Beach work

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of 'paper' to the nest

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of ‘paper’ to the nest

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

The gin-and-tonic spot

The place to view the meditation hill, and perhaps drink a gin and tonic

washing line

The swallows enjoy the view of the meditation hill too


Galpgate has opened, and doesn’t look like closing any time soon. This is the revelation that the oil company Galp – who recently postponed ‘indefinitely’ their drilling plans off the coast of Aljezur in the western Algarve – have been mining Portuguese politicians for human resources to add to their bookable reserves.* A privately chartered aeroplane took, among others, three secretaries of state to France for the Euro2016 games: all expenses covered and tickets to the games supplied, including, in the case of Rocha (‘Rock’) Andrade, secretary of state for fiscal affairs, a seat at the final. That particular Rock was no doubt well worth drilling, since as fiscal boss he is in charge of Galp’s many and large tax debts to the state, which the oil company is refusing to pay. The other two grubby-handed secretaries are Jorge Costa Oliveira and João Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos looks particularly grimy because he is in charge of Galp’s application for public subsidies for the building of an oil refinery.

Once the bright light of publicity shone on them, the three secretaries of state claimed innocence of any unethical behaviour while simultaneously offering to repay some or all of the expenses. No doubt these men still remain highly ‘bookable’ in Galp’s terms.

Here on the ground we keep up our fight against all the oil and gas companies. In preparation for a beach event this coming Saturday, a discussion and rehearsal group gathered one evening on the sands. Saturday’s event is an art attack, requiring creative, devil-may-care, outgoing types, of which we have plenty in the group. Feelings, however, were running high. What is at stake – the health and wellbeing and livelihoods of the many against the destructive greed of a tiny few – would make anyone febrile. Add to that some anxiety about how things will turn out – the human chain event was a huge success, but who can guarantee the same again? – then toss in a few unpredictable aspects of the artistic personality, and fissures start to open up. We ended up with some constructive decisions, plus a whole lot of hurt feelings, and a few people wondering whether they can even participate. The price of activism. It’s worth it, but it’s a difficult journey in so many ways.

Meeting on the beach

Meeting on the beach


Sunset at the beach (Ilha de Tavira)


Against all this, there is such joy and peace to be found at home. We have two new chairs, hand-made by Robert Harris. They are on the front veranda, from where we look out at the meditation hill as the day fades, watching the tree-spotted, straw-blonde earth turn slowly to rich ochre and then eventually to grey. At the other end of the veranda, the swallows are as happy in their home as we are in ours, and sometimes like to sit on the washing line and enjoy the same view that we do. Still no sign of chicks being fed, but so much activity in and out of their mud house that surely it can’t be long. Just as I was about to post this blog, Husband came dashing in. He’s heard the sound of chicks, he says.

* An oil company’s market value is enhanced by being able to lay claim to oil/gas reserves still under the ground – known as ‘bookable reserves’.

Oil and gas – good news

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze


The Algarve is bursting with fairs and festas at this time of year, but I don’t seem to be able to make an appearance unless hanging off a banner. The mountain festival in São Brás de Alportel was one such event, big and well-organised, with much speechifying broadcast over speakers placed around the venue. Our friend Nemesio had organized with the local authority to have a stand collecting signatures against oil and gas prospection. This was specifically to add to the numbers of people objecting to Galp/ENI’s plans while the public consultation period, ending on 3 August, was still under way. It was a huge success. I only managed to appear for a couple of hours, but I found, as I have before, that the process of mustering support is a fascinating one. Most people need just a little encouragement to sign. Other people come up of their own accord, sign with determination, take out their ID and carefully record the digits against their signature, and then, when thanked, say, ‘Thank you.’ Almost nobody bats you away when they realise what you are asking for. There’s no doubt that the fossil fuel industry’s plans for the Algarve – and other parts of Portugal – meet with minuscule or zero support from the people. It’s all about a few corrupt politicians, most of them in the previous administration.

Anti-oil and gas stand at the São Brás fair

The stand at the São Brás fair


Two things from last week’s blog have not come about. (Three, if I include the swallows.) This is part of the great fun of writing a blog. One was my confident prediction that I was entering a period of work-free clear blue space. I imagined the hours spent in the glistening water of the pool beneath the glorious azure skies. Then I got a horrible, monstrous flu. This is the first time I’ve written this blog from a sickbed. The sun is blazing away, the pool is glistening, but I’ve been wrapped up in the dark for days. It’s fading away now. (And it’s why there are hardly any pictures this week.)

