Villagers treasure Casa do Vale das Lajes, where we lived while I finished writing PORTUGAL IS PERSONAL.
We, still, are making discoveries on our land!
Huw found another stone wall on a terrace. The wall is a feature that had succumbed to the growth of moss, ferns and soil buildup. We are uncovering similar finds all over our land.
We have been planting the 20 trees that Huw bought last year and has been nursing in pots. Along with chestnuts, we have hazelnut and fruit trees. So far, we have planted half of them because we are clearing more of the terraces than the trees need. So, it is taking us one or two weeks for each group of three or four trees. We cannot afford to be fastidious, but what a difference we are making to our quinta!
Also, we are hoeing out bramble roots. Last year, we cut back the bramble on the advice of Peter, Ute and Eddie and everyone. Next year, they said, you get out the root.
They were right.
First, it takes much longer to hoe out the root. Before, we would not have had the time to cut back the jungle, find the root and hoe it out. Second, I would not have had the strength. Late last year, I did try, unsuccessfully, to hoe out some bramble root. I thought that it was an improbable task. Now, it is a challenge, but a surmountable one.
We also achieved another surmountable challenge recently. We visited the ethnological museum 20 miles north of Viseu, and it was a joy!
Many times, we have planned to visit this museum, but we have run out of time and steam in Viseu and never made it any farther. This time, we persevered and landed in a large reconstructed house in the centre of the village. The house, once owned by a well-to-do Moorish family, now invites the public for a free insight into the making of linen. Today, villagers still grow flax, weave linen and make clothing, bags and mats. The museum is a living museum, where one day a week, villagers weave there outside its upstairs café.
We were met at the door by one of the three docents and given a two-hour personal tour of the otherwise empty museum. Caladon did an excellent job of translating the Portuguese into English.
Once again, we enjoyed another fantastic museum, with knowledgeable and helpful docents, in Portugal.
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We had our first olive harvest!
Last year, we envied the village because they were picking, and we were not. This year, we are a part of the harvest.
On a Wednesday, we helped Peter and Ute do two of their trees. Two and a half hours, it took us to do the first bountiful one. We learned how to spread the net. (The older nets have a hole in the middle. Ours do not, so we bought two smaller ones.) We learned how to make our hands into cones, place them at the top of the branch, and slide them down, thereby knocking the olives onto the net.
We learned that olive branches are pliant. The branches bend easily toward you. Is that why olive branches are offered as a sign of peace, I thought. Huw says he thinks it is because olive trees are ancient, and you can grow a tree from its branches. I do not know why. While I harvested the olives, I had plenty of time to contemplate the answer.
An early reference to the olive branch dates back to ancient Greece. In Greek mythology, Athena competed with Poseidon for control of Athens. Poseidon claimed possession by thrusting his trident into the rock of the high citadel, Acropolis, where water gushed out. Athena, on the other hand, planted an olive tree there. The ruling court of gods and goddesses deemed that Athena had the right to Athens because she had given the better gift.
The Roman poet Virgil associated the “plump olive” with the goddess of peace, Pax. He also uses the olive branch as a symbol of peace in his epic poem, Aeneid.
Olive wreaths were awarded to the winners of the early Olympic games, and they were worn by brides in ancient Greece. They can be seen on Roman Imperial coins with Pax holding an olive branch in the air.
Early Christian art often depicts a flying dove holding an olive branch in its beak. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and it brings the olive branch as a symbol of peace to people on earth. Christian tradition also adds a dove carrying an olive branch to the story of Noah and his ark, a sign that the rain and wrath of God had ended after 40 days and 40 nights.
Olive branches also have been used in treaties. The American Continental Congress originally drafted the Olive Branch Petition for Britain in hopes of avoiding the Revolutionary War.
Two hundred years later, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat brought an olive branch to the United Nations General Assembly and said, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Today, the phrase “extending an olive branch” is used when people make an effort to resolve disputes.
