living in rural Portugal


Although 0.3mm of rain was forecast for yesterday the sky remained clear with no sign of rain even in the distant Spanish mountains. At teatime a few clouds appeared and water droplets fell for a minute. I was at the far end of our land and didn’t get wet. Was that all? Forecast wrong. But at least it was the harbinger of rain.

At 11pm as I was closing my laptop computer, with the living room windows still open, I thought I heard drops of rain on the “lawn” outside. I went onto the patio and there were certainly sounds of raindrops so I sat on the swing seat and listened as rain arrived, then remembered to put the rain gauge out. I listened happily for the next twenty minutes as the first rain since mid May pattered off the vine leaves and soaked into the bone-dry earth; 3.5mm fell and the air smelled sweet.

after the shower

This morning there was mist hanging on the village and the moisture allowed sounds to carry clearly. I sat and listened to the cockerels dotted around the landscape and the bells of a flock of sheep in a field to the east of the village. It was cool, lovely!

Three days ago I checked the sweetness of the grapes with the saccharometer and found that they are ready for winemaking. However they are not big and plump. After late frost froze off the first crop of baby grapes, then two weeks later in May the same again followed by three months without rain, we are lucky to even have an estimated twelve crates of fruit, under half the usual yield. I decided to hold out for some rain, to wash off traces of ash from the forest fires from the grapes and to get juicier fruit. The first rain for fifteen weeks – at last! Now, at 9am, the sun is hot as usual, but the air feels fresher and smells good.

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The muffled sound of a slow propellor aeroplane awoke me this morning, so I knew that the forest fire in Louriçal do Campo was still burning and in its third day. I turned on the television and found (on national news) that there is now a fire even closer to us, on our side of Fundão.

alcongosta fire 14aug 2017 credit RTP

The TV shows scenes of urgent activity and people shouting with flames in the background. Outdoors here, although it is hot weather the sun is not white but orange and glows onto the parched fields where faint ash drifts down.

 

 

As we walk on the patio it swirls around our feet. The air is smoky blue, still and quiet as on a foggy day. There is no sound of birds nor barking dogs, not even tractors today. It’s like the world is waiting for something. There is the smell of woodsmoke in the air.

This picture was taken at breakfast-time from the swing-seat on our patio.

When the wind starts to blow the sun brightens and the blue smoke thins, allowing us to see through and across the valley to our village.

From the patio I can sometimes hear the drone of a fire-plane above the blanket of smoke which lies thick and grey over the Serra de Gardunha near Fundão. Today is a public holiday, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and normally Fundão would have an extra market day. Clearly that won’t happen now.

alcongosta fire2 credit RTP

Castelo Novo is surrounded by fire and people can’t leave their village. On the internet we find that 300 firemen, 95 vehicles and 12 planes are involved in fighting the fire. Many local roads and even main roads in the area, the A23 and N18, have sections which are closed. This is for three reasons: to prevent rubbernecking, to ensure fire services have clear access, and to avoid cars getting trapped and subsequent loss of life. These are reminders of the huge fire in Pedrogão Grande last month in which officially over sixty people died -word on the ground is more like double or treble that number. The flames consume much of the oxygen from the air locally, so a car engine can’t work; it stalls. Then the car’s occupants die from smoke and asphyxiation. The same in any house in a burning forest, and there are hundreds of these houses hidden in the woods; after the fire there are no trees to hide them and their blackened walls are revealed.

Santa Luzia dam near Pedrogao, empty

Because over 70% of Portugal is classed as in severe drought (and 10% more as extreme drought) there’s little water available to douse the flames. Santa Luzia dam is almost the nearest to Pedrogao Grande and the picture was taken in July 2017. Even the base of the dam is virtually dry, and a fire plane could not fly over the surface to scoop water up from here.

 

 

Our neighbour has just phoned us to say another fire is burning six miles from us. We hope there’s no wind tonight. This picture was taken at 7.30pm from our lawn.

Update, 16th August.

No wind overnight and the bombeiros  have put out the main fire. Several fire planes went overhead mid-morning, going to the current big fire further south in Santarem. The air is much clearer now and the temperatures are back to high 30’s. We had an Amazon delivery at lunchtime and the driver said diversions are in place because power lines are down – in rural Portugal power and phone cables are not buried, they are on wooden poles. Several times we have driven through fire zones to see burning poles hanging from the power lines they once supported.

