The project continues

Spent another delightful week exploring Central Portugal, driving up mountains and down forestry roads looking for the perfect location to start a new kind of life.  The people I’ve met have been incredibly helpful, estate agents especially, taking me to some pretty off-grid locations and walking around in the thorns and rocks to get a good look at the locations.

I’ve eaten at some great restaurants, and stayed in a beautiful palace in Tomar (through airBnB – who would have thought) and at a fabulous guest house in Porto.

I’m slowly getting a few issues and requirements clear, but in the end, a piece of land is going to have to “speak to me” — which one little valley has done.   My latest find is this fabulous piece of secret garden, overpriced unfortunately and I’m not sure I can afford to fix the house as well as get electricity and water to it, never mind that there isn’t even a proper road.

Renovation Project near Ferreira do Zêzere

But it is beautiful….

Ferreira Do Zezere Secret Garden

The Ancience of Trees

In Allouville-Bellefosse in Normady, stands a tree with character. 

It supports and is supported by a wonderful old norman church, the two looking like two old cronies sitting in the sun,  in the middle of the village square.  Traffic and shops circle these two venerable old gents, but neither pay any attention.  The tree, seemingly the oldest tree in France at between 800 and 1200 years of age, is called Chêne Chapelle. It is nearly wider than tall, at 15m high and nearly 16m wide.  When it was about 500 years old, lightening struck, and the resulting fire burned its heart out.  The local Abbot, Du Detroit,  and a village priest, Father Du Cerceau, made the claim that lightening striking the tree was a holy event, and devoted the tiny wooden chapel later built into the hollow trunk space, to the Virgin Mary.

A staircase which is still open to the public was added later too. The tree nearly got burned down to the ground even after all these miracles, during the French Revolution, when some thought it was an emblem of the old system of governance and tyranny (possibly due to the link with the wealthy church which aided and abetted the nobles.)

A furious mob intent on burning the tree to the ground were only stopped at the last moment by a local villager, whose name is now lost, who quick-thinking renamed the oak the “Temple of Reason”.  With such a great name, it automatically became a symbol of the revolution’s new ways of thinking and was spared.

The age of the tree means it now has some “medical support”: poles shore up the weight of some branches, and wooden shingles cover areas of the tree that have lost their bark, like a soft felt coat placed on a muchloved grandfather dog; but in spite of all the attention part of its trunk is already dead.

Twice a year, mass is celebrated in the tiny chapel in the centre of the oak. It is the site of a pilgrimage on August 15 (Assumption of Mary)

On friends and family

Had to get back to London to do some serious childminding for some lovely friends, so had to face the long journey back quite soon after the journey out!!!

My portuguese adopted family had grown by the time I planned this return trip though – by one (very long, dextrous, non-green-apple-eating one that is). “Y” was visiting with Manuela and Hans in Cascais, and needed to get to Paris/Brussels- quickly, and as cheaply as possible.  I needed talking company for such a long drive, and there was always the chance I’d need a strong pair of hands  to carry my suitcase down the freeway should the car no longer wish to do so.

So we “hooked up” through Facebook – you know, as you do these days.  Manuela organised it all, including getting the victim – oh, I mean the fellow passenger – to the start-point, and ensuring he had warm clothes, a telephone charger, and enough data paid for on his sim to last through at least Spain…

Monday midday we took off, and I’m sure he’ll agree – it was a really easy trip!

The wonder of it I can’t really share, as I was too busy driving to take pictures, and he was too busy sleeping… heh heh – my driving scares them to sleep apparently.  But we had more than one massive and ongoing rainbow which seemed to prance ahead of the car, stretching across the road in apparent welcome to this young man, on his first trip to Europe, and possibly to Fame and Fortune too, in almost every region we passed through.

My blue lady friend behaved very well.  We found food and petrol – well, diesel actually – as well as substantial quantities of coffee, in every direction we turned.  Why is it that the almost empty freeway between Madrid,  and Coimbra in Portugal,  is densely laced with petrol stations, with coffee machines, some with hotels, some even with night clubs (nearly 50 kms from the nearest large village… and potential clients?) and with at least one local road bridge across the new high speed rail tracks?  Was it an EU directive to turn Spain into a nation of garage builders?

Its a strange and over-constructed landscape with very little beautiful about it.  Perhaps one can admire the amazing flatness of the landscape, which does highlight the occasional rainbow very well.  As well as the faded, well-worn grey or cream stone churches and cathedrals rising starkly above the medieval parts of towns and villages along this part of the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella.  The landscape when you’re driving on the freeway, encourages you to look at each little interesting detail, as there are few.  Walking might be better.

On the first stop, we benefitted from my previous learning, and booked a hotel before we reached the town. It was late, 7pm when we booked, and still an hour away, but systems like and airbnb work amazingly well in these circumstances.  And no, they’re not paying me, just took good care of me a couple times now!

Vitoria Gasteiz is about 700kms from home, not as half-way as I’d have liked, but as we only left around noon in the day,  it was as much as we could manage without driving through the night – and there wasn’t really call for that kind of dedication or fatigue.

The hotel, Desiderio, chosen by Y so quite by chance, reminded me of a wonderful group of women friends from my teenage years, we called ourselves Desiderata, and it felt right.  I love names and words that “coincidentally” match up, it makes me feel like my path, my route, is recognising me somehow – that I’m in the right place and time. Is that just me?

