Monthly Archive: September 2015

Week 71: The moon and the sun

Not the best picture of the moon you will ever see, but it was my moon on this special night

Not the best picture of the moon you will ever see, but it was my view on this special night

Starting to smoulder

Starting to smoulder

Almost completely eclipsed

Almost completely eclipsed

 

After midnight on 28 September, the perigee full moon shone so brightly I thought we’d left a light on outside. With the promise of a lunar eclipse and a ‘blood moon’, I decided to stay up and watch. Husband was in bed with a cold.

I made myself comfortable on a sun-lounger. The moon drenched the night in a milky glow. I’d read two pieces of advice about moon-watching on this night. The first was that no special precautions were needed. (Husband scoffed. ‘That’s like telling people they don’t need to wear sunglasses to go out at night!’ But I was privately reassured.) The second was to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness. The second advice turned out to be useless. There was no darkness. The sky was the colour of a blue rock thrush – of which more later – with barely any stars visible. The house cast a sharply defined shadow over the back terrace. I tentatively lifted my binoculars to the huge and luminous moon, glad to know I wasn’t about to burn my retinas out.

For an hour, between 01.11 and 02.11, nothing perceptible happened. Just me and the moon. Not another human sound could be heard. Birds and dogs made their occasional calls against the background of a steady buzz of cricket wings. Invisible insects brushed lightly against my cheeks. The only noise to startle was the crackle of a dry leaf falling to the ground.

Then it was as though someone had touched the paper disc of the moon with a lighter. A dark smoulder appeared from top left. Ever so slowly it consumed the whole moon. It was the shadow of the earth, and since it felt like I was the only person on earth, then that was my shadow on the moon. Lunacy. The fore-edge of the shadow was dark, but gradually the light from the sun, refracted around the intervening planet earth and filtered through our atmosphere, streamed orangey red on to the surface of the moon. I kept on watching, moving the sun-bed for best alignment with the moon, which was becoming smaller and clearer and ever more distinctly red in the darkening, deepening sky as the time ticked by and the stars shone more abundantly. With the visible crater on the lower part of the moon looking like the remains of a stem, the moon was nothing other than a perfect, planetary blood orange. I fetched a blanket against the chill and stayed there, entranced, until at about 4.30 full-spectrum light reappeared at the side of the disc. The eclipse was ending. Time to go to bed.

Solar power

The installation of the solar power is under way. The chosen patch of land has perfect aspect; however, it turned out to be insufficiently firm underfoot. Each of the nine panels needed to have concrete foundations. This required our builder – or, rather, his assistant, who changed each day, presumably worn out – to carry buckets of gravel and freshly mixed cement up through the garden, past the top bench, and then up a steep slope that is difficult enough simply to walk up. They managed to complete the job. I was filled with admiration.

Working boots

Working boots

Cement mixer

Cement mixer

Completed bases

Completed bases with foundations

Mission control and power storage

Mission control and power storage

Birds

I’m running out of self-allocated space this week. Also, no blog next week because I shall be in England, largely for work reasons. Just enough room to mention the blue rock thrush. One has taken up residence in our valley, on the other side from us. It is a nondescript bird from a distance, until the light catches it advantageously, when you can see that it is an exquisite shade of blue: the sort of blue you would see in a midnight sky that is awash in the milky glow of a supermoon …

Week 70: The sea

In many areas along the coast in the eastern Algarve are salt pans, like this. Now is salt harvesting season

In many areas along the coast in the eastern Algarve are salt pans, like this. Now is salt harvesting season

Salt mountain near Tavira

Salt mountain near Tavira

Saltscape

Saltscape

Abandoned boat on a bed of samphire in the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa natural park

Long-abandoned boat on a bed of samphire in the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa natural park

Fine veils of rain hung in our valley in the early part of this week, moving gently in the breeze, slowly drenching the land and releasing its earthy perfume. It was the kind of weather the Irish call ‘soft’. It was very much needed, and gave us a few days’ break from watering the garden ourselves. The sun returned the next day, and has continued to shine every day since, but it is a slightly less ferocious sun than the one of high summer and we no longer need to have windows and shutters closed all day to keep it out. It is perfect sun for the beach.

