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We were on holiday in Madeira and on returning to the hired car, found a ticket on the windscreen with a parking fine. To park, it seems, cost €1.50, but we had not seen the ticket machine. The fine was €150. I was distressed.

I had been reading an inspiring book, “Care of the Soul” by Thomas Moore. In it the author points out your responsibility to look after your own happiness and psychological wellbeing, and explains how to do it. “Tending the things around us and becoming sensitive to the importance of home, daily schedule, and maybe even the clothes we wear, are ways of caring for the soul”, to give ordinary life depth and value.

I have always used a fountain pen and ink for marking and for writing letters, and had decided that now, in my sixties, I’d save up to buy a really nice pen.

Parker Sonnet Fougere silver

It turned out to be a Parker Sonnet pen made of solid silver with a gold-and-platinum engraved nib and pretty gold trim. I could get a second-hand one for £230. Paying a €150 fine would wipe out what I’d saved. Laura pointed out that if I could afford to pay a €150 fine I could afford the pen, so just go ahead and buy it when I got home. Sensible.

Well, when we got back to our rented apartment Janet rang the owner to ask for help how to pay the fine and he said the €150 was accumulated parking fines on the car; ours was €6. Laura said, “There you are, dad.”

Then my mind turned over the idea, why spend so much on a pen to write letters that no-one would reply to? Janet said that’s not the point, you are not writing to get a reply, just to enjoy the experience of writing and sending the letter.

Parker steel Falcon

Also I don’t need a silver pen just to write a diary, the steel Falcon I have with a beautiful hi-tech integrated nib has been great for decades.

But still that soul issue lurked. Long story short, I treated myself. The pen sits in a little pool of light on top of the diary on my desk, so I see it many times every day as I walk past, it’s part of my environment. I use it daily and refill it with brown ink every two weeks; doing so makes me content and gives my writing time more richness. I savour using my Sonnet.

You have to be mindful of the things that make you happy and make an extra effort to do things that make you happier each day.

 For me it also means making good dinners and sitting down for a proper family meal. Having log fires in winter. Spending quality time with friends and family. Tending our trees and vines. I could do these things an easier way, but done carefully they make life richer and therefore I’m caring for my soul. Others benefit too, of course.

I could just chuck meat under the grill, but eating outdoors (a barbecue) with all the trimmings and the homemade wines is all care for our souls.

I commend this to you too. What parts of your routine give depth and meaning to your life at the moment? How would you show yourself that you care about how you spend your life, your time that you will only have this once?

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          Samuel is a classical singer – a very good one. He’s also great company. He’s our son too, so I have to declare I may be biased . . . He invited us to Burgos, 500km from here (but at least it is in Iberia)  where he would be working for four days with the Gabrieli Consort, a high calibre Early Music choir.

On Saturday 11th June  we drove to Burgos and when the satellite nav said we had reached our destination we were sunk – it was a street of boarded-up houses with a high-walled park opposite. Eventually we found it was a long street split by a roundabout, but numbered from 1 up at both sides of the roundabout. Two number 2’s, two number 34’s etc. We were directed to the other number 37.

Once installed in our nice hotel on the far side of the roundabout we dressed smartly and walked into town along the riverside to the first concert, in the Cathedral.

One is not allowed to record performances or to take pictures, as artists have to be paid more if this happens! Anyway, the Gabrielis including Samuel were brilliant, singing unaccompanied Requiem for an Empress (written in 1603).  The music is very much better live as the sound is enveloping and resonant in a way that recordings cannot reproduce. It was great!

Lerma is a medieval town 40km distant, and it was there we heard an organ duet concert on Sunday lunchtime. The organs in San Pedro College are a pupil-and-teacher pair imported from Holland four hundred years ago; the picture shows one of the pair, with the college chapel choir-stalls beneath. The other organ is ten metres away with the organists’  backs toward each other and seating for sixty choristers in a C-shape between.

 

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We returned on Monday to hear the Gabrielis give two concerts of music from the 1600’s; the acoustics were good and the performances brilliant.

The streets and all the perimeter of the town’s main square (plaza mayor) are nicely cobbled, and there is very little traffic.

We gave Samuel his dress shirt in his early teens and he loves it to bits! It looks formal but hidden (until he takes off his jacket) are brightly coloured Rupert the Bear pictures on the back and sleeves!

