Monthly Archive: March 2017

Cu do mundo (dictionary: vulgar slang)

The Algarve is bursting into flower. It’s wonderful to see the gum rock rose again


We put on our protest T-shirts and gathered at the spot in Faro where the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was due to arrive. The police fenced us in, which was handy because it meant the banners could be strapped to the temporary railings and I, for once, didn’t have to be Sister Anna. On a recent visit to the Algarve, met with a similar protest, the president gnomically remarked that there was as much chance of the area being exploited for oil as of him going to the moon. This led to today’s protest being moon-themed, with one poster showing a giant-sized one-way extra-terrestrial ticket and others displaying various exhortations to the president to take himself into orbit. When he turned up, after we’d been hanging around and banging drums for four hours, he showed himself to be the celebrity he is, who can work a room, or indeed a series of railings lined with protestors, with skill. He drove up himself, with no obvious security detail, then left the car with the keys in the ignition – an aide parked it – and came straight over to us, looking for hands to shake and asking who’d like to talk.

One particularly fervent protestor – and friend – bore a stuffed, yellow fabric new-moon toy which she’d splattered with black ink to suggest an oil spill. She waved it at the president until he took it off her hands. It looked rather like a large, overripe banana.

The ease with which it is possible in Portugal to come face to face with politicians at the highest level is one of the great things about this country. It might be a product of its small size or the general openness of its people, or both. But we were disappointed when the president revisited his moon analogy – though you could argue that it was game of him given how much he was being mocked for it. And when he continued to assert that the contracts – or contract, singular, in his estimation – were only for research and not for exploitation, we were more than disappointed. The old ground we’ve been over so many times. There’s no way an oil company would invest millions just to see what’s there, then generously share that information widely and non-commercially. And we know the contracts allow for extraction to follow exploration because we’ve seen them. The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, was filmed last year trying to sell the Portuguese seabed to oil companies in the United States. Then she said in Parliament that there were no contracts for oil production in Portugal, a remark of the ‘alternative fact’ variety.

I peeled off in the middle of the wait for the president. A friend and I went for a sit-down and some coffee and cake in an elegant café in the centre of the old town, where we were served by waiters dressed smartly in black. No one looked twice at me even though I had large black teardrops painted on my face, which I’d forgotten about.

That night Husband made it on to the national news – again.

Back at home

We think of this dirt road leading to the floor of the valley as a romantic setting, the fim do mundo, the paradise at the ‘end of the world’. The locals are more likely to call it the cu do mundo, the ‘arse end of the world’. There are people in the nearby village who’ve never been here and would never bother to come. Maria used the term herself the other day. ‘We always thought of this place as the cu do mundo, but the foreigners seem to find it pretty.’ We were talking to her about our permaculture project, for which she and her husband have slowly developed a muted, guarded interest. As all salt-of-the-earth types worldwide, their response is purely practical. ‘We see what you are trying to do, and if it works, we might be impressed. But it takes time. We’ll see.’

I’m taking a blog holiday again. So many things to do. Many seeds to plant, for example, in our little paradise.

‘Gon out. Bisy. Backson.’

Another fantastic array of bread

Seeds for sharing

Back to the watermill

Blossom by the watermill

I needed the medium-sized stepladder to reach the swallow nest. A roll of masking tape was left over from painting and I used this in strips to make a kind of basket suspended from the ceiling – sticky side inwards – that covered the entire nest without touching it. All this because the barn swallows, which until last week we’d never before seen around here, chased the red-rumped swallows away and took over the nest. I wasn’t having that. It was sad so see the red-rumped swallows flee, a day after arriving. (Why are they so fey and always give in so easily?) So the barn swallows must learn, just as the sparrows have done, that they can nest wherever they like, just not outside our front door. That space, along with what is left of the nest, belongs to the red-rumped swallows. Should they reappear, I will remove the masking tape. Here’s hoping, however faintly, that they do.

I am, I know, a little obsessed with the nest and its rightful occupants. I am also obsessed with the ruined watermill at the foot of the path to the river, which equally deserves rightful occupants. My fascination comes and goes. It depends how much spare time I’ve got, and whether I can interest anyone else in it. Luckily this week we had two friends visiting us whose interest was piqued. They arrived in blissful weather which lasted their whole stay, and once we’d finished exploring the permaculture project and opened the swimming pool for the first time this year, we visited the mill.

Previous nosing about had established that the impeller wheel would have been underground, positioned horizontally, while a sluice gate in a rear room released the water from the reservoir at the back to flow through, under the building, and drive the wheel and its various gears and shafts. Broken millstones lie about in the main room amid shattered tiles and cane from the fallen ceiling. A cut-out circle can be seen in the centre of the floor, where the millstones would have been, and in the middle of this space is a small square opening that leads down into the underground chamber. This is as far as the explorations had got, but then Neil, combining slender hips with an adventurous spirit, dropped himself down through the square, a tight fit, to land on his feet in the silt below. His head soon disappeared as well, but his voice echoed back.

