Monthly Archive: March 2016


Our second visit to Culatra; we took friends from Berlin with us

Our second-ever visit to Culatra; we took friends from Berlin with us

Farol lighthouse

Farol lighthouse

Hottentot fig: these were all over the island

Hottentot fig: these were all over the island

Birds in Olhão: gulls

Returning to Olhão from Culatra: gulls by the ferry point

Birds in Olhão: gulls with backdrop of masts

Birds in Olhão: gulls with backdrop of masts

Birds in Olhão: swallows on the wire

Birds in Olhão: swallows on the wire

Figs are ripening; seen in Olhão

Figs are ripening; seen in Olhão

A close-up of Paronychia argentea, a ground-hugging plant that grows by the river and that I find quite beautiful

Back at home: a close-up of Paronychia argentea, a ground-hugging plant that grows by our river. I’ve just noticed how exquisitely beautiful it is; you need to get close to it to appreciate it

Silky spelt dough

Silky spelt dough

Spelt bread, wonderful with melting butter and drizzled honey

Spelt bread, wonderful with melting butter and drizzled honey


We had little time this week to witness the many offerings of Holy Week, but we did manage to go to the procession on the evening of Good Friday in Tavira. It began around nine. We waited patiently with many others until a sermon was broadcast over a loudspeaker, then the streetlights went out and the candlelit procession arrived. One of the most charming moments was the priest himself, in his purple sash, who’d clearly been told a very good joke and was having trouble displaying the necessary degree of solemnity. Because of the eeriness of the event, and not because of the laughing priest, Husband said he felt like he was in a Fellini film. I felt differently. I like a bit of religion. I grew up under benign Catholicism. This meant three things: for big worries, the good Lord would take care of them; for little worries, one had one’s very own guardian angel to take care of them; and for oneself the main requirement was to be ‘good’, which could be achieved through careful examination of one’s own conscience. But the thought did drop unbidden into my mind, standing here in the crowd in Tavira, that it would be rather better if this procession was all about praising the vastly intelligent natural system of which we humans are just a part, rather than a god we invented for ourselves and in our own image. And that if we humans hadn’t somehow decided that the Earth was all about us, and for our benefit, we perhaps wouldn’t be making such a mess of it, extracting every last, non-renewable, one-time-only resource from it and allowing a tiny few to get rich in the process. (Writer Arundhati Roy calls this resource extraction ‘a dream come true for businessmen – to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.’)

And I realised my transition into a tree-hugging hippie was almost complete.

Good Friday procession

Good Friday procession. Candlelight is hard to photograph, and has given one woman a halo

Letters to the president

I kept my promise to myself to participate in the Tavira Câmara’s ten-year policy review. I used the participation forms and followed the instructions to deliver comments in a three-part format: Framework, Consequences and Proposal. I shared with the president (aka the mayor) my thoughts on organic agriculture, the market hall in Tavira, tourism, oil/gas extraction, plastic greenhouses, and plastic waste. I did all this in very bad Portuguese, like an earnest but dull schoolgirl. I’m glad I bothered to take part, but I don’t think I’ve changed the world.

Wild flower meadows

A Red-legged Partridge in our back garden. Its 'chuck-chuck-chuckah-chuckaaah' woke us up. I just had time to grab the camera before it flew off

A Red-legged Partridge in our back garden. Its ‘chuck-chuck-chuckah-chuckaaah’ woke us up. I just had time to grab the camera before it flew off

I finally have a potted hibiscus on the veranda; this is its first flower (für meine Schwiegermutter: alles Gute zum Geburtstag!)

I finally have a potted hibiscus on the veranda; this is its first flower (für meine Schwiegermutter: Alles Gute zum Geburtstag)

Wild gladiolus

Wild gladiolus

I love the Gum Rock Rose: it's all over the hillsides where we live right now

I love the Gum Rock Rose: it’s all over the hillsides where we live right now

Every now and then a Gum Rock Rose with paler spots appears

Every now and then a Gum Rock Rose with paler spots appears

This has to be the Annual Rock Rose, though a tiny version of it (anyone know better?)

