Monthly Archive: January 2016


'Algarve snow'

‘Algarve snow’

Spot the almond tree

Spot the almond tree

I love this tree - the alfarroba or carob - with its tent of branches

The alfarroba or carob tree: it’s like a big tent

Aloe flower; the birds love to feed from these


Garlic I planted a week ago. I have high hopes for this

Garlic I planted a week ago. I have high hopes for this


It’s been a week of sunshine and rain, rain that was as fine as mist and gently soaked the ground and turned our green valley into somewhere like Wales for a while, then a tropical downpour which started with black clouds piling up and then everything melted into liquidity, including the outline of the Meditation Hill. For me that day, indoors with my eyes glued to my laptop screen, the first indication of rain were the drops that started tapping on the roof, soon turning into a thunderous drumming. In between the rainy days, sunshine encouraged walks. One, towards the valley we discovered on Christmas Day, reacquainted us with Long-tailed Tits, Crested Tits and Sand Martins, and gave us better views of our very own Common Buzzard (we have claimed the buzzard for ourselves, you see). On another I saw a Red Admiral on the stony path, a butterfly I’d never seen before. Its colours were astonishingly rich and deep but nothing in the books came close to its vibrancy. It took some searching before I was able to give it a name.

I like to know what things are. I also like to know what sentences mean. I don’t like it when things don’t make sense. Things not making sense is what drives me crazy, and is probably why I’ve worked as an editor for all these years: trying to make things make sense. From making sense it’s a short step to truth and beauty, in my book. Proper words in proper places, as Jonathan Swift said.

So I hope you will come along with me while I try to make sense of something: what’s happening around here with regard to oil exploration. First, let me confess I’ve taken the Zombie idea in the blog title from a writer called Bill McKibben, who had a piece in the Los Angeles Times this week (19 January 2016). He writes so clearly and makes such perfect sense that I’m going to borrow a few sentences from him, though best of all is if you read the piece itself:

Even as global warming makes it clear that coal, natural gas and oil are yesterday’s energy, two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in zombie-like fashion. In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is underway. In statehouse hearing rooms and far off farmers’ fields, local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. … Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies have the clout to keep politicians saying yes. … The money, however, is only part of it: the whole process is on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that laws and regulations favor business as usual.

Zombies in Portugal

In the national election in October 2015, with its slow and compromised outcome, the leader of one small party made it into parliament: André Silva of PAN (Pessoas, Animais e Natureza: People, Animals and Nature). He’s very much not a zombie, so perhaps I haven’t started at the best place here. He is a strict vegetarian – in English we’d call him a vegan – but he says he doesn’t look like one because he’s the chubby sort (‘Sou um tipo gordinho’). Question-time in parliament takes place every two weeks. On 15 January 2016, O Gordinho asked O Gordo (as I’m choosing to call PM António Costa) to have ‘the courage to break with the old paradigm of fossil fuels’. In reply O Gordo declared that ‘the oil contracts in place have to be met’, that ‘prospection has to go ahead’, that ‘it is absolutely essential for the country to know what its natural resources are’, and that therefore ‘the government will continue prospecting for oil’. (Note: O Gordo got left out of the Paris COP21 talks because the named Portuguese delegate was not him but his predecessor. So perhaps he hasn’t heard of climate change?)

Three days earlier, an interview with my favourite fool, Paulo Carmona of the ENMC (combustible fuel entity), was published by a paper called Sol. In this Mr Carmona declared that ‘drilling for oil is just like drilling for water’, that in the event of an accident with natural gas, no problem, ‘because by definition it just evaporates into thin air’, and that ‘with all this investment, never mind if we find oil or not, at least the state is going to know its subsoils really well’. (The declared investment of oil companies in this region so far is 58 million euros, which of course they’ll want back in commercial rewards.) Paulo Carmona also said, in the ‘clarification’ meeting I attended on 12 January, that explorations so far had shown evidence of hydrocarbons, but they were not of commercial interest. (So stop looking, then?)

All of this borders on the barmy, until you remember that we are dealing with zombies here and they cannot be expected to make sense.

The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, is reported in Postal on 25 January as having said that ‘no economic reason would compel the state to compromise its natural resources’, and that:

the state’s duty is to protect the territory and its communities from damage. However, there would be no harm in knowing what there is in terms of minerals, gas, oil . . . And no economic activity should be prejudiced just because, in the end and only in theory, it might do environmental harm. Although of course there can never be any breach in relation to the requirements of our natural environment.

You couldn’t make it up.

