Snow in the Algarve

Carpenter bee in the bougainvillea

The snow of the Algarve: the almond trees are in blossom

 

While our swallows are far away in West Africa, the sparrows have tried again to take over the nest. The same old story. So we nailed two corks together, side by side, using heavy U-shaped pins, and slotted them into the entrance to the mud house. We went away for a couple of nights and came back to find the corks had done the job: the sparrows hadn’t been able to remove them. What they had done instead, however, was to start to peck away at the mud gobbets placed by our indefatigable swallows in order to get in behind the obstruction. They hadn’t removed enough to gain access so we pushed the corks further in to block them. The only sure-fire way to protect the nest is to hang around on the front veranda for ever. The sparrows don’t like us near. The feeling is mutual.

Our permaculture journey is about to begin. Behind the house, the neglected hillside is to be ‘engineered’ into water-retaining swales and terraces and planted with a variety of young trees. We will slowly sow seeds and plants between the trees, as well as allowing pioneer seeds to take root for themselves. From here, the biotope will do its own thing. The health of the soil will gradually be enhanced and it will increasingly sequester carbon and hold water. In the few weeks since our eyes were opened to this possibility, I have tried to teach myself about permaculture and developing a food forest. Some of the things I have learned:

  1. Diversity is key.
  2. The soil is queen.
  3. Mulch is king. All kinds of things, not just plant material, can be mulch: old clothes and cardboard, for example.
  4. No such thing as garden ‘rubbish’. It’s all useful biomass.
  5. The biotope is a natural, self-sufficient energy system. Nothing in, nothing out – except for food produce.
  6. Weeds are good, not least for soil cover.
  7. Don’t be purist. What works, works.
  8. It isn’t always pretty in the short term. In the long term, it will be beautiful.
  9. It is an agricultural system for humans (and animals) to live in.
  10. Small-scale farmers feed the majority of the world – some say 80 per cent – while having access to less than a quarter of all farmland.

Another journey, begun long ago, has reached a new destination. When my grandparents ran away from County Offaly in Ireland to Liverpool to get married – in the face of parental disapproval – they didn’t know they were extending a lifeline to a future granddaughter that would allow her to keep her treasured European citizenship. I applied to register at the Irish embassy in Lisbon as an Irish citizen of ‘foreign birth’, then, once that had been confirmed with a certificate, I applied for a passport, which a few weeks later arrived from Dublin, via Lisbon. It was straightforward and I dealt with nice human beings all along the way. Across the pages of my new passport run lilting lines of prose, among which are: ‘The Irish nation treasures its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’

Lordy visiting us

Lordy with his breakfast bread

Bony fig tree, soon to come into leaf

Bread: two spelt and seven alfarroba loaves. The alfarroba (carob in English, Johannisbrot in German) was a successful experiment. Almost half the bread’s flour comes from the alfarroba, the rest is rye, spelt and wheat; the crumb is firm and dark and mildly sweet, the crust has a hint of caramelisation. It slices well and keeps well. Not for nothing does the German name of the tree and its fruit translate into English as St John’s bread

Good news

Genuinely good news, at last. The onshore oil-drilling contracts are to be rescinded, and the Attorney General’s Office has declared that the holder – Sousa Cintra – is not eligible for compensation for alleged expenses, in spite (or because) of his ‘increasingly eloquent illegality’. Land-based oil and gas exploration across the Algarve finally looks like it will not happen. Whoever’s been slapping those ‘Fracking’ stickers on the Stop signs around the place can stop it (while being secretly glad that they did it). The sea – and the 14 contracts dished out there – remain a major concern, but this is a real step forward.

Here at home the council are still digging up the riverbed. They used some of the gravel to plug the gullies that had appeared in our dirt road after heavy rain. I’m grateful for that – it was not easy driving Rollie over them – but I have a better solution in mind. Next week we hope to start looking at the prospects for permaculture on our hill. Once we begin to develop the hill, one of the many advantages – as a result of having more trees and small plants, and more mulching – will be that its soil will hold more water and there will be less run-off to carve up the road in the first place.

The weather is chilly and the old men who sit on the bench in the village wear blankets over their knees. Rather touchingly, they had two between five, so two pairs of knees were under a red blanket and three pairs under a beige one. Husband always greets them when he drives past. He’s planning on being able to join them in years to come.

