To get into the mood for our house-buying trip to Faro, I re-read a chapter of one of my favourite pieces of travel writing, Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell. It’s set in Cyprus, and I have a first edition, from 1957.
On the day of his transaction, Durrell was to act as though he did not want the house, while his agent and the house’s owner, the cobbler’s wife, faced each other across a negotiating table. On the table sat a great key. Each participant took it in turns to claim, counter-claim, declaim, expostulate and fulminate, during which the key was pushed to and fro, lifted and banged back down on the table, to the point where Durrell feared it would be beyond the opening of any door. The duel took all day, and ancestors living – clustered outside – and dead were called upon. At the end came a slow car-chase, during which the seller’s grandfather is skittled into a ditch. He is unharmed.
Agreement on price is reached, a thumbprint secures the deal, and amiability settles on all involved.
Then I got over myself. Buying a house in the Algarve in 2014 would be nothing like that. We had searched extensively online, been in touch with four multilingual, multinational, professional agents and made appointments to view ‘properties’, not ‘houses’. The chances were quite high that we would not buy from anyone Portuguese. The old quintas (farmhouses) have generally been renovated by foreigners, no doubt while the puzzled Portuguese looked on having pocketed a tidy sum (though it’s all relative) for a pile of rocks and a piece of land. We were not in the market for a ruin. We have none of the required skills, and we want to do other things with our time. We love the traditional architecture of the Algarve, but we want someone else to have done the hard work, for which we will be handing over a more than tidy sum.
We left our London bed at 2 a.m. on Friday morning, and returned to it at 2 a.m. on Monday morning, and in between these times we fell in love with two houses.
1.) The Sensible House. The setting is perfect, the size and layout too, and it’s in a valley we particularly like. The renovation project was undertaken by a now elderly German couple, for whom the house and garden have become too much work. The house is mostly a new build on an old footprint of three adjacent cottages. We spent some very enjoyable hours with them learning about everything they had done. They did not cut any corners. Oh no – these firmly right-angled corners have strong foundations and are made good for many decades to come. The cane and eucalyptus ceilings were dispensed with in favour of insulated concrete where no insect could lurk. The outside is unadorned. It is sehr, sehr praktisch.
For: The surrounding garden is beautiful. We can make the house pretty; we can make it ours. It’s very good value. It has a bread oven.
Against: Internet access is uncertain. (The owners didn’t need it, and the setting is quite remote.) We might need a satellite connection.
No pool, so we’d need to get a licence for one and then build it.
Summary: Head winning over heart.
2) The Mad House. A beautiful, old, renovated, stone-built quinta. Where the Sensible House has eschewed decoration, this house has gone crazy for it, and not just a beautiful reworking of traditional themes, but also a crazy Gaudí meets Niki de Saint Phalle luscious over-the-topness, especially inside. No right angles; it is all curves. It is utterly uplifting. However, the original quintas were built of stone direct on earth, sucking up the moisture from below. Will there be tears in years to come as the plaster blows and the mosaic pieces tinkle to the floor?
For: Sheer delight. Also good internet access and a pool.
Against: Top of our budget. Not easy to maintain?
Summary: Heart winning over head.
A final note for today. We have engaged a Portuguese lawyer for our purchase. He spent two hours with us outlining the process with clarity and precision, in English. He digressed briefly to talk about culture, and about being born after the revolution but still feeling the shadow of the dictatorship. He is not expensive. Back at home our English conveyancing solicitor sent us a proforma letter that bears little relation to our sale. We spent five minutes over the phone discussing this; he apologised and blamed his secretary. He is expensive. English is his mother tongue.