The president of oil company Partex, which, with Repsol, has the concession for the Algarve offshore sites, says that in October or November this year they will start drilling, adding that ‘the oil price will have to help’ – giving us normal people hope that the current floor-level price of oil might be a deterrent. On land, contracts are held by Portfuel. They say they have invested 15 million dollars, and warn that if they go ahead in prospecting for oil and natural gas then their costs will be inflated by 40 million dollars. (So don’t do it then?) Their methods of extraction will undoubtedly include fracking, but they are keeping quiet about that.

Good news is that the government has now said it will not issue new contracts for oil exploration. But it will continue to respect those currently in force. The existing contracts, issued without any public oversight, come with their own clauses that guarantee them perpetual exemption from any future laws; their own built-in non-obsolescence. That’s an almost perfect definition of a zombie.

As of Sunday we now have a new president: centre-right candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who won with a considerable majority. He helped write Portugal’s constitution in the 1970s after the dictatorship had been brought down. When campaigning to be elected mayor of Lisbon in 1989, he jumped into a dirty river to raise awareness of environmental issues; he didn’t get the mayoral gig but I like that he did a river-jump. He’s a television personality and a consensus man. As the president, he has limited powers, though he does have the power to order reviews of contentious legislation. I don’t know if it’s worth hoping for anything from him, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Oh, and in the latest World Travel Awards, the winner of Europe’s Leading Beach Destination is: the Algarve. Good luck with that, everyone, if oil exploration starts.

I went for a walk in the river to think; I misjudged the depth and filled my wellies with cold water. That’s partly because I’d spotted part of the shell of a dead turtle among the reeds at the water’s edge and wanted to get a closer look at its patterns, not realising that to reach it took me through a deeper channel of water. And of course the turtle wasn’t dead at all, and was, I hazard, none too happy to be forced to wake up sharply and slide off into the shallows

I went for a walk in the river to think; I misjudged the depth and filled my wellies with cold water. That’s partly because I’d spotted the shell of a dead turtle among the reeds at the water’s edge and wanted to get a closer look at its patterns, not realising that to reach it would take me through a deeper channel. And of course the turtle wasn’t dead at all, and was, I hazard, none too happy to be forced to wake up sharply and slide off into the shallows

The road to nowhere

I can never tire of our river

I can never tire of our river

river1 river2

Some of this week's bread

Some of this week’s bread

We may be at the back of beyond but many roads lead here. For Rolie, the Renault 4, the only possible route is our ‘main’ one; you need an off-road vehicle for the rest. You take a turning off the main east–west road, close to our local big village. The road condition deteriorates somewhat but it’s still a road. It goes up to a pass – not too high, we’re in the hills not the mountains here – then drops down, past Flaviano’s emporium with his never-ending Christmas, until it reaches a concrete bridge over the river. It’s a simple bridge with no sides. It probably never had any sides but a visiting boy, thinking it looked dismantled, asked us if that was because James Bond movies were filmed around here.

From there it’s a fairly steep ascent and a sharp bend, then you come to a turn-off. Now you are off the tarmac and on to the dirt. It’s a couple of kilometres along this track until you reach the river, where we live, and where there are two fording points if you want to go on any further. The second of these fords is the closest to our house and it’s the one strangers come a-cropper on. They will have driven on until the dirt road runs out and must either give up, turn round and go back or attempt the route to the river, which means driving over a rocky lip and down a footpath. Farmers can do it in their tractors and pickups; saloon and estate-car drivers cannot. It’s worse for people coming up from the river, which happens in the summer sometimes. The lip at the top of the path will defeat them. We come out at the sound of spinning wheels and spitting pebbles to recommend they reverse out of their predicament and take another route.

If you can get across the river, which is still possible even now, while it isn’t in spate, there’s an immediate choice of three dirt roads, which branch off into more and more tracks, some of ever-decreasing size. From here you can end up in neighbouring villages or eventually re-emerge at some point along the main east–west road. It was one of these routes that led a couple of weeks ago to the burst tyre, and the spotting of the fire salamander when we completed our journey home by foot.

In winter, without our neighbours here, we see an average of one vehicle a day, and it’s probably a tractor. Occasionally on a weekend there is the short-lived nuisance of a dirt bike. We don’t hear any other vehicle; the main roads are too far away for even a distant hum to reach us. We live with birdsong.

A Common Buzzard has recently taken up residence here. Its Portuguese name – the ‘round-winged eagle’ – is so much more charming than its English one. It isn’t welcomed by the foraging flocks of smaller birds we have around: Goldfinches, Serins, particularly the Azure-winged Magpies. The magpies, in their smart uniform of fawn with air-force-blue wings and neat black cap, are a rather military bird. Impossibly elegant in their dress uniform but with manners that do not match, they have taken to squawking at and mobbing the buzzard, who hunches rather pathetically in a too-small medronho (strawberry bush) until giving up and flying off. I wonder why the magpies are so bullish when they don’t have any young to protect. I guess it comes with the uniform.