This has to be the Annual Rock Rose, though a tiny version of it (unless anyone knows better)

A house in the Algarve: but not ours. Meadow in front; last Sunday's black clouds behind

A house in the Algarve: but not ours. Meadow in front; the black clouds of last Sunday behind


Wild flower meadows are all around now. The eye focuses on the spots of colour: blues, reds and purples in particular, while the soothing green background is lulled out. To the camera, however, the flowers recede and the green dominates. The only way to appreciate a wild flower meadow is to be right in it, so I can’t share it with you easily. We went for a walk on Sunday with friends and picnicked amid wild gladiolus and lavender. The next day, in Tavira, we saw that the bridge and the churches had been strewn with lavender in lieu of palm. Even after a day of being rained on and trodden on, the sprigs were still fragrant.

Last Friday the biggest lorry I’ve ever seen in our valley arrived and wedged itself – remarkably, without any harm done to walls – between our house and the neighbours in front. A vast arm extended itself over the carob tree – again, without damage to a leaf – and the pouring of the concrete into the framework for the pool began. I was a little horrified. I’ve begun to feel slightly uncomfortable about the pool. It seems rather indulgent. And then all the noise and mess involved in building it. Well, I decided to cross the river and visit the two houses on the other side: to explain what was going on, and to apologise for the noise in case it was amplified over there. This is not the first time ‘sorry’ has been on my lips, but I chose to go for a new phrase I found on Google translate, just in case it was better/politer/nicer. However, on the way across the river two of the consonants switched themselves around in my head. The first conversation, with a Portuguese old lady in a hat, fit as fiddle by all appearances, went something like this.

‘I agolopise for the noise.’


‘I agolopise for the noise.’

‘I’ve got no idea what you’re on about. Do you live across the river?’


‘Are you English?’


‘I’m the only Portuguese left here now. Everyone’s English. I’m only here to feed the cats.’ At this point she took a stick to an orange tree. ‘I get the oranges as my reward.’ She stooped to the floor and filled a bag with the fallen oranges, then left the house and went away up the path, reminding me – in a cheerful and only slightly disgruntled way – that she was the only Portuguese left.

The other house is indeed occupied by English, so communication was easier. The inhabitant of the first house, they told me, was very old and ill in hospital and unlikely ever to come home. The old lady I met, Silvina, looked after the house; she lived further up the lane. And along this particular lane, which goes from the right bank of the river down to the nearest village, Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, the exit of the old Portuguese population does now seem to be entire, Silvina excepted. Thankfully it’s not so on our side of the river. Portuguese still outnumber foreigners in our little community, but rural evacuation is nothing new, and the Câmara (the town/county council) wants to do something about it. I know because I’ve been reading, slowly and painfully, their policy documents ahead of a public consultation. It seems to me they seem to fail in one of the most obvious things they could do: raise the status – and value – of local food. Make it easier for people to bring their produce to market by reducing the paperwork involved, so that oranges, pomegranates, quince, cactus fruit and so on have a value in the marketplace and don’t get to fall neglected to the ground here in the serra, while supermarkets sell imported fruit in sealed plastic (including, irony of ironies, imported cactus fruit, marketed as ‘exotic’, when in a matter of weeks we’ll be knee-deep in the prickly things right here). So I’ve got to find a way of saying that in Portuguese, in writing, as my contribution to the debate.

While I try to poke about in the Câmara’s business, they’ve been poking about in ours. No sooner had the building of our pool begun than a Battleaxe from the Câmara turned up unannounced. Unannounced apart from the phone call five minutes up the lane wanting to know where on earth we were exactly. The Battleaxe, and her more pleasant sidekick, got out their measuring tapes and stomped about the building site in a rather officious way. The thing is, the pool is totally legal. We have a building licence, the pool is being built according to plan, we’re even taking up the back terrace to reduce our built area, all exactly as we’re supposed to. It’s only a little pool, for Heaven’s sake. The Battleaxe couldn’t find anything wrong but she warned us she’d be keeping a close eye on the whole process and we’d better do it right or we’d be fined. Of course, if we were Portfuel, and wanted to lay waste to the entire serra with a hydraulic fracking operation, that, apparently, would be absolutely fine.

Now, I’m being slightly unfair here. The Câmara don’t want this any more than we do. It is the imposition of the previous national government, and the current one isn’t doing anything to stop the oil companies. Now the combined mayors of the Câmaras of the Algarve are looking into a legal route to try to stop the madness. I hope they succeed.