Much better, however, is this. The relentless pressure by activists is paying off. On 29 July, Galp/ENI announced the indefinite postponement of their plans to drill exploratory oil wells. Not only that, they did it in a marvellously huffy way. ‘We had everything ready to start operations and we had to stop,’ said chairman Carlos Gomes da Silva, blaming the hard-won extension of the public consultation period for his woes. Another reason is the belated force given to an EU directive requiring enhanced safety measures for such operations. Forcing Galp/ENI to do their work properly was obviously too much to ask of them. The chairman suggested darkly that Portugal was missing its chance to become Norway. The suspension has no recommencement date.

The mayor of Tavira has given a brief interview to the press in which he reiterated his absolute objection to the presence of an oil and gas industry in the Algarve, whether onshore or offshore. This is more progress, because for a long time he was apparently only concerned about what would happen on land. He also confirmed that the mayoral group has filed two injunctions against the activity. We can have oil, or we can have tourism, he said. He knows which side his bread is buttered on.

Earthquakes of 3.4 and 4 on the Richter scale were registered off the coast of the Algarve this week, in the areas identified for exploration; just another reason why offshore drilling is madness.

The Red-rumped Swallows still do not have hatchlings. They are continuing to bring in soft bedding material to the nest. And we’re rather puzzled by the appearance of a third adult; we haven’t been able to establish its sex, or its role in the current set-up. It’s all terribly modern. We continue to wait and see.


Human chain (again)

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings, during the day the sun is too powerful. These coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings; during the day the sun is too powerful. These times happily coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

This is Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I'm hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I’m hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio, to collect

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, which filled the kitchen one evening with the smell of vinegar

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, and filling the kitchen with the smell of vinegar


Occasionally a tiny piece of heavy machinery will hum past your ear and land on a nearby tree with great firmness as though suctioned into place by a force within the bark. It is a cicada on the move. It is a stout insect with a wide, squared-off head that has a large eye on each corner, and lacy, overlong wings. The males’ collective noise – it is only the males – seems to make the air pulsate. They do it, I have read, by vibrating a membrane on the abdomen. I haven’t been able to get close enough to see this in action, if it is visible at all.

For most of the year we experience silence and birdsong. The months of high heat and slow movement are filled with this plangent, plaintive sound. It is the inescapable sound of summer.

The Red-rumped Swallows do not yet have hatchlings, but they must have eggs, for they are being furtive and shifty. The confident industry of nest-building was a different mode for them. Now, if I look up at their nest as I leave the front door, I might just see a shiny blue crown at the neck of the tunnel, which will quickly withdraw. I wait, then it re-emerges, big round eyes checking me out, then disappears once more into the safety of the nest. If I stay put for a few more seconds, it realises it has to disregard me and fly off anyway. Sometimes in the evenings we hear them in their mudhouse, madly tuning their tiny analogue radio. They still can’t find that elusive channel.

I feel rather like I’m emerging from a tunnel of my own making, out of a mound of manuscripts. Clear blue space awaits me, several weeks without the ping of the email, a staycation here in this beautiful spot, starting at the end of this week.

But the oil and gas threat never goes away. There are reprieves: promises of judicial action to undo the unethical contracts, drilling start dates delayed, government debates that suggest a degree of awareness at least. While I was buried in manuscripts, Husband, when not similarly buried under a mound of bread dough, was out on the anti-oil beat. The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, visited a nearby town of Loulé and was met by protestors. He shrugged off their concerns with a rather puzzling comparison between finding oil in the Algarve and flying to the moon. It isn’t possible to analyse this gnomic comment with any degree of success, so I’ve given up trying. The facts remain that deep-sea oil drilling – of an ‘exploratory nature’ – is due to start off the western coast of the Algarve on 3 August, while oil company Repsol have been rubbing their hands with glee for several years in the knowledge of a vast gas field containing half a trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the coast nearer to us, related to a similar field in the bay of Cádiz.

Last week Portugal’s environment minister came to Tavira to enjoy a sunny afternoon in the company of the town mayor. Together they were to open the new boat departure area for Ilha de Tavira (namely, a concreted-over stretch on the mouth of the river). Neither of them was expecting to be met by an anti-oil protest. It is amazing how effective six people can be when they show up at the right time and position themselves and their banners behind politicians on a photo shoot.

What else is to be done? How about all getting together and holding hands on the beach to form a human chain? Yes! Anything is better than nothing, and this turned out to be very good with hundreds of participants, perhaps a thousand if you include the many beachgoers on the hugely popular Ilha de Tavira who were persuaded to hold hands for a while in between running to the sea and back. A couple of press reports can be seen here and here. Typically of such events, estimates of numbers involved vary widely . . .

