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

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….




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!

A view of Puerto Viejo and Caribe Sur

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Settling in and chilling out

I’ve reached that slowly steaming point, like a delicious bread during those last few minutes of browning in the perfectly warm oven,  where I am aware of comfort and peace most of the time. Have met a bunch of lovely people who live locally so have walking dates, and breakfast company,  and guidance on where to go (Everywhere) and what not to do (not much on That list… these guys really live… suck the marrow as they say… bit hardcore even for me, some of it!!).


My personal swimming pool. That's the reef just off the beach, and those are trespassers. They don't know there's more the same just round the trees.

Also enjoy that I’ve semi worked out the local logistics, like the amount of time the buses are usually behind the printed schedule (or, as in most of India and Africa, knowing which buses usually won’t arrive at all and how long to wait for those, before taking a taxi!)

I have local food in the fridge and cupboard – pinto beans and relatively cheap organic brown rice (after all it is cheaper to produce, weirdly enough), super-sweetened drinking yoghurt as no-one seems to make natural/greek/unsweetened yoghurts; completely pasteurised and homogenised milk which tastes disgusting but there are  ot many cows around so I guess milk is ‘imported’ from the central highlands; muesli and nuts and vegetarian stuff comparable to the best stuff we get in London and about the same price, gorgeous fruit and strangely enough, pretty expensive vegetables. Tons of coconut and bananas/plantain, as that grows in everyones garden and Alex and Ana drop fresh coconuts (sweet baby coconuts for the water .. agua de pipa) for me every now and then after a walk in their garden.  I always feel I save a bunch of money on my travels where others buy booze, although I do have a pretty steep coffee bill. Actually, come to think of it, beer is cheaper than water most places around here, local Imperial is 1000 colones, about 2 dollars US, 500ml water is the same or more with ice, and a coffee is more, 1200 colones.  I need to change my aaddiction


Can you see the hole in the cliff? No, really.....

I’ve taken a long cycle this week, along the local beach highway, actually a low way,  as it snakes in a perfectly tarred avenue of trees right alongside the coastal beaches and hotels/casas but only changes altitude twice (very unexpectedly and with hilarious results on a bicycle) in the 12kms between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo.  That’s the furtherest point on the coast you can reach in Costa Rica… from where I believe you could walk to Panama although its quite a distance on foot, and serious old growth jungle all the way.  In my uninformed state I might have thought that hike could be good fun, for a blogpost story, as there is some gorgeous coastline to see, but there’s also still Serious Wild Life out there.

The locals were chastised by the expats last week for beating up on a Big crocodile that had wandered out the jungle into town, I was on my eco-friend high-horse about it till I found out it measured 12 feet. ( and no, they didn’t intend to or succesfully kill it, they chased it into a yard with a wall, and called the environmental agency people who came to take it away — I believe he now has a luxurious position at the local Jaguar Rescue Centre, where his war wounds are much admired by tourists, and they’ve never had a Jaguar to rescue, sadly, so he’s kind of the star attraction… :-)♡

I’ve walked the Cahuita trail, with my spanish professor’s german husband, Alex, why do germans walk so fast? It’s a 7km beachside path overhung with palm trees and almond trees in their autumnal glory, and I gasped at the unbelievable beauty of the coast, white coral beaches and offshore reef,  palm trees and tropical jungle.  Alex did admit that he comes here to meditate, he didn’t call it that but when he has pressing problems he walks here, apparently about 60 times a year.  That’s a lot of problems… (reminder, not to downplay the potential stress of crazy neighbours and he certainly has those,  -but this guy lives in 6 hectares of paradise. With birds, red squirrel,sloths, the most amazing tropical garden with some old growth trees.  I guess it could be the annoyance of tourists like me coming for spanish lessons with our horrendous dutch accents… hehe maybe he walks to spend the time laughing so he can keep a straight face when  doing conversation classes with us)


Ha. A trained monkey. DO NOT FEED WILDLIFE ANYWHERE ANYHOW. You change their behaviour. NOT GOOD

We watched a white faced monkey stealing biscuits out a closed rucksack (he must have seen the YouTube video on how to open the darn thing!! Certainly he knew what he was doing and nearly made off with the girl’s camera too, although she fought him on that one).  One of the park employees pointed out the scariest yellow snake leering down from the roof of a picnic area shelter which made me pretty uncomfortable as it was almost invisible, you’d never spot it unless it moved.  And that in your sandwich would raise some pretty serious adrenalin


Observing the observer... totally yogic. Love that suit

.  We also saw a family of racoony creatures on the beach scavenging, who totally ignored all of us, a bunch of lizards and other small reptiles (spot the mini-dinasaurous in the photo below… if you can… hint – he’s definitely looking at you, and he’s just behind the palm frond)


Can you see him?

and so many birds.  An incredibly beautiful walk, completely flat and mostly shaded, I give it 210/10.  Not to disapoint my avid fans however, who will be waiting for the but….