Rolie playing his part in the anti-oil protests (stickers from Asmaa)

Rolie playing his part in the anti-oil protests (stickers from Asmaa)

Back to the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Poppies (für meine Schwiegermutter); from a meadow by the river

Poppies from a meadow by the riverbank

Yellow lupin

Yellow lupin (Lupinus luteus), from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender, common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender (Lavandula viridis), common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

I pulled my first garlic from the ground - a little early, but it tasted heavenly

I pulled my first garlic from the ground – a little early, but it tasted heavenly

The apricot tree in blossom

The apricot tree in blossom: this is the one that fruits first

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called them Green Linnets

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called the birds Green Linnets


A blushing Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) sang on our wire this week: such a pretty song. I don’t think I’ve heard it before. No wonder ‘me old cock linnet’ was once such a popular caged bird, enough to have appeared in music-hall song. The little streaked yellow Serin continues to fill the air with its manic, high-speed, glass-beads-shattering-on-a-stone-floor song, and the Zitting Cisticola dzips as he rises and dips on his looping flight. A pair of greenfinches is considering the conifer at the front of the house as a possible nesting site, obviously not put off by the nearby posturing of Mr Cock-of-the-Walk Sparrow. All these little bundles of feathers bursting with life and song: it seems miraculous.

I’ve had time to go back to the river this week. The cold water slides slowly over the rocks with their streamers of weed. That the water is cold I can feel through my wellies. The toad spawn is largely gone: dispersed or eaten. I hope a few eggs have found their way under rocks to develop into toadlets (or are they called tadpoles, like frogs?). I can testify to the irresistible deliciousness of the eggs, however. Not personally, exactly, but by the fact that we got our first ever good look at the mystery wading bird thanks to the toad eggs. We were about to drive over the ford and there was the bird, quite unable to fly off into the distance in its usual way, with a flash of long white rump and a complaining kyew, because it couldn’t stop dipping for toad eggs. We grabbed the chance for a close inspection – binoculars thankfully in the car – then carried on our journey and left it alone.

It’s one of a pair now, though usually we see a solitary bird. We see it often; it can’t be migratory. It’s like a Greenshank, but smaller, with a distinctly straight beak. We haven’t settled on what it is, though it’s got to be something obvious; it always is. Therefore, it cannot be a Marsh Sandpiper, even though that’s the only bird in the book that fits the bill (or beak).

Water, fire and oil

The well was almost full and we ran the crystal water into the cisterna under the front veranda for two and a half hours. That’ll do us for a good while. And I have finally faced up to something that has been on my conscience: all that bottled water we drink, most of it in plastic. We had our well water tested and were advised not to drink it: it was pure of every contamination except, possibly, bacterial. We cook with it and clean our teeth, but were drinking from bottles. We recycled them afterwards, of course, but recycling plastic barely limits the damage. Then it clicked, at last. Good heavens: just boil our own water using our solar-powered electricity, cool it and keep it in the fridge. It tastes wonderful, and this is a big weight off my mind.

The days are warm under the sun but the wind has been chilly. We still light a fire in the evenings. The metric tonne of firewood we had delivered at the start of winter ran out and, rather than get a new delivery so late in the season, we’ve been scavenging. The old woody branches of Gum Cistus, the plant that grows in such richly scented, resinous profusion all over the hills, was once a common fuel, I read, so we went collecting uprooted or fallen branches of that.

On return we took a shortcut back to the house, straight down the hill, unwieldy branches in hand. It’s steep, but the horizontal plough lines make reasonable steps, and you just need to watch where you place your foot among the stones. But the driver of a JCB had been watching us. That was dangerous, he told us when we reached the house. I don’t think I mind that the driver of a JCB in our garden is excessively safety-conscious. And, should you wonder what he’s doing there: he is completing the rectangular hole for the swimming pool.

A last word, for this week, on oil. At the tourism trade fair in Lisbon last week, the mayor of Tavira gave a speech – the Algarve being the featured region of the fair. He nodded to us in the audience and said, in Portuguese, ‘Nice T-shirts.’ Afterwards he told us it was good we were there, good to keep up the pressure, but that he had it all in hand. On 9 March we read that the Assembleia Municipal of the Tavira district had passed a motion by the Socialist Party, with 24 in favour and only 2 against, to reject and condemn the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the area, both on- and offshore. This is, of course, wonderful. But is it enough? I wish I could believe it was.


Yours truly photobombing the Algarve stand in my protest T-shirt (this photo, of course, was taken by Husband)


Red-rumped Swallow on our telegraph wire

Red-rumped Swallow on our telegraph wire

A little further away on the wire: a Blue Rock Thrush, one of Husband's favourite birds

A little further away on the wire: a Blue Rock Thrush, one of Husband’s favourite birds

Lordy, as ever, not wanting to look at the camera. (A bit heavy-handed on the eye-liner, too.) Estrela is pleading: 'Won't you let me have a bit more of that nice bread?'