Short but sweet this week. I will leave you with a list of the birds that are keeping us company in and above the garden these days: red-legged partridge, song thrush, jay, blackbird, azure-winged magpie, black redstart, robin, crested lark, stonechat, crag martin, Sardinian warbler, chiffchaff, blackcap, goldfinch, serin, meadow pipit, white wagtail, long-tailed tit, great tit, house sparrow, little owl, kestrel.

First grapefruit from the tree, for breakfast

On filling up at our local petrol station and stopping for a galão in the café, which came in this Renault 4 mug

Estrela often stops by our place to get some dry bread to chew on

 

Feliz ano novo com tudo de bom

It can take ages to see something in front of your nose. First our neighbours from Lisbon told us that our house had replaced a rather fine old one, somewhat dilapidated but not a total wreck and in fact the best of the three houses here. The other two were renovated using the existing stone structures; ours was rebuilt from scratch in concrete. Then a neighbour from over the river came to our garden and pointed out that the edges of the lower garden steps are cantarias: the typical stone window and door frames of Portugal. And the reason why one is dated 1941 – I had never been able to answer this question before when guests asked it – is clearly that it came from the original house: it would have topped the main door. I looked again at the steps and at the walls holding up the garden terraces and I finally realised that we are looking at the redistributed remains of the old house. I felt an agony of regret.

When during the recent, extremely heavy rain the hillside sprang leaks, I began to realise why the Sensibles had rebuilt the house, siting it further away from the slope. And when the flowing water routed itself around the house and down to the river, I began to be glad that they had done so, and to appreciate what we have. We made the sensible choice, I must remember, not the romantic one.

I promised news of the oil plans for the Algarve. It is not as good news as we activists first thought. Great excitement was generated by a national newspaper headline on 14 December (Diário de Notícias), announcing that the government was halting the exploration of oil in the Algarve. It turned out to be more complicated than that. Sousa Cintra’s compromised contracts for onshore exploitation covering almost half of the Algarve are to be rescinded, not having been correctly awarded in the first place – as is by now well known – and as usual the very next day the man himself threatened a legal fightback and declared everything to have been above board. As for the offshore contracts, the process for stopping those of Repsol-Partex was to be advanced, based on their not having yet done the promised drilling. So the government is sticking to their line about needing the oil companies to do their drilling in order to reveal what the nation’s subsoils contain, and since Repsol-Partex hadn’t done so in the agreed timeframe – and I’d love to think it was the protestors who hindered them – then the government has the excuse to start procedures to annul the contracts. And if I’ve understood this correctly – which is by no means certain – then the government is playing a clever, face-saving game, in which they have the chance to get rid of these irksome contracts without having to back down on the reason they said the contracts were useful to the country in the first place. And what’s more, they should be damn grateful to the activists for their part in it. There has also been news that the ENMC (national fuel entity) is to be broken up, and the grinning villain (my description!) Paulo Carmona is out of job. However, like a zombie he seems to keep popping up.

I went for a walk up the hill and came across one of the red-legged partridges whose territory this is. Mutually startled, we stopped and stared at one another. The bird has – besides its red legs – a red bill and red-ringed eyes, with a dark crescent of feathers running from the base of the bill through each eye to meet at the neck, below which it disperses into an elegant pattern of black and white. The throat is white. It was in the movement of the throat more than anything easily audible that I realised the bird was making a disconcerted sound, a tiny whisper of its usual Chuck-chuck-chuckah-chuckaaah! We eventually broke eye contact. The bird ran off and I carried on walking up the hill.

On New Year’s Day we woke up not long after 8 a.m. – despite a well-oiled and hugely enjoyable evening the night before, ending with fireworks in Tavira – and sat in the wooden chairs on the front veranda to watch the sun come up over the Meditation Hill. We have much to be happy and excited about this coming year. Wishing you a happy new year, with all good wishes.

Barril beach on New Year’s Day; many people came to mark the day and left footprints

I am always fascinated by the old anchors once used by tuna-fishers for their net-frames

Rusty close-up

 

December

The river was late this year. It started to come back in a trickle at the end of November, interrupting the council workers who’d been digging the bed for gravel. Even the local mayor had been involved in driving the gravel-laden trucks. He gave me a wave and a toothy grin when he’d pulled off the dirt track to let me go by in Rollie. Perhaps because the river’s return started so unpromisingly slowly, they felt safe to leave the JCB digger where it was.