Sometimes there is poor mobile coverage in forest fire zones because the power line to the mobile phone relay masts have burnt down.

 

 

As the grapes near ripeness it is not easy to decide when to harvest them. The best wine comes from the ripe grapes; too late and the grapes shrink to raisins and the rabbits, birds, wasps and ants would take more of the crop. Also there is always a risk of a surprise storm in September, which washes the natural yeasts off the grapes, so increasing the chance of spoilage when the wine is made. We can estimate the sweetness of the fruit but this year we have bought a saccharometer, a specialized refractometer.saccharometer
To use it I simply squeeze a drop of grape juice onto a glass window at the end of the device, flick over the cover slip to spread a film of grape juice over the window, then look through the eyepiece. I see a scale backlit with blue and white, the boundary shows the scale reading in percent sugar in the juice.

Janet and I went sampling lots of grapes with it for two evenings before deciding it was time to pick them.

The next morning at 8am we heard a diesel car pulling up between our farm buildings, then the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. I ran out and greeted “our” shepherdess Manuela and her son Bruno (who was ten years old when we bought the quinta and is now a strong young man of eighteen). “We are helping you with your vindima (grape harvest) !” she declared with a broad smile. “When is it?”

“Lovely ! That would be really great!” we said, “How about Friday?”

“Decided. Friday morning at seven. We’ll be there in the vineyard,” and after a short chat they left. Bruno came round again a couple of hours later to say he forgot he had another job on Friday so would tomorrow Thursday be good? “Yes, fine,” we agreed, “See you at seven.”

ManuelaP1040661 BrunoTo cut the story short, with all the vines on wires and crates already out, four of us on the job and a lovely morning, we had the entire crop stacked in the adega by 11:30.

Bruno and I hoisted the nasty esmegador (crusher) onto the big 320 litre fermenting vat and as a team we had all the grapes crushed into three vats before noon. P1040663 dornas 2015a tilt

They declined our offer of lunch, insisting their family eat together at home, so we had a quick meal before spending a couple of hours cleaning up. Once washed, everything dries quickly in the hot sunshine and we had the crusher and crates put away by afternoon tea on 3rd September, ten days earlier than our average date.

eating grapesWe racked the wine ten days later and it’s now fermenting out in three plastic barrels, 250ℓ of red and 60ℓ of white wine. Although this is less than last year after such a dry summer the new irrigation of the vines has served us well, and we still have eighty litres of red and fifty of white wine in the cubas (it tastes very good too). We’re really pleased about this because we never add sulphites to preserve the wine, it is totally organic, so it is food and medicine to us. The downside to this is that it doesn’t travel well – sorry, folks!

 

 

 

charca full

Charcas (storage pools) are on most farms in this country. They are spring-fed but they almost dry out during the arid summer. Willows tend to grow in the moist soil and can survive having their roots in water during the winter. Now is the easiest time to cut them. To get rid of this brushwood the trees have to be cut into pieces which Janet and I can drag out, then I recover the thickest pieces for firewood in winter.

empty charca

Inside the dry charca

Inside the dry charca

 

 

The bus to Fundão

Early one Tuesday morning Janet drove me to the bus stop beside the café ten minutes early for the bus to Fundão – there is one at 06:40 and another at lunchtime. As we drew near the bus began to move off but stopped when I waved at the driver. Once aboard I asked why he was leaving early. “Ah,” he said “On schooldays it is at 6.40 but in the school holidays it’s at 6.30am. On market day it’s always at 6.30 because there’s another bus at 8.30am. On schooldays we detour through a local village but we miss that bit in the holidays. If it’s a Holy Day . . .” and so on.

There was plenty of loud banter – very entertaining and a bit coarse, lots of naughty gossip, as we rushed along the narrow roads. Speaking this odd language is a real advantage if part of the banter is about you. I discovered that by now all the passengers had worked out exactly which farm is mine and the chap sitting behind me knew my neighbour really well, he’d even worked on my farm years ago. Twenty minutes later, in the middle of a little village we stopped and the driver got out of his seat. “Café!” he announced, and six of us went to get a coffee at the bar opposite the bus stop. Having swigged my shot of hot stimulant I was pleased to find that the man I was talking with, from the seat behind me, had paid! The trip to Fundão continued – for a hundred yards. A passenger was allowed off at the bread shop and our journey was paused again until she returned with two bags of bread and cakes.