Cahuita - fallen trees

I have to mention that the whole trail is slowly falling into the sea. All along we saw huge chunks of coast which must have just dropped away, as the previously upstanding trees are now being slowly eroded away by the tides.  Alex mentioned one particukar area he had played frisbee a couple weeks before with his son, and that beach no longer exists, also the picnic shelter with snake has been moved about 10 metres from what is now sea.

So this is the Caribean coast of Costa Rica and does not look- to the ancient geography trained science graduate in me, like a sinking coastline as there are huge beaches all around this point… I thought when landmasses sunk into the sea the beach was the first thing to go, but I’m open to feedback on this one.  We conjectured about the dryness of some of the landscape, and a few areas which seemed particularly hard hit in terms of fallen trees where the jungle had seriously receded, all dessicated and sandy quite far back off the beach. Perhaps dead trees don’t hold their soil so well and the ever aggressive sea takes that piece of beach back. Apparently it’s been a couple years of quite drought-like dry (winter to us) season – try to imagine that, and picture 2-3 metres of annual rain as including any amount of dry.

I’ve also learned a ton of spanish, just don’t ask me to actually say anything yet, I’m just getting the pronombres sorted and I still get confused about reflexive and direct ones. That could take me a year or two.

Heh he and about any other tense than the present – who knew it was so easy to reach the enlightening position of living entirely in the present, by simply learning another language only in the one tense and then being forced to communicate like that,  I am having a good time, I am having coffee, I am washing and showering and swimming and sleeping and eating and studying – like a huge banana-split of language, its just all here and now in this one bowl because the only thing I know to say in past tense is “yo fui” – I travelled – which means I can indicate my previous arrival in the country but have no way to indicate I’m ever leaving. Brilliant, pure Zen. Hilarious!!!!!

Nature here is extraordinary, she’s right on the doorstop trying to get in, any garden that gets ‘weedeaten’ which is the most popular method of holding Her back, looks exactly the same after about 3 days. Alex laughed when I mentioned this, and pointed out what it would look like without the weedeating. The fridge was full of little scarily black speckles this morning so I swept them out the back door, as I did the little fruit flies who’d been caught in the fridge trying to steal a snack, came back to unfrozen life and flew off. 

A red squirrel, much cuter than the english greys, amuses us about the same time every afternoon, there used to be a hedge behind the patio (there’s a crazy neighbour story there….) and there’s now a narrow fence, this little guy has learned to traverse the fence sideways as it was far too narrow to walk along the top, its real circus entertainment. No photo as it always happens during class and I’m supposed to be studying…. There are sloths in the garden though I haven’t seen one yet, and fireflies all over at night. Not too many mosquitos, apparently the dry season is misleading on this as they practically carry you off when its monsoon time. We’ve had a solid 6 hours of rain one morning and a hour or two here and there to distribute all the humidity hanging in the air , didn’t help much, after walking or any activity the sweat literally pours off me, any physical yoga is a strictly evening or dawn affair. I have no idea what temperatures are, guessing they go up into the late 30s but never really drop below 20. Centigrade.

Its blissful and the average expression on people’s faces seems to include laughter. The expression of choice is “pura vida” which is used as a slogan for beer as well as a cheerful goodbye or hello and in answer to the question “how are you”. The Pure Life.

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Week 5&6 on the Caribbean coast

Have settled happily in a small casa (house) on the property of Ana Piedra, a justly-famous Spanish proferssor, and her fascinating German/Costa Rican husband Alex. It’s in a garden full of crotelaria bushes, trees and birds, an oasis to the surrounding crowded and over developed suburbia.

Strangely, while this is “rural” Costa Rica, we have all the services although like many places in CR the water is probably not good for my european-trained stomach (so bottled water only 4 me) and the sewage system doesn’t like paper which gets disposed of separately. And the neighbours mostly believe they are in a disco or deaf so the noise levels are unbelievable for anyone who hasn’t lived in a South Indian town where they have the same mind-set. Its not so much loud music all night although we’ve had some of that, as revving car engines for hours and very early morning metal cutting (try 6am) in some backyard home workshop 1 house down. I think as overall noise levels outhere with no freeway, trains or planes, are so low, its really noticeable.

The pollution issues are classic 3rd world – most local people still seem think its really ok to collect their own rubbish and plastics and then burn them behind their house, but if it’s not their family’s rubbish and at home, it’s quite ok to leave it – on the beach or in the bush between the tropical wildlife, orchids and ancient trees that the tourists come for.