Anyway, importantly, we found a receptionist, even though it must have been 9:30pm,and more importantly, he gave us the wifi key (I think Y’s data had started to run low by then). Checking in, in all ways, took a while, but hunger then called loudly.

We walked around to find a restaurant, as the tourist map the receptionist helpfully provided, didn’t really have open restaurants marked clearly – so it was visual recce time.  And we walked.  Boy, was it cold, windy, and closed. The whole place seemed shutdown.  We could not find any restaurants apart from the occasional tile floored bar with one or two customers propping up the counter, which didn’t seem a very realistic option with a starving teenager (did I mention he’s about 6 ft 2 or perhaps more?  and he has extremely large feet which were completely hollow by then, having only been fed a small sandwich all day!)

Eventually, although there was no option of giving up even in the face of the icy biting mean Spanish wind that feels as if it blows in across the plain from some sun-forsaken mountain somewhere, we found the really old,  cathedral end of town, a cool-looking electric trolley-bus or tram on a grassed track in the road (!!) taking greening to a whole new level, and a restaurant that was open.

Not just any restaurant – the coolest italian spot you’ve ever seen.

Red plush walls, heavy wood carvings, framed old black and white posters of Sophia and her friends, wine glasses and table cloths, small kiosks and intimate lighting – and it was heated.  We could both have danced a jig, but made do with finding the table furthest from the door. Then the menu evaluation drill.

Y is on a very very tight budget for a 1 year or longer gap year (South African Rands, anyone? Going extremely cheap. Sadly)  so he did all the maths – accounting was one of his best subjects apparently, and it showed!  Amazingly, when you have the time and the motivation, there are mistakes in menus or possibly details are not clear, as he seemed to find a good value pizza which was 5 cents cheaper than another and had slightly more ingredients, so he felt he’d gotten a good deal – and it was brilliant when it arrived too – thin crust, loads of topping, crispy – well, the brief glimpse I had before it disappeared, was impressive.

I had half a plate of fantastic home-made pasta and half or perhaps slightly less, of a similarly brilliant dessert consisting two lumps of italian ice cream separated by cookies, balanced precariously on chocolate brownie – nothing to hate. I tease, but in fairness I could not have eaten the portions served, and was quite happy to share with young Y.  He’s going to be working it off pretty fast, from what I hear of his plans to play club football in Europe.

Having eaten so well, life became very pleasant, so we wandered a very circular route back to the hotel, did a load more internet stuff as you do when you’re just 18 and away from your friends, and slept – late as it turned out, but Spain is an hour earlier than Portugal so in a way we still had time.  We discovered a little Spanish secret – those odd looking snacks we’d seen in the bars, sandwich type food, are extremely good value. At our hotel’s attached bar/cafe, we had a good breakfast of egg rolls, coffee and juice for €3.

Off we set again, making excellent time through Spain to the French coast, through all those amazing tunnels on the toll road.  The roads are however incredibly straight and smooth in France once past Biarritz – while a pleasure to use, they’ve literally churned up the countryside into an incredibly ugly patchwork of tollbooths, 4lane freeway and loads of bridges, to form enormous pipelines for trucks, between the big cities and manufacturing areas.

We were grateful for the space and the straight lines just outside Bordeaux, when we were hit by a storm that was definitely a kind of cloud burst.  We both just watched in horror as a trainsmash worth of water poured down over the windscreen suddenly, blocking or slowing the wipers or perhaps it was “our lives flashed before us in slow motion” making it look like they simply weren’t able to deal with the amount of rain pouring down.  Luckily I’m getting better at dealing with situations in cars than the time I won driver of the year at Uni (a tongue in cheek award and I won’t go into the damage here.  It was a long time ago) so just kept the car completely straight, and didn’t touch brakes or any controls. If you’re planing on a ton of just fallen water, I recall reading somewhere, its best if the tyres are still facing straight forward when you do hit drier tar, if you do.

Anyway, to break the suspense – since I’m writing this, we must have hit dry tar… heh heh.

Y was really shocked at the cost of the tolls.  Some are as much as €30 per leg – two such heavy tolls between Bordeaux and Paris which almost makes taking the train option look cheap.  For me, while its pricy, I feel better using toll roads as they’re really fast, and direct, and there’s loads of support, help phones, regular petrol and coffee and toilet break stops, about the only problem with them in a wrong-side drive car, was paying the toll out the passenger window – although having Y on board solved all that, which was a timesaver.

I won’t use toll-roads again though, as I realised when taking alternatives, that these big modern closed-loop motorways (you can’t easily get on or off) prevent local businesses from getting passing traffic.  Research probably proves that installing toll-roads destroys a huge percentage of any local economy.  Using them just stops you easily visiting small villages or one-traffic-circle “dorps”, instead you are forced to utilise the international franchises and give your money to the oil companies that own the petrol stations along the toll roads.

So – deciding at the pretty much last minute outside Bordeaux that the really best option for Y was a lift into Paris, to Gare Du Nord, we took the Paris freeway instead of the La Havre one, and I put my foot down.  We did about 930kms that day, to get him to Paris in time for an intercity train – which despite planning an hour of leeway, he only just made, as the one way’s and traffic lights and just the mass of traffic in Paris, even on the freeway close by, were a nightmare.

So Y was on his way to Brussells – or at least I hoped so, it took me nearly an hour to find a service station where I could park, get online, and ask his dad in South Africa.

