Dec 23, 2022 • 5M

S1:Ep5 - It all began with a treasure map…

How exactly did we end up living in rural Portugal?

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Appears in this episode

Alastair Leithead
From Our Own Correspondent-style despatches from a former BBC reporter who's now battling to live off the grid in the Alentejo countryside. Selected audio recordings of his weekly blog which began in 2020.
Episode details

The back-story to why, and how, we ended up moving to an off-the-grid house in rural south-western Alentejo, from a moment of reflection on New Year’s Eve 2020.


The plan was always just to find a little bit of land with a ruined house to spend our summers fixing up: our piece of Europe as we wandered the globe, but it didn’t quite end up that way. 

Here we are ending 2020 with no jobs, living on savings and off the grid in rural Portugal (with two dogs) on a steep learning curve and even steeper spending curve.

It wasn’t what we had in mind when we first started drawing up the treasure map.

Beach reunion: Garf seemed to enjoy his little doggy pousada stay while we did Christmas in Lisbon

In the summer of 2018 we had a plan: a wedding in France, a visit to Ana’s mum at her farm in Sweden and a little Portuguese treasure hunt in between.

(Oh, remember when we could travel to places?)

We needed to set a boundary and decided on the borders of Alentejo, the largest and most rural province in Portugal.

Stretching south from the edge of Lisbon down to the Algarve and from the Atlantic Ocean across to Spain, it was where Ana’s father’s family originates.

I excitedly got to work, structuring the Google map around vineyards and the fantastic pousadas – old monasteries or castles converted into grand but affordable hotels.

Pousada Castelo Alcácer do Sal: Not a bad view from your bedroom window…four-poster bed and all!

On the map I marked the pousadas in purple with a bed symbol, the vineyards were cocktail glasses with a green background.

With dedicated attention to detail the shade of green deepened the higher up the must-visit list I deemed the wine estates to be. 

Hours were spent attaching website links, photographs and comments, and while I did that, Ana did the real work: trawling through hundreds of Portuguese real estate sites to see what might be available – and affordable – and where best to look.

After some experimentation I settled on a yellow-through-red property excitability scale and added them to the treasure map.

That’s when a few patterns started emerging. A few weeks later we were in a hire car heading out of Lisbon.

We’d thought that somewhere on the coast a little south of Lisbon would be nice, and

we dabbled in the expensive Setubal peninsula, checking out “Ruins Palmela” (deep orange).

It was a huge, ruined house with a very odd layout, but with wonderful views from the valley up to Palmela Castle – a pousada up on the hill.

“Ruins Palmela”: Yeah, erm, probably not…

Most places so close to Lisbon were well out of our price range, but this probably needed to be demolished and totally rebuilt.

We took photos, pondered the neighbourhood a while and then set off east towards the Spanish border and the heart of Alentejo wine country.

Pousada Castelo Estremoz was an amazing place to stay - the pousadas across Portugal are amazing, and really affordable

We stopped in Evora and Estremoz (great pousada), avoided “Farm too far” (light yellow) but checked out “Yellow Mansion” (deep red on the map’s excitementometer!).

It was amazing – a huge four-bedroomed house with a courtyard, a one bed flat, and positioned between two streets in a town just 20 minutes from the World Heritage City of Evora.

“Yellow Mansion”: amazing, but hot in the summer and cold in the winter…we do like the ocean…

It even had three shop units with amazing vaulted ceilings – perfect for a wine bar, tasting room or restaurant.

It was under €200,000. We asked about permission to use the shop units and imagined how it would look and worried a little that we’d prefer to be nearer to the ocean.

I don’t think we realised it at the time, but perhaps it was then that we started to think a little differently about what we were looking for.

We stopped at Adega Vila Santa for a João Portugal Ramos wine tasting, we dropped into Casa Relvas with its amazing cork-covered building, amphorae for wine and the most incredibly three-hour tour of the cellar.

We stopped at Adega Vila Santa for a João Portugal Ramos wine tasting
We had an incredible tour of the cork-covered winery of Casa Relvas and started thinking we could investigate a business around Portuguese wine

Then we headed south and west – back to the coast, and to the next cluster of orange and red-coloured house icons on the Costa Vicentina.

It seemed more affordable there, far less tourist-spoilt than the nearby Algarve, with some of the most stunning beaches and sea cliffs we’ve ever seen, and is where we marked the X on the map.

“X” marks the spot on the Alentejo treasure map

What happened next is a blur of disappointing ruins, followed by the discovery of an amazing off the grid German-built house in a seven-hectare valley of cork oaks and pine trees with its own little lake.

It was the view that took our breath away.

There were two houses, an amazing solar contraption, and oh…in retrospect…if only we’d asked a few questions about how it all works…

After that a random AirBnB choice led to a wine-inspired meeting at a Chinese restaurant, an introduction to an amazing lawyer, a beautiful stretch of coastline and a totally new life.

Share Off-grid and ignorant in Portugal

This year’s pandemic has become a defining time for everyone and it’s led a lot of people into big, life-changing decisions.

The lucky ones can do it on their own terms – and we count ourselves as firmly being among the lucky ones.

It’s hard, and it’s beautiful; it’s expensive and it’s frustrating; it’s challenging and it’s risky; but it’s brilliant.

And that view still takes our breath away.

Not bad for the end of December…

But don’t worry…life is still far from perfect – stuff continues to keep going wrong.

It was a calm Christmas of three days without anything breaking, but you might be entertained to hear that a third boiler issue is now causing chaos, one house is still without hot water…and yes, the Land Rover is back in the garage with no power steering.

I finally got her MOT sorted…they passed Millicent…but with a warning that her transmission was close to failing.


The Viessmann boiler people saved Christmas! The local service company came through after the vital part arrived from Germany.

Their amazing technician spent a big chunk of Christmas Eve (the main day for celebrating here in Portugal) fitting, testing and unwrapping a fabulous present of hot water and central heating!

Apologies for the emotional Academy Award-style speech, but I’d like to thank Paulo Correia and Dulce Russo from Loja Industrial, Claire Dumbreck from Propel Technology who does PR for Viessmann in the UK and passed on my complaint…and even Jürgen Gerhardt (managing director of Viessmann in Spain).

But most of all the amazing Antonio who spent his Christmas with his head up our old boiler.

Thanks for reading my despatches…and have a very Happy New Year. Let’s hope 2021 is better than 2020!

Let’s hope 2021 works out a bit better than 2020 (and that I can get the roof panels on our building before the serious rain returns!)