We had family members coming to stay. Their arrival coincided with the rain falling and the river rising. It got higher and higher and higher. It was the colour of builder’s tea and carried stands of loose cane. By 1 December we sat on the veranda and listened to the roar: among the watery sounds were the cracks of cane being thrown against the rocks. By that evening the river was as high as I’d ever seen it and the rain showed no signs of stopping. It was exciting, but we had a tinge of anxiety. Behind us our garden walls had sprung small waterfalls. A river ran through where we park the car and down the path to join the river. We dragged the small butts to the veranda and poured the water into the cisterna, and back in place the butts filled up again instantly. We were sure the council workers must have regretted leaving their JCB behind.

River on 1 December, rising; by the evening it was as high as I’d ever seen it

 

It quietened a little on 2 December. The garden walls had held; so had the digger. Our visitors left; their short visit rain-soaked but exciting. When we got back from the airport we noticed that someone had managed to get the digger on to slightly higher land where all the water it had taken on board could drain away. The rain got heavier again the next day. Eleuterio and Maria-João came by to check everything was OK. We tried to see one another through misty screens of moisture. Lordy the dog barked in an unfriendly way; he didn’t recognise me. The river wasn’t as high as it was two days ago, but it was welling, brimming.

Men came by with cans of fuel to rescue the JCB. They had to drive the vehicle up the river path and past our house; this was not the way it had arrived and was a very tight squeeze. It barely managed the right-angle turn from the path to the dirt track, then it crunched past us making a grinding noise that I was sure was the sound of ours and our neighbours’ walls being scoured and reshaped. I held my breath until it had gone then went out to check: no damage. We’d all got away with it.

The river on 3 December

and on 4 December

 

It carried on raining for the next few days but the river didn’t reach its 1 December height again. By 6 December the river was no longer tea-coloured but running clear, shin-height, gurgling rather than crashing. The sun came out again. Most of the rest of the month was sunny and bright. On Christmas Eve we went to Loulé market to buy food and those curious bottles of alcohol one gets tempted into at this time of year – and which remain unopened – and to get our ancient axe sharpened by the old guy with the knife-grinder. The first two times we made our way to his table he wasn’t there. Most disappointing, since we’d dragged the axe along specially, but we were pretty sure he was somewhere nearby and that word would get to him. Sure enough by our third circuit of the market he was in his place and clearly expecting us. We left him as the whine of the grinding wheel assaulted our ears and those of everyone else. When we got back he handed us the axe with a nice bright edge: ‘That’s good for chickens now!’ he said. We rather had in mind to use it for wood splitting, but the firm oak we have as firewood is still resisting even the newly honed blade. The wood burns well, lasts long and is fragrant.

It was a beautiful Christmas: peaceful, quiet but for birdsong, under bright skies. Eleuterio and Maria-João gave us some of their eggs and olive oil; we gave them a coffee and walnut cake I’d made. The walnuts were from my father-in-law in Germany; the coffee was from a local café, where my asking for several bicas to be poured not into cups but into my jam-jar caused some consternation.

I’ve missed writing this blog, and left myself with far too much to tell you, more than I can squeeze in. Suffice to say that a few days before Christmas a small group of activists gathered at the home of one of us and sang a slightly scurrilous song written by Husband to the tune of a Portuguese carol in celebration of . . . the government’s cancellation of some of the oil and gas contracts. But the story is far from over, and there is confusion over exactly what has been stopped and to what extent, and every celebratory call is countered by a voice urging caution and another arguing for distrust. More next week.

Mist on the river on Boxing Day

Estrela fresh from the river, with water drops on her nose

A beautiful, typical Algarvian four-sided chimney, on the house of friends of ours

Anniversary

rosemary

Rosemary for remembrance. The plant is highly scented, dripping with flowers and humming with bees just now

 

On 21 November we celebrated (with a fine bottle of Alentejo red, ‘moon-harvested’, and a log fire) two years of living in this house in the Algarve, a move we’ve never regretted, a change that turned out even better than we thought it would.

Recently we have had plentiful rain – exactly like when we moved in – soaking the red earth and bringing dormant seeds to life. The cabbages and lettuces we planted look pert and healthy. No snails crawling over them but I’ll have to keep my eye on things. We haven’t established an adequate rainwater-collection system yet. Ideally we would have a system that funnels harvested rain straight into the cisterna under the front veranda. We’ve been making do with a water butt at the back of the house, which we dip into. The water running off the front roofs was not being captured. For now at least, we decided to buy some more butts.