I was back from London in time for the beach protest. As I arrived at the beach site where protestors were gathering, someone from Tavira em Transição spotted me – this is a citizens’ movement I am part of – and asked me to take hold of the bamboo pole supporting one side of a large protest banner so she could run off and do other stuff. Husband and our two Lisbon friends had gone elsewhere in the line. The other side of this banner was held by someone I didn’t know, but who was fabulously vocal in the anti-oil chants and gave good interviews to the press. I held on to my bamboo pole from then on, and didn’t let go until it was time to roll the banner up and put it away at the end. I politely declined to be interviewed when a TV reporter came to me with his red microphone; I put this down to my lack of Portuguese, but it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that I don’t much like talking. Holding on to a banner: it’s a great role for an introvert at a manif. Just shove me in that direction and I’ll be there, hanging on, for as long as it takes.


On Sunday, when Eder scored a goal in extra time, I got up and put my head out of the door to listen to the sound of the world outside. I wanted to know if the cheers reached down to our valley. They didn’t. Nothing but the warm wind gusting about. Ten minutes later, when Portugal became European champions, I did the same: still nothing. Only the sounds of our own cheers. We are remote here. This proves it.

The main story here at the end of the world remains that of two swallows building a nest. Gobbets of heart-shaped mud have been arriving at our veranda roof at intervals as regular as a London bus: every ten or fifteen minutes and in pairs. They are brought in tirelessly by the two Red-rumped Swallows. Each gobbet is pushed out with the tongue and drilled into place with horizontal movements of the head and sprays of tiny droplets of saliva. (Do birds have saliva? They must do. Or else it’s the moisture in the mud that gets forced out.) They choose their material from various spots in the land around where we live. It can be red, brown or grey. The nicest-looking stuff, the red mud, comes from a place by Eleuterio’s water tank; he told me so. He looked quite chuffed about the swallows too. They have built their upside-down dome gobbet by gobbet, layer by layer, like potters who eschew a wheel. Plant fibres make up part of the building material.

As the days went by it became clear that the tunnel entrance wasn’t to be at the back after all, as I had assumed. The buttress sticking out at the rear is an architectural or engineering feature impenetrable to the human mind. Perhaps it’s a veranda. At the other side of the nest, ‘our’ side, they gradually narrowed their dome to a tiny bottle-neck, facing our front door.

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday: building

Wednesday: building

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday: 'Ick'

Thursday: ‘Ick’

Friday: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday 8 July: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday: not much more to go

Friday: not much more to go

Saturday 9 July: landing

Saturday 9 July: landing at the increasingly narrow entrance


Sunday 10 July: completion

Sunday: time for a rest

Sunday: time for a rest

... and some preening

… and some preening


By Sunday, it was done. The last of the mud had been spat out and driven into place. Stalks of dry grass were taken inside for padding. Now, in the morning, I look up at the nest to see one or sometimes two pairs of round eyes, under blue-shiny crowns, at the entrance to their home. And they look down at me.

I read somewhere that the birds don’t mate on the wing or on the wire, they wait until their home is built and mate inside. The first egg might already be laid. Incubation takes a couple of weeks. You can hear the birds chattering to one another inside. It sounds like they are zooming through the stations on a tiny analogue radio, the sound muffled by the chamber. They never seem to find the station they want.

No blog next week because of another work-related visit to London. Back by the time of the first hatchlings.

Industry in another corner of the: focaccia dough

Industry in another corner of the house: making focaccia for a party


Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Friday 1 July

Friday 1 July

Saturday 2 July

Saturday 2 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place


Now that it is high summer we live with the plangent sound of cicadas. The Golden Orioles add their whistle, and the Bee-eaters test their collection of recorders as they pass by overhead, like a junior school orchestra getting ready for a concert. Two Short-toed Eagles can be seen gliding silently along the valley. A female Blue Rock Thrush dips and bobs on the corner of the front veranda, within view of my desk. She says chuck-chuck, and looks like a miniature cormorant. I was missing the heartbreak jangle of the serin. I wondered what had happened to him. Then we spotted a nest in the smallest and thinnest of our cypresses, one that we pass within inches of several times a day. All his frantic singing paid off. Tiny grey beaks surrounded by feather-stalk antennae poke waveringly and unsteadily out, glimpsable only with patience and good binoculars.

Very close to home, right outside the front door, the Red-rumped Swallows are hard at work. I stand at the door and poke my long-lensed camera in their direction for two or three minutes a day. They put up with it. Besides, they know that in a few more days the upside-down dome will be complete and we will no longer be able to see them. As their nest grew, they had more to balance on, and less mud landed on the veranda floor. On the other side of the nest, not visible from inside the house, is what will be the tunnel entrance. Access will require them dipping through here and under the original hook, which they infilled with mud like a reinforced internal wall. It’s all well planned and highly skilled. Work only slowed down on Sunday. I imagine this was more because of the ricochet of hunters’ shots than the imposition from on high of a day of rest. We were happy to see them back on Monday.


Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building

Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building


Two weeks ago we were in Lisbon, part of a group to present the government and the DGRN (directorate for natural resources) with thick files of petitions and arguments against oil exploration in the Algarve. We were in the support section. Husband waved the box lid from a set of scales that has become his protest ID. If you look at it from the right angle, it says Rasga O Contrato (‘tear up the contract’). From any other angle, it is simply the box lid from a set of weighing scales. The mayor of Aljezur came up to say hello; he recognised Husband by the box lid. The Mad Hatter letters spelling Frack Off in my trilby, never that effective, came to a damp end on a café floor.

On Friday 1 July the topic came up in Parliament. The drilling off Aljezur had already been postponed from 1 July to 3 August. The session voted for the immediate suspension of the development of oil and gas exploration by means conventional and unconventional. (A suspension only, but still good.) Environmental Impact Assessments are now to be made obligatory from the exploration phases (required by an EU directive but hitherto ignored by the ENMC, the fuel entity). The likely impact of oil development on tourism is to undergo a proper socio-economic study. And the process of the original issuance of the contracts is to be searched for irregularities, which could allow the contracts to be declared null and void.

These achievements have been forced particularly by people on the ground in the Algarve, most but not all Portuguese. As for us two, we’re cheerleaders. We wear our silly hats and wave our box lids, and as such have been caught by press photographers rather more often than I would have thought likely.

I have turned my attention away from the farcical developments in the current madhouse that is my country of origin, where the people most shocked by the Brexit outcome seem to be those who instigated it, who have been passing on responsibility and resigning at shameful rates. At this point, I’d rather look at the birds.

Serin nest, but you probably can't make it out

Serin nest, but you probably can’t make it out

Swallows and ants

Red-rumped Swallow on the washing line with a beakful of mud

Red-rumped Swallow on the washing line with a beakful of mud

The nesting site on the wall

The nesting site on the wall


In the two weeks since I last posted, while I have had my focus exclusively on work, the weather has become hot and the river almost dry. The Red-rumped Swallows have been bringing beakfuls of mud to our front terrace, much of which has ended up on the floor. The first few random splodges on the wall served as claw-holds for more delicate constructive work. Then they spotted a hook on the ceiling. I have long had my eye on this hook. It was put in by our predecessors and is strong enough to hold a swinging chair. One day I knew that I would find such a chair, in rattan perhaps, maybe in a teardrop shape. I would occupy the future leisure days of my imagination devouring books in my suspended, pod-like nest.

The swallows got there first. They gave up on the wall and turned their ambitions to the hook. They are slowly covering it with mud, while a small mud mountain grows on the floor beneath. The Red-rumped Swallows are known for their distinctive home. It is a closed cup shape with a tunnel entrance. I cannot figure out where the hook fits into the classic design. Time will tell.

Attention switched to the hook in the ceiling

Attention switched to the hook in the ceiling

Adding mud to the hook, and dropping plenty on the floor

Adding mud to the hook while upside down, and dropping plenty on the floor


The ant-spewing volcanoes have continued to erupt. We reconquered our kitchen, but we didn’t notice that in a rear-guard action the ants had taken over a spare bedroom. It was our luckless guests, H and D, who woke up in the night to a strange sensation of rustling and shifting pillowcase, and found a line of ants marching across it on their way to the spare bathroom, where perhaps an insect carcass had attracted their attention. Our guests knew where to find the hoover and set to vacuuming the little beasts up. We slept soundly on the other side of the house.

We have now resorted to the medieval castle-holder’s solution and are pouring boiling water on the ants’ heads, down the various holes in the garden out of which they emerge.

Currently emerging from holes across the United Kingdom are racists to whom the winning ‘Leave’ result in the referendum has given some kind of mandate. I was in London on the day of the result. I’d gone there for a meeting. My postal vote had long ago been sent off and the timing of my visit was pure chance. It was not until I heard the result over the radio in my minuscule hotel room that I realised how little I’d considered the possibility the United Kingdom might actually vote itself out of the EU. I could hardly believe it, and I still cannot. Rejoicing in the result is the biggest grinning villain of them all, one Nigel Farage, leader of a party of jokers, who failed to win a seat in Parliament. Among his many declarations since the result was announced is that people used to laugh at him but they don’t any more. How true. We are not laughing.

The two main political parties are collapsing from within. The prime minister declared his intention to resign, leaving others to sort out the mess he engendered. Conversations on the street show how little people understand the process. ‘Now that we are no longer in the EU,’ I heard. (We are still in the EU. A process of dismantling our membership has to be initiated first.) Newspapers and social media are reporting ‘go-home’ taunts shouted at ‘foreigners’. Triumphant ‘Leavers’ are not so much taking leave of Europe as of sanity, morality and intelligence.

