This week I went to paradise and met a man with a leather hat and a parrot.
For months now people have been telling me “you really should meet Frank,” and so this week we went to the lake to meet Frank…and Harry, his evil parrot.
“Harry’s a killer,” Frank said: “he’ll rip your face off.”
“Hello” squawked Harry. Welcome to Paradise.
This was the first of two trips to the Alentejo interior this week .
On the second we stumbled across a group of A cappella Alentejano men performing live on telly in a town with a lot of clocks…and plenty of time.
But let’s begin at Paradise in Portugal – an oasis of greenery and birdlife on the slopes of the Santa Clara reservoir about an hour’s drive away from us.
It’s a beautiful off the grid hotel which 62-year old Frank McClintock has built up from scratch over the 35 years since he left the life of a despatch rider in 1980s London and moved to the Alentejo.
A wedding present stay in an Algarve timeshare brought him to Portugal and the decision to drive cross-country took him through the wild and remote farmland in this vast region…and changed everything.
The plan was to photograph his branded despatch van in various settings to show he could deliver to anywhere…but it unveiled a place more interesting to him than the Algarve coast.
“At the time it was all horses and carts – there were no cars,” he said. “My wife thought I was mad when I suggested we move out here.”
They transformed a dry and dusty slope on the shores of the reservoir, and now with his second wife Daniela, Frank has been here at Quinta do Barranco da Estrada (house of the road ravine) ever since.
“That’s a rusty fig,” Frank explained, pointing to a huge tree dominating the hillside behind the car shades.
“I planted it 30 years ago to attract golden orioles. It worked – we have lots of them coming here in the summer.”
Water is pumped up from the reservoir into a small lake on the hill where Frank keeps koi carp – bought ten years ago at the same time as Harry the parrot…from the same pet shop.
Harry used to hate him, Frank explained, but then suddenly they became BFFs and everyone else was chopped liver…especially the dogs.
Waste water is recycled to feed a lush garden which provides fresh vegetables for guests but was planted with the purpose of attracting birds – Frank’s passion and the other side of his business.
He runs birdwatching tours and blogs about the common kingfishers, little owls, water rails and of course the golden orioles…all of which he photographs.
Frank’s frontiersman spirit has deep roots in a fascinating family history of Irish adventurers and explorers, and in a countryside of big characters he stands out…we really did need to meet Frank.
Born in Kano, Nigeria, he explained his father was the colonial district officer, and his grandfather Sir Francis Leopold McClintock was an Irish explorer in the British Royal Navy.
His two-year Arctic expedition in the 1850s discovered the fate of Sir John Franklin who had disappeared in the previous decade while trying to find the illusive Northwest passage.
The lounge and dining room of the hotel are scattered with family memorabilia, furniture, artwork, photographs and a two and a half metre long narwhal tusk brought back from that expedition…the usual sort of thing (!).
We wanted to ask Frank advice about running an off the grid guest lodge and he talked us through the waste water treatment and soak channel which keeps everything so green.
One of the people who had told me to meet Frank had done a Workaway programme, and it was also one of the reasons we started our volunteer Work-Exchange programme last week.
We’ve found some amazing people who already want to come and help us out, but please continue to spread the word to anyone you think might be interested.
We talked volunteers, solar panels, backup generators, providing washing machines with hot water to save electricity, the need for electric fences to protect from wild boars (wild boars)…and the water problem.
We’re relying on a borehole, but he’s on the banks of a reservoir…so what’s the problem?
Intensive agriculture and poor water management – that’s the problem…it’s what Frank blames for the stark video he shot to illustrate just how many metres the level of the Santa Clara reservoir has dropped in the last few years.
Coinciding with the more intensive plastic greenhouse farming of soft fruit in the natural park, his clip helped provoke a protest on the dam a few weeks ago.
We went along and heard more about how the Mira River is running low, how smaller farmers’ water is being diverted to the huge companies that grow fruit, bring in migrant workers and supply the Tescos and the Walmarts of the world.
“Tell your reporter friends,” he told me.
I’ve not been out of the business so long that I don’t see an important story when it’s right in front of me and I live in the area…I’ll let you know how the story turns out.
But how do you find Paradise? There are many different roads, but we used three words: helicopter, superpower, presently.
We learned a lot from Frank about the off grid tourism business – some of it scary and off-putting, much of it brilliant practical advice – but my favourite new thing courtesy of Frank is what3words.
It’s an app that divides the world into 3mx3m squares and gives each a combination of three words – the one for Paradise in Portugal is helicopter.superpower.presently.
After trawling through a lot of three metre squares in our immediate vicinity I can proudly introduce you to: accordingly.arrived.regards – the fabulous address of our guesthouse. Check it out!
I’m torn for what to use for locating our turnoff from the main road. It’s between: bumpkins.revealing.atoms and dinnertime.cackle.backswing – do let us know which you prefer!
And a bit of music to finish.
Ana’s dad Zé has been visiting us this week – his family is from Alentejo and it’s why we decided to move here and use the borders of the province as the outer edge of our property search.
He and Filomena always make the most amazing food – much of it from Alentejo – and when he suggested we go to a favourite restaurant of his in the town of Serpa, we jumped at the chance.
It was a couple of hours and our second drive to the interior in a week, but broken up nicely with a little break to visit the Herdade dos Grous estate on the way for a wine tasting.
A famous restaurant Zé remembered was called Molhó Bico – or Custom.boggled.subscribers if you have already disappeared down the what3words rabbit hole.
We had to wait a while for a table and to get served its traditional migas (bread-based carb) amazing cochechas de porco (pig cheeks) and not forgetting the alheira sausage.
But as we stood there the national TV station tvi was doing a live story on Cante Alentejano – the traditional form of male A cappella singing (more correctly called polyphonic singing).
UNESCO has some more information about it, but it’s poetry and song and traditional themes that cross generations and it sounds amazing…
The castle of Serpa walled town was stunning (Disused.outdoor.nappies) and the clock museum was…unique (Pink.discovers.loveliness).
Our only complaint? That the restaurant took all the time, but the museum had all the watches (where have I heard that phrase recently?).
PS. Harry was brilliant…not a hint of evil towards us.
QUIZ TIME: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?
ANSWER: A carrot
Wonderful to hear all the stories of real people ! The safari chair on the patio looks like a posh nairobi one with a rule britannia cushion !