Our first time picking olives, the day was crisp and sunny. For lunch, we ate a hearty spaghetti bolognaise and fruit crumble, and enjoyed pleasant conversation with Peter and Ute, including tidbits from a historical book on olives which Peter was reading. The day was civilized and gelled with my historical, heightened to mythical, construct of the communal olive harvest. I have seen photographs of families, from babies to the very old, picnicking among the olive trees with smiles on their faces on harvest days. I have seen and heard families in the village talking and laughing while they did the harvest. Our first day was promising.
On Thursday, the following day, we took our Octavia Skoda to the VW dealership for a service. For months, we had been looking for this garage in Oliveira do Hospital. The previous car owner had told us that there was a garage there. Finally, we stopped at a petrol station next to a garage and found that we had stopped at the right place. They were wonderful – good mechanics and kind office staff at a reasonable price.
On Friday, the 22nd of November, we began picking olives on our land. Again, it was crisp and sunny, warming up to the double digits Celsius in the afternoon. We worked on our most heavily laden tree, which was on the top terrace near a blossoming nespereira, or loquat, tree, which hummed with happy bees.
For several days, I carried this feeling of calm and productivity inside me.
On the fourth and fifth days, however, we worked against strong, biting winds. At first, I was determined to fight them down. I pulled my snood over my head and my mouth. But the wind, eventually, wore me down. By the end of the olive harvest, I was numb with cold and exhaustion. I did not feel human.
Two of us picked olives for 24 hours over five days. Caladon helped during the weekend.
Because we had had the trees pruned heavily in February, we did not have a heavy harvest. Only one-quarter of our 40 trees had olives.
We had understood that lagares, which press the olives into oil, do not accept less than 300 kilos. So, we pooled out olives with Ute and Peter’s, and with Alan, who is Irish, and Lara, who is South African. On our way to the lagar, we stopped for petrol at the nearby station in Ervedal. The old man there told me that he picked 1,000 kilos by himself in three days. A fish story? A bit, I think. Even if his story is not true, we still need to increase our speed.
We picked 85 kilos!
However, our olive oil, 8.5 liters, is deliciously fruity and a sparkling green. It is delicious with salad and bread!
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The electricians scared us this week after only two days of work.
Why were the light switches so high, the plug points so high, and the boxes, or caixas, so prominently placed on each floor?
We called a halt to the work. Steve, our project manager, met us at the house. An electrician of Fernando Gomes of Mangualde walked us round and, confidently and knowledgeably, answered our questions.
The light switches and plug points will be the correct height when the floor is insulated and sealed. The electrical boxes, which face you at the top of the stairways, are positioned so that the bombeiros, or firefighters, can find them easily. The three large boxes on the ground floor near the kitchen door are the electricity, telecommunications and satellite boxes, which are required to be situated above ground at a stipulated position.
As it is, the switches and plugs are nestled in white plastic casing. The casing is atrocious, but it is how things are done here. Also, it seemed that there were lots and lots of plastic casings. Then, we learned from the electrician that telecommunication calls for three sockets, one for Internet, one for satellite and one for fiber-optic connection. The chance of Fiais da Beira getting fiber-optic connection is slim. Our rural village is in the sticks, nowhere near Lisboa.
In fact, we do not plan to use any of the telecommunications sockets. However, a fairly recent national law mandates that houses are wired in this way. It costs us 10,000 euros for the pleasure.
The head electrician educated us. We, simply, did not know about the raising of the floor or the legal requirements of box placement. The difficulty of building in a foreign country is that until the build stares us in the face, we do not know what to ask.
We are fortunate in that we have excellent builders. As we near Christmas, our house has a roof and internal walls. We gave Jan and Ana Riet a tour and invited them back to our house for coffee, sweet potato pie and oatmeal raisin cookies. In mid-December, they will leave for a few months in Holland. Their three daughters live there with their young families. One is due to deliver a baby. Their daughters, all medical doctors, and their families also visit them here in Fiais da Beira.
As we walked around our three-story house, Huw and I talked about our hope to have our family visit us. We have, especially, Huw’s parents, Marie and David, and my mother, Emanda, in mind. In the past, all three have stayed with us. Marie and David spent time with us in Stockholm and Sicily.
