Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
S2:Ep5 - Gentle Giants

S2:Ep5 - Gentle Giants

Bagpipes and grapes; a celebration and a farewell (August 2022)

A surprising reaction to bagpipe music from the big dog Garfunkel from August 2022.

“This wasn’t an instrument the original Simon & Garfunkel were known for…the only connection is that some people prefer the Sound of Silence to the bagpipes.”


Garfunkel was quietly guarding his radiator in the lounge as usual when his ears suddenly pricked up, he hauled his 65kg frame over to the table wagging his tail, and gave my arm a huge shove with his giant nose.

This can sometimes happen when I’ve forgotten to give him and Simon breakfast, but this was animated, it was unusual and it was because I was playing...bagpipe music.

This wasn’t an instrument the original Simon & Garfunkel were known for, and other than the occasional folk music cover of their hits, the only connection is that some people prefer the Sound of Silence to the bagpipes.

So why on earth would a pedigree Portuguese Rafeiro do Alentejo (Alentejo Mastiff) like the bagpipes?

Welcome to this week’s rabbit hole and the discovery that a tradition of bagpipe playing in Portugal goes back to the 11th century...and possibly even further if you consider the Romans also had a doodlesack fetish.

Stone carvings show shepherds with the instrument, there’s a Celtic connection, and from the 19th century it was popularly known as gaita across the north-western Iberian Peninsula, and the Bagpipe Society says it was clearly a thing.

The Portuguese name for bagpipe is Gaita-de-fole – the Spanish of Galicia call it Gaita galega – both were made from goatskin and wood.

It a mainly northern Portuguese tradition, but the Portuguese Bagpipe Society say it reached areas near us, where Garfie’s ancestors were bred to protect the cattle as the farmers drove the herds up into the mountains in the summer and back to the plains in the winter.

There’s clearly loads of this history in Garfie’s DNA: for instance he always works nights, insisting to be off-leash outside to protect us and the property from threats like wild boar (wild boar) and moonlight hikers.

Judging from the giant land mines he’s dumped literally right on the edge of our property he’s drawn a red line, daring any nest-making piggies to cross.

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By day he’s more like Ferdinand the Bull sleeping by the non-functioning radiator or under the shade of the cork oaks smelling his favourite flowers.

But take him to the beach and he goes into full-on protection mode.

Simon goes straight for the shade of an umbrella – and onto a beach towel whether or not one is free – whereas Garfunkel makes a point of sitting five to ten metres away facing outwards.

He stares at every passer-by intently and suspiciously, takes the high-ground if it’s available and scans all the approach routes: it’s stressful work, he never drinks on the job, and he’s knackered by the time he gets home.

Garfie is our security guard, our