churches: that of São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo, the mariners’ church. It’s fascinating – even if you don’t like chubby cherubs and gilt. For me the most interesting part is the wooden ceiling: a trompe-l’oeil effect intended to give the impression of much greater height than the reality. It was painted in 1766 – i.e. soon after the 1755 earthquake when so many buildings were damaged and had to be wholly or partially rebuilt – by one Luis António Pereira, and is said to be his only known piece of work. By the twenty-first century the wood had rotted but the paintwork had more or less held together. The entire ceiling got taken to Lisbon for renovation and then returned to be part of the restored and reopened church. The original work was not immensely skilled, I’d say, and perhaps that’s why Pereira wasn’t asked to do any more. Or did he have an attitude problem? It was very hard to avoid noticing these cheeky cherubs, after all …

Detail: trompe-l'oeil ceiling. Did the eighteenth-century painter have a sense of humour? Or have I spent too long in the company of children recently, such that in a beautifully restored church I could only focus my attention on something infantile?

Detail: trompe-l’oeil ceiling. Did the eighteenth-century painter have a sense of humour, or did he bear a grudge against someone? (Or have I been infantilised by the company of small children into being fascinated by this detail?)

São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo himself, thirteenth-century patron saint of mariners. Missing from his right hand is the candle he is supposed to hold – perhaps it’s just too hot and the candle would go limp . . .

Here he is, São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo, thirteenth-century Portuguese patron saint of mariners

Week 59: Warm nights

Lizzy the Lizard entered our house exactly at the same time as a family with three small children did. It disappeared under the children’s bed, then came out the next day, bringing with it a coat of dust. It’s staying close to the house. It must really like small kids

Lizzy the Lizard entered our house at exactly the same time as a family with three small children did. It disappeared under the children’s bed, then came out the next day, bringing with it a coat of dust, which it managed to shake off. It’s staying close to the house. It must really like small kids

Our beautiful carob tree, the one nearest the house

Our beautiful carob tree, the one nearest the house

Ripening carob pods

Ripening carob pods

I haven’t even begun to get a grasp of the butterflies – this is a kind of blue

I haven’t even begun to get a grasp of the butterflies – this is a kind of blue

The same blue, wings open

The same blue, wings open


On the night of the full moon, 2 July, we sat outside on our back terrace in the warm breeze, watching the stars. Venus and Jupiter were particularly bright, quite close together, and for a moment so low in the sky over the hill that they appeared exactly like the headlights of a car driving off-road. I imagine this is the sort of thing that gives rise to claims of UFO sightings – though how the spacecraft, aliens and abductions are brought into play I’m not so sure. A simple case of bejewelling the elephant, perhaps, as our friends Lionel and Michael would say.

Night-times are beautiful now. The days are hot and largely silent of bird song – the mate-attracting over and done with – though there are still plenty of calls, often between adult birds and their young. Husband imitates the oriole so well that he appears to have a conversation with them. To fill the birdsong gap, the cicadas have started up with their chorus, which sounds like water being squeezed out under pressure through a hole in a hosepipe. This watery chorus is conducted by an invisible maestro; it periodically rises and falls, and then all of sudden goes dead silent on an instantaneous accord, usually when one of us steps outside (after which it soon decides we are no danger and starts up again).

A cicada came in with the washing; I apologise if in some hemispheres this picture appears upside down

A cicada came in with the washing

It’s high thirties now but in our brief absence last week the temperature topped 40°C. The stalwart fig tree is covered in yellow leaves, and many of its new little fruits have shrivelled and died. We’ve been clearing it of dead stuff and giving it water, hoping it will pull through and come back to fruitfulness. The bougainvillea is a confetti factory. Maria says she finds the heat just terrible. She told me this when we were having a conversation about shoes – I was asking her to keep an eye out for Estrela’s latest acquisitions. First Estrela took one of Husband’s walking sandals, and I was mildly amused. Next she took one of mine, and I was slightly less amused. Maria found Husband’s straight away. Mine took a little longer, but when we came back from shopping a couple of days later there it was, hanging by its Velcro strap from the line on the front veranda, no doubt carefully placed to be out of reach of the shoe-hunting dog.

We have discovered Lordy’s weak spot. He loses his habitual cool, his dark-ringed brown eyes turning into saucers (of a non-UFO kind), when we have fresh goat’s cheese on the table. He loves it. We give him a few slivers, but it’s never enough for the saucer-eyed dog.

Swimming pool

The clear water of the sea, coruscating under bright southern sunlight, is a beautifully swimmable temperature now. The beaches we had to ourselves all winter and much of the spring are now filling up with people – and boardwalks, sunbeds, umbrellas, and all the other accoutrements of holidays in the sun. And the good news is that, astonishingly enough, one day we will have our own swimming pool – the camara has approved our application. We have it in writing. We don’t know how long it will take to build the pool. The electricity for the bread oven is finally ready and that took four months. We’d like to have the option to solar-heat the water so we can use the pool for more of the year, so an autumn or winter build might still make sense. But if we could magic the pool up tomorrow, we would.

Week 58: Heat

Sunshine like blades of a knife in baking Seville.

Sunshine like knife-blades in baking Seville

In our absence, Tavira had a festival, and we missed it.

In our absence, Tavira had a festival and we missed it

Sparrow clutch number 2. The fledglings left the nest while I was away (again).

Sparrow clutch number 2. The fledglings left the nest while we were away (again)


We have everything here for the perfect holiday – except the absence of responsibilities. So we went away to Spain for a few days to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We stayed in the Subbéticas, in Andalucía, in a lovely small B&B that we’ve stayed in before (Casa Olea), and which I’m sure we’ll stay in again. The landscape here is high and wide open under big skies, unlike our cosy corner of the Algarve. Every hillside for miles around and on into far distances is combed with lines of olive trees: regular grey-green dots on an undulating fawn background. It’s as though an army sergeant-major went to art school and tried his hand at pointillism.

This results in a lot of olive oil, much of which was until recently exported, often to Italy, to be bottled and sold with an Italian label – though the small print will have declared the oil to be the produce of several countries – because Italy has always had foodie kudos that Spain lacks. But the area, Priego de Córdoba, has had its own DO since 1999, and now increasingly markets and sells its own oils with their distinctive flavours.

Among the many things we love about Casa Olea is Ruby the dog, a stray who adopted the owners. She’s a quiet, longish-haired, honey-coloured dog, whose joy is to go out with the guests. She greets the prospect of a walk with a wild run towards your legs, throwing her front paws wide in a gesture that lands somewhere between a dog-hug and a genuflection. The twist of her torso at the last second ensures she doesn’t make bodily contact, but then she comes back and presses her flank against your shins to show you her affection is real and not a tease.

We are still waiting to be adopted by a stray or given a puppy. Good try by Horse, but he knew we couldn’t have him long-term, and so did we.


We met our friends Hazel and David in Seville in extreme heat (more than 40°C) and brought them back to our home in Portugal, where we woke up on their first day to be greeted – blissfully and unexpectedly – by overcast skies. It had clearly been extremely hot in our absence. For one thing, a little-loved, neglected plant on our front veranda had given up the ghost. The plant pot had housed two garden candles, left by the previous owners, and they had softened and curled over on themselves. So soon after enervating Seville, this welcome dull day allowed us to spend an easy afternoon at the beach, swimming in the jade sea. After just a few days away, we had missed our home, and we loved being back. The considerable differences between Spain and Portugal continue to fascinate us; to lump the two countries together is a mistake.

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