Playback speed
Share post
Share post at current time

Roots and foundations

The continuing transformation of the land

Here’s the audio version of this week’s despatch…


Every day on the top of the hill the buildings take another small step towards being finished, but only when we step back and take in the big picture does the true extent of the progress reveal itself.

Occasionally I use the drone to take a big picture, but often we have the chance for reflection when people drop by after a while away and their jaws drop at what we’ve achieved so far.

The Big Picture: the new tourist lodge is slowly taking shape

We forget that less than a year ago this was a recently cleared eucalyptus forest and now we have two new houses that look like houses, a semi-built pool, a wine cellar, and more foundations awaiting drier weather.

Firle arrived back after a long time away, along with her brother Adam who stayed here before we even moved in, and they both were surprised at the change.

There’s still a lot to do – and a lot for our three builders to construct under the watchful eye of Sr Manuel Domingos – the kind of man who keeps a pencil jammed between the top of his ear and his Alentejano flat cap...and licks the tip before writing.


He’s a man of few words and strong opinions, but he’s organised, experienced and has been extremely reliable so far.

While we stress over taps and toilets he and the guys build in bricks and mortar.

We visited our fabulous lawyer in Odemira this week to discuss the second phase of the contract and she seemed quite surprised when we said things were pretty much on track for phase one.

José putting the finishing touches to one of the eves - we decided to put in a vertical window (where the yellow scaffolding is)

There’ve been a few delays caused by rain which has waterlogged the clay soil and stopped work on the foundations of the third building, but there’s been no shortage of things to do in the meantime.

We’ve been waiting for a whole flurry of new quotes to come in and deciding which should be done by Sr Manuel and which we will directly sub-contract.

His old-school approach requires some translation – and I don’t mean just in terms of language – but we’re close to understanding it all and should soon be able to shake on the final deal.

Share Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal

The rule is always to do as much as possible under the umbrella of the main contractor, but the underfloor heating and electric heat pump system needs to work with our solar and off-grid system and so we have elected for a specialist who was recommended to us by Iain from Solar Algarve.

We will do the pool surfacing and the polished concrete floors, but will probably go with Sr Manuel’s PVC windows guy.

The big remaining challenge right now is deciding how the electrical infrastructure is going to work.

Who’d have thought you need to not just have a series of buildings and a three-phase off grid generating system...but you also have to join them together somehow?

That means cables – big cables and lots of cables – so getting the sizes right for the distances required is best left to an expert...and then getting the price right will be up to us.

I’m quite proud of my map though!

There are lots of huge decisions, but we’re making them as we go along – from the window sills, to the staircases and then there’s the ceilings...

In over our heads: the wooden formwork boards left a cool pattern in the concrete and now we’re deciding whether to keep it and seal it, or plaster the ceilings

The villa has a concrete roof and mezzanine floors and so we are wondering whether to plaster the ceilings or leave them as they are...with some kind of whitewashing or clear sealing solution. Let us know what you think.

Leave a comment

These are all the things we should really have thought through at the beginning, but you don’t know until you know. as they say!

The lay of the land: the trees on the dam and the citrus on the terrace should improve the look of the valley and take the edge off the clay

The other big job has been getting all the trees and plants into the ground to take advantage of the warmer weather and the spurt of growth everything is enjoying.

Most of the trees we planted on the Hoover Dam are doing well, as are the citrus we planted with Ana’s brother Erik on the new terrace – despite all the clay.

As well as digging deep holes in the claggy soil (if I can even call it that) we also transported down a load of sticks, extra organic-rich soil and estrume compost to give them the best possible start in life.

Erik & Medronho Jorge talking booze and his fabulous new still

I’ve been in pump-priming hell trying to find a simple solution to use the lake water for irrigating the new trees while we wait for Carlos and his crew to put in a new irrigation system.

We also have a very full well and Carlos suggested we buy a cheap submersible pump to flush out the routes the water takes so it will keep flowing when the water table drops in the summer.

The oranges were blossoming when we bought them and as well as bringing some natural air-freshening to the car on the way from the nursery, are continuing to flourish.

Thanks for reading Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

The pomegranates are bursting into action, three of the four nespras Japanese plums are settling well into their new home, but the four marmelo (quince) which we bought with bare roots are showing little life so far – I hope the compost didn’t burn them too much.

We put in some strawberries, raspberries and blueberries after tearing out the vine which had taken over one of the beds nearest the house – and then added some dill which is curiously absent from most supermarkets here, some sage and some lemongrass.

Of course all the grasses and weeds have been going nuts too, especially one crawling, spider-like plant which produces small spiky balls when it seeds...they get terribly stuck in Simon’s fur and so I’ve been at war with them all week.

An added irritation: actually Simon’s been getting on quite well with the cat and the kittens, but thanks to Ola & Merete for lending us a control mechanism

With a lot of water retained in the ground, now’s the best chance to easily pull things out before it sets like concrete for the summer...and so I’ve been weeding the gravel (an endless task!)

We’ll be away for a bit (thanks for housesitting Ray!) and so it’s been a bit of a race against time as the whole place is going to turn into a jungle very soon...and then I’ll have to get the strimmer out to clean the land ahead of the fire regulation deadline.

We also, sadly, had two trees to plant in memoriam.

The first was a mulberry tree here at the farm for Derek Day’s brother Waldemar who sadly passed away in Los Angeles at far too young an age and leaving two small daughters.

He was very close to Oda and to both of us and is a huge loss which is hard to even comprehend. We’re constantly thinking about Oda’s boyfriend and his family.

Waldemar’s mulberry is already producing leaves and has a great view of the valley.

The second planting

was up in Ericeira near Lisbon at Ana’s family’s summer house where we buried her dad’s ashes in a biodegradable urn with a pine seed on the top.

The family gathered for the little ceremony and while we all miss Zé very much we hope a tall and thriving pine tree will produce a large and long-lasting memory which will outlive us all.

Family tree: planting a memorial tree and Zé’s ashes at the house he built and loved near Ericeira
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Alastair Leithead