Passengers swap garden produce on the bus, and a lad paid an old lady who had gone to the chemist for his medicine and gave him a dose there and then. Nearer to Fundão our road was blocked by a car left outside a village shop and our driver had to go and get the car moved so we could pass. This is pretty well the norm for the one-hour journey.

 

Knickers

On 12th April whilst Janet was in England I ordered some silk knickers for her from China, as a surprise present when she came back. After two weeks the company said the goods been despatched. On 6th May they had still not arrived and as I was writing an email to them the postman arrived with a registered letter. It said, “Your goods do not have the required documentation and are being held in Customs” so I deleted the email and rang the phone number from the letter instead. A functionary replied and demanded I send the original order form for the goods and proof of the price paid. He eventually agreed that electronic documents were OK so I sent pdf’s of them. They replied like this:

Exmo. Senhor(a),

Gostaríamos, desde já, de agradecer o seu contacto, que mereceu a nossa melhor atenção. Aproveitamos para informar que o mesmo está já a ser analisado, pelo que contamos enviar-lhe, o mais brevemente possível, uma resposta sobre o assunto em questão.

“Most excellent Sir or Madam, We should like, in advance, to thank you for your contact, which will merit our best attention. We inform that the very same is already being analyzed, concerning which we count on sending you, as soon as possible, a response on the matter in question.”

On 7th May they requested a scan of my tax number i/d card, to prove I am registered to pay tax, which I sent. A week later Customs sent an email demanding the same documents, again. I replied in a borderline snotty manner attaching them as photos this time. A week later they emailed me to say they had been in contact with the Chinese company in Zhenhai, to verify the order and to obtain the import documents. The value of the goods had been understated to avoid import tax. They now knew the real cost and required me to pay €34 (!) to release the knickers from Customs (Aduaneira), and from 1st June they would charge me an additional €5 a week warehousing. On 22nd May our postman arrived with The Knickers and a bill for €34.Unders P1040601 small

I would have to pay this before he would give them to me.

We hadn’t the cash handy so he took them away. The Post Offices closes for weekend on Friday lunchtime so we couldn’t go to collect them until the following Monday, and pay and sign for them with my passport as proof of identity. There remained one last matter, which is obvious after reading the label.

Unders P1040600 smallI had to ask the postman and the Post office lady if knickers are prohibited in Portugal. Were the classed as dangerous? Maybe silk knickers are? So could I believe they were not “Dangerous articles or articles prohibited by legislation . . .” ?

After waiting six weeks for sexy knickers could we care? !

And when we got them home, there’s the romantic little extra from the Customs to say they were “verified” – so that’s alright then.

 

 

 

In 1997 Hong Kong was being returned to China and the Pet Passport scheme with microchipping was started, so that the Governor and his staff could bring back their dogs without the dreaded six months’ quarantine. It became available to the public in late 2000. We too could have a dog now, and take it abroad every summer on our holidays. We had wanted a dog for years.

Harry sit bHarry the Dog was in a small dog rescue home at Reigate in November. We went to get a labrador with a brown nose but it had been taken earlier that afternoon, and he, a liver-and-white springer spaniel whelp, was left. He was dumped with them some weeks earlier by a military family from Scotland and even now was only five months old. He bounded up and licked Janet furiously, “Please have me.”  Samuel and Laura liked him too so we took him home with us.

Harry not bite

He was a bit loopy and full of energy. We quickly loved him and he reciprocated – proving it by chewing my favourite tie and several socks. Walking him was like flying a kite, until he was let off his lead when he would run and run yet keep an eye on us ready to be called back. Janet and Laura took him to obedience classes but he failed. He once ate Samuel’s put-aside dinner and half a pound of butter. If you sat down he was determined to lick your face all over – or legs, feet, whatever, any skin. A loopy dog full of love.  He would never bite anyone, even if you grabbed his lower jaw, pulled his tail and turned him upside-down!

05aug clive&dog2

He would claim an object as a trophy and run past us over and over, growling and tossing it, getting us to wrest it from him before winning it back again and repeating the show.

He had to be walked every morning by Janet and in the evening we would both take him out, his tail held high or, if he were running, circling fast.