I never heard a note of triumph on the streets of central London. I did hear notes of fear. Many of the service jobs in the city are done by people from mainland Europe. After greeting me in the friendly way that their jobs required, remarking on how much better the weather was than the day before – when flooding in South-east England had affected flights and caused my own to arrive two hours late – a look would be exchanged, an almost imperceptible widening of the eyes, and we would admit to our shared horror at this result.

The EU isn’t perfect. I suspect sound and even humane reasons can be argued for leaving, but they were not made. The campaign was a racist one. Hideous fissures have opened up in the ground of a country that once prided itself on decency. Not such a great accolade, ‘decency’, but one we are going to miss now if it’s gone.

And here I am back in Portugal, where I have known nothing but kindness, friendliness and tolerance of my poor grasp of the language. Time to apply for a new passport, perhaps.


Bougainvillea, bursting with life

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the 'ghost' nest again. We still hope they will rebuild it. Plenty of mud by the river . . .

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the ‘ghost’ nest again and, what’s more, carrying mud to it in their beaks. Spots of the mud have fallen to the ground. I guess it takes a while to get the foundations to stick

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name


We wake up to birdsong. We get up to find the kitchen covered in thrumming wires of ants. They crisscross the floor and travel up the walls. It doesn’t matter that we leave the kitchen spotless at the end of the day, it only takes a homeopathic trace of something sweet in an overlooked spot to bring them in overnight. Confident in nature’s sustainable surplus, we vacuum them up, the sound of the hoover drowning out the birdsong. This goes on for half an hour as they continue to stream in. Not only are we confident that the species will survive whatever we do to it, we are also confident that our own colony will survive whatever we do to it. Somewhere beneath the soil in the garden is an ant volcano, spewing ants.

After four days, they stopped coming in. The lava flow dried up. The message filtered back to the colony that the house was out of bounds.

Another distinctive note in the house’s soundscape this week has been a snake throwing its body against the garage door. I heard the strange bumping noise before I saw the cause. At the moment our eyes met, it stopped what it was doing and shot off to the other end of the garage wall to disappear around the side. Dark silvery grey on top, pale silver underneath, about 120cm long; I don’t know what kind of snake it is, but I did later discover what it had been trying to do. It had been trying to get back inside the hollow of the garage door.

The snake must have had a few days of calm when we weren’t using the garage. Probably thought it had made a very clever choice, this thoroughly modern dwelling, all angular and metallic. Then the solar engineers arrived and needed to use the garage space, and up and down, up and down went the door, the poor snake’s tail protruding from one side, its home turned into a hideous fairground ride. I think it’s gone somewhere else now. Human beings – we’re not easy to live with, are we?

These speak for themselves

Aljezur protest crosses

Human chain

We travelled east to west, to Aljezur on the other side of the Algarve, to take part in an anti-oil human chain. Aljezur is close to where the first offshore oil drilling is due to take place in July. The meeting time and place was three o’clock outside the town hall. It was quite a long drive but we arrived in good time at about twenty to.

Will we never learn? There was nobody there. Really, not a soul. We went away to drink coffee and came back at five past three, rather guiltily late, and now there were three or four souls there, quite a long way off the amount you’d need for a decent chain. So we hung around, and kicked our heels, and got into a conversation or two, and over the course of the next couple of hours the other links in the chain rolled up. It ended up as a very good solidarity event. Several hundred people, including the local mayor and other dignitaries, and plenty of press too. We made a good display, waving banners and singing and dancing.

It has to be said, it was not a risky chain. We were not surrounding an oil drill or heavy machinery or hostile operators. The only risky part was when two ends of the chain were instructed to move and set off in different directions, and Husband and I and our immediate neighbours somewhere in the middle got stretched out slightly more than was comfortable. The problem was resolved with the help of a loudspeaker, and the chain began moving with more singularity of purpose. We probably need to take chain lessons from ants.

The petition I mentioned last week needed at least 4000 signatures to give rise to a debate at the Assembleia about the west coast drilling plans. It has exceeded its minimum target.

No blog next week because of another kind of overstretch – workload. This means that the next time I write, the results of the UK’s referendum over its EU membership will be known. My postal vote has already been returned to Tower Hamlets in east London. I’ve voted to remain, but in two weeks’ time I might find myself out of sync with my countryfolk, and be typing through a veil of tears.

At Aljezur câmara

At Aljezur câmara

No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies

‘No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies’

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart


Renault 4

A pick-up truck bounced along our track the other day, loaded with big scrolls of cork, which must have come from these trees. You can see they are newly harvested because the trunks are still ochre in colour

A pick-up truck bounced along our track, laden with big scrolls of cork, which must have come from these trees. Their ochre trunks reveal they’ve just been harvested; they will soon blacken

Last of the little apricots, going into a clafoutis

Last of the little apricots, going into a clafoutis

Apricot tree number 2 is about to start giving up its fruit. These are bigger fruit, not quite so divine as the first tree's . . .