I would spend every day by the sea if I could. When we fell in love with this country, this province, indeed this particular valley, almost two years ago, it was over the course of a single grey week in January. We never went to the coast. We were some way advanced with our purchase of a house without ever having been to the sea. Now that we’re here, it is going to the sea that I love most of all. This week we managed one visit to the glittering, entrancing water and the glistening sand. We switched our beach habit from an early morning to an afternoon one, arriving after lunch and staying until the end of the day, which in September is 6.45 p.m. when the last boat returns to Santa Luzia from our favoured spot. As the afternoon wore on, more birds appeared. Winter-white sanderlings tore up and down the water’s edge, playing catch-me-if-you-can with the waves. Turnstones, rather drab without their breeding colours of oranges and reds, examined the sea’s terminal moraine for whatever it was they had lost. If they found it, they rushed away from their companions to examine it more closely, in case it was a precious thing to be kept from greedy eyes. Two Mediterranean gulls spent some leisure time at the sea’s edge, showing off their fancy red legs. Their head is black in the breeding season; out of season all that’s left of the colour is what looks like a pair of headphones. One was ringed; it will have a story to tell. And all afternoon long a slim, waxing moon hung over the sea like the ghostly remains of a paraglider.

At home, to our joy, the red-rumped swallows have been back to visit. Such independent-minded birds they are. We thought they had left with the rest of the summer birds, but no. Just as they arrived later than their swallow brethren, it seems they will leave later too. They perched on the wire and babbled, then swam into and out of the veranda, and glided up and down the valley, their feathers wet in the sunlight. When our neighbours arrived this summer, we finally learnt where the birds had nested: the enclosed mud nest with its tunnel entrance had been newly built under their eaves. Given the regularity with which the birds check out our site, we cannot have totally lost favour. My plan is to destroy their old nest so that the sparrows – who lack such nest-building skills – cannot take it over next year. Plus we want to paint the front veranda, which we can’t do with a mud nest in the way. Swallows will be welcome to rebuild on the freshly painted surface if they choose. The sparrows can find themselves a new site.

The first pomegranate from our tree. The seeds were little bursts of flavour

The first pomegranate from our tree. The seeds, though pale in colour, were little bursts of flavour

Cork oak near our house: such a craggy, unkempt-looking tree, whether with its full covering of cork or, as here, with its trunk stripped

Cork oak near our house: such a craggy, unkempt-looking tree, whether with its full covering of cork or, as here, with its trunk stripped. It always reminds me of the old drawings of Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter)

Week 69: Soundscape

Autumn asphodel

Autumn asphodel

Beach prints

Beach prints

Beach detail

Sand detail

Late afternoon by the sea

Late afternoon by the sea; the days are still bright and the water is warm

We returned to our valley from the clamour of London and as our senses readjusted we noticed how much our home soundscape has changed since autumn arrived. The cicadas are gone, taking their strident abdominal amplifications with them; their young, the nymphs hatched from their eggs, have burrowed underground and we won’t see or hear from them until next summer. The many different visiting birds who sang their way to a mating partner, then filled our valley with the calls of their family life and group activities, have gone. The stout-bodied Thekla lark with its pointed head crest never went away but we couldn’t hear it for all the other birds. Now in the relative silence its song is audible again. The woodpeckers are pecking the trees around us, not drumming to advertise their presence, just feeding – a much gentler sound. All is peaceful – or might be, were it not for two building projects we are about to undertake.