Walking the dog was an onerous yet pleasant task – having to walk out in heavy rain and mud, needing to hose him down before bringing him into the house; night-walking him even after eleven at night when we had been out and he needed his run in the woods (wearing a collar with twenty flashing red LEDs so we could spot him) he always had his walks. We have memories of walking him in Fetcham as heavy snow fell through orange street lighting at night, marveling at the outlandish Christmas lights some people have, or sliding on pavements of ice with doggo straining to pull and get a grip, or with a gale shoving us all around and clattering thousands of crisp brown leaves along the road. Times you wouldn’t go out, unless you had to walk the dog.

 

Harry passpt p1

We obtained a passport for Harry the Dog so that we could take him abroad.  Harry passpt p2For the next six years of his life he went with us on the car ferry to our house in Brittany every Easter and summer. He slept in the car boot unattended for twenty four hours as per Brittany Ferries regulations, before they thought of having kennels on the ferry.

 He just adapted to the routine – amazing!

He was a brilliant companion for Samuel and Laura, especially playing at chase on our big French lawn.

An excellent entertainer, one autumn he played in a field of cabbages, leaping as if he had springs on his feet for five whole minutes, full of the joys of freedom and unlimited energy, with green sheds of leaves flying around his flapping ears whilst we stood beside the field crying with laughter.

Harry camping a

We went camping for weeks on end in southern France and northern Spain and as part of the family he came with us, although he had to live in the car boot. He loved swimming and leaped into any open water wherever he could for a quick dip. He was taken to the seaside, to lakes and river beaches in Spain and to streams and rivers in the Pyrenees. He could run or walk for hours without tiring.

One evening we sneaked him with us into a restaurant in Amarante, Portugal, hiding him under the table which had just been vacated by a couple who’d nibbled a pile of spare ribs. As we waited we slipped a rib to doggo who silently scoffed it and licked his lips. Nice place, isn’t it? – another rib for Harry. It was a busy night and – another rib – whilst the waiter scooted round attending to other people – another – doggo swiftly and silently munched his way through the whole plateful – another – until the waiter finally came to clear up and – quick, last one! – thinking aloud “Oh, that’s odd.” Under the table, a dog full to bustin’.

Doggo enjoying a cup of tea

Doggo enjoying a cup of tea

Samuel and Laura realised that Harry the Hound would do anything for food, which was how they taught him tricks like putting food down and telling him to wait – he would even drool – then when told to “Go on!” watching him pounce on it and devour it instantly. He played hide and seek for food every morning with me, before I went to work. He would woof to be given a cup of tea now and again.

He loved to play “Stick” – show it to him, throw it, he ran for it, brought it back then would not give it up!

Clive, Janet and Harry Dog

Clive, Janet and Harry Dog

When Janet and I emigrated to Portugal in 2004 Harry came with us.

A year later his prostate swelled and he had to be castrated to save his life. His hormones changed, his once silky fur became woolly and his slim muscular form became tubby. We were sad there could be no little Harrys now. He had a great life, lots of woodland walks, and in the winter he slept in his basket near the wood fire in the evenings as it died out overnight. He remained alert, intelligent and active as he grew older, a good companion and always there. He would come into our bedroom and lick us Good Morning every day.

Harry Dog haircutA kind friend told us that he would need his fur cut every summer because it grew thicker now and the summer on Portugal is hot – and after a furcut Harry was very pleased with himself! He always waved his tail like a flag, up high and wagging. He joined us on our exploration of central Portugal and later on the quest to find a quinta to occupy our time.

The builders on our quinta liked him, tossed him scraps, took him to swim in the ponds and made a fuss of him; doggo liked to watch them working.

We drove the car to England every March and took him with us, visiting our families. At the start of our visit three years ago Harry, now twelve, was chased off the farm where we were staying by the farm dogs – they saw him as an old and unwelcome outsider. He was lost to us from before breakfast all day and all that night, which was frosty. Neither we nor our hosts could find him.

Harry and Roxy 2

In the middle of the next morning their neighbour came round saying they had found a dog under a thick thorn hedge.It was Harry, scared and defeated, now chilled to the bones, having had no food or water for 36 hours. We pulled him out and brought him to Laura’s house, where we warmed him and nursed him back to respond to us. Laura’s new puppy Roxy, a gold and blonde cocker spaniel, cuddled up to him, licked him and cheered him up, made him feel wanted again. After two days he could manage to get onto his feet but his tail never rose above half mast again and he ran no more.