No equipment remained underground except for a rusty pickaxe head, but the shape of the underground chamber revealed itself: a dome. The inlet for the water is set at an angle to encourage centrifugal force. The whole device is a turbine. The outlet would presumably have led back to the river, perhaps running underground until it got there. Mill water could, I imagine, be diverted for irrigation, but this is an isolated mill on a bend of the river and the water must surely have ended up back in the stream. The wheel was likely to have been wood, long since rotted away, which would explain its absence. It might be possible to dig some remains out of the silt. That’s for another day.

Neil made his way out of chamber again, having taken photographs on my camera for later inspection.

It’s an overlooked thing, this mill. It’s still up for sale as a tourist project with no requirement whatsoever to protect the Portuguese heritage it represents.

Rollie, my Renault 4, my own little bit of heritage, is doing rather well. He’s been running smoothly for many months now. In April he needs his annual service and inspection, and I began to think of getting in touch with Costa, even though it had been a while since I’d spoken to or seen him, to ask if he would take care of this as he has done the previous two years. On Monday I drove to Tavira. I planned to call Costa on my mobile while I was out and could get a signal but I was rather busy and didn’t. Almost back at home, at the top of our dirt track, I remembered. I pulled into one of the passing places and took out my phone.

I’d missed a call from Costa by minutes.

I swear, when it comes to the Renault 4, we have a perfect, telepathic understanding. We’re going to meet up later in the week.

Underneath the mill. The water inlet

The water outlet. Here you can clearly see the dome shape

A millstone in the grounds

Perfect joy (or was it?)

This wild pear tree predates our arrival, but has never done much. Certainly its few and hard small fruit have never been of interest to us. But as if the permaculture project on the hillside above has given it a boost, it produced more blossom this spring than we’ve ever seen. The blossom is sweetly fragrant and thrumming with bees and wasps. If you get too close for a sniff you are in danger of inhaling the stinging insects


Tuesday 7 March: a day to remember. The red-rumped swallows returned – much earlier than we’d expected them. It was warm enough for breakfast on the veranda. It’s rather exposed there now since we cut the bougainvillea back to a coarse heart-shape bristling with cut arteries that isn’t even visible over the front wall. We had to do it for the painting work. I miss its colour and exuberance and trust it to come back in full vigour. In the meantime, we now enjoy sweeping views from the full width of the veranda across the valley to the Meditation Hill. The same change of perspective has occurred inside the house, where you can glance up from the kitchen table or sofa, through the window that gives on to the veranda, right through to the other side of the valley. Our horizons have broadened.

Into these broadened horizons on Tuesday morning floated the shiny elegance of two red-rumped swallows. They surveyed the veranda in two broad sweeps through the airspace, then one returned and settled upon what remains of the nest on the hook. He – I think it was the male – delivered a peroration. It sounded like: ‘We’re back. This is ours. Sparrows, get lost. And you humans could have done a better job of caretaking. You realise we now have to rebuild, don’t you? Don’t you think we’ve had enough work to do, flying here from Africa?’ Then off again. We sat there in perfect joy, despite the telling-off.

Later the same day, we saw barn swallows on the wire outside the house. Barn swallows, not red-rumped. Had we been mistaken in the morning? Still half asleep over breakfast, not fully with it? Over-keen to see one of our most beloved birds? We’re going to have to wait and see. If they were barn swallows on the veranda in the morning then it raises the uncomfortable possibility that we might have to protect the red-rumpeds’ home from the barn swallows, too.

We want the red-rumped swallows. They belong here. They’ve been a big part of our lives and we want them back.

And if it turns out that 7 March is memorable for nothing else then at least as the first night we didn’t light a fire in many a month. It seems to have been a long winter. Even if days were warm and bright, nights were always chilly – until now.


A Mediterranean Garden Fair took place near Silves, about an hour’s drive west, on Saturday. We went in Rollie with two friends. Four people in Rollie for a longish drive: this was a first. We’d have used the jeep but its engine packed up a couple of weeks ago and it’s undergoing a complex repair at a local garage. Rollie was well up to the task, including the transport on the return journey of a number of new plants for our land. We’re putting smaller trees and shrubs between the larger trees now, and after that we’ll probably start putting in vegetables in the reducing spaces that are left between. The small lavenders, sages and succulents went into Rollie’s boot. Into the rear footwell went the two grapefruit trees we selected on the advice of our permaculture expert to fill a couple of gaps in the irrigated swales. At roughly shoulder height they just fitted in, their young leaves brushing the roof. They were held securely between the two rear passengers, of whom I was one, for the return journey. Already showing blossom they ensured the journey home was bathed in heavenly citrus scent. Another kind of joy.

