Alentejo autumn – new home, new skills

posted in: Alentejo, Portugal | 1
The kids love their twice-daily bottles (though it’s only water)

When we left Wales last November to begin our new life in the sun, we never imagined that nearly a year later we’d be looking after goats in the Alentejo. Yet, here we are, looking after a small farm just outside Grândola. In what feels like a surreal change of lifestyle, I am currently spending my days looking after six goats, two dogs, two cats, five chickens,and six ducks, while Harri continues with his freelance work and helps out as much as possible. I have also become half-decent at milking goats.

Helping with the wine harvest

Our nightmare house sale meant we were unable to settle permanently in the Algarve last winter as originally planned (rents rise dramatically during the spring and summer months); thus began our nomadic lives. We spent April to June  in São Martinho do Porto on Portugal’s Silver Coast where we made some wonderful, and we’re certain, lifelong friends. Unfortunately, the weather north of Lisbon was a little too inclement for my liking and, although coastal property prices on the Silver Coast are significantly lower than the Algarve, we eventually ruled it the area out as a permanent home.

We were back in Sao Martinho last weekend with our good friends Mike and Denise

With our property chain seemingly in a state of permanent paralysis, we were left wondering where on earth we could live for the summer months when an American friend Amaya (who, with her husband, has created a wonderful website about cycling) suggested we could try house sitting.

On route from the Alpujarras … Harri in Arecena, Spain

We joined for 15 dollars and set about applying for some ‘jobs’ which interested us. The concept is that sitters enjoy free accommodation in return for caring for someone else’s pets and home, while the hosts are able to go off on holiday confident their animals and properties are being well-cared for in their absence. Our interviews were necessarily conducted long-distance via Skype (the first one separately as I happened to be back in Wales and Harri was in Portugal) and we were successful with both (reliable house sitters are in such demand that we were pro-actively approached by several other homeowners). We were lucky enough to line up two very different house/pet sits to carry us through the summer months. Our hosts in the Alpujarras – Sarah and Chris – told us just before we left their beautiful home that they’d chosen us from roughly 15 applicants, which was a nice feeling.

Las Alpujarras, Granada, Spain
We spent two months of our summer in the mountainous Alpujarra region

Our second house sit is very different from the first and is far more demanding physically. Though the Alentejo is relatively flat, ‘our’ farm is situated in the hilly Serra de Grândola and the farmland itself is far from flat. The surrounding landscape, with its undulating tracks and cork oak forests, reminds us of the terrain we walked on the Via Algarviana (the Algarve isn’t all about beaches). I must have been fitter back then because I’m finding some of the uphill sections in this vicinity quite hard to walk, let alone run. (The farm’s driveway is perfect for hill reps if I could only summon up the energy!)

The kids have a habit of escaping their pen

In the past two and a half weeks, I’ve learned how to milk goats and cook on a solar-powered cooker (it looks like a small satellite dish with a central shelf). At night the skies are clear and perfect for star gazing. There are swallows nesting over the door of our accommodation and we enjoy watching them swooping over our heads early morning and evening. Harri grew up on a small diary farm so he is more familiar with the daily chores that accompany farm life. For me, it’s been a steep learning curve … I haven’t been this dirty on a daily basis since I was seven or eight and spent the summer holidays building dens!

Andreas’ birthday party in the farmhouse kitchen

Last weekend, Rosemarie and Andreas invited us to a festival in the nearby village of Santa Margarida da Serra. As accomplished musicians and singers, our German hosts were participating in the musical part of the celebrations. Despite us both having run moreorless the same undulating route that morning, we walked the six kilometres or so to the village along dusty tracks with near and distant views of cork oak forests.

I’m usually running this route … it’s beautiful but too hilly for me

As Portuguese festivals go, the one at Santa Margarida was on the smaller side; however, it was lovely to see the whole neighbourhood turned out to celebrate the local saint (sorry, but we have no idea which one it was!!). There were tables set out in the open air and plenty of food and drink flowing. A Portuguese man who knew Andreas sat with us and patiently tried to understand my efforts to converse with him for over half an hour. Harri eventually bought him a beer for his patience! In my defence, at least I tried!! And the man laughed at least once.

The farmhouse kitchen is separate to the rest of the living quarters

The highlight of the festival was listening to Rosemarie and Andreas perform in their small musical group (just five of them). They came to live in the Alentejo thirty years ago and are both fluent Portuguese speakers. We hadn’t realised they were so talented until we listened to them singing some beautiful Portuguese songs and playing several instruments, including the cello, accordion and fiddle.

Rosemarie and Andreas are accomplished musicians

Yesterday, we went to the Alentejan coast for the first time since we arrived. Everyone we’ve met has recommended Praia do Carvalhal so that was where we headed. We set off straight after finishing our midday farm duties and were surprised how enjoyable the car journey was (the bumpy road surface aside). After leaving the convoluted road system which gets us from the farm and around Grândola, we followed one very long straight Romanesque road with cork oak forests on either side.

Are the endlessly straight roads a relic from Roman times?

There are significant Roman ruins on the nearby Troia peninsula, including salting workshops, housing, thermal baths, several necropolises, a mausoleum and a basilica. We visited Troia several times when we were staying in Setúbal back in 2011 and hope to return one day and visit those ruins.

Enjoying the sun at Praia do Carvalhal

Praia do Carvalhal may have its own name but the beach is really just one short section of a continuous stretch of sandy coastline that stretches from the tip of the Troia peninsular to Sines in the south, around 40 miles in total.

Carvalhal town is set back from the beach and looks like the sort of place that exists only for summer holidays. I was surprised to see several houses with thatched roofs there.

We were surprised to see thatched roofs in Carvalhal

After the grey slate beaches of Andalusia, it was wonderful to be walking on golden sand again. The turquoise ocean looks inviting; however, these are not suitable waters for young children. The camber of the beach is steep and those Atlantic waves ferocious. That said, we enjoyed watching the antics of some supremely confident teenagers who were wading straight into the water and diving headfirst into the huge waves.

Beware … these waves can sweep you off your feet

We had planned to walk along the beach to Praia do Pego; however, the tide was coming in and we had the choice of wading through the shallow waves – and risk being knocked off our feet every few minutes – or struggling to walk on the steep camber of the wet sand.

In the end it was just too hard to be enjoyable so we called it a day and did what everyone else was doing, i.e. relaxing in the sunshine and doing precisely nothing.

Incredibly, this stretch of sandy coastline that we found so difficult to walk hosts an annual ultra marathon at the beginning of August : 43 km (cut off eight hours) and 15 km (cut off three hours). Check out this year’s video of the event. I keep telling Harri we need a new fitness challenge …

It’s good to be back in Portugal.





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