‘Did you look up the Portuguese for water butt?’ asked Husband at the wheel of the car.

‘Oh, I forgot, and I forgot to bring a dictionary too.’

‘You could try your phone.’

Google Translate duly delivered bunda de água.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Me too. Notoriously unreliable means of translation, and it’s American English, which means a whole different take on ‘butt’. So I reverse-translated bunda and came up with ‘ass’, and I believe it’s not of the donkey variety. So if we’d trusted Google we’d have gone into the DIY place and asked a nice young man for some arse.

We weren’t born yesterday.

Not to say there aren’t a million things we still have to learn, and many more pitfalls to encounter. That’s just one we managed to avoid.

My list of things-to-learn gets longer all the time. Portuguese language remains top. The lessons with the new teacher, of whom I had such high hopes, have not gone well. No sooner had she bumped me up to level two than she decided I’d be better in level three, this being ‘conversation’, which is something of a stretch. I think it’s because – and I’m ashamed to admit it – I wore a rather impatient face throughout the lesson at level two. The class was largely conducted in English, with lateral conversations in French and Dutch, and I did get fed up.

Finding the right teacher and the right method of learning is surely more challenging than the language itself.

We’re waiting for the river to arrive. So too are the local junta de freguesia, who have been digging up the river bed while they still have the chance. They do this to get material to repair the parish roads – so I was told (in Portuguese) by the JCB driver when I went down to see what they were doing, and to give them a hard stare in case it was anything illegal or dodgy that was going on. He assured me it was all good, good for the riverbed and good for the roads. He was avuncular and polite and he opened the conversation with me and I appreciated that. He even said my Portuguese was good, which it is not, and might call into question the value he attaches to the word.

This is my last post for this year. I shall bring the blog back in 2017. I wish I could say ‘Happy new year’, but it would feel a bit fatuous. Such global uncertainties await us all, but Husband and I have finally opened our eyes to something close to home: our land. We’ve been treating the hillside we ‘own’ as a sort of embarrassment, describing ourselves as fleas claiming to own the dog. Well, no more fleas. We’re going to take that land on and nurture it. We’re going to create a ‘food forest’, following the principles of permaculture. It will take time to establish, and the list of things-to-learn just got impossibly long, but we have experts to learn from. Wish us luck!

PS Just before posting this blog, I drove off to see some neighbours. Rolie had a flat tyre and replacing that made me late but we’re all on Portuguese time so that was OK. Coming home, back down the track, I saw one lorry, then another, hauling away loads of the riverbed. I’d pulled over to let them by but the second truck came so slowly I wondered what was holding him up. Had he pulled aside and was waiting for me? But no. It was a hare, a beautiful, mottled-brown Iberian Hare with tall, black-fringed ears. He was zigzagging in front of the lorry and only when he came alongside me did he finally jink and run up the hillside. Little Edith’s heart was all a-flutter! This felt very special.

The neglected land . . .

The neglected land . . .

. . . and another view

. . . and another view

Earthquake

On the first of November 1755, on the holiday of All Saints’ Day, one of the world’s most deadly earthquakes had its epicentre in the Atlantic Ocean 200 kilometres south-west of Cabo de São Vicente, at the extreme south-west of Portugal. Modern seismologists estimate its magnitude to have been 8.5–9. Shockwaves were felt throughout Europe and North Africa. A 3-metre-high tsunami is said to have reached Cornwall in south-west England.

The quake, widely known as the Lisbon Earthquake, opened up 5-metre-wide cracks in the centre of the Portuguese capital city and gave rise to a tsunami that engulfed the city’s harbour. Areas of the city that were not shattered or drowned were destroyed by the many fires that broke out, probably caused by the church candles lit for All Saints’ Day. Eighty-five per cent of the city’s buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands of people died.