The first is the installation of the solar panels. Part of the terrace floor and a garden wall will be taken up to connect up the solar panels, which are to be laid on our hillside, with the batteries, which will be housed in a hitherto unused storage space at the back of the garage that is accessed from the rear terrace. (We’re lucky that storage space is there. I don’t think the solar panel engineer could believe his, or rather our, luck when he first came to assess our site.) The panels and batteries were delivered today, from Germany via a business in Spain, and our own electrician and builder also came by to determine what needs to be done. The languages spoken during the course of this were German, Swiss German, Portuguese, Spanish and English. Our own little Babel.

Solar panels stacked up

Solar panels stacked up

Solar batteries awaiting installation (and Rolie)

Solar batteries awaiting installation (and Rolie)

Battery storage space on the back terrace (conveniently - we'd been wondering what to do with it!)

Battery storage space on the back terrace (conveniently – we’d been wondering what to do with it!)

When this is all done, we can look into getting the swimming pool built. This will also involve taking up part, indeed most, of [what’s left of] the back terrace. We have to reduce our built area before we can add something new to it because we are already at the limit of what we are allowed. In fact, we’re over the limit. This would not have mattered had we not wanted to add to it. Increasing our built area means complying with current regulations, not those that were in place when our house was originally constructed, when the allowance was a little more generous than it is now. The front terrace, which has proper Santa Catarina terracotta tiles, manufactured just a few kilometres away, will remain unchanged. For the back terrace floor, we’ll think of something.

A little reminder for us of a favourite bakery/cafe in Soho, London: a tray of almond croissants, just baked

A little reminder for us of a favourite bakery/cafe in Soho, London: early morning, and a rack of freshly baked almond croissants

Week 68: Away

Baking bread

Baking bread

bread2

Autumn has arrived. This means cover is required in bed at night, but the days are still sunny and warm. Our birds have flown away: the bee-eaters, the orioles and the swallows have gone south or, at least, if they haven’t left yet, they are gathering elsewhere for their collective departure. It’s quiet without them. I await the return of the redstart and the robin, and wonder if we will start to hear from our little owl again.

The bread from our new oven is delicious: a crunchy, brittle crust and a firm and nutty crumb. With nothing on it but butter or oil, it’s perfection.

It’s been a busy week for us both. We’ve been getting ready to go away for a few days: to London. I managed to carve out just enough time to gather the last of the prickly pear before they fell, and I tried my hand at cactus jam. I couldn’t find pectin in the shops so I turned the unpromising apples from our tree – small, hard and green – into a homemade version of the stuff. I boiled 750g chopped green apple in water with the juice of half a lemon, pressed the pulp through muslin, and thereby extracted what was supposed to be an abundance of pectin. I wasn’t confident in it, so I added the whole lot to my 43 scorched, peeled, whizzed and strained prickly pear fruit, and gave the mixture a good rolling boil. The result is two large jars (500g a piece) of cactus ‘jam’ which appears not to have set at all. But it will be heavenly on ice cream or yogurt, and at least nature’s sweet gifts didn’t go to waste.

London

On the plane over, a Portuguese woman and an English woman in the row behind me fell into polite – though loud – conversation. The Portuguese woman is a carer in London; she gets paid for nine hours a day, then the rest of the work she does in a day goes unpaid. She doesn’t mind this because the lady she cares for is lovely, she said, but she misses the sunshine. Each time she arrives in London she calls her mother and cries because the grey skies ‘break her up into pieces’. I miss our home but I haven’t cried on the phone to my mum yet.

Straight from the plane, we visited an old haunt in Covent Garden, an Italian restaurant run by brothers from Le Marche. In our absence, one brother has returned home. ‘It’s the sun,’ said the remaining brother. ‘You wake up in a different humour. Anyway, I don’t want to grow old here.’ He understood why we’d moved to Portugal. He liked the people very much, he said, describing them as ‘humble’. (I’ve heard this word used a lot for the Portuguese people. It’s interesting, and not inaccurate.)