I love that someone in South Africa knew pretty much straightaway that Y had made his Brussells train, whereas the closest “family” in Paris had to wait to check in with them to find out – we are living a very online, digitally connected life if you hadn’t noticed 🙂

Experiencing some turbulence…

However, in the end I did move into Rua do Agua (the road of water… ha ha very appropriate) before it got electrified. Unpacked the van into the cave-like living room, then dashed around town organising gas bottles for the hot water system and the stove, a new gas heater, a gaslamp and some spare batteries for my torch.

Planning to sleep there just the one night as I was staying with my portuguese family, (sorry Mike – your family who I’ve adopted!) over christmas so just planned to try sort power out later. Candles are good and they give off heat. Having hot water is a complete blessing, but no internet is a bit of a killer.

Anyway, having dumped stuff on the floor I only realised later that setting up a bed was not a good idea till I did a little cleaning – the cottage is a refurbished building, its been truly beautifully done, deep stone walls and a new, very well-insulated tile roof, but all the plaster work is still bare and the house was full of concrete dust. So not wanting to breathe it all in, I cleaned. Filling bucket after bucket with hot water, I mopped the tiled floor which was easily done, and dumped the muddy water on the cobbled road outside where it might do less damage than to a closed sewage system. After the second or third bucket of water, leaning on the mop admiring the almost full moon the day before Christmas, I heard the front door snick closed.

I felt a kind of empty hollowness as I heard that. They say your life flashes before your eyes – well, the house full of candles and a gas heater going full blast, every double glazed brand new window extremely tightly closed, and my keys, telephones (both of them), car keys, in fact most of my life, all flashed in front of me. Through the bloody kitchen window. The closed window.

Its funny, because I was in a strange space of complete awareness when this happened (this is obviously from the moment JUST AFTER I locked the door from the outside. A little mindfulness before that would have been just dandy.) I didn’t feel fear, although it occurred to me that I was at least 4 miles from the nearest town with a policeman or fireman or access to a lockpicker.

I didn’t feel cold although it was a chilly night, the sky had cleared and I was wearing quite a lot of clothes because the inside of the house was so cold. I wasn’t in the dark as the quiet tiny road I live on, has a couple of huge street lights at useful intervals. And the moon was almost full. I’d just had some hot tea.

Basically, as per the teachings, most things in my life were perfect if you looked at things a certain way – and just blanked out the bit about being locked out, in a foreign rural village at 11pm with all your neighbours lights off, who don’t speak english anyway.

OK OK I can hear the clamouring – break a window and go back inside. Well, the very strange thing, is that this simply did not occur to me. I wanted a person with lock skills, to open a door. Its not my house, and I didn’t even think of breaking anything to get my rapidly cooling body back inside. Is that a feminine thought pattern or just me?

Anyway, I’m not the brightest breaker-in, but I am pretty good at communicating. First I tried the house up the road with lights on – I could even see a huge TV screen with a tv game going on – but scream and shout, dancing all about, driving the guys 3 dogs absolutely insane with rage, could I get the guy to come check what was going on? No. That’s when I felt a bit better about security around here. Obviously terrorism and suchlike is absolutely no threat around here where a neighbour does not come out to see what his dogs were trying to kill because its obviously a boar or a deer or something.

So starting to get really worried about all the candles burning and the gas fire in the same room, I ran the other way, and while its a reasonable village, with quite a few houses, all of them were in total darkness. Most with shutters completely closed, and while that can just be portuguese winter night closing up the house, there were very few cars.

Then on a hill nearby I saw some lights and what was obviously a tv playing, a very distinct light pattern even at some distance! Madly running through my limited vocabulary, I knocked on the door at about 12 midnight. Vitor answered after a startled pause ( I guess no-one ever knocked on their door after 10pm before) and I just drank in the sight of a human being INSIDE a house. Using my most ready vocab, I asked if he possibly, just possibly spoke a little english – obviously not expecting a survey at this time of night, he actually smiled as he agreed that he did, just a little. I had actually rehearsed explaining my situation in POrtuguese – its amazing what the brain recalls under stress, but I didn’t need it thank goodness.

And from these small things are miracles born – I was able to explain my predicament, he laughed because apparently he did the same thing 2 weeks before, spoke briefly to his wife, got some tools from his open garage (there is NO security issue in this area), offered me a lift in his car (parked with the key in the ignition… I start to know how to solve my problems myself, if I do this again and Vitor is not home!), came to the cottage, broke through the small bathroom window which I being the yoga person then climbed through, and – how lovely – the warm kitchen with candles all politely glowing, the gas fire completely under control, the keys in the backdoor.

I had a big bottle of port ready for a christmas gift, so I grabbed that and gave it to him as he made a hasty retreat back to his warm house, and he was really surprised. If it happened to him, he expected me to help, and so it wasn’t a matter for thanks he said. Good people in this community.

So the story doesn’t actually end there – and I’ll tell it because I’ve found from other adventures that Vitor, while a hero for sure, is not unique. The next day I went off to spend Christmas with Manuela and Isabelina, and the rest of Mike’s family here in POrtugal, and only came back 4 days later. The broken window I left taped up with cardboard as security really doesn’t seem to be an issue around here.

Vitor popped in to check how I was doing, just after I got back. He told me again about a double glazing specialist he’d given me the number for who I hadn’t tried to call yet, and drove off. An hour later he came back with some tools and a bit of wood. We were taking the broken window in for repairs, apparently. The piece of wood didn’t fit (the windows are inset in the 50cm stone walls, any covering for the missing window would have to be cut to fit into the opening) so off Vitor went again. 20 minutes later he was back, with a clever setup to bolt the wood in place, removed the broken window, covered up the hole, and led me to his car (after checking I had my keys…!)