Because the earthquake happened on an important church holiday and destroyed so many churches, divine judgement was read into the broken stones and broken bones. At the very least, this was surely evidence that a benevolent deity did not look after the world and its people. Philosophers across Europe were powerfully affected by the earthquake; for some, it shook the foundations of their beliefs. In Germany, in particular, Leibniz’s optimistic, sentimental world view held sway, the idea that human beings – creatures of reason, loved by a beneficent god – lived in a world that was the best it could possibly be. Voltaire’s ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’ and his novel Candide are satires on this world view. (Candide regularly features in lists of the best and most influential books ever written. It’s also very short and very funny and if you haven’t read it yet you can surely find time to squeeze it in. I’m going to include a small extract at the end of this blog post.)

In the Algarve, many of the coastal towns and villages were affected by the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. Only Faro largely escaped, protected by the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa. To commemorate the date, the town council of Tavira organised two talks around the subject this month: the first was on the geology of the area. When you see on a geological map the fault line that hugs the Algarve coast, you are caused yet again to question the sanity of anyone who wants to drill for oil or frack for gas in this area. Just how much rationality are they capable of ignoring? So of course Husband raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, and the otherwise excellent lecturer did her best to evade it. It’s a rotten job being a geologist; you have to sell your soul to the fossil fuel brigade who are almost certainly paying your salary, directly or indirectly. The second talk was about the extent of the damage as revealed by extant parish records. We learnt that in our local village – quite some kilometres inland – a single death occurred: at the door of the parish church as a stone was dislodged and came tumbling down. At the end of this talk it was the turn of another audience member to raise a provocative question about the area being earthquake-prone. At least it raised a laugh.

Fortunes can change in an instant and human rationality cannot be relied upon. We’ve just seen this in another earthquake: the political one that happened in the US this month.

As the old Greek said: ‘Wise men argue causes; fools decide them.’

 

A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn't get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this. It was a great demonstration: a few hundred people and much enthusiastic support from people on the street. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling

A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn’t get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this on my phone. It was a great demonstration: hundreds of people and much enthusiastic support from shoppers and workers out and about in the streets. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling – in spite of it all

 

I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station after our weekend in Lisbon at the time of the moon-rise and so missed the best views - which would have been in our valley

I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station on Monday evening after our weekend in Lisbon and we missed what would have been the very best view – the moon-rise over the Meditation Hill in our valley

 

From Candide:

Chapter V

Describing tempest, shipwreck, and earthquake, and what happened to Dr Pangloss,
Candide, and James, the Anabaptist

… Candide was in time to see his benefactor reappear above the surface for one moment before being swallowed up for ever. He wanted to throw himself into the sea after the Anabaptist, but the great philosopher, Pangloss, stopped him by proving that Lisbon harbour was made on purpose for this Anabaptist to drown there. Whilst he was proving this from first principles, the ship split in two and all perished except Pangloss, Candide, and the brutal sailor who had been the means of drowning the honest Anabaptist. The villain swam successfully to shore; and Pangloss and Candide, clinging to a plank, were washed up after him.

When they had recovered a little of their strength, they set off towards Lisbon, hoping they had just enough money in their pockets to avoid starvation after escaping the storm.

Scarcely had they reached the town, and were still mourning their benefactor’s death, when they felt the earth tremble beneath them. The sea boiled up in the harbour and broke the ships which lay at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares. Houses came crashing down. Roofs toppled on to their foundations, and the foundations crumbled. Thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins.

The sailor chucked:

‘There will be something worth picking up here,’ he remarked with an oath.

‘What can be the “sufficient reason” for this phenomenon?’ said Pangloss.

‘The Day of Judgment has come,’ cried Candide.

The sailor rushed straight into the midst of the debris and risked his life searching for money. Having found some, he ran off with it to get drunk; and after sleeping off the effects of the wine, he bought the favours of the first girl of easy virtue he met amongst the ruined houses with the dead and dying all around. Pangloss pulled him by the sleeve and said:

‘This will never do, my friend; you are not obeying the universal rule of Reason; you have misjudged the occasion.’

‘Bloody hell,’ replied the other. ‘I am a sailor … I’m not the man for your Universal Reason!’

 

The bridge

The international bridge over the river Guadiana, from the Spanish side

The international bridge over the river Guadiana, from the Spanish side

Driving over from the Portuguese side

Driving over from the Portuguese side

Banner on a ruin at the protest/picnic site

Strategic banner on a ruin at the protest/picnic site

 

The international bridge over the Guadiana river links Portugal and Spain. The wind frets the cables of the bridge structure in a constant and discordant whine, which you wouldn’t notice as you drive across. For pedestrians the noise is disconcerting, but then there aren’t supposed to be any pedestrians there. It’s a vehicle-only bridge. But we were there on Sunday on foot to wave our protest banners from the bridge as a symbol of Portuguese-Spanish solidarity in the pursuit of a clean-energy future.