Refugees

Portugal has recently increased the number of refugees it is prepared to take. I can’t be exact because numbers vary according to source and date, but it’s a fairly small number – it’s a small and relatively poor country. Some are due to arrive in the Algarve in October. I don’t think the refugees themselves will get any choice where they go, I don’t know how they are selected or how they will get here, but I do know there’s a Welcome Refugees group already set up in the Algarve as of this week. I guess this destination isn’t at the top of a refugee’s list. The economic powerhouses, such as Germany, are the places to start a new life when you’ve got nothing left and have to rebuild from the bottom up. But at the very least, if you have come from Syria, the climate and vegetation of the Algarve will not be too alien.

Week 67: Scents

Morning sky as seen from our bank garden

Early morning sky as seen from the back garden

Focaccia in the new oven: a trial, which turned out to be delicious

Focaccia in the new oven: a trial, with delicious results

Levain from the new oven

Levain from the new oven

The salt pans of Tavira being worked this week

The salt pans of Tavira being worked this week

The thing about writing a weekly, real-time blog is that at any time you can be tripped up. Such as saying, as I did last week, that the intense heat of high summer had left, and that it might be months before we had any precipitation. No sooner had I spoken than the intense heat came back, followed by a thunderstorm and a heavenly downpour. It was brief, but enough to raise a fresh red-clay scent from the parched earth around us.

Rain!

Rain!

Gummy Cistus ladanifer still clothes the hills behind our house. Though it has paled and shrunk in the summer heat, it has not entirely lost its resinous scent or its stickiness of leaf. It’s a year-round aroma, it would seem; stronger or weaker but always there. Other smells are shorter-lived. Smoke that filled the valley several weeks ago turned out to be from a fire in the town of Vilamoura some 40 kilometres away, oddly funnelled up our valley by the patterns of wind movement that day. It had us scared for a few moments before it got blown away again. A few days after that we woke up to a warm, sugary smell: the roasting of alfarroba (carob) in a nearby mill, carried over on the breeze. The dark brown carob pods are collected in the month of August. At a mill the seeds get extracted and it is the pods that are roasted and ground to make carob flour for cakes and bread. It’s a worthwhile crop for people here: even a modest-looking tree produces a sackful or two.

The heat and thunderstorm were a temporary burst. Now the nights are undeniably cooling and we wake up to dewy mornings and a spicy vegetal scent that I cannot precisely identify; it takes me back to mornings in southern India, and reminds me of turmeric, but I don’t know what it is, nor whether it will last more than a few days.

One set of our neighbours has gone, the others are about to leave; we’re sad to see them go. The heady rush of high summer is over. Autumn is here.

The sea

Between Husband’s baking schedule and my work diary we had few occasions to experience the beach in high summer, but we made good on the last day of August, taking the boat from Santa Luzia and the short boardwalk across a Helichrysum-clad, curry-scented barrier island to the sandy beach. We like to take the first boat of the day to experience the beach while it is quiet and the clam-diggers outnumber the sunbathers.

Early morning beach, the sun shining on the wet sand

Early morning beach, the sun shining on the wet sand

The freshly cleaned beach in the morning

The freshly cleaned beach first thing

The clam-diggers move like wading birds along the shore. They loosen the saturated sand with paddle movements of their feet, then – instead of a beak – pull up the little telline clams using a long-handled sieve. Being by the sea is such a perfect experience: the susurration of the waves, the scent of the salty air, the silver flakes of the sunlight dancing on the water. We might have missed lots of the festivals of summer; we might be about to miss our neighbours, but I welcome the month of September. It’s one of my favourite months of the year, and I think it will be beautiful here in the Algarve. I hope we can find more time to spend by the sea.

Tiny telline clams

Tiny telline clams

Cliff has been re-employed to advise shoppers in a local supermarket not to help themselves to the frozen fish: 'Don't mess with the fish, or I'll sing'

Cliff has been deployed to advise shoppers in a local supermarket not to serve themselves from the frozen fish, or as Husband has it: ‘Don’t mess with the fish, or I’ll sing’

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