 

After that he became an old dog. He slowed down and a year later on the ferry, I had to carry him up and down stairs. He did not want to go for a walk, he preferred to lie down rather than sit, and to stay indoors. His hearing was fading. Janet decided he might improve with a diet of a three-egg omelette for breakfast and meat or fish for tea. However over time his eyes clouded with cataracts, he started to pant more often, his heart became congested, and Janet stayed in Portugal with our doggo whilst I did the family visits alone the next year. He deteriorated, losing his sight altogether and hearing only loud noises, At least he could bark to tell us he needed to go for a wee, but that was sometimes during the night. He struggled to get to his feet, eventually needing putting onto his feet then only creeping as far as the end of the patio to wee.  He gasped for breath at times each day.

I made a short visit to England alone this year. By now his tail was weak and he slept most of the time, sensing very little except touch. His legs were so stiff that he couldn’t get up without help and even when placed onto his feet he needed holding to stop him falling backwards.

Once a month I have to drive over the mountains to check our former house. Over the last year or so Harry panted for most of that journey, it stressed him, so I would go alone and only rarely would all three of us go. This time (May) we did, because the air temperature over there is so much cooler than on the quinta which was forecast as forty degrees for three days. We planned to have Harry’s fur trimmed at the vet on the way back. With the forecast of a very hot summer and a dog already struggling to live, we made the decision, it’s time for Harry to go to sleep forever, life has no joy for him now.

The vet knew us and Harry and was very kind. With us by his side and whilst I stroked his head and said bye bye to Harry she put him to sleep. His feeble heart faded and in a few seconds he was gone. Free from his worn-out body.

He was a wonderful pet who enriched our lives so much. We paid £90 for him – what he gave us was priceless. We miss him immensely.

I think he will reincarnate as a lovely puppy for another couple, a brilliant pet for them too. One of our friends says his spirit will continue to live with us.  What do you think?

 

 

In January a black cat found its way to our house and decided to stay. We already have Harry the Dog who only eats and sleeps now he’s old, and can’t walk more than five metres from the house, but as he’s our dependent dog and our responsibility we are tied down and unable to go away together for more than twelve hours. The idea of allowing another animal to become our responsibility was unappealing so we only fed it a little in the morning to keep it hungry enough to hunt mice and so on for itself, and make it independent. It seemed pretty intelligent. It wanted to live on our patio table and I didn’t want it there, so I made it a box to sleep in on the floor.

a cat boxIt liked that, was happy and put on weight, then during March it inexplicably went away and we breathed a sigh of relief.

I went to England for three weeks and Janet stayed to look after doggo. After my return the now rather scrawny cat paid us a visit, and did the same for a few mornings, always leaving after breakfast. Then it went away again.

We discussed what we would do if the cat decided to stay here, against our wishes, knowing eventually it would have kittens. We decided we would put it in a box and take it away to somewhere distant, then release it near a village – goodbye and farewell ! – but didn’t do it.

cat 4kitsLast week the cat was waiting at our front door for breakfast with four definitely starving kittens, all small black copies of their mum. Oh. We could not leave them hungry so we had to feed them; Janet made them a three-egg omelette like Harry the Dog has for breakfast. They made it vanish like magic! They were really thirsty too.

They settled outdoors on the living room windowsill and patio table, and have lived there now for a week.

P1040611 cats patio With their meals of raw meat, fish, omelette and dried cat food all five cats are much healthier and bigger now. Every morning they are outside the window mewing for food, following Janet like the Pied Piper and getting under our feet every time we open the door. But, we don’t really want them. There are plenty of cats in the village so no-one wants them there. Our nearest cats home is over thirty miles away, but they don’t answer the phone or emails. Ideas anyone?

Well, after a week and countless attempts by the cats to move into our house, we took them to the council animal pound in Fundão. They re-home cats and dogs and do not put them to sleep, so that was an acceptable solution to the problem. They also spey female cats before re-homing them, which we thought is a good policy -at €90 a time we were not prepared to do that to the stray cat and two of her kittens!

P1040614 pile of cats

kitten prowl

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