Apricot tree number 2 is about to start giving up its fruit. These are bigger, more loosely textured, not quite so heavenly as the first tree’s fruit . . .

Estrela decided that I should not be alone all day. She turned up by herself - which she has never done before, and spent a couple of afternoons in the back garden. There was not a peep from her, just the occasional rustle of the gravel and tinkle of her bell

Estrela turned up by herself – which she has never done before – and spent a couple of afternoons in the back garden. There was not a peep from her, just the occasional rustle of the gravel and tinkle of her bell. I think she knew Husband had gone away and felt that I should not be on my own

Wild flowers are largely over for the year but cultivated flowers are blooming - these are in Tavira

Wild flowers are largely over for the year but cultivated flowers are blooming – these are in Tavira

Rolie in Tavira, behaving himself

Rolie in Tavira, behaving himself


Rolie gave up on me this week. I was in the petrol station in our local village and had just added 10 euros’ worth of top-grade fuel to his tank when he decided not to start up again. Not a hint. Barely a click. I pushed him to the side of the forecourt with the help of the pump lady. I phoned Costa but no luck: the answering message said the number was no longer in use. I walked to the workshop in the Cooperativa at the other end of the village where he has been rebuilding an old Mini and asked his portly friend if Costa was there. No, he wasn’t, and the friend wasn’t sure when he’d be there again, maybe the next day or the day after, maybe not.

Oh well. Time for a coffee and cake, and to check some Portuguese vocabulary using the mobile phone. The walk home from the village is only forty-five minutes, and it’s beautiful. I had done it the day before, both ways. Nightingales sang along the route, and an unidentified plant was expelling its seeds with a tiny hush followed by a tak as the empty, dry seedpod hit the ground. I had been offered a boleia (lift) on the way out but turned it down, explaining I liked to walk. I didn’t mind the prospect of the walk again, except that today I wasn’t properly clad. I was too hot in my jeans, and my new yellow shoes would take a battering in the dust. I had no towel to dry my feet with after going through the river.

In the café an English-speaker with an American accent and a laptop was on Skype to his partner, a woman with an English accent. It was impossible not to overhear so I listened in. It was a discussion about the advantages of living here, with the man trying to persuade the woman. As I got up to go I passed the Skyping man and I figured he wouldn’t mind an interruption. I caught his eye and told him they should definitely move here. He smiled and returned to his conversation: ‘Did you hear that?’

In my head I had practised the Portuguese for ‘Is it OK if I leave the car here? I’ll be back when I can.’ I didn’t know when that would be since I couldn’t get hold of Costa and Husband was away in Germany for a week. I was going to be house-bound at the end of the world, unable to go anywhere unless on foot. I’d miss a few appointments.

I reached the garage again.

‘Is it OK if I leave the car here?’

‘Of course.’

‘—’ I didn’t get any more words out because I heard my own name being called from the other side of the forecourt. I looked across.

It was Costa.

‘Hello, how are you? I saw the Renault. Have you tried to call me? The old number does not work. I have a new one. I give it to you. I’ve been in France. I saw your ’usband the other day. We passed each other on the road. What’s this sticker? [It was my Nem um Furo anti-oil protest sticker.] How is the car? Is there a problem?’

It seems that Costa, in addition to offering the best after-sales service on the planet, can now be reached by thought-wave alone. He talked me through how to restart the car when both car and weather are too hot. He coaxed Rolie back to life, attended to a few things under the bonnet, made sure he started a second time, then a third, and handed the keys back to me.

As I was driving away, I waved to Costa, who looked very pleased. Not half so pleased as I was!


What’s the future for Rolie? It might be possible to convert him to an electric car, though my hopes are not high. So one day he’ll go for scrap or become a curiosity. I’d like to think the whole of the oil industry was heading the same way and at the same speed, though I fear Rolie will be out the door first.

It sometimes feels as if the oilmen have our warming planet in a stranglehold grip. The only thing to do is to try to prise off each finger one by one. If you get one finger to let go, another tightens, so you just have to keep trying. The grip might be rigor mortis, but it is all the tighter for that.

So far Portugal has been fairly free of the deathly grip, but not for much longer. The Algarve, a place drenched in the free and exploitable – and clean and renewable – energy of the sun, to name but one alternative source, has been handed over to the oil companies to drill and frack. They took us for mugs, but the protests have been loud and strong, and the oilmen have got rattled. One industry response has been for those who hold the concessions off the west coast of the Algarve, Galp/ENI, to keep quiet about drill dates until the last possible minute, reducing the time for consultation and dissent. So it’s been only for a matter of days now that people have known they plan to start offshore drilling as early as 1 July 2016. If 4000 people sign this petition before midnight on 21 June, then the matter will be raised for discussion at the Assembleia de República. (You need a Portuguese fiscal number or a European passport ID number to sign.) Off the southern Algarve coast, the concession holders Repsol-Partex have brought their drill dates forward from October to September. They also requested authorisation to use Loulé municipal helipad as base for their drilling ship’s medevac helicopter. The town mayor, who like the other Algarve mayors has expressed his commitment to stopping the oilmen, showed what he’s made of. He said no.