 

Janet wearing Samuel's tails

We drank lots of freshly pressed orange juice with ice, as it’s very unwise to have anything alcoholic within twelve hours of a performance. This picture was taken at a café opposite the parador (posh hotel) in the plaza mayor, which is a broad hilltop with beautiful views across the countryside below – rather like many Italian or Portuguese towns. The plazas are more spacious in Spain, and often without shady trees, relying on the shops around the square having shaded colonnades with rooms above.

Tuesday morning was free time for us to walk into Burgos and buy Morcilla de Burgos (black pudding made with rice, onions and cumin) and other bits ‘n’ pieces.

The most well-known entrance to the town centre is El Cid’s gate, with the cathedral in the background. El Cid was one of the first to organise the expulsion of the moslem North Africans from Spain in the 11th century. He was born near Burgos.

Whilst we enjoyed our free day Samuel and the choir were rehearsing – this is two photos merged and shortened to show how beautiful is the cathedral, a lovely rehearsal room!

Samuel pictured after the rehearsal, pencil to hand (behind his ear!). The evening concert. “Songs of Farewell” comprised four 16C songs, three 19C songs, and two modern ones which were brilliant. One was by Jonathan Dove (born 1959)” Into thy hands”, and the other by James McMillan (also born in 1959) “A child’s prayer” which almost brought me to tears, one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard. This last concert was simply fantastic, especially in this beautiful cathedral with long acoustics, well exploited by the performers.

Looking upwards from my seat, into the lace-like dome of stained glass above the nave. The cross to the left is the same one atop the lofty golden altar in the merged rehearsals picture above.

The concerts were part of a private five-day tour for an audience of just 170 participants organised internationally by Martin Randall Travel, and we would like to thank them for so kindly allowing us to hear the concerts. It was an unforgettable experience. Those participants we met were lovely people, as passionate about music as us, and they made our time with the tour all the more enjoyable.

The rural Portuguese are very traditional and their choice in names is limited, usually a compulsory biblical name (José, João) then, if one’s parents were more imaginative, a couple of extras (Fernando or Carlos). Since there are so few surnames, a man is often given (and has to routinely use) all four of his names. However, we do know men with unusual ones. For example Melchior the architect, Baltazar the calçeteiro (cobble-layer), Joachim our neighbour, Americo the plumber, Anibal our roofer’s neighbour, Horatio who ran a café, two Nelson’s, and Jacinto the builder.

Maria is used for a boy’s second name or a girl’s first name, where it is commonly followed by the name the lady actually uses.   We have  friends with second-name Assumption, Ascension, Birth, Conception, Resurrection, Rosary, and Welcome. (Assunção, Ascenção, Nascimento, Conceição, Resurreição, Rosario and Benvinda). We know two Maria de Jesus’s, a Lourdes (site of virgin Mary’s appearance in France) and two Fatima’s (Mary’s appearance in Portugal).

So why this blog? Well, our daughter is imminently expecting her second child. Her son Dominic, aged five, has chosen its name – Marmalade or Frank. For himself he has decided Harley is the best name. We could do worse – Shadrak, Meshach or Abednigo, anyone?

Two quintas had the same shortcoming. The fields of Senhor B’s were lovely, his young vineyards were well made and his diospiro (persimmon fruit) orchard very productive, but the house was separated from his land. Upstairs there was only one small window giving a view of the serra (mountains) and of his neighbour’s olive orchard which the house directly adjoined. He had no right to have any windows overlooking it which meant the view of the mountains could not be enjoyed. The neighbour was uninterested in selling the olival so the house lost its appeal. The owner of the next quinta had recently died and the family did not want it although its trees were well cared for and the fields clean ready for planting.

The small but nicely-built house was on the corner of its land so no windows were permitted to look over the neighbour’s vineyards on the east and south sides. Half the rooms were lacking natural light. We added a new criterion, the house should be central in its land.