Lordy, as ever, not wanting to look at the camera. (He’s been heavy-handed on the eye-liner, too.) Estrela is pleading: ‘Won’t you let me have a little bit more of that nice bread?’


I heard two swallows babbling on the wire a week ago, just after I’d posted the previous blog. It wasn’t the sound of the Barn Swallows, it was something ever so slightly different, a difference contained in – for me – a greater feeling of familiarity: it was a pair of Red-rumped Swallows. I wasn’t expecting them for some weeks yet, as I had declared in the blog post. Last year, when I was so keen to see them for the first time, they showed up only in late March. Their reappearance was heart-lifting, like the return of old friends.

Of course, no sooner had they alighted on the wire than Mr Sparrow arrived and muscled up to them in a repeat of last year’s avian soap opera. He also chased off a nuthatch and a greenfinch from the alfarroba near by. He thinks he’s cock of the walk all right. One bird he cannot chase off, however, is the eagle. Yes, we have eagles. During lunch with friends in the back garden last week, two Short-toed Eagles appeared over the hill, causing spoons to clatter into soup bowls as cameras and binoculars were reached for. Then this week we saw one of them again, this time over the valley in front. It perched on a telegraph pole across the river, perfectly caught by the light, and stretched its neck. After a while it took off and glided away, turning one way and then the other, giving us a perfect display of its colours and patterning.

But it isn’t birds that have preoccupied me this week. I haven’t even been wading up and down the river these past few days.


Tourism trade fair

You see, we decided – with some other active citizens – to go to the tourism trade fair (BTL) in Lisbon and see if we could engage more of the industry’s support in making a case against oil and gas exploration here in the Algarve. The mere idea of it gave me a couple of sleepless nights. We turned up at the Feira Internacional de Lisboa on one of the days given over to professionals – not the public – and got in under slightly false pretences. Then we went around the stalls, asking people what they knew about the fossil-fuel extraction plans, offering some information and asking if they wanted to sign the petition. And this was the outcome:

People who were friendly and nice about being approached in this way:       100%

People who wanted to sign the petition:       90%

People who’d heard of the plans to turn the Algarve into an oil-producing land, vs those who hadn’t heard anything about it before:        roughly 50/50

People who were in favour of turning the Algarve into Texas: one. One solitary man. He was in favour for economic reasons, and I tried to show how it wouldn’t make the country rich, nor even the government rich, and he agreed to give that strange notion some thought. We shook hands on it, amicably.

Difference this will make in the world: almost none, but you have to try, don’t you? I don’t like having to use economic arguments against the fossil fuel industry, when the slow suicide that is climate change should be enough, but it just so happens that the tourism industry is already tipping more into the government’s coffers than the fossil fuel industry ever could, certainly at current oil prices. Granted, it is an argument based on one against the other. Arguably an oil industry wouldn’t wipe out tourism altogether and immediately, but it certainly wouldn’t do it any good.

Dwelling on this subject does not allow for much serenity. The more you look into it, the worse it gets. The government’s arguments all along have been that the initial stages are exploratory and they just want to know more about the geology of the land. (Incidentally, ‘exploration’, rather than ‘exploitation’, can legally be done without Environmental Impact Assessment reports.) Then a keen journalist uncovered the transcript from an investor meeting given by the (non-Portuguese) oil company that holds the offshore contracts closest to us here, in which it clearly showed that they already know exactly what’s there for the taking, and they are cock-a-hoop over the cheap contracts they’ve managed to get to extract it all.

I started the week with the heart-lifting sight of the Red-rumped Swallows. And now, at the end of the week, it was another bird that lifted my heart all over again: coming over the concrete bridge on the way from Flaviano’s emporium, I saw a bird I’ve longed to see here but had never yet spotted. Finally, there it was: the unmistakable, life-enhancing, turquoise flash of a kingfisher in flight. The earth wins.*

*Pace JerryG.

