Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
S1:Ep6 - A night of high drama

S1:Ep6 - A night of high drama

To new friends and a dearly departed

A long lunch and a most eventful evening when we met new friends in the valley from May 2021.

Niels stands…on the roof of his car


For once Millicent the Land Rover was the last car standing.

What began as a lunch with new friends ended as a dramatic escape out of a car window from a raging river, a car written off in a flash flood and a truck upended in a ditch.

Millicent lost an eyelash.

It was a night of high drama in the Portuguese countryside.

Ola preparing emergency dinner after tragedy struck

I don’t quite know who we were expecting to find when we gave up our jobs and moved off grid to remote rural Portugal, but what we have discovered is a fascinating collection of people.

Most have colourful backstories, many are seeking a closer connection to nature, and almost all feel there’s something very special about this little part of coast and countryside.

This whole region is a melting pot of locals and internationals: Portuguese who have lived here all their lives, others who have travelled and returned, or those who moved from big cities and feel as much of a stranger as an estrangeiro (foreigner) in Alentejo.

There are cooks and creatives, makers and tinkerers, artists and artisans; retirees who have never been busier, at least one self-proclaimed Californian refugee; and super-smart people who use physics and maths to create curious contraptions.

There’s a more transient migrant population from Thailand, Indonesia and south Asia – adding an extra layer of culture and experience and giving us amazing spice shops and restaurants.

Friends who visit ask to meet estate agents…and the way property is flying out of the realtor’s door the moment it’s posted, there are more people pouring into our melting pot.

This week our Swedish/Danish neighbours invited us to the longest and most eventful lunch so far…by way of introduction to a fabulous Swiss couple.

Ola and Merete’s house sits up on a hill you can see from our land, and theirs is a coffee table book example of how to live off the grid properly.

While we wait for sunny days to use our washing machine, they have so much solar power they could run a small town.

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s off grid network,” the saying goes – but it’s hard when the whole thing is run by a phone app, the backup generator starts automatically, and the wood stove feeds itself pellets.

Ola is a recently retired businessman and is currently focussing on project managing the house improvements, fine woodworking and impersonating a Michelin starred chef…and that’s where we came in.

It was a fennel-themed decorative lunch with a centrepiece of turbot.

Fabulous fishiness: a centrepiece of turbot

They were the hosts, their place was the scene of the crime, but the protagonists in this story are Niels and Sibylle.

We’d heard a lot about the Swiss wine makers who once built a boat in their famously landlocked country and worked their way through scores of locks to navigate the Rhine and the Rhône and to hit the high seas.

After years sailing the world with their two young kids and then living in 1990s Silicon Valley where Niels worked as a programmer (when coding was known as programming) they settled in Portugal.

They are now living mostly off grid amid a menagerie of animals, ingenious homemade devices and vineyards overlooking the River Mira.

Niels has 1.5ha of grapes close to the Mira River

To Ana’s annoyance, the lunch conversation did lean somewhat in favour of my current rabbit hole of solar power and heating systems (apparently it lasted four hours…it felt like a lot less than that).

A dramatic thunderstorm and downpour did little to hasten our desire to leave, but after an eight-hour lunch we decided to head home to our respective animais.

That’s when the trouble started.

The only sensible access to and from Ola & Merete’s place is across a usually shallow ford, but an afternoon of rain had transformed it into a raging torrent.

By pure chance Niels and Sibylle were ahead of us in their Dacia Duster 4x4 and by the time they realised the stream was now more than 2m deep, their car was already in trouble.

Niels hit reverse, but the current kept the car moving forward into deeper water; the engine cut, they began to float, and that’s when water started pouring in.

They managed to get the windows open before the electrics went, and by the time I’d ditched my perishables and run down from our car expecting a swim, they were on the roof of their new Dacia submarine.

As Ana drove to the house for help, I joked “I knew you were missing boats, but this was taking it a bit far.” 

It was too early. Far too early.

The rescue party arrived, but in the chaos of the shock and the darkness, Ola reversed his Nissan into a deep ditch. 

Next thing it was up-ended and everyone had to climb out of another car all over again.


Amid the dawning realisation the Duster was probably a write-off – and that there was no other way off their land until morning – our host cheerfully said: “I guess we’re going to need dinner,” went back into chef mode and suggested gin as Merete prepared bedrooms for unexpected guests.

Next morning the water level was back down, and a digger with a skilful driver had both cars out in no time – just as the tow truck arrived…sadly with orders to deliver it to the scrap yard.

The morning after the night before…the water level was 2m above normal

But I hadn’t seen a car like that since covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – the whole inside of the car was covered in a thick mud.

So, lunch ended with breakfast and we were able to drop our new friends off at home.

A friend pointed out the irony that Millicent was the one car that actually needed a wash.

As a foreign correspondent, every day was a school day, and I’m pleased to say that’s continuing in our new life.

Our new Swiss friends have an amazing array of plants, pets and pet projects – far more than I can write about here, and plenty to fill a podcast on how to make wine in Portugal!

(I’m still working on that…but Derek Day has composed some great theme music…so watch this space!).

Sibylle uses a kiln to make jewellery and keeps exotic plants in her greenhouse – near the tortoise enclosure, not far from the turkeys.

Sibylle’s greenhouse…complete with papaya and exotic plants

(Small aside: Turkey in Portuguese is Peru – I wonder if there are any other creatures that are named after different countries in different languages..?)

Niels makes wine from his one and a half hectares of grapes, but also mixes ingenuity and alchemy to distil and blend his booze into vermouth and Mamajuana whilst also making some sake on the side.

Lessons in winemaking: a tasting in Niel’s cellar

While we had lunch of their own smoked salmon and sashimi followed by the Thai Isan spicy sausages made from home-hunted wild boar (wild boar), one of their sheep had a surprise lamb – news of the delivery was received as calmly as “pass the salt.”

Thai Isan sausages made with wild boar (wild boar). Nobody expected the lamb.

I’m still reeling from the information overload associated with a visit to their solar power station, loved the device Niels is building to make charcoal and enjoyed his passionate hatred of labels that warn you to not do obviously stupid things (put yourself in a hay bailer, drink poison).

And let’s just zoom in…the Alentejo stereotype

Sadly though, this week they are one car down, but this is the countryside…things happen.

What was it David said at Christmas when Millicent let us down about life in the countryside? 

“You can get vaccinated, but you’ll never be immune.”

Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
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.
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Alastair Leithead