A quinta we almost bought belonged to C and her husband, who was physically unable to look after it any longer. It had good access for even a lorry. The kitchen in its single-leaf breeze-block house (not on the edge of its land) was gloomy and neither clean nor well equipped – there were connections for a gas water heater but the appliance itself was absent. There was ample hillside grazing for her flock of twenty sheep in three hectares of newly-fenced land. She said the one hectare (two acres) vineyard could produce 3,000 litres of wine which she sold to a restaurant in Castelo Branco. The adega held three 500-litre stainless steel tanks and was built adjoining the good-sized swimming pool. There was also a huge 30-metre long breeze block building, seven metres wide, divided into ten pigsties and six storage rooms, with five large poultry cages added on the outside. A tractor stood in its own spacious open-fronted shed. The vegetable garden looked well-kept and productive, both it and two ½ hectare cereal fields were irrigated from a large well near to a stream. There was a small orchard too. We liked this place. A week later we had a second viewing and negotiated an offer which included the nearly-new tractor.  We made a third unescorted visit so I could look more carefully at the vineyard. There were far fewer vines than I’d calculated to yield 1500 ℓ of wine and they trailed all over the ground. We tracked down an agronomist who said the vines should be upright and that the area gave only indifferent wine. I became suspicious about the accuracy of what we’d been told and rang the agent to say we were no longer sure about buying the place. That night C phoned us and we arranged to meet near to her home. She said that we didn’t need to use the estate agent really, how much would we pay her for her quinta? Considering all this and a series of strange related coincidences we decided not to buy this farm either.

We extended our search area further north to Fundão, and the girls in the estate agents office were very helpful in suggesting a dozen properties. Most were owned by little old widows hoping to sell up and move into a rented place in town, where they would no longer have to climb into huge olive trees to harvest or prune them, or to grow cabbages to feed to their chickens, or to sleep in a bedroom with only a magazine picture of Jesus on the wall, no paint, and (in two of the houses we viewed) rooms with bits of floor missing.

The last of these quintas was owned by a ninety-year-old man who had a black trilby which seemed to be glued onto his head. The approach to this farm was flanked by huge boulders. The upper part of the land was wilderness whilst the lower part was neglected arable land. There were olive trees and upright vines, fig trees and apples, three water storage ponds and a partly-floored granite house with a roof . However, there was no water supply, sewage, nor electricity nearby. The land sloped down to the south and the house was in the centre of the land, facing south. There was enough potential to make it interesting so after thinking about it for a few days we arranged a second viewing. The man with the hat gave us wine from the farm, fig liqueur made on the quinta and juicy fresh oranges from its trees. To cut a long story short, we bought it. After visiting over forty properties the search was over and now the real challenges began.

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!

In searching for a farm to make for ourselves a new life, we cast our net wide and included property on the other side of the Spanish border. We crossed into the Extremadura region of Spain near Arroyo de la Luz, an area with wide open spaces and abundant wild flowers in the warm and sunny Spring weather. We stayed in Cáceres where in early May hundreds of storks were gliding in to find nesting sites and others were soaring high towards the north-west and central Portugal. The church towers and high chimneys are ideal for their nests and the clattering of their bills during the courtship ritual was a noisy reminder that here was foreign land to us. This scene was repeated in every village and small town we visited.

Finca La Lavanda had no water, electricity nor building. We saw several like this.  Part of my requirements included land with a mountain view and stone-wall terraces.

This one had many terraces stacked like a huge staircase, and the road to the top could be climbed in a 4×4, but working the land would involve climbing up and down the steep hill many times each day – not practical. With no electricity, water nor wood for fuel, another non-starter.

The region around Montánchez is lovely and there is lots of land for sale. However, as in Portugal, those few with a roofless ruin of stone barn on them are of no use to live in, and water and electricity are rarely nearby. These two did have both.The first had a narrow strip of land running right down the mountainside, difficult to use, and the house was so unimaginative that it was no asset at all.

The second finca looked promising, with a pretty little wide track running up to the breeze-block house. However, the immediately adjoining neighbours place really did put us off. We just enjoyed our mini-break in Extremadura and put our effort into finding a place in Portugal.

On the journey home our car began to chug as we crossed the long lonely mountains at night. The problem became worse and the engine started to overheat on every uphill slope. I was able to nurse it nearly home although it was obvious the poor thing was seriously ill. I was able to almost coast the last five miles, and on driving up our road to the house the engine temperature was far too high. Very concerned, I shut it off to cool it down. An hour later I went to start it and could smell hot wet rubber under the bonnet, so I left it. The next day I went to turn the car round and had a lot of difficulty starting it. Then the engine gasped and stopped – the cylinder head gasket had failed on the journey. With my neighbour we turned the car round and parked it, and it did not move again for a year; we had to buy another car. Our old faithful Nissan did get us home before it died.