Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
S2:Ep3 - The long drive

S2:Ep3 - The long drive

Keeping calm and carrying...sand (May 2022)

How the city of Porto suddenly got closer, but still far enough away to ponder a big decision…to give up or to keep stressed and carry on?

I mention a blog on wine that I also write - it’s called The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure and is the precursor to a proper podcast on Alentejo wines. Sign up to join the mailing list for that below.


The day began with Ana saying it was time to stop.

After putting so much time, energy and money into our big idea of building a little tourism and wine tasting lodge it was time to let it go.

I argued the other side – that we had come so far, we were so close to laying bricks and it was the key to our future in Portugal.

But by that same afternoon – on the drive back from Porto – we had switched roles.

I was the one who was driving – depressed and in silence – while Ana was making the case for why all was not lost and how we really should carry on.

It’s a rollercoaster I’m sure many people embarking on a new business venture experience, but it’s not being helped by inflation, war in Europe and relying on other people.

Taking out our frustrations: the tile olive tree gets a long-awaited chiselling

Our long drive was helped when Porto moved a lot closer to us overnight.

The day before I’d checked how long it would take to drive to the little town south of Porto that’s home to the world’s biggest cork manufacturer.

Seven and a half hours was a lot more than I expected; in fact it was a lot further than I thought it was possible to drive up or down Portugal without reaching that little strip of Spain, or the sea.

This was clearly not a journey one could do both ways in a day, but Firle was in town on a break from covering the war in Ukraine and so the dogs had somewhere to stay.

Daniel offered to put us up in his place north of Lisbon for an overnight stop and to meet his old friend – an Australian eye surgeon who’s found his own piece of paradise in northern Portugal.

That’s better…

Seven and a half hours? That’s more than LA to San Francisco.

I checked again and realised the “avoid tolls” setting was on: Cassie the Hilux gets hammered for being a Class 2 car in a size-ist world of vehicle taxation and so we save when we can.

Tinkering the map settings, Porto moved about three hours closer – four and a half hours at the wheel was much more palatable. Portugal is not too unmanageable to explore by car.

The Amorim cork factory was a thing to behold and about far much more than just the five point eight billion bottle stoppers they produce every year – yes, you read that right –  5.8billion...a year.

From flooring to fashion, and space rockets to fine art, cork is an amazing, carbon-negative material which Amorim’s scientists are making even more remarkable every day.

Once the corks have been popped there’s a lot leftover for many other things

I’ll be writing the wine blog about cork this week and so don’t want to spoil the surprise about the secret of how they stopped wine bottles from even getting corked.

Please sign up below to head more about that and all our wine adventures.

The drive might have been a lot shorter than originally anticipated, but it was still plenty of time in the car to talk about our project, our ambitions, the current financial climate...and how everything seems to be going against us.

Each step has been moving so disappointingly slowly for so long, and now prices are going up every week and the cost of our build is wildly inflating.

It’s true of any building project, but just as we have felt good and in control, something new and unexpected has arrived to shove a huge spanner in the works.

The coldest part of the night is just before dawn, and we thought we were through it all when we found two builders we loved, chose one of them and believed we’d be starting this month.

But then we learned a new Portuguese word: Alvará.

It’s been a long time: great to see Penny & Nick for lunch

It’s one of the two thousand or so Portuguese words to originate from the Arabic, and it’s a government-issued document authorizing a builder to work up to a certain size of project.

Our guys have level two...and they need level three...and it’s not quick, cheap or easy to get the next grade up...and apparently there aren’t any level three builders in our region.

I’ve no idea how we didn’t just know this was needed beforehand...but we’re grateful to our friends Vera and Joep for teaching us Alvará before we applied, waited and then had our building licence refused!

So now everything is in the hands of other people: our architect, the câmara (town hall), and the builder to get the project tweaked so we can start before prices have risen so much we can’t afford it any more.

We still have faith but it’s a race against time and it’s all pretty stressful.

The big materials move: before (photo: Matthew Price)

It was hard enough to give up our jobs and learn to fend for ourselves off-grid in the Portuguese countryside, without the constantly evolving challenges associated with having a big, ambitious idea to create something amazing for us and for the region.

Vera and Joep are several steps ahead of us in building their own rural tourism based around the incredibly beautiful Lusitanian horses they breed. It will be amazing.

Vera’s encouraging words continually echo in our heads: “if it was easy everyone would be doing it.” And Joep added: “BUT, NO PANIC, Solutions are there to be found!”

We just didn’t know it would be this hard.

We were so caught up in the stress of forcing a round cork through a square hole we even managed to miss two of our wedding anniversaries. Thankfully there are three of them (a story for another time) so we get one more go at it in June.

Having friends here to share experiences, advice and encouragement is hugely valuable.

Having old friends from the UK making a surprise weekend visit and insisting on helping out is even more amazing.

Matthew, Hugh and Al before the work began…

Hugh Jennings and Matthew Price appeared unannounced on Friday afternoon for wines, braais and beach time...and to do more work in one day than I could have managed on my own in a week.

Hot on the heels of Ian painting the whole house and my power-washing of the roof, Hugh and Matthew got stuck into the scrapyard/tip which the back of the house had become.

…and after. Cheers chaps!

We shifted around five metric tonnes of building materials that have been spoiling our view for more than a year, installed the new concrete counter-top and even had time for a game of darts.

As the holder of the Edna Leithead Memorial International Darts Tournament trophy – named after my lovely late mother and taking the form of a terrible family heirloom Toby Jug – Hugh was keen to get the board up and get playing.

After work, a working lunch and then more work, time was tight and it all came down to one head to head game to 101.

I got lucky with a double top; now where will we put that lovely Toby Jug..?

It was a competitive game, but I really don’t think Hugh wanted to take Toby home anyway…

It was a well-timed visit which gave us some welcome reassurance and a boost to our mental strength to keep calm and carry on – to give it everything we can to make our project work.

Every day truly is a school-day – whether it’s being told about cork composites, meeting amazing winemakers, learning a new and important Portuguese word, or a bit more about ourselves and what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it.

Getting stuck into a braai and some great Monte do Carrapatelo wine (photo Matthew Price)
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