Monthly Archive: February 2016

Culatra: a Ria Formosa island

Arrival on the island

Ferry arriving on the island

ferry side

Around the ferry port in Culatra, with Olhão across the sea in the background

Atlantic side of the island

Atlantic side of the island

Atlantic side2

Atlantic light

 

Atlantic waves break on one side of the barrier island of Culatra. The other side is a sheltered lagoon that faces the fishing town of Olhão, from where you catch the ferry. On the interior of the island, some thousand inhabitants live in mostly simple, one-storey houses with sand gardens. No cars; no roads. The houses have old wells but now the water is piped from the mainland. Garden plants, such as showy bougainvillea and hibiscus, thrive as easily in the sand of people’s gardens as the hardy saltwater species do on the island’s edges.

It’s about a five-hour walk around the entire island. Going west from the main settlement of Culatra you first reach the tiny village of Hangares, then the island’s second ferry port – Farol, with its lighthouse – before you come back to where you started. We didn’t walk the full circuit when we were there this weekend, but we saw most of the island. The lagoon side is the breeding ground for seahorses and I searched among the weeds that mark the tideline for a dead one to bring home, but I found none. Didi’s house on the island is decorated with them; you mustn’t look too hard, she said. They find you.

Much of the coast of the eastern Algarve is a zone of sandy beaches and marshes, barrier islands and lagoons, known collectively as the Ria Formosa. Culatra is one of these barrier islands; Ilha de Tavira, with its beautiful and popular beaches, is another. Officially the zone is a Parque Natural and a Ramsar site (protected wetland); it’s a flyway for migratory birds, and it’s rich in fish and shellfish. It’s also close to where oil companies hold concessions to explore for oil and gas.

Garden in the sand

Garden in the sand

Cistanche

Cistanche

Nacre on the lagoon side

Nacre on the lagoon side

Bar, closed out of season

Bar, closed out of season

The barbed wire marks an old military training site

The barbed wire marks an old military training site

Boules is popular on the island; here is someone's score

Boules is popular on the island; here is someone’s score

 

We stayed on Culatra with our friends Didi and her Swiss husband. Didi was born on the island, the second generation of her family to grow up there. Culatra is not a picture-postcard place. It’s a working island of fisherfolk, inhabited for perhaps a couple of centuries. Most came originally to work the tuna season – April to September – as short-term employees of the big tuna companies, before the industry collapsed in the 1960s. During the tuna-fishing times, some of the fisherfolk decided to settle on the island for good. Didi’s grandparents were among them. Her mother grew up there to develop her own business in mussels and get married to a fisherman. It was in their home, where Didi was born, that we stayed. The government now declares much of the ad hoc housing to be illegal and liable for demolition; the simpler the house, the more likely they are to want to demolish it. There have been stays of execution, but it remains a live issue.

The island is hugely popular with holiday-makers at the height of summer but in February it is quiet. A fisherman mends his nets by stretching them out with his bare feet for tension. Cats wander around freely, masters of their domain. The island’s inhabitants file along concrete walkways or boardwalks between the houses. Didi’s childhood sounds idyllic: living on an island beach, playing hide-and-seek with cuttlefish and octopus in the sea, reading the sand to find where the cockles and clams were and digging them up for lunch. For Didi and her siblings their biggest excitement was when storm or high tide washed bits of plastic up on the beach. They didn’t have any plastic at home; this was magical, fascinating stuff, instant play material.

Didi’s family had to leave the island in the end. The four children needed more education than could be supplied on the island – the earlier generations didn’t have any education at all, but in the 1970s you could get four years of schooling before you had to go to the mainland, while schooling is now provided up to the sixth year, with free passage on the ferry to the mainland for older schoolkids.

In the 1980s a young Swiss man swept Didi off her feet. In a sideboard drawer in the Culatra home is a curled and faded colour photograph from the time, featuring the sole visit to Olhão of the in-laws. There on the pavement is a slender, dark-haired and dark-skinned fisherman in a checked shirt. Next to him is a plumper man, with white hair and a red complexion, dressed in a plus-fours suit, pipe in his hand. A meeting of two worlds.

King Cat

King Cat

Young gull

Young gull

On the boat back to Olhão

People on the boat back to Olhão

Bufo bufo

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins were swimming through the air, sunlight turning them liquid

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins filled the air above, sunlight turning them liquid

River sparkle

River sparkle

Wading through the river in my new wellies

I can wade through the river in my new wellies

 

I arrived back from England wearing a pair of new, knee-length red wellies, which I’d found on sale in my mum’s village. I had worried about arcane airline regulations that prevent the wearing of long rubber footwear – who knows? – but they weren’t confiscated, though I did have to take them off to get through security. They are the Best Thing. The calf-length wellies that landed me in such cold water a couple of weeks ago have been cast aside, and in my knee-length ones I can wade properly through the river. I was happy to see the river hadn’t dried up in our absence, but equally it has never gone into spate like it did last year, when a torrent of brown water came down and filled the wide, shallow river bed from bank to bank.

At least there was enough water for the toads (Common Toad, Bufo bufo), who came into the water to mate. It was last week, just before we left for England. I saw something moving in the river: a squat and immobile thing, which pulled its head underwater on the approach of a human being but didn’t swim off like a turtle does. It turned out to be one of about half a dozen toads, each the size of a fat fist, waiting around for something to happen. The something was happening in one spot only, as you can see from the picture below. Whether there was only one female – the large one underneath is the female – and the others were males waiting their turn with her, I don’t know. I was disconcerted that they’d chosen one of the fording routes as their mating site and hoped they survived. Mind you, there is only about a car a day – usually ours.

Mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Underwater mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Bufo bufo waiting and hoping

Waiting and hoping

 

So when I returned from England in my wellies I went to see how the toads had got on. Clearly, mating had gone well. They must have all returned to their dry land sites because they were nowhere to be seen, but their translucent tubes of black eggs were left carelessly all over the place. The tubes often lay in pairs, looking like traffic-heavy dual-carriageways, following straight routes until forced to loop around rock obstructions, or piling up into occasional spaghetti junctions. This is Nature’s sustainable surplus at work. If all these eggs resulted in toads, the hillsides would be carpeted with them. As it is, only a tiny few of this vast number will survive. I had a go at working out how many eggs there might be; I quickly gave up. Even estimating the total length of tube wasn’t easy: certainly dozens of metres, maybe even a hundred. With so many eggs, and so few toads needed to sustain a stable population, the parents can afford to abandon them to fate – including the chance of being run over.

Toad egg roads - found on our return

Toad egg roads all through the river at the ford – found on our return

Toad eggs: Nature's miraculous abundance

Toad eggs: Nature’s miraculous abundance

 

Lemons

The lemon trees around here are doing a good job of sustainable surplus too. We had a picnic with friends among sobreiros (Quercus suber; cork oak trees) just before we left for England. It was a perfect day for walking and sunny enough for picnicking. On our way there, driving up the two-kilometre dirt track that is the high street of our local community, we passed Maria and pulled up for a chat. I had a Bulgarian cheese pie cooling on my lap – my contribution to the picnic. ‘She makes nice things,’ said Maria to Husband. (When your Portuguese isn’t that good, you get talked about more than to. I’m happy with that – I can listen in, like a child, trying to learn.) Husband said it was for a picnic, and then Maria insisted we take armfuls of their oranges to add to the spread. Theirs are the sweetest, juiciest oranges, so we were happy to. She also exhorted us to help ourselves to the abundant lemons. As we reached into the trees, gently twisting the fruit to see which were ready to fall into our hands, Maria said how much she liked a chocolate cake I’d made recently. It had been too much cake for us – the mood to bake a cake had arrived but without enough mouths at home to eat it – so when Eleuterio appeared on his tractor I had offered him a quarter to take away. It was very well received. ‘I like to bake cakes,’ I explained to Maria, in a sudden burst of Portuguese. ‘And I like to eat them,’ she replied, grinning broadly. She was less impressed, however, with my plans to preserve the excess of lemons with salt. Sweetness rules the day.

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, along with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Two cities

Output from Husband's Pica-pão bakery

Recent output from Husband’s Pica-pão bakery

Peak almond has been reached. The petals are falling, and new trees will step into the blossom breach

Peak almond has been reached. The petals are falling, and new trees will step into the blossom breach

 

I had no idea when we moved here that I would love it quite so much. It was a gamble, and an adventure. We chose to live in a place that was remote. It couldn’t have been more of a change from living in the heart of London. You can’t nip out to buy something you forgot. You can nip out to see what bird is calling, though. Serins are now filling the air with their glass-beads-breaking songs. Husband, who seems to have distance hearing – while not always hearing what I have said when standing next to him – says he has heard both cuckoos and orioles in the valley this week. Frogs have started up their rattling noises. The pervasive Bermuda Buttercup is starting to share its realm with more, and more interesting, flowers.

We went to Lisbon for the weekend. Lisbon was a small place to my London eyes, but now it has grown. We arrived by train, travelling over the Twenty-fifth of April bridge across the river Tejo. Beyond the industrial riverside, you see the coloured frontages of the old buildings stacked one on top of the other. The big city!

The Torre de Belém, half a millennium old (I confess I didn't go inside; even out of season there was a queue)

The Torre de Belém, half a millennium old (I confess I didn’t go inside; even out of season there was a queue)

The rose window of Lisbon Sé

The rose window of Lisbon Sé

Lisbon tiles

Building in Campo de Santa Clara. Tiles by Luis Ferreira, aka Ferreira das Tabuletas

Old commercial tiling

Old commercial tiling

Old tram route 28: a favourite for tourists, including me

Old tram route 28: a favourite for tourists, including me

Old Lisbon tram

Old Lisbon tram

Lisbon theatre lobby floor

Lisbon theatre lobby floor

I slot back into city life very easily. City modes make sense to me. I have city clothes, which need an outing. I have a city outlook. I put on my city goggles and wonder if it made sense to leave city life. Then after four days we came back home late in the evening to a black sky glittering with stars. I gulped lungfuls of clean air and remembered all over again why we live here.

No blog next week because I shall be in England, and I’m keeping this one short because last week I wrote way over my self-imposed limit. I was, and remain, very exercised about the possibility of fossil-fuel zombies moving into the Algarve. Living close to nature forces you to cherish it; you cannot put on city goggles here among the trees and the birds. The zombies haven’t gone away. An oil-rig spotted off the coast of Tavira caused a lot of anxiety but it seems to have been a rig being transported to another area – not that that makes it better, but it does make it a zombie out of reach of our own wooden stakes. We can’t kill them all; I’m not sure if we can kill any. One political party, part of the governing coalition, has come out saying that it is in favour of cancelling the existing oil contracts; will it happen? Please god let it happen. The ENMC (the fossil-fuel authority) still don’t ask the question why they exist, only how they can keep doing what they do. Cars are a problem. My own beloved Rolie will be redundant one day, and that day shouldn’t be too far away. Car-ownership is expensive in Portugal because of high duties – a golden opportunity to bring in electrical cars at lower duties and enhance their take-up? Who knows.

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