We drove to the glazing specialist, fairly close by, dropped the window, had a coffee, and were back in an hour. A small action on his part, but it truly made my month. Not only would I not have thought to break a window to get in, but I could have searched for weeks for a local glazier to fix the broken window, and not been able to communicate when I did!

A few days later he texted to ask if I was home. Sure I was – and next thing, he arrived – with some tools and the repaired window, which he kindly refitted. A real good samaritan. I even had to insist he told me how much it was, so I could repay the small sum of €20.

I don’t know how something like this would pan out in London – I’d probably knock on my neighbours house and they’d call the police or possibly a locksmith if they knew one. I don’t think anyone I know in London except really close friends, would dream of smashing a window to help me get back into my house, with every intention of making it good afterwards.

The reason I moved to Portugal and want to start a new life here, is that these kind of people exist everywhere, but in smaller villages and towns in POrtugal there are more of them, I know because I’ve experienced kindness and generosity here in huge quantities before. And this town is certainly not letting me down this time around!

Getting there…

Had a wonderful journey across the south of France, and Spain.

Slept in a town on the Santiago de Compostela route, called Cuidad Rodrigo – I arrived in the dark, so the layout was all a little medieval with small cobbled roads and three story townhouses. I parked outside a shop in the main road, having learned my lesson long ago, to not drive willy-nilly into the old part of towns like this, just because another car does, unless you know for sure you know a route back out. Which your car, and your driving abolities, can handle!

Wandering around, I found an absolutely charming hotel, which had an available room and even offered free parking. I signed up and went to get the van, carefully investigating all the one-ways and super-narrow roads on the way back but then realising that the hotel was actually only a block from a main road in another direction.

Cheerfully driving up to the hotel, I turned where the receptionist indicated, seeing no driveway but ever hopeful – and saw this cornered precipice. No lies. Anyway, she seemed to think it was a perfectly normal place to park a van, so I drove down, the roof touched as I entered the truly tiny garage beneath, directly facing a wall, so a 3 point turn to actually get into the parking spaces deeper inside. I was sweating by the time I got my backpack to the lift. Not so much from getting in, as the thought of doing that in reverse – up a 40 degree slope, on a corner. It didn’t really bear thinking about. My spanish is a little better than my portuguese, so I went to reception to whine about the parking. The receptionist, a sturdy looking woman my age, seemed to think it was absolutely no problem at all, and made vrooming acceleration noises very enthusiastically. Horrors.

Anyway, not one to worry about things like my van with all my most valuable personal belongings being buried under a small hotel in central Spain for the rest of the century, I went off exploring. What a brilliant place! The hotel was in the grid of small streets I assumed was the medieval town, but actually those older areas of towns like this are usually not so squared off. So I should have seen the surprise coming, following a happy-sounding family up the hill towards what looked like the hilltop cathedral. I was hoping to see the inside of the church it being Sunday evening and time for mass, when the family suddenly disapeared in front of me – crime-series style – cue da doom da doom style music.

I crept closer, and there was a longish uphill tunnel in the huge stone wall we’d been walking alongside. All beautifully lit, and christmas lights visible on the far side. I entered and it was a Harry Potter moment – the old village, probably more of a large walled hillfort, is behind a 5 metre stone wall in the centre of town, and (as I observed in the light, next day) on a fairly substantial hill on the middle of a large plain. Its a maze of tiny interleading cobbled roads, cute little shops and restuarants, squares and gardens, at least two large churches both holding mass, noisy bars and busy cafes, and a lot of brightly lit townhouses. So strange to look into a truly ancient stone house, and see a really funky scandi-looking light fitting shining out.

As it was truly dark and I’d been driving all day, I ducked into a really local looking place, a largish cafe with loads of oldies sitting around chatting and drinking wines and coffee. I asked for a coffee at the counter and went to sit down, but when I asked about a menu the waiter looked horrified. It was only 7:00. They only start taking dinner orders at 8:30. Welcome to rural spain, I think its even later in Madrid and at the coast. So funny. His manager was a lot more tourism-orientated, and offered me the English menu, I think planning to just take the order and let me sit with my coffee till the kitchen opened. Why not! It was a very pleasant meal in any case, you could say they practise slow food. And the oldies (8-10 to a table, about 5 tables) kept the place hopping till well after I left, as well as producing a good amount of body heat – it was one of the warmest restuarants I’ve eaten in so far!

As with the ferry, you know I made it out the hotel parking as I’m writing this from POrtugal a few days later… actually, the receptionist was dead right. I manoevered into starting position, aimed for the top which I couln’t see at all, gave thanks for my extremely expensive international car insurance in advance for the potential repairwork, put my foot down, and literally flew up without any scrapes or embarrassing backsliding.

In fact I bounced out just behind some painters I’d seen pull up in a large van early in the morning, and I think knowing they were there was a part of my confidence. I often attack problems by offering myself outrageous solutions if the one I’m trying doesn’t work. And in this case, the alternative solution was to ask the driver of the painter’s van, to drive my van out the parking. How exactly I was going to explain that to him in Spanish, was all part of the magic I like to attract, but in the end it wasn’t needed. They did hop out the way when I came charging out, as I may have slightly overdone the revs, but the van was loaded to the gills and I really didn’t think she’d fly up easily as she did. One of the many learning moments I’ve had this trip. 🙂

Cuidade Rodrigo is quite close to the POrtuguese border, but I only left midmorning, with plenty of time to kill as my new cottage home was at that time still without an electricity connection. Driving across the border was an adventure even on the wide roads, with mist and a deep thick fog. There was a particularly magical moment just after the first portuguese language signs, where a rainbow formed in the light mist alongside the road, and as the light shifted and I drove, it followed me. Must have been a trick of the angle of sunlight, but there seemed to be a column of rainbow coloured light teasing me from the side of the road, for some time.