Then it turned out that the grapefruit trees were an error in translation. Our permaculture advisor does us the kindness of speaking in English, her third language. But ‘grapefruit’ tripped her up. She had meant to say ‘pomegranate’. And when you come to think of it, ‘grapefruit’ is a silly name. How did that stick? It came about because of the fruit’s tendency to grow in clusters, like grapes. This tendency has never been very evident in our one pre-existing grapefruit tree, even in its most abundant fruiting year, which was the year we moved in when we hardly knew what to do with all the fruit it gave. The name was a stretch of someone’s imagination.

According to Jane Grigson, in her Fruit book, the citrus’s earlier name was shaddock, after an English sea captain who brought its seeds from their native Java and Malaysia to Barbados in the eighteenth century, beyond which they spread to Europe. Alan Davidson, in his Fruit book, describes another old English name: pimplenose, a mishearing perhaps of the French name pamplemousse. Pimplenose! Such a brilliant name. I wonder if I can make that stick?

PS Three years ago when I began this blog journey I met another would-be blogger, Penny Johnstone, a lovely, warm person who was a huge encouragement to me. This week I learnt from her daughter that she has died of cancer. Pen: this one is in memory of you.

Damp crevices. One day after heavy rainfall the water-retaining capability of the swales is clear

Fava beans are sprouting all over the land after our broadcasting of the seeds: this is green manure

Our guest dogs, Estrela and Lordy, found something interestingly smelly on the veranda floor

With the bougainvillea cut back, Estrela and Lordy have found a new vantage point. In view top right is the inevitable plastic bag, used in the bakery for proofing doughs then washed and hung out to dry



I never even noticed this beautiful carob tree before; it was inaccessible and hidden. Now it invites you to visit it. It is a perfect example of how the permaculture work on the land has opened it up in whole new ways

About to become deluxe accommodation for a sapling

Swales awaiting their protective covering of straw

A mango tree in the ‘tropical swale’, which is lined up to get more water than the other swales


A dust cloud from the Sahara landed on us this week, turning everything light brown. It must have met with humidity somewhere because it adhered to everything it touched. Vehicles queued up at car washes for the next couple of days. It took me several hours to clean the garden furniture. The swimming pool’s hitherto white cover is now dark sand but I haven’t tackled that yet. As for all the leaves in the garden, it would be a task for the Queen of Hearts and many obedient decks of cards to restore the colour of those. We need some rain to fall – and it is forecast for the weekend.

The battle of the corks continued all week, with the sparrows, now experts in the task, ousting the twin-cork contraption every night and us replacing it the next day, until a slip of Husband’s hand brought most of the rest of the fragile nest down. What this revealed, before the breeze took them away, was a luxurious lining of soft feathers. Now the swallows will have to rebuild, and the sparrows have nothing left to fight for possession of. The sparrows are not so hard done by. Flocks of them have taken advantage of the seeding of the hill for a feeding frenzy.

Also luxuriously feather-bedded have been the new trees brought home in the black van last week. They have been housed like racehorses. A few months ago, before we had any idea we were about to embark on a permaculture project, a landscape expert told me, ‘Make a hundred-dollar hole for a ten-dollar tree.’ How true. The excavating of the holes was, of course, done by costly machine. Heaven provided the first watering. Compost and manure made the first layers of bedding in the spacious hole, then each tree – healthy-looking but none the less insubstantial saplings every one of them – was introduced to its new home. After that, infilling with more precious stuff, a good watering, a layer of cardboard, another watering, and finishing off with a counterpane of straw. Each tree lives in an advantageous part of a swale, and we have high hopes of them.

I have not been without my protest armour this week. While Husband and visiting friend took on the job of repainting some exterior wood, I went to Lisbon by chartered coach. It meant leaving home at 7 a.m. and getting back after 1 a.m., and it meant standing outside the Assembleia da Républica for some five hours. As usual, I was Sister Anna with the banner. I need only to stand in one place for a few moments for someone to ask me to hold their side of the banner and then to disappear for good – though another kind-hearted protester can always be relied upon to relieve me when it gets too much. At one point someone asked me which group the banner I was supporting represented. I wasn’t sure. ‘I’m just a general banner holder,’ I explained.

The date – 23 February – and the timing were to coincide with the hearing inside the assembleia for ASMAA, a campaigning group seeking to protect the Algarve. The hearing was occasioned by the anti-oil petition with its 42,000 signers – included among them some dear readers of this blog. It had taken a while to get the date for a hearing, and in the meantime the DGRM (the department responsible for natural resources) had authorised a licence for drilling offshore anyway. But ASMAA decided it was worth going ahead with the hearing, not least out of respect for all the signers. Additionally, and rather hopefully, a lawyer has been digging up all the shaky ground around the 1994 law that allows oil-drilling to take place, and has found that the law itself is arguably illegitimate, and therefore so too all the contracts it has given rise to. The whole caravan is a mirage, swathed in desert sand …

The outcome of the hearing was good. Not so much a step in the right direction as a leap, I was told. And what’s more the politicians heard us chanting outside and it disturbed their usual smooth surfaces.

With all this going on, Carnival completely passed us by.

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