There are a few erstwhile folk down at the beach who painfully and very publicly sweep up plastics and bottles dumped by their partying mates the night before, but a lot of that seems to be only in the presence of tourists, many of them are disabled so it seems to be a way to make money as a tip of some kind from me the tourist, for the effort, is pretty much expected (monetary of course, and they take dollars and beers). Kind of “you want to enjoy a clean beach, so pay for it – because our governing bodies certainly don’t”.

Much like my own country, ZA, around this beach at least, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of civic or national pride shown by locals, in their amazingly beautiful country.

The Espanol classes with Ana, and sometimes with Alex, are provi g really useful. Every afternoon for 3 hours on the porch of the large casa I share with Alex’ 15 year old son, Daniele. The casa is painted a wonderful tropical green and tiled and full of windows and fans and cool breezes, and spotlessly clean. A real delight. 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, and half the house a long high-ceilinged open-plan living area with desk, handmade wooden chairs (v v comfortable!!) And kitchen – all the basics, and its enough.

The neighbours, however, are loco. On the day I arrived one cut down a small copse of banana trees and other flowering shrubs and bushes next to the fence, sadly on the outside. Apparently that space is nominally defined as a public thoroughfare- but as one side connects to a tough and aggressive neighbour so is now pretty much private property and inaccessible, and it doesn’t actually connect anything, clearing half seems incredibly pointless. The gorgeous plants that were hacked down with gay abandon and some malice methinks, hosted a number of large iguana, a black/red squirrel, and any number of birds, but in spite of cajoling and sensible arguements from my hosts, this nutter continued on his “civic duty” to make this space accessible. Now his kids who should be in school hare up and down there during classtime, smashing sticks against the fence. Neighbour problems but with some profound long term impact on the overall area.

Behind Alex’s 3 hectare property, and also a block away, closer to the main national road, similar manic destruction of treed areas is happening. The excuse of the landowners apparently being that the land is up for sale and new owners will want it cleared. My heart just breaks to see them hacking down really really tall trees – 20\30 metres, old growth, and then burning them to clear the ground, as they’ve not been felled for timber why do anything else with the wood? Its brainless savage destruction and there’s absolutely no policing or municipal regulations to prevent it. In rural areas along waterways (these two examples are neither rural nor on water) the trees may not legally be felled within 50m of a waterway to prevent erosion problems. There, you can report someone who clear trees, but it will usually be after the event in which case nothing can be done to save the trees, and according to the various horror stories I heard in Puriscal, near the farm, only a small fine is sometimes levied – depending on whether the landowner has “friends in high places” or pays bribes.

So while millions are being spent to protect trees in certain areas and to painfully, carefully, reforest other areas, wilful manic massive destruction of the country’s assets continues unashamedly and very very quickly. Its quite horrific to see an acre of forest disapear within a day and then see massive smoke plumes for the next few days as those divine trees are simply burned, releasing all that carbon and making the air poisonous, this aspect of Costa Rica is totally freaking me out ( as you may have realised…)

However, I simply watch it all. This is not my country and I don’t have any leverage to encourage change or a way to educate people in appreciating the intrinsic value of what they are destroying. Anyway, we aren’t doing any better in South Africa or the U.K., and much worse in India, three other countries I love, and know well.

Now just recently we see massive floods again in the UK, a seemingly annual occurrence now, within totally de-forested and untreed agricultural areas in the UK, and causing mass destruction of towns and homes. So a result we could learn from. However, rather than talk about giving land back to nature and keeping it covered in trees, which was its natural form in much of the U.K., all we seem prepared to do is blame the current (3 year old) government, and suggest massively destructive “solutions” like dredge rivers deeper so the rain can rush out to sea faster – along with all that english topsoil.

it is horrific, sitting here watching the process happen from a little earlier in the social development of a young country. First capitalistic greed takes hold, they apply the “rules” of the World Bank and US trade agreements, following religiously the “growth principle” and enforcing each landowning citizen’s total right to “property value increase” and viz a viz right to destroy that land – or whatever you want to call our current philosophy or economic principle, it’s certainly taking shape and gaining force in Costa Rica.

However, its a no-brainer to reach the conclusion that we in the so-called first world really have no value to bring or advice to give. We ourselves have no idea how to care for the planet or prevent our environments from becoming totally inhospitable. We are absolutely all in this together, wanting nice holiday hotels with big lawns but continued access to primary forest (!! ????), super cheap food at home from fields denuded of their organic matter and nutrients, easy access on wide straight roads and trainlines to absolutely anywhere we feel we want to go, there’s a long list. With a massive environmental charge we are simply not paying at the moment.

But we will. And so will the iguanas, the howler monkeys, the last few jaguars and macaws and dolphins, and the rest.

I’m not feeling very proud to be a human being at this time.

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