Algarve watermill

The crumpled-tissue-paper flower of the gum cistus

The crumpled-tissue-paper flower of the Gum Cistus

Lavender is in flower now

Lavender is in flower now

Moorish Gecko and Common Fumitory

Moorish Gecko and, half in shade, Common Fumitory

Turtle in the river, pretending to be invisible

Turtle in the river, pretending to be invisible


Last Friday we rejoiced in the torrents of rain that hammered down for the whole day and much of the night. An even greater joy followed: the limpidity of the rained-out atmosphere. The past few days have been bright and clear, and the nights so dark and star-speckled they are, well, heavenly. Two babbling swallows alighted on the telegraph wire in front of the veranda one morning: the first swallows to arrive in our part of the valley. They are Barn Swallows; the Red-rumped we don’t expect to see for a few weeks yet. Our faithful Little Owl is becoming increasingly vocal, day and night. Its repeated ‘weeow’ call sounds like a yo-yo whistling through the air.

Husband is hard at work in the bakery as I type. The latest batch of loaves includes dark-rye Borodinsky breads for a Russian friend of a friend, for whom they taste of home. Some of these loaves will be swapped for a handmade Hoopoe nesting box. Hoopoes occupy the farmland just over the river, but this side is a bit too rough and ready for them with their elaborate, cabaret get-up. We are hoping to persuade them it’s quite refined over here really. As if we didn’t have enough birds! It’s pure greed. Keeping the sparrows out of the nest will be a job, too.

Abandoned millhouse

Abandoned millhouse


I haven’t paid too much attention so far to the ruined watermill I pass every time I go down to the river. The gradually rotting caravan in one corner of the grounds, evidence of someone’s long-dead ambitions for the site, is off-putting for a start. Plus the land is, of course, private property. The ruin itself isn’t so eye-catching, nor are ruins a rarity round here. I couldn’t figure out how it could be a watermill anyway. Where was the race? Where would the large, vertical wheel have been positioned? Perhaps it was someone’s fanciful idea it had ever been a watermill. Then one day I noticed, having taken a little detour, that at the back of the ruin was a large, deep, rectangular depression: some kind of water storage.

Curiosity gradually got the better of me. This week I persuaded a friend with an interest in mills into trespassing with me. After all, the mill is unoccupied and for sale, so surely it’s OK to take a look. I not only had the benefit of his judgement on site, but also the resource of a splendid book he got hold of (being in fact an antiquarian bookseller rather than a mill engineer): Portugal’s Other Kingdom: The Algarve, published in 1963. The author is Dan Stanislawski, an American professor of historical geography. The book is brilliant. (Thank you, Robert Brown, and Becky B.)

Professor Stanislawski wrote: ‘A typical water mill of the Algarve is built with a vertical shaft. The grinding stones are at the upper end of the shaft, and at the other end are horizontal blades against which the force of water is directed. … [This] simple type … is certainly as old as the first century BC.’

So, nothing like the kind of watermill I am familiar with.

Inside the main room of the mill: there is a large cavity beneath the floor

Inside the main room of the mill: there is a large cavity beneath this floor. The beam here has descended from the roof

The back room of the mill

The back room of the mill

The streaked walls of the mill interior

Streaked walls

Bits of old millstone

Bits of old millstone in the main room

A cavity we found under the floor of the main room must have been where the horizontal blades operated. Among the rubble on the floor were segments of chased stone, which could only be from a broken millstone. The single room behind, several steps up, has a shaft at the rear, where perhaps a sluice-gate controlled the flow of water from the holding tank beyond. Later Husband pointed out that the water reservoir was just downstream of both a deep channel in the river and our neighbour Eleuterio’s abundant well. The mill could have operated not only when the river was running but also in the dry season, using the underground springs that feed the well. He also spotted, among the weeds in the grounds, two entire, pristine-looking millstones, which I had never noticed.

millstones in the grass

Millstones among the buttercups, ruin in the background

Recessed window

Recessed window in the main room

The roof falling in. You can see the structure: beams supporting canes, with semi-tubular handmade tiles from local clay arranged on top

The roof falling in. You can see the structure: beams supporting canes, with semi-tubular tiles made from local clay laid on top

River channel and well pump-house

Nearby river channel and well pump-house; as viewers we are standing downstream and the mill is behind us and to the right

I am the last person who should be trying to describe the workings of a watermill. My engineering skills are, let us say, undeveloped. I have the technological nous of a water rat (but that’s a little unfair on the rat). None the less, I am fascinated by this mill, and its technology that was – if the American professor is to be believed – in continuous use for two millennia, only to be abandoned in my meagre lifetime.

No, I cannot buy the mill. It is for sale at a commercial price on a tourism-potential ticket. One day someone will build a lovely house there, and the mill will be history.

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