I explored some of the northeastern towns and villages, that part of Portugal is ancient and very beautiful. The countryside is full of tiny plots mainly full of olive trees, each area separated by ancient weathered rock walls, grey and green with moss and lichens. Its a very wet area, in places there is water just running along ditches and along the side of the road, houses have steeply pitched rooves and big gutters. Apparently there is a lot of permaculture work happening around there, I didn’t see any obvious signage but will definitely go back and visit again.

One town had a fireman’s festival going on so I sat outside in the winter sun, at a small cafe and drank some milky coffee (galao) while watching the men. Portuguese bombeiros are volunteers, but its a serious job in most towns in the central and northern regions, as massive interleading pine and eucalyptus plantations have created an ever increasing fire hazard. Mid summer rarely passes in this region without a bad fire. They wear the most fabulous red sweatshirts, and are mostly tall and husky, I’m on the lookout for an available one who speaks a bit of english and does carpentry in his spare time 🙂

Calling ahead, I found out there was still no electricity at my cottage. So I drove through to nearby Coimbra and looked for a hotel. After driving around the main streets for about an hour and seeing just two hotels signposted but absolutely no place to park nearby, I realised I was just being old-fashioned.

Stopping in a quiet suburban road, I logged into the internet on my smartphone, connected to (sorry for the ad – there are other sites, but I used this one in Costa Rica and it was just as effective), found a list of Coimbra hotels with secure parking by price and locality, and chose one with loads of stars, close to the freeway and to where I’d parked. What a fabulous find. The Hotel Dom Luis sits on a hillside site on its own, overlooking one of those four-leaf-clover intersections on the main national freeway, high enough that the noise is a subtle wave-crashing sound in the distance, but also overlooking the Coimbra river and the old part of town on the other side, which is beautifully lit at night. Stayed a couple nights in the end, trying to avoid moving into a cold damp stone house in midwinter, without the support of electricity….




Travelling Times

Saturday 19 December

Such an effective way to travel when you’re a non-mechanical woman driver with a small van chock-a-block full of all your personal, valuable stuff. Just take the car off the road and go on a cross-channel ferry from Portsmouth in England, to La Havre in France – you can sleep through the night,get proper coffee in the morning with a very decent french croissant, and take about 600kms off the road trip!!

Ferries are amazing – if you’ve not been on one yet, the one I travelled on is the size of a small shopping centre, the whole side opens so it can take on board a number of petrol tankers, some Massive diesel trucks, a few busses, and then hundreds of cars and vans.

The original road trip I’d carefully planned, never happened – first of all I heard about the job of my dreams – which I applied for, never thinking it would come to anything – but then got an interview opportunity … which was 1 day before I’d arranged to hand over my keys, get all my personal things out my apartment, and get on the ferry. Guessing an interview would prevent final packing being done in time, I postponed the ferry by 3 days, then…

Having gotten myself into the Van with all my boxes, at the absolute last moment I could leave London to get there on time, with telephone and computer chargers, passports, bank details, boxes of books and everything I needed to complete my studying, candles and matches(more about THAT later) and loads of warm clothes … plus plates and pots, as the house I’m going to is completely unfurnished… I left home, turned out of my road feeling quite proud of my packing and timing, got onto the local main road quite easily, and then just got stuck – in the most unbelievable traffic jam I’ve ever experienced in London. Specially organised for me.

In the end, I turned back and just slept one more night in the empty apartment, the traffic had me sitting for 80 minutes during which I moved a mere 2 miles from home…

Sooooo I booked a third “cheap” non-refundable ticket, they were getting relatively expensive at that stage – for the following night. Which gave me a chance to go for one last coffee with friends at my favourite local london coffee shop, NAturalis, check all my lists, catch up on emails, tidy up a little more before leaving, so this journey seemed pretty auspicious.

Actually, these kinds of changes of plan really don’t bother me – I half expect them to happen. While I came up with a plan and the concept of going to live in POrtugal for the winter, to learn portuguese and investigate properties in the area I’d like to farm, I knew it would happen the way Life flowed. Its so much easier to let things happen the way they want, not spend a lot of energy worrying or trying to change too much, if my initial plans don’t work or even fireworks blown right through them (i.e. we’re on a different page of the calendar not just set-back a few minutes!)

In my experience, it never works to force a situation back into the picture I originally had of it. This is just playing with mental awareness – Firstly, the world really doesn’t look the way we think it does, so plans are just ideas and concepts, not solid things. If we keep that in mind, when a new plan comes along, or a reason we can’t continue with the old one, its just easier to rename the new situation as “reality” and make any personal emotional or mental adjustments I need, for it to work. Mostly these are around mindful observance of my annoyance or fear when things change – I thought the situation would look like “X” and when it looks like “Y” I am not controlling it, its controlling me. But since I’ve realised that mostly, I’m not controlling anything – not the people around me, the traffic, my health, politics and economics, most stuff – I feel a lot more relaxed. There’s a great saying that works for me in this situation – True happiness does not lie in getting what you want, but in wanting (or deciding to want) what you actually get.