Mommy flew six hours from New York to London Heathrow to visit us in Cornwall. She was shaky when she walked through the arrival terminal. However, when she recovered 30 minutes after we got into the car, she asked whether we lived another 30 minutes away. All the letters I had written about living six hours from London had not sunk in because it was too alien a concept for her. She lives on Long Island 30 minutes from John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia airports.
We made our way home slowly, stopping at points of interest along the way. Stonehenge impressed her. Then, we stopped at a family bakery on the Dorset main road that did traditional cakes and breads. She loved it. Previously, she had visited my father’s brother, Bernard, in Southampton but had spent no time in the countryside. As a former British colonial, her view of Britain easily encompassed a small traditional bakery, which is fading away.
Now, Marie, David and Mommy are older. The journey here can be demanding for them. Yet, we still hope that they will spend time with us here. Once they get here, we know that they would love the beauty and tranquility. Mommy would be surprised to see women carrying baskets on their heads. When we visited her mother, Vilma, in Belize at Bermuda Landing when I was 4, I was taught how to walk from the well with a bucket of water on my head.
Portugal draws up sweet memories for me.
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I write this with cold and painful hands. For the past few weeks in December, we have had frosts in the morning, warming up to about 12 degrees Celsius in the afternoon. Each morning, the frost melts from the oblong roof of the 7-sided aviary, which I see when I open the bathroom window. The frost drips, drips, drips into the bold sunshine.
Huw and I have thrown ourselves into window-shopping for a fogao, or range, and two wood-burning stoves for the house. We want to order them so that the builders can accommodate them. Without the help of Patricia, our engineer, and Steve, our project manager, we would be at a loss as to where to look for heating appliances.
Our friends, Peter and Ute, suggested the shop in Nelas, where they bought their fogao, which is a cooker/oven that also heats the piped water to the radiators. It’s a Spanish brand called Hergom. Finally, Huw and I drove out with the sole purpose of finding this shop. In the past, we have kept an eye open for it while driving through Nelas on our way to Viseu. This time, we found the shop. However, it was closed, and a sign advertised that it was for sale.
So, we asked Patricia for guidance, and she suggested Metlor in Provilde and Vital Clima in Viseu, and Steve suggested ADF in Arganil. I used Google directions to get to Metlor, which is a showroom/factory. Google is hopeless in Europe because street names, which it uses, often are not displayed prominently or known by most people. In Portugal, I only know the street name of our house. It also did not help that Metlor is situated outside the village of Provilde. Later, we realised that traveling to Metlor from Viseu would have been much simpler. In the end, we arrived there. We met a Brit, who is married to a Portuguese woman and lived here for years. He was accompanied by a British friend who he had talked into moving to Portugal.
Vital Clima was easy to find when we left Metlor. It is not a factory, but a supplier. The gentleman was very helpful with a list of prices. We picked up brochures. ADF, which makes its own stoves, not ranges, we had visited on another day.
We also popped into Brico Marche DIY superstore in Viseu and took note of brands with which we were unfamiliar. By the time, we visited a smaller DIY shop in Oliveira do Hospital, we could see that we had done our homework. We knew the brands and had a good idea of the prices.
So, we sat with all this information for a few weeks and mulled it over. After, a lovely Christmas in Wales with Huw’s family, we revisited some places and made a decision.
We settled on Solzaima’s Sahara stove (€785.23) for the downstairs lounge and Solzaina’s M2 (€584.83) for the upstairs. We chose Hergom’s Cocina L-09CCE (€3,248.72) for the range. We plan to order them from Vital Clima in Viseu, who also will deliver them. As I write this, I see that I forgot to ask the gentleman at Vital Clima about radiators.
We also plan to buy a granite surround for the downstairs fire. How this fits in with delivery and installation, I don’t know. When we decide on someone to do the installation, we can sort that out. Vital Clima does not do installation. We have asked for a quote from Fernando Mendes of Mangualde, who are our plumbers/electricians now.
There are so many decisions to make in building our house, and decisions that are revisited because of changes in what the builders find and changes in the architectural plans. Each change, small as it may seem to be, has a ripple effect. Recently, I have thought that it would be easier to abdicate responsibility to the builders. However, I would not want that. I would rather live in a house that I have chosen to live in. Anyway, we are past the placement of light switches, which seem a small thing but are not. We do not want to walk into a dark room groping for the light switch.