First we Portuguese groups gathered on our side of the river, then were waved across the bridge in vehicle convoy by traffic police. Over in Spain we joined with the Spanish groups, then, after some directing and misdirecting by the police – it looked deliberate but it turned out to be to avoid a big group of Sunday runners, for whom roads had been closed – we all parked and got out of our vehicles. We unfurled the banners and clambered up the hillside and gathered on the deck of the bridge beneath the whining cables, using what must have been a walkway for maintenance workers.

Bodies and banners on the bridge

Bodies and banners on the bridge

Skyward view

Skyward view

I don’t know why I worried about the event, other than that I simply do worry about these things: would anybody show up, was the bridge a dangerous setting, was there anything no one had thought of (an unknown unknown), was it genuinely a useful thing to do? Well, some three hundred people came, from both countries. The press were there too. The timing coincided with the Paris Climate Change Agreement coming into force, which in its simplest terms has to mean no new fossil fuel projects anywhere in the world because the delicate system of the planet can no longer sustain them. The science is so overwhelming and so convincing and yet still we have to wave banners from bridges. At the very least – or should I say at the very best – it was a meeting of minds as the participating groups gathered under the bridge after the demonstration to eat and talk and share experiences.

I highly recommend having Spanish colleagues at a protest picnic: fabulous paella

I highly recommend having Spanish colleagues at a protest/picnic: fabulous paella. Husband took a tray of focaccia around, which went like hot cakes

 

Black Redstart

Our small hibiscus tree has managed never to be without a flower in the months since we got it

Our potted hibiscus tree has managed never once to be without a flower in the months since we got it

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill (‘9’ on the trunk means it was last harvested of cork in 2009)

It has been remarked that I don't show Husband's bread any more. I guess I've just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery

It has been remarked that I don’t show Husband’s bread any more. I guess I’ve just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery; here are the latest

Lemon in the early morning

Lemon in the early morning

 

The Little Owl and the Black Redstart were the very first birds that came into our lives when we moved into our house in the valley almost two years ago. The Little Owl has stayed around ever since. The Black Redstart left in our first spring and didn’t return for the winter; I missed it. But now it’s back, having skipped a year. It clicks and flicks and dips around the veranda and the roofs of our house and our neighbours’. It has taken a great liking to the swallows’ balcony. When the Red-rumped Swallows built their mud nest around a hook in the veranda ceiling this year, they began with a small extension facing outwards, which looked like it would be the entrance tunnel. They then turned their backs on the extension and grew the nest instead towards our front door, with the bottle-neck entrance facing just where we emerge from the house. The rear extension was perhaps a mistake, or a practice run. It stayed unused all summer – but no longer. The returning Black Redstart has found it to be the perfect perch and vantage point.

The clocks have gone forward. It’s now easier for a lie-abed like me to get up and walk up the hill before sunrise (currently around 7 a.m.). The valley in the damp morning is fragrant: woody, spicy and herbaceous, and ambery, too, from the sticky leaves of Cistus ladanifer. The earth is also greening by the day. By midday the sun is warm and the season feels more like spring than autumn. We have made a cabbage patch and a lettuce patch with small plants we bought at Santa Catarina’s monthly market: 15 seedlings for 1 euro from a friendly farmer; we bought two lots of cabbages and one of lettuce. When the spring-like day comes to an end it feels chilly and damp again, so we’ve started lighting the fire: a treat.

I’ve finally done something I should have done two years ago, and joined the Portuguese language classes held in the town of São Bras. I was told about them at the start of our time here but I was terrified of driving then. Now me and Rolie are best mates and like nothing better than an outing. So we rolled up to a class where I found a charming and expressive elderly teacher, who places great emphasis on pronunciation – very important – and, even better, at the end of the class bumped me up to a higher level. Still beginners, mind you, but a little confidence boost is a good thing. Thursday will see how I get on at level II.