The real road to nowhere: fossil fuel

And I can’t stop thinking about how all this could be lost, not just for us, but for everyone in the Algarve and for everyone who loves to come here. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet signed the petition against oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the Algarve, and would like to, please click on the link. Ta very much.

Tavira river

I never tire of Tavira either: the river Gilão reflecting the streetlights

tavira castle

Tavira’s castle by night. Original fortifications were built by the Moors, then rebuilt in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Portuguese kings

tavira parish church

Santa Maria do Castelo, the main parish church. After the 1755 earthquake, it was too damaged to be in use; the nearby Miséricordia took over as the parish church until 1800. The beautiful Baroque azulejos (tiles) of Miséricordia date from 1760 and perhaps it was the church’s elevated, albeit temporary, status that made their shipping in from Lisbon a possibility



Husband's bread

Husband’s latest bread

The rushing river

The rushing river

Clouds over the valley

Clouds over the valley


The river is very talkative these days. We’ve had so much rain that it babbles loudly. We can hear it from the front terrace, adding a new track to the bird sounds that accompany sunny breakfasts. Only two such breakfasts have been possible in this week of cloud cover. The well is liquid again and allowed us a second cisterna top-up of the month; this is the water tank under the front terrace, which supplies water to the house. A mathematical error in its building means that it is unusually capacious – 30,000 litres instead of the intended 15,000 – and we have managed to get it about three-quarters full, which is good.

Winter is a beautiful time in the Algarve. I love the cool brightness of it, the lushness of the hills, the crystal water that gushes from our well, the quietude in local towns; I love the fact that daytime is always temperate, if not warm, while night-time calls out for a fire to be lit.


I’ve been exploring Tavira some more. The town was at the height of its success in the sixteenth century. Dom Manuel I was on the throne until 1521, and known as ‘the Fortunate’ for the wealth that came in through the spices and gold of India and Africa. His name was subsequently given to the predominant architectural style of the era, Manueline, also known as Portuguese late Gothic. The armillary sphere, a navigational device represented by a globe or half-globe encircled by bands, is a key Manueline symbol. No surprise there, with the astonishing success of Portuguese navigators and the riches pouring into the coffers of the Fortunate king. Other marine ornamentation – shells, pearls, rope, seaweed – also found their way into frothing, elaborate designs, but my personal favourites are the simpler examples of the style, ones which arguably show the calming influence of the Renaissance.

At this time, the Gothic pointed arch has been replaced by a rounded arch, often containing counter curves, like this one in Rua da Liberdade:


And here is another, the original doorway of a sixteenth-century inn, and now, as you can see, part of a chemist’s:


And here is what remains of another . . .


with, if you zoom in closely . . .


a tiny, highly simplified, upside-down head – the discovery of which absolutely made my day. It’s on the house said to have been built in 1541 by André Pilarte, stonemason and Renaissance designer of the Misericórdia church.

Ever since the time of Dom Manuel I, the armillary sphere has been a key symbol of Portugal. It appears on the national flag, which dates to 1911 after the overthrow of the monarchy; the monarchy went but not their symbol. It was also, as I saw from this old postbox, once used for the Portuguese postal service, though a redesign has seen the end of it

Ever since the time of Dom Manuel I, the armillary sphere has been a key symbol of Portugal. It appears on the national flag, which dates from 1911 after the overthrow of the monarchy; the monarchy went but not their symbol. It was also, as I saw from this old postbox, once used for the Portuguese postal service, though a redesign has seen the end of it



So we went to the Sessão Pública de Esclarecimento, where representatives of various oil companies plus, my favourite fool, Paulo Carmona of the ENMC oil quango gave, after much public pressure, a series of talks to demystify what the process of oil prospecting and exploitation was all about. This is the cabinet of fools:


The oil company representatives seemed to think they were there to give a geology lecture to a bunch of schoolchildren, or else to bring the good news to the benighted, and might have been surprised to be met with 250 stroppy, well-informed and angry members of the public. The presentation of the Italian rep, from ENI (Agip), was the worst, and ended with this spectacularly patronising picture:


whereupon he was almost laughed out of the lecture hall. However, it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all. These people have never heard of climate change, never heard of renewable energy, never heard of a global movement away from fossil fuel. Because if they did, they’d have to cease to exist. They’d have to uninvent themselves. We’re stuck with them. I’ll do everything I can to stop them despoiling this beautiful part of the world and to protect it for the future, but I know there’s not much I can do. So here’s the deal. I’m just going to enjoy the hell out of being in this beautiful place while we still have it – OK?