I’m sure there will be times when that philosophy is not going to work, but its keeping me pretty happy so far. So this is how it was with the multiple ferry rides – although the changes cost a fortune, and I don’t recommend booking tickets until you’re quite sure you’re travelling the next day as they’re usually available, I am sure it was meant to happen the way it did. And it was perfect.

So nearly a week later than planned, I finally drove out of London at 4pm on a Friday, on route to the Ferry, France and Spain, and finally to Portugal.

First though, my GPS tested me, taking me the longest possible route to get through London that I could imagine. It was a good thing as knowing London, I recognised it was a very sideways and upside down way to go, so checked all my settings on the gadget, before giving it control of my route in Europe where I wouldn’t have known I was going the wrong way. Turned out I had something called “eco-friendly” switched on, my advice – never use it. I have no idea what criteria it uses to decide if a road is “eco-friendly” but in London it took me way off the main, direct route, and down a lot of unlit narrow suburban side roads with major speedbumps. I think its punishment for eco-warriors, perhaps the idea is to make us pay in pain (head or bum ache from all those bumps) for the kilometres we’re driving.

Getting on the ferry was exciting and a little tense for me – I’ve never done it before, and there’s not much information given out about what to expect or what to do. And then you get there, and everyone else looks like they know exactly what they’re doing – driving into specific lanes, switching their cars on and off at odd times, just hanging out and chatting to their partners. I didn’t see anyone else travelling alone, except for the Big truck drivers, all male. So no-one to easily share the moment with.

Its a bit of a strange feeling, knowing its just me who has to make all the choices and decisions and there is literally no-one to check things with. But I’m getting better at this “diving into change” – the main thing to keep in mind always is that obviously, we can all do most things other people can. So while everyone has a first time on a ferry, first time to drive through Europe, etc., these things are not rocket science, slow and steady and a careful look at what other people do, and I should be ok.

So I edged closer carefully, not wanting to drive into the sea by mistake for a start, or stall my little van in front of a row of petrol tankers queueing at the door. Silly things to worry about I know – but I think we all do this in a completely new situation like a class or new job or even taking a new train to work – even if mechanical or simple to perform, we wonder if there are any secret tricks other’s know, or skills we don’t have which are required. So waiting to get on the ferry I found challenging. And that was only the very beginning of my journey!

Anyway, turns out you can relax, listen to music, and a nice chap in a yellow reflective vest will make absolutely sure you stop where you need to, and go when you need. And its a great idea to put on the European “headlight adjusters” on your car, while you wait, so you don’t risk forgetting on the other side, highly illegal – and anyway you have at least an hour to kill waiting for all the other trucks and cars to load.

They must have seen my eye-rolling during the wait, as my van was – wait for this – the absolutely LAST vehicle on the french ferry that friday night. Is that beginners luck? At least 40 truck drivers waiting to go up the internal lift, had the great opportunity to watch me carefully reverse park into the tiny spot left at the door. After a bit of nifty pedalwork, I was a bit disapointed they didn’t chain my car down, as I saw their petrol tankers were chained, seems to me the lighter vehicles are more likely to move around – but I guess they do less damage if they do.

I’m guess a couple hundred vehicles get on, so its quite funny that being so concerned about the whole process, I then had to watch absolutely everyone else do it first. But getting on last is a bonus… as you’re then first off onthe other side. And quite impossible to organise. They go by vehicle size in loading up, and in spite of being really early, and totally midsized, my van somehow ended up being the perfect “final straw” for them to load. So no matter what planning and worrying I did, it all turned out more perfect than I could imagine. As things do so often – which I only notice when I stop and think about the past and my life process, and realise just how grateful I am for all the easy things, the skillful things, the beautiful things that just happened.

As I am writing this a few weeks later, you already know the outcome – a completely painless and straightforward crossing, nowt wrong.

On the weight of feedback in internet reviews I read, I booked a large luxury cabin, the biggest cabin as it was the only one left by the time I booked. The other option didn’t sound good – trying to sleep in a reclining chair, in a large public wooden-floored lounge, with 200 other people, all shuffling about trying to stay warm and get some sleep, with double doors opening out onto the freezing cold deck and equally wide doors going into the bar.

When I got to my cabin, the door wouldn’t open, and I was about to go back down to reception to get a new key. But I had a little moment – this incredibly hunky sailor-type, in a tight black t-shirt with amazing tattoos, stopped and asked me in french if I was ok. Seeing that the door wouldn’t unlock, he simply typed in some secret code, and bobs my auntie the door popped open. I looked at him a little weirdly, thinking “oops – the whole crew knows how to get into my cabin” and he read my mind. He winked, and pointed to his chest. Some kind of insignia. “I’m the captain” he laughed, and walked off – the crew’s quarters are just next to the two larger cabins on the upper deck. I was probably sleeping in his 🙂

So I thoroughly enjoyed my privacy (?!), the warmth, the little porthole through which I could see part of the deck, the disapearing port lights, and the waves off to each side. I loved the sweet built in wooden bunks and neat shelves and lots of places to put bottles and cups so they didn’t fall in the night, I had to unpack my little bag just to put things on all the shelves and in all the nooks and corners. There were pristine white warm cotton duvets ready for me – it looked just like the first class trains in India!