Assembleia da República

I have been to England again, this time to attend my uncle’s funeral, and missed last Wednesday’s trip to Lisbon for the debates in the Assembleia, the response to the petitions delivered by anti-oil group PALP. Three buses, filled by many schoolchildren and a few dozen adults, left from the Algarve. Husband was among them. When he called me that evening he sounded annoyed, even a little shaken, by the experience the adults had undergone. The schoolchildren and a small group of petitioners with prior clearance gained relatively easy access. For the remainder to get into Portugal’s proud ‘house of national democracy’ to witness an open debate proved almost impossible. Armed uniformed men took them in groups of three, having first demanded they deposit all their belongings into plastic bags that were sealed and locked away. Once through, Husband had his sweatshirt yanked up to reveal his ‘Don’t Spoil the Algarve’ T-shirt, which he was then ordered to remove. He was made to go out, add the T-shirt to the bag – which had to be opened, sealed again and put back in the locker – and return. The treatment was peremptory and intended to be intimidating. Everyone was given a text to read, available in Portuguese, French, German and English, which threatened a prison term of three years if any expression of opinion was made in any form once they were inside. When they finally got in, the debate was under way, but the petitions had been moved on to the bottom of the queue; in the end, most of the issues relevant to us were neither debated nor voted on. It felt like a day of democratic failure.

The bridge

Our next planned action is for Sunday, a joint demonstration with the Spanish to take place on and around the Guadiana International Bridge that spans the river border between the southern Algarve and Spain. As always, I’m anxious about it, but I’ll try to do my bit.

who-did-this

Torrents

I asked for rain, and I got it. It thundered on the roof and danced on the fragrant earth. It was at its heaviest on Monday night, when lightning flash-lit the valley and we decided to light the fire to burn off the chill. We had friends visiting us over this wet period, whom I’d promised swims and sundowners. Luckily they had read the weather forecast and arrived clad as though for a weekend in the Lake District, which was appropriate.

By Tuesday the rain had caused tongues of red earth to slither down the hillsides on to the dirt road, but Rolie had no problems driving along. He’s still running like a dream. Don’t quite know how Costa’s Olhão-based mechanic worked the magic he did.

The rain came just in time. The water man hadn’t been able to deliver his water to the garden cisterna. He couldn’t negotiate the track up the hillside, nor did he have pipes long enough to reach from the dirt road. The garden tank had almost run dry; our external water supply was looking precarious. This primarily affected the swimming pool. Being in possession of a swimming pool is like looking after a rare and precious beast. It snores and rumbles. It requires regular inputs of water and salt. It swishes insects away with its skimmers. It likes having its sides brushed.

But then you get to swim, which is heavenly.

Now, with the rainfall, the citrus trees got saturated, droplets hanging off their yellow and green-orange fruit skins, and Eleuterio’s well started giving up water again. Perhaps the well had simply become too dry. Water is so precious.

A meeting about the future of fossil fuels in the Algarve was held in the Clube de Tavira. On the panel were the baby-faced town mayor, an admirable and precise lawyer and the writer (Lídia Jorge) whom I quoted a few weeks ago. All three were there to make the case against exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in the Algarve. Local government and local people remain lined up against central government and vested interests. Questions were sought from the audience after the panel had made their speeches. The silence that might fall over a British audience at this point, who would shrink in their seats and shuffle their feet until someone was brave enough to raise a hand, does not happen here. Instead, there is a clamour for the microphone. (A microphone!) Those who get the chance to speak will not merely stand up and introduce themselves, but quite often exit their seat in order to pace the aisle and be seen from different angles by the audience during their peroration. They might start off quietly, but as they limber up, their voice finds its rhythm and rather than ask an actual question of the panel they might be declaiming their point of view for ten whole minutes. Soon I lose my dim and hopeful grasp of Portuguese. The language ceases to be a collection of discrete words, some of which I understand, and returns to being the torrent of plosive pops, zhuzhes and rasps that it was when I first arrived here. Eventually those for whom this is the opportunity to read out an entire mission statement, which might run to several sides of A4, will get their turn at the mic. The moderator’s request for succinctness is ignored. Most of the audience, like the panel, were against the oil and gas plans, so this was not so much preaching to the converted as drilling them into the ground. The panel hardly got another word in. The wonderful passion of the people of the Algarve to protect their environment sometimes gets drowned in a sea of words.

But there are actions to come, and actions speak louder than words.