O ano novo

Milreu, near Estoi: a Roman latifundia from the first century AD until the collapse of the empire, then in more or less continuous use until the middle of the twentieth century

This week we finally visited Milreu, near Estoi, a Roman latifundia from the first century AD until the collapse of the Roman Empire. The estate remained in more or less continuous use until the middle of the twentieth century: hence the relatively modern farmhouse

The mosaics at Milreu were created by highly skilled artists. With this bath filled with water, the fish would appear mobile and natural; without water they look odd

The mosaics at Milreu were created by highly skilled artists. Underwater the fish in this bath would appear mobile and natural; it’s only without water that they look odd

New Year's Eve at Fábrica, near Cacela Velha

The last day of 2015, spent at Fábrica, near Cacela Velha; here and below



The sun setting on 2015

The sun setting on 2015

Our river on 5 January

Our river on 5 January

Gurgling water

Gurgling water


The river has risen and spread. It’s not in full spate yet. My ‘Love’ artwork is submerged; I recently had to replace the ‘L’ but otherwise it’s holding strong. I had never expected it to last more than a day and it’s been there for weeks now. The pre-teens got up early every morning and took themselves down to the river to see how the water level had changed, and to rearrange stones, create new water features and select heart-shapes to add to my collection. The ability of the river to entertain them before breakfast was a boon for slumbering adults.

I, too, spend time by the river most days. Now, after several days of heavy rain, I need to wade through it in waterproof sandals if I’m to get anywhere. It’s not particularly cold. In parts the flow is quite strong and pulls at my ankles; in other parts there’s no discernible movement. If the British government were here, no doubt they’d dredge the river to create a single deep channel that would act as a water chute and flood Tavira.

I have my binoculars on me when I go to the river so I can spy on the small birds: White and Grey Wagtails, Long-tailed Tits, Goldfinches, Stonechats and Corn Buntings are among the most easily seen and recognised right now. We also still have our lonely, piping wader. We can’t get close enough for a clear identification, but it’s sure to be something common. My rule of thumb is that if you aren’t sure what a bird is, it’s going to be the most likely option and not a rarity. In this way I have finally decided that the small, olive-brown birds, yellowish underneath and with a stripe through the eye, which fill the reeds with their energetic activity, are Chiffchaffs: common and widespread. You don’t get the opportunity to focus on them for more than a second or two because they are so busy. The best chance to see them is when they come to our garden to feed on the aloe, currently in flower in full view of our bedroom window. What confused me for a time is that they have a dark mark on the face and whiskery-looking feathers around the beak, but I’ve concluded that this is a temporary feature that comes from dipping into long, tubular flowers.

This week I spotted among the Chiffchaffs in the reeds by the river a group of birds of similar size but much stiller. I focused my binoculars on them and was astounded: a thick, orange-red beak and a bright red pennant over the eye. I’d never seen a bird like that before, neither in the flesh nor on a page. Not in Europe, anyway. They were a little like an African finch. How exciting. I went back up to the house in a hurry.

No such bird in our bird bible. I turned to the ‘extras’ at the back, and there I found it. It’s the Common Waxbill: introduced into the Iberian peninsula from Africa. (It would be interesting to know who by and what for.) And guess what? It’s common and widespread, especially in Portugal where it has got a firm claw-hold. No doubt I’ll see it everywhere now.


Maria called. She wanted first of all to thank us for the Christmas gift. They weren’t there when we dropped by with it so we’d had to hang it from their gate. It included a loaf of Husband’s bread, which she said they very much enjoyed. (Their gift to us was a bag of lemons, a bag of oranges – and their oranges are the sweetest and best – half a dozen eggs from their hens and a plastic bottle of their own olive oil: heavenly.) Then she told me that Estrela had had her puppies – this was much sooner than I expected – and did we want any? We didn’t have to decide immediately but over the next couple of days. No problem if we didn’t want them, they just needed to know.

I was pretty proud of myself for getting through a telephone conversation in Portuguese, even if my side of it was stilted and garbled. Maria’s a smart woman and knows how to speak slowly and clearly for those with comprehension difficulties. But the puppy question . . .

We went to see them. Lordy and Estrela met us at the gate: Lordy barking dutifully but wagging his tail; Estrela, however, yapping like a wild thing. We asked Eleuterio if we could see the puppies. The home their mother had chosen, in spite of efforts to encourage her into something more suitable, was the narrow confines of the brick barbecue. She shot back inside at our approach and now she was silent, as though not to disturb her pups. One by one Eleuterio picked them out and showed them to us, while Estrela snatched at the tiny limbs to get them back. They were all returned and she settled down. ‘You’re sitting on one,’ said E to her, rescuing it. But we’d already decided: we were not going to take a puppy. We realised our roots here aren’t deep enough yet, and a puppy is too great a responsibility for now.

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