This is a horned dung beetle - I think. He's an ex-beetle, in fact, and I found him by the garage. He's about 3cm long

This is a horned dung beetle. It’s an ex-beetle, in fact; I found it by the garage. It’s about 3cm long. Its position in this post so soon after the mention of oilmen is not meant to prejudice the beetle in any way

Rolie's proud sticker

Rolie’s proud sticker


The river still has water into June. This time last year it was all dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The river still has water into June. This time last year it was dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The jacaranda flowers are on full display

The jacaranda flowers are opening




The kitchen smells of fresh apricots. They are falling from the tree unless we catch them first. A nice but not especially productive afternoon would be to sit between the pool and the apricot tree catching the fruit as it drops. Life does not yet allow for such indulgences, so the other way to harvest the fruit at its ripest is to glide your hand as gently as possible under the soft warm bottoms along the length of each branch, see which ripe, speckled apricots detach themselves unresistingly into your palm, then eat them immediately. Overnight, unseen, about two dozen will fall and have to be sought out in the morning from among the bedding of Hottentot fig below the tree; these go into jam.

I turned to the cookbooks on my shelves for recipes for apricot jam and chose the one that rather pleasingly involved the use of a mallet. The tender, yielding apricots are easy to prepare: halve them with a knife and remove the seeds, which takes about 3 seconds per fruit. The seeds you wrap in an old tea towel, and this is where the mallet comes in. You bash the seeds to shatter the shells and extract the soft kernels. This is a recipe from the highly rated Australian food writer Stephanie Alexander. I found a similar recipe from equally highly rated Irish food writer Darina Allen, but she failed to specify how you get the kernels out of the shells. You cook the fruit down (I used 1.5kg for my first batch of jam) with a little lemon juice, add an almost equal amount of warmed sugar and a small handful of the kernels you have managed to extricate from the shards. Cook on a high heat until a sugar thermometer reads 104°C, which takes about 15 minutes. Pour into super-clean jars. It helps a lot if you have a funnel, and of course a thermometer, both cheap items.

The first jar of jam was opened the very next day, and is delicious. It must be one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. Cookbooks are generally resistant to recommending the use of thermometers – I know, since I’ve copy-edited hundreds of them – and it’s because you don’t want to make a recipe unusable to someone who doesn’t have a particular piece of kit, and because you don’t want to turn a kitchen into a lab. But actually thermometers are great and well worth having, at least until you have the experience that enables you to tell when ingredients are ready by sight and sound and smell alone.

Then I got curious about the apricot kernels and wondered whether they were added for flavour – they have an intense almondy scent – or because they aided setting. So I asked Mrs Google, and quickly found myself in a world of furious argument over whether or not apricot seeds cure cancer. It seems that some people sell/buy the seed kernels alone and eat them medicinally. I quickly turned away again, happy to rely on the sensible and practised recipes of cooks.


The swimming pool engineer came round to explain how to run the pool and how to clean it. He is Portuguese with good English, which he was kind enough to use for my benefit. I’ve become very fond of Portuguese English. (Or it might be Algarvian English, I’m not sure.) I love the use of ‘imagine’, which is part of any instruction. ‘Imagine you want to clean the pool, then you . . .’ etc. I also love the cadence, which rises and rises, then ends on a two-note rise+fall.

‘Imagine you want to use the hoover,’ he said.

I never imagined the use of a hoover in a swimming pool. Wouldn’t you have to empty it first? I looked at him blankly.

‘You hoover the dust when it falls to the bottom,’ he explained.

‘With the water still in it?’

‘Of course.’ (Imagine – imagine! – this being said with a rise then fall, opposite to the English rhythm.)

And so you do. There is a hoover attachment which sucks up the particles that settle on the bottom of the pool and miraculously doesn’t suck up all the water as well. Not for the first time I realise that I don’t have a brain for engineering.


