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 Bookings.com 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 🙂

Coimbra – Beautiful City

A chilled warm Christmas ?

Christmas was so special this year.

I drove to a town in the North of Portugal, called Paredes Da Coura – my portuguese “family” (that’s my sister’s husband’s family, to be factually correct, but they’re becoming my extended family here too!) invited me to spend the holiday with them.

“I&J” live in an amazing architect designed “eco” house on a hillside overlooking a green fertile valley. They have ducks, and a large vegetable garden, and so much water that a stone channel full of water runs through their garden all year.

The house is full of treasures, “I” spent her childhood in Mocambique and has inherited a lot of her parents treasures from there. Both she and her sister are amazing chefs, so I was totally spoiled, with a lot of amazing organic vegetarian food.

Being able to relax and enjoy the fire, and the heating, and the warm shower and bedroom, with my little damp electricity-less cottage waiting for me, was a real Happy Christmas for me!

Christmas day brought a walk in the valley to the local stream, with the main dog (well, he thinks he is) Alves. What a character.


 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alves strutting his stuff

Family and friends sent wishes and love and connected with me through the internet, such an amazing tool when you live on the move as much as I do.

I had to laugh at the message from my dear brother who hopes its a good year for me, and that with all my green intentions here in POrtugal, that I’ll save the world – by recycling or something…. well, you never know.

 

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 Bookings.com (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….