A young Common Toad squatting on our covered pool. Toads are emerging all over, enticed by the wetness; on the roads their eyes shine in the car headlights like cat’s eyes, which makes it easier to avoid squashing them

A young Common Toad squatting on our covered pool. Toads are emerging all over, enticed by the wetness; on the roads their eyes shine in the headlights like cat’s eyes, which makes it easy to spot them and so avoid squashing them

A road in Buckinghamshire announcing the post-Brexit world (seen in England last week)

A lane in Buckinghamshire announcing the post-Brexit world (seen in England last week)

Weather

I’m hoping for rain, not least because our garden watering system isn’t working and I’m clambering over the rocky ground with a heavy watering can sploshing against my leg. I’m concentrating on the citrus trees – lemons, oranges, grapefruit – because those are currently in fruit, and not being true natives they are intolerant of aridity. The water from Eleuterio’s riverside well, which usually fills our garden tank, isn’t reaching us. We’ve replaced bits of the pump, searched the hoses for kinks, put in new junction pieces, all without success. Eleuterio said he found an amphibian in the piping and thought that was the problem, but I guess it’s been removed and yet nothing has changed. The amphibian was identified by an Algarvian name which we couldn’t recognise, and by the way I now know the amphibians and reptiles of Portugal pretty damn well having attended two lectures on the subject in Sagres and made copious notes. (That weekend wasn’t just about birds.) Which also means that my recent claim to know nothing of reptilian reproduction is no longer valid. All the baby lizards and geckos around now are the product of a second breeding cycle – which only happens in advantageous years – and is thanks to a bounty of insects resulting from the rain in May. So there you go. But Eleuterio’s name for the beast-that-hadn’t-anyway-caused-the-blockage eluded us. And rain is eluding us too, though I had hoped the ferocious weather on the other side of the Atlantic might throw a drop or two our way.

What's left of the swimming area, and all that's left of the river hereabouts

What’s left of the swimming area, which is all that’s left of the river hereabouts. Look closely and you’ll see it is full of fish trying to hide in the shadows

 

Although the riverside wells have water, the river itself is almost totally dry. The swimming area is down to the size of a small bathtub, lively with fish. Since we cannot refill our garden tank from the riverside well, we’re going to have to buy in water. (The well on our own land, 150 metres higher than the river, provides enough water only for our household use, and that barely.) Today it’s being delivered. It won’t be any easy drop. The tractor and tanker will have to drive partway up a steep hillside path, park near the little round wooden house and hope the hose is long enough to reach the tank from there. The Algarvians are practical people who can get things done, so I hope it will be all right.

Costa, the ever-practical Renault 4 man, continues to be reachable only by extraordinary and unconventional means. Rolie has been choking and coughing lately, and I wanted to take him in for a service. I called Costa but had no luck in getting through. The next day, Husband and I were driving through Tavira at night in the jeep when we saw a car ahead of us with no lights on. Husband, in his dutiful, slightly overbearing way, beeped at the car a couple of times to alert them to their lack of illumination. The car pulled over instead – and out from the passenger seat leapt Costa. I jumped out too, and we shook hands and discussed arrangements for Rolie, while the two men in the driving seats nodded to each other and Husband politely suggested the other put his lights on. Yesterday I took Rolie to the garage in Olhão that Costa had arranged. Within twenty-four hours, some troublesome part had been replaced and Rolie is now rolling along as smooth as anything. My dear little old polluter. I’ll be very sad when I have to let him go.

No blog next week, because we will be in England for a wedding. Thereafter comes a heavy schedule of activism. I’d imagined a quieter autumn after the summer beach events, but there’s no let-up. More on that to come.

We've stocked up for the winter with a tonelada (metric tonne) of azinheiro (holm oak). It took the delivery man half an hour to unload and stack it

We’ve stocked up ready for the winter with a tonelada (metric tonne) of azinheiro (holm oak). It took the delivery man half an hour to unload and stack it. When it goes into the wood-burner, it will smell heavenly

A couple of details from Tavira: crown in the wall of a beautiful garden, which is the former cemetery of the church of St Francis (Convento de São Francisco)

A couple of details from Tavira: crown in the wall of a beautiful garden, the former cemetery of the church of St Francis (Convento de São Francisco)

Another detail from the same site: the gecko at the foot of a pillar in what appear to be gothic side chapels, open to the elements

Another detail from the same place: the gecko at the foot of a pillar in what appear to be two gothic side chapels, open to the elements

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