The vox pop vote after last week’s TV debate ran for 24 hours after the show was broadcast and the vote against oil exploration in the Algarve crept up, so that in the end it was 72 per cent against and 28 per cent for. Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-minister for the environment and one of the grinning villains of the oil saga, took up (or paid for?) an opinion piece in a national newspaper on 23 May to declare himself the victim of a campaign soaked in lies. He listed his rather feeble green credentials and went on to say that the oil contracts were fine and were really only for mapping resources for the benefit of the Portuguese state – this is a lie, or at best an obfuscation. One of the contracts has been shown on television and we know it allows for subsequent exploitation of resources. He also posed a couple of rhetorical questions: should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of the Portuguese state learning about its resources? Should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of a law applied since 1994? (A law that allows the Portuguese state and environment to be ripped off for the benefit of business.) How the poor man must suffer for his beliefs! To be capable of such contorted arguments as this, you would expect him to have good debating skills. Yet he refused the invitation to appear on the television programme. The other grinning villain, Paulo Carmona, was there, and made a holy show of himself.

After hoovering, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

After hoovering, and several more days of filtration, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

Let's just have another look at those apricots

Let’s just have another look at those apricots

Television show

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit, which will be ripe in a week or two

The prickly pear is in flower

The prickly pear is in flower

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed


At five o’clock this morning, Husband returned from an evening trip to Lisbon. He had gone along with other concerned local citizens to be in the audience of a TV debate called Prós e Contras, this week featuring the arguments for and against the exploration for oil in the Algarve. I didn’t go, mostly because of work demands, but also because at certain points in life my natural reserve holds me back. Not so Husband, who is, by the way, a heckler supreme.

So the plucky group from the Algarve entered the studio, having registered for seats, and found themselves outnumbered by an audience of extras, paid a small sum to be there instead of by their televisions at home, and exhorted at the beginning not to rustle their sweet papers too loudly. In the front rows were a number of key witnesses, including one ‘Algarvian citizen’ (whose Facebook page reveals him to be a geologist living in Cascais, Lisbon) who appeared so clearly to be an oil industry plant that even the moderator was taken aback, and remarked that he must to be the only ‘Algarvian’ in favour of oil exploration.

On one side of the panel, the grinning villain Paulo Carmona of the national fuel entity (ENMC) and two industry cohorts, who barely assembled a convincing argument between them. On the other side, two Algarvian mayors, of Tavira and Aljezur, and Vítor Neto, the president of NERA (association of tourism entrepreneurs in the Algarve), whose arguments ranged around quality of life, the beauty of the natural environment and by the way the fantastic contribution to the Portuguese public purse made by the tourism industry of the Algarve.

All familiar arguments, nothing I hadn’t heard before, and of course you know my stance. So I shall leave you with two observations. A brilliant lawyer, who was one of the witnesses, pointed out that the 1994 law on which many of the oil contracts were based was a retrograde step in environmental protection, overruling earlier laws, in order to open Portugal up for business, which makes sense for the era. (I’d given those lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, that the evidence for man-made climate change wasn’t powerful enough – even though it was powerful enough really. Anyway, I was wrong.) A 2013 law, which demands public consultation and environmental impact studies, is routinely ignored by the likes of Paulo Carmona; they prefer to tread the easier ground of the 1994 decree. And the second: a geologist and former oil-industry employee stepped up to say that fracking was pretty safe, and the chemical contamination of local water supplies was at barely half a percent, at which point Husband shouted, ‘You drink it then!’ (In Portuguese, naturally.)

The show has at-home audience participation in the form of a voting system. At the end, the passionate arguments for wellbeing, beauty and sustainability won: 68 per cent of the voters said No to oil in the Algarve. The coach-load of Algarvian ‘Indios’ was in party mood on the way home.


The river is clear and serene again. Fish jump to catch the insects dancing on the water surface. I only hear three turtles dive in off the rocks when I approach, instead of the eight I had become accustomed to. I wonder if some of them took the chance of high water to go exploring, or got swept away to new shores against their will. Ducks disappear on my approach too: they whoosh creakily into the air and flap off. Last year we accidentally disturbed a nesting duck, who shuffled away with wounded wing, tempting us with an easy target. We left her alone, of course, and anyway we knew she was faking it to distract us from her ducklings. These are the familiar Mallards, but wild ones, not the bread-entreating kind we find in cities.

We took delivery of five lorry-loads of water this week – for our pool. The men came round pre-delivery to assess the site. They needed to choose between their big and their little truck.

‘The concrete bridge has a weight limit of nine tons,’ said Husband, who tends to obey rules, and whose hecklerism doesn’t arise out of disdain for them.

‘Oh, we can’t read,’ said one man, nudging the other.

When we returned home at the end of the water delivery day, we were happy to see the bridge was still there.

Today we had an unscheduled visit from the câmara, who examined the pool and the surrounds and declared it all good, and said our pool licence would be with us within a week to ten days. The pool was only just complete and we hadn’t even had the chance to swim in it. So, after they’d gone, we swam for the first time in the pale jade water. We looked at the hills all around us, and decided there could be no greater joy than this.

The pool

The pool

Fancy a dip?

Fancy a dip?


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