We had this situation in Trimbles in the lounge because we did not use the lounge door as the house entrance. We used the kitchen door. Yet, we had to walk through the lounge to get to the bedrooms upstairs. So, we walked through the dark lounge for the light switch. We got used to it, but it always irked us.
We should not have this kind of logistical problem in the house that we are building. We are trying our best to make the house flow.
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On New Year’s Eve, we joined Peter and Ute, who just returned from one month in Indonesia with fascinating tales of jungles and monkeys, and techno-reggae and beaches, at the house of our wine-making colleague, Anna Martina. We brought an American tradition, black-eyed peas with a lucky coin (a shiny silver American dime), and coconut rice. Ute brought an anchovy quiche. And Anna Martina made fried apple turnovers and banana fritters. The wine from her grapes, mulled wine, and orange bubbly for Caladon washed it all down.
Caladon kept charge of the door as her five dogs and one cat ran in and out of the kitchen. After our meal, Caladon continued to play sentry and play with the animals outside and inside, mostly inside. “It’s dark out there,” he said, after going out to find the donkey. The adults watched Dutch chat and entertainment shows via satellite.
We all left Ana Martina’s around 9. At home, Caladon went to bed, and I began reading The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle to him. Huw and I watched “Gone With the Wind” on Portuguese television, which is dependable for showing classic films during holidays.
This New Year’s Eve, we were not living on the other side of the main road away from the village center. We were living in the middle and above the village. On the village side of the rental property, we climb 30 granite steps to the property. So, at midnight, I went outside and heard someone below us banging pots and pans and, in the distance, firecrackers. I clapped my hands to add to the noise and joy of the new year!
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We ran out of bottled gas on a Friday. I telephoned too late to get a replacement bottle before the weekend.
So, there was no hot water.
There was no hot bath. No hot tea or coffee. No hot food from the hob, or stove.
We do have a counter electric oven. However, we decided to turn our lack of gas into fun and adventure. That evening, we left the house for a meal out. I wanted to go to Casa de Grelhado in Vila Franca da Beira, where we have eaten a few times with Peter and Ute. Caladon did not want to go there because he said he only liked the roast chicken and he had had chicken at school lunches the past few days. Pizza or hamburgers is what he wanted for his meal.
Okay, I could compromise and not eat at the Vila Franca da Beira restaurant. However, I wanted to eat somewhere that offered something other than just pizza and hamburgers. Huw suggested that we do something “daring” like drive around looking for a restaurant. We headed to Oliveira do Hospital, which looked so strange and different at night.
Once in town, we passed a café, another café and, then, we parked near the library square outside the restaurant Tunel, which we have walked past many times. The entrance is not obvious though the name describes it well enough. I walked through the “tunnel” and met a restaurant worker who was throwing out rubbish. “Come in,” she said, pointing to the entrance, as I was not certain that it was open for business.
I returned to the pavement to join Huw and Caladon who were studying the posted menu. While we scrutinized the evening’s offerings, a group of six approached, and looked at the menu. They began to talk with us.
“Tourists,” they asked.
“No, we live here,” I said. “We ran out of gas and decided to go out to eat.”
They were Dutch and Belgian in their 20s and 30s. One of them, “Big” Wim, had bought 6 hectares on a mountainside in Vila Mea near Oliveira do Conde. He had invited like-minded people to visit and buy adjacent parcels of land.
“Why don’t we eat together,” I suggested. “We can continue talking inside.”
The food was delicious, the conversation fascinating. Caladon served as translator for them, which was a challenging feat as there were vegetarians in the group. And what did Caladon order? I could not believe it. Chicken!
Round midnight, at the end of several hours of talk of their dreams of country life and flight from cities, they paid for our meals. Very kind.
I paid Caladon 5 euros per hour for translation services. Twenty euros. He has since bought a pair of white trainers with his earnings.
On the following Monday, after the gas arrived, a hot bath never felt so good!