I fell asleep amazingly easily for such a strange new bed, listening to the creaks and noises of the waves moving the ship. The whole thing moved much more than I thought something so big would… but the ocean is just that much bigger I guess. There were some pretty impressive movements, the ferry goes up and down with the waves as it moves forward, but there’s also (sorry, for those who know all about ocean travel – kind of my first experience!!!) a funky sideways roll going on (swell?) so you can almost feel the ships timbers bending slightly as the front goes up (or down) while it simultaneously rolls from side to side. Please don’t let me put you off though – its all quite manageable, but not like being on land.

Half expected to find my car cuddled up to a petrol tanker in the morning when we docked, but the van was almost exactly as I left it. Had a bit of performance anxiety, having rushed to unlock and get the van started, and be in the right place before about 200 other vehicles needed to go around me, as I was literally parked right across the door. Luckily, car started and I didn’t fall off the ramp, just got off absolutely first – which was pretty cool!

Customs was hilarious – they stop everyone and want to look at what you’re carrying in some detail. Now you have to picture my van packed to the roof behind the front seats, with all sorts of boxes and bags, and blankets (and a spade) tucked into the remaining airspaces. It was quite tricky just opening a side door to get an overview. Thinking this might take all morning, I nonchalantly caught Retha’s olive tree in its little green pot which she’d given me to bring to Portugal, as it dropped off the top of the pile. The customs policewoman looked at it (there were some olives on it) and grinned, and that was it. Women importing olive trees in small pots along with about a ton of stuff in boxes and hidden by blankets, do not, apparently, constitute any threat to the French state.

Drove through a very pink sunrise at La Havre, carefully staying to the right sides of roads, and aiming immediately for the toll road. There was no hurry to reach Portugal, but rather than wander down all the gorgeous side roads, I decided to minimise the complexity of driving through Europe my first time, in a fairly old car, on my own, on the “wrong” side of the road, trying to follow roadsigns in a foreign language to places I didn’t know – by staying on the freeways this trip. There’s always next time to take the side roads and the by-ways.

France is simply a beautiful country. Incredibly industrialised – hardly a spot appears to be “wild” – if its “natural” looking, its been gardened that way. This extends to all the farmland I passed through, realistically the land on either side of a major international motorway is going to be more developed than elsewhere in the country, but it is noticeable how built-up and trimmed the french countryside looks. The roads are incredibly good, expensive, tolls cost me as much as diesel for the trip, but there are rest stops every 10 kilometres, and petrol stations with hotels, restuarants and shops, about every 20 kilometres. I have two useful electrical outlets on my dash (let’s hear it for the fiat doblo) so can plug in the gps and a phone or mp3 player at the same time, so I had great communications and music all the way. And after deleting the eco-warrior punishment mode, the gps gadget was quite good about keeping me on the right roads – its got funky 3D visuals for intersections which really help when you’re driving on a different side of the road.

Again, this was a new experience for me. I’ve driven in a portuguese car in Portugal, but this was an english car in France – so I was on the wrong side, for the roads I was on. Trusted friends had advised that its not hard to do – only toll booths are a mission (you’re on the wrong side of the car to take tickets or put coins in a slot – especially without a passenger to do it for you) and sharp slanted intersections are a problem as you’re on the far side of the direction other drivers will come from, so don’t see them easily. I just took it slow, and felt protected by the sheer bulk of the little van – normal cars would be unlikely to drive into me by mistake, even if I was in the wrong, as long as I drove slowly, and I have generally found truck drivers to be the most aware and considerate drivers around. At least, that is still my theory, and its worked so far!

France is all neat fields and postcard villages, they even have roadsigns with the postcard on for you to take photo’s in case you don’t visit the village. And mile upon mile of vineyards: Bordeaux and Cognac regions, have to go back and do those much more slowly (and with a stop-over so I can do some tasting!)

On the first day I was so relaxed by the easy driving on the toll roads, and the good nights rest on the ferry, that I did nearly a ton of mileage – 900kms. It may also have been all that AMAZING french coffee I grabbed everytime I stop to pee….

Its standard practise for me to go with the flow and see where the road or “fate” leads, so I hadn’t booked a place to sleep. I wasn’t even sure whether I’d stop, or whether I’d just pull over into one of the truck stops, and grab 30 winks like the truck drivers do. But having been chatted up by 4 different interesting but not very sensitive looking truckers, on the ferry, while just getting water and a coffee in the morning, I wasn’t that keen to take a chance on being the sole female in a french truck stop.

So I found an amazingly organised motel just off the freeway in Biarritz, kind of smokey french roadside motel movie style. Booked in with a minimum of effort – its interesting how these transactions require very little language skill. You need a room, for 1 night, for 1 person. Almost all this can be indicated by pointing at the pricelist, and gesticulating at my car (parking?) and the ashtray (slashing hand across throat – NO SMOKING room please). Anyway, the lady seemed to get it, and the room was fine.

It even came with a tubby shirtless dude next door who obviously fancied himself as the Star of the “french motel movie” – walking round the balcony (it is winter here, by the way) half-naked, smoking, and shouting on his phone in French, I’m guessing making very impressive deals like in the mafia movies but as I’m english… and the people the other side were spanish, sadly his show was a little wasted.

Luckily for everyone he quietened down by the time I came back from the buffet, and had stopped smoking outside my window. I’m a pretty easy going traveller, and I try not to stand-out or attract any unecessary attention. But smoking near my bed – especially considering the EU has great regulations on this – is just seriously going to cheese me off! He must have recognised the look of a rabid anti-smoking crusader, as he was gone.

Morning brought more amusement though. He came to breakfast – this is a cheap but conservative little family motel – full of kids, young couples, couples taking gran somewhere – in his leopard print DRESSING GOWN, and matching fuzzy slippers. Fairly certainly naked underneath, you have to imagine a chunky looking chap of about 35, deeply tanned, heavy gold chain, seriously weird mohawk type haircut and an expression of pure delight on his face, watching everyone else watching him. When I see people behave like that, I often wonder – are they a total narcissist and can’t see any problem with their actions, or is this a buddha – provoking us all to react and respond, giving us an opportunity to be mindful?

The receptionist got really cross, (he was obviously not her type) and told him to go change so they had a long and very verbose arguement which I wished I could understand, as lots of people kept smiling, I think the argument got quite personal. His friend looked slightly embarrassed but kept tucking into the croissants from the buffet, much to the receptionist’s further annoyance as its strictly one each, but she was so distracted by dressing gown man, his friend kept finding moments to nick another bun. I think the two of them were even travelling in a big red sportscar parked sideways across two spaces, perhaps he was actually a porno star – the French riviera must be a good place to make those kinds of movies? not sure about his weird haircut, maybe it was a punk movie. But he was pretty tanned. All over by the look of it. Who knows. Certainly kept me chuckling through breakfast.

Tomar and the Festa Dos Tabuleiros

The potential for beauty

I love this space – I don’t know if its “the one”, settling in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language well, and quite far out in a rural area, is going to be hard work, so I’m taking my time chosing.  But this was one of the first places I saw, the soil looks absolutely glorious – rich dark and loamy, still full of moisture even though temperatures were around 40 degrees C.  I’d have to do quite a bit on the house, there are massive stone storage, barns, sheds and a long basement area, and a very wacky add-on with a suspended pink bathroom which probably sounds better than it looks.  Kitchen has an old fashioned (I’m talking medieval) fireplace, and the floor is solid beams with nothing underneath – so you can hear the animals, and they can warm the house a bit on winter days.

Back in Portugal again next week to take another look around at other similar but larger properties – this is only 3500 sqm so may be too small, as I’d like to teach Permaculture and we’d need a food forest space as well as a woodland to really get into it, but there’s a lot of rural land around in Portugal – and always the potential to just rent a bit for specific things.


Espiguieros in Soaju

Portugal my love

Why do I love Portugal?

Just spent a week with lovely friends touring Central and Northern Portugal, looking at rural properties ripe for renovation as I’ve decided its time to make my move to the countryside.

For the people

And the fact that there are relatively less of them, this is peak hour traffic at 8am (Portuguese, especially in Cascais, rise later, so actually there was a little traffic, but an hour later!!)

And the stone castles and walls

Hidden grottos to hide from the heat, and marvel at the beauty

Lizards and benches everywhere,

And the ingenuity – of building between two rocks, because why not?

And the ingenuity of an espiguiero – a stone carved corn store on mushroom leggies, that stays dry, and rat-free – for centuries

And the ingenuity of vineyards with ancient vines which are pinned up on stone pillars to shade sensitive vegetables from (this day) 42 degree C temperatures

And for getting the job done – sans ladder or any complicated expensive stuff like that, even though you probably will not get planning permission for anything that is done without a suitably qualified (And heavily insured) engineer present, even if he hangs out the window to do it!

And I love the Manueline style and all the other architectural styles, so much art and craft – all mixed beautifully together!

And new architecture everywhere – my friend Antonio’s new look Sao Tome apartments in Lisbon

Stunning red staircases, old stone ones,  and old and new wooden doors,

Smart cars with diamante (why not?) amoung the mercedes and the tractors

And wavy grey and white stone block paving

I love Portugal for their resilience – ancient waterwheels – this in Tomar

And modern use of solar power – a whole solar farm just outside newly refurbished town of Soaje

And wind power – with towering turbines on ridges absolutely all over the place

I love Portugal for being the western-most country on mainland Europe, only a tiny piece of Ireland is more westerly than this point

And for the ocean which is still pretty clean, cold and surfable for wild Dolphins (this is just off Cascais, near Lisbon!)

A country full of space – to dream while doing, places of beauty to see while the silence and the stillness of the land allows you to easily slip into “just being” mode,

a country full of history so deep it flows in the rivers, and art and creativity so new the artists don’t even know what will happen next!

Walking up the volcano

Took an extreme hike through Cero Chatto crater…. 1800m up – then down into the crater, back up to the edge, and down again. Ain’t never seen paths like this before.

And absolutely loved that swim in pea green cold water, and back up and out the other side. 12 kms, 7 hours.  and most of then travelling either vertically up or down.  Apparently  some totally insane people do it in the rain… we were covered in mud even though it was “dry”  today.

Anyway, not something to take on lightly? But the highlight is the  bathe after. In the hot river Arenal, near Tabacon, they drop you at a part of the river with a small weir under a bridge followed by a dam…. sounds arbitrary but you can easily get down under the bridge, then slide into the pool formed by the dam, and sit in 38degree water near the massaging effect of the weir.

For an hour.

The guides sit and smoke under the bridge and occasionally bring gin and tonic. This is after dark so they stick candles to the rocks so you have a pretty albeit vague picture of the place, and tonight we had moonlight. The crowd was pretty cool. At one stage there were about 40 people in a swimming pool sized area.
Definitely worth trying… and only 6 of the 40 did our big hike… so you don’t need to kill yourself on the 7 hour walk to get on the hot springs bonus..

Posted from WordPress for Android