After two years of enjoying our early retirement in a villa in the mountains of Central Portugal, we needed something more fulfilling and adventurous than sunbathing, reading, surfing the net and entertaining house guests. We had unsuccessfully tried to rent a smallholding when we were first married, being interested in self-sufficiency, and when our children were young we had two allotments at different times.  Now, with time on our hands, we thought of looking for a smallholding again. With half of Portugal for sale (so we were told many times) there would be no problem finding a small granite house to renovate, with a couple of acres of land and a water supply. I drew up a list of requirements and we set about looking. This was a pleasant task which involved spending lots of sunny occasional days with estate agent-types, some legally registered and many casual middle-men.

We spent three days escorted by Fernando, visiting ten properties in the Seia/Gouveia area, which borders the Serra de Estrela, very pretty countryside and granitic land. An estate agent often has to invent names for anonymous patches of land far from any village. This one had an old plough on it. . . “Quinta do Arade” (Plough Farm) was the top of a hillside, with a ruined house beside a large bare slab of stone “ideal for building a house on it”. There were several large cherry trees on this land, which were in full fruit at the time, so we took advantage of nature’s kind offer and sampled a good portion of them, some deep red, others bright red and yellow. There were no delineated fields nor crops, in fact, nothing to suggest it was a farm at all. “It has clear access to the house” i.e. no access road across the land to the bare rock site for the house. There was no electricity anywhere nearby, so it was a non-starter.

We were shown a large house with nicely terraced land and irrigated gardens, high in the mountains, having a stunning view overlooking both São Romão (a picturesque town) and a large part of Portugal. Its upper boundary was a Roman road. However, its driveway was very steep, and the trip into town was along a steep winding road. No key was available for us to look inside the place, so we moved on.

We were offered a quinta which had a substantial stream flowing through the land. Included in the sale was a Roman bridge made with five huge stone slabs about twenty feet long.

We looked around the Castelo Branco area for three days at a time, staying on its quiet and clean campsite four times. Most of the properties we were shown had a narrow access track between two high stone walls, usually only slightly wider than our car. A camper van or builders lorry would not find enough room to get through. However, one place we viewed had flat land and good access straight off a minor tarmac road. Its two storey farmhouse was in good repair, it had a big well beside the house which provided ample water, and the laden fig tree beside that supplied us with our lunch. The land area was quoted as four hectares (nine acres) but when I walked around it seemed much smaller, so I queried it. The estate agent made a phone call and said that if we came back in the evening she could get more details. As we left, a man called to us and introduced himself as a member of the family. We learned from him that the advertised land included a plot on the other side of the road which was sold some years ago, the land now for sale was two hectares and the agent’s details were wrong. The sale had not been legally registered so the agent’s paperwork was technically correct and the sale had to be suspended pending legalisation.

Another quinta had a very practical house in excellent order, although built only from breeze blocks. It had a swimming pool and springboard set in a lush garden although the pool water was as green as the irrigated lawn. The only part of house facing south was a windowless wall, as this was on the boundary of the land. Its gardens were tended by a live-in gardener built like an ox, he looked just like Jaws in the James Bond films, whose pride and joy was a very powerful rotovator. His aftershave permeated the walls of his room. Our guide said he was not very bright but he went out to Castelo on Saturdays, pulling the birds. After our first two visits the owner discussed the sale with his wife and that was the end of the sale. He sold his house in Castelo Branco instead.

Now in her 50’s, Maria ‘s spine was crumbling and her bank manager said that she ought to sell her 2-hectare quinta on the edge of a village. It included a house, an excellent range of outbuildings, a barn, and housing for her twenty sheep, lots of rabbits and chickens. The house was in superb condition, beautifully designed, nearly new and half-unused, ideal for a family of four and a granny. Her late husband had put an equal amount of thought into the excellent irrigation system for the land and the planting of its vineyard. She lived in a part of the house with her mother, an ill-natured granny, a skinny black-clad crone who sat on a stone beside the front door, scrubbing dried maize cobs together to make chicken food, complaining about her daughter Maria. The shutters of this house were always closed, keeping the place very cool even in summer. The Portuguese do not like spending money on electric lighting and it was not easy to view anything in the gloom when we returned for a second viewing. Maria insisted we stayed for dinner – she had made a stew from her own rabbits and wine. It was strong and delicious. She had not thought of a price for the quinta. It was worth about double our €150,000 budget, and we said so. She said, sincerely, we could come and live there with them until we could afford the market value! We had to pass up this offer – the granny was too much!