The life of the valley
Our valley might look like the end of the world but it has many stories to tell. Only a couple of decades ago there was just one car here, a beaten-up one at that. Donkeys would have done the work of taking people and produce into the local village. Now there are Land Rovers and jeeps, family cars and, of course, a Renault 4 (Rolie, who is mine). We have a neighbour who keeps sheep, who has probably lived in the valley his entire life. We have tried hard to engage with him but he’s not too impressed by us. This week I saw him smile for the first time. I slowed Rolie down to a crawl so as not to alarm his sheep on the dirt road. The big beasts didn’t look too bothered either way, but two tiny, white, nervous faces looked up from just below the level of the road on the river-side of the track: lambs. My face melted and my expression was caught by the old man. That was when he smiled.
I am fascinated by other Renault 4 drivers, though usually too shy to openly demonstrate solidarity. Husband doesn’t have the same reserve. Recently we drove past a yellow R4 that we usually see parked outside an equally yellow house on the winding route into the town of São Brás de Alportel. So happy we were to see the vehicle in use that Husband – unusually, he was at the wheel of my car – beeped the horn to say hello. By chance the next day, alone in Rolie, I saw the car again. The driver’s hat was barely higher than the steering wheel. As we drew level, an old, crabbed hand was lifted in greeting.
Not long ago, wheat was grown here in the valley. People harvested their own crop and a portable mill arrived by truck in the season to grind it for them; like all country people they understood crop rotation and knew what the land was capable of. The women made bread in wood-fired ovens and it tasted like heaven, I’m told. But cereal-growing didn’t last: two, opposing forces killed it off. A drive of Salazar’s, Portugal’s ascetic, etiolated twentieth-century dictator, to turn the Eastern Algarve into Portugal’s bread basket led to wide-scale land clearing for intensive cereal production that gave little consideration to the reality of the soil. The earth here is perfect for olive, carob, almond, medronho, fig, cork oak, and for subsistence vegetable farming. The drive failed. After only a few years of year-round production the land was exhausted; it has since reverted to more appropriate use. Somewhere along the line cheap flour imports became the model instead, and that put paid to people growing wheat for their own sustenance. Why work so hard when you could buy the stuff so cheaply, even if it didn’t taste as good or have anything like the same nutritional content?
An abandoned watermill exists at the end of our footpath to the river. I can’t imagine there was ever water enough for a millrace, so perhaps this was part of Salazar’s failed vision too, but I don’t know. It’s a puzzle. The millstone, which doesn’t look well used, lies decoratively but uselessly outside our garage and we and our visitors occasionally reverse cars into it. For us it is a reminder that not everything goes well, even in our little paradise.
I found this line in a photographic book about the Algarve by a Dr Marjay, published in 1968, in what would have been Salazar’s thirty-sixth, and last, year as Prime Minister: ‘Living in the heart of this perennial spring the people of Algarve hardly feel the bitterness of life.’ A glib sentence like that would surely have had the approval of Salazar, whose regime openly cultivated a ‘conservative, paternalist and, bless God, “backward”’ country. Salazar didn’t have time for people’s innate wisdom and need for self-determination. (I’m grateful to Becky of Hidden Delights of the Algarve for The Algarve book tip; the words of Salazar are from a letter he wrote in 1962 and are quoted in Barry Hatton’s very readable The Portuguese.)