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We are working on our land with another gust of enthusiasm. Huw’s peeling away of decades of soil buildup and moss from stone walls now is revealing granite boulders.
We had viewed a house in Andorinha, whose bulbous boulders were a selling point because they looked like sculptures. When we bought our property, we had no idea that we also had these fantastic features. Huw is concerned about the septic tank drainage run on land with so much rock. I am not worried. Our land is not unique in this respect.
Of the 20 trees in pots, which we moved in September from Peter’s log house to Senhor Raul do Costa Oliveira’s folly, there are only four trees in pots now. The remainder trees are all citrus, which I am happy to plant in the summer when they are dormant. The tree planting is forcing us to clear the planting areas of bramble roots. This is a noble endeavour, but it does take time.
We work between rainfalls. The weather continues to be wet and cold. When we arrived home from Christmas holidays in Britain, our neighbours, Pim and Wilfred, told us that rain fell horizontally in one storm. Since we have been back, it has been raining heavily. Walk through the village, and you hear the gushing of water squeezing through the holes in stone walls, following channels that have been made for it long ago. The channels that Huw and Caladon made last year on our land have held their own, although we do plan to make them more permanent with rubber pipes. We hope that the channels that Huw and Caladon made at Peter’s log house also are still there. The house was at the bottom of a hill and, therefore, water from all around raced down to it.
Senhor Raul’s six-bedroomed house, which is where we live now, sits perched on top of a hill with an expanse of land all around it. The flat land at the bottom of the hill seems to have had drainage channels and holes in stone walls. The water does not collect in one place. Senhor Raul’s castle house was built in 1974 but looks hundreds of years old. Casa do Vale das Lajes is grand in size and style. When we first viewed it, I exclaimed as I walked into the front door. I felt as though I was in England touring a National Trust or English Heritage property. I was afraid to touch anything.
The granite house has ceilings in both living rooms high enough to accommodate gallery studies. Ceramics, tapestries and paintings cover the exposed stone walls. A handsome iron crenellated chandelier hangs in one lounge; electric hurricane lamps are displayed throughout the house.
Tiles in the four bathrooms are yellow and blue traditional flourishing patterns. The floors in the living areas are terracotta tiles. In the bedrooms, the floors are wood and the ceilings also are wood and lower than in the living areas, making the sleeping quarters cosy. Each bedroom is furnished with a painted metal posted bed with a small religious painting overhead, two bedside tables, an oversized trunk, a chest of drawers and a built-in wooden wardrobe for a few items.
There is a spacious attic, with separate stairs and door that is used for storage but could easily become accommodation. The land around the main house is immense with many outbuildings, including a granite house. Below the additional granite house is a double garage. Attached is a long row of granite storage buildings with separate doors. At the end of the row are a chicken coop and a place for ducks. From there are 30 granite steps leading down into the village as well as more land owned by Senhor Raul adjoining the Palheiras, or dozens of granite buildings from Fiais da Beira’s past.
On the other side of the main house is a children’s playground. There is a granite playhouse with the names of his three grandchildren inscribed outside. There are several pieces of playing equipment, including a bench swing. And there is a croquet pitch.
On the near side of the children’s playground is the Palheiras. On the far side, past a terrace of citrus and grapevines, is a driveway so long and curved that you can forget where you’re heading while on it. The driveway has an overhead castle-like entrance and leads to the main road connecting Fiais with other villages. The high stone walls with crenellated tops also seem like that of a castle fort.
There are several granite structures on the land such as an imposing grain house, which is traditionally found in northern Portugal, and designed to keep the grain safe. Granite tables and benches are strewn around the house so that you can sit in the sun or shade.
We found a metal cache filled with torn-out pages from French house magazine. Circles were drawn around features we see in the house today such as particular tables, lamps and, even, furniture arrangement. Senhor Raul had an eye for detail and style. I understand that he had a textile business in Mangualde near Viseu but lived in Lisbon for part of the year.
I shall miss the house of Senhor Raul, who died at 84 one year ago. Senhor Antonio, who looks after the property with his wife, Dona Lucinda, was one of the builders. It has been an honour to live here. I trust that a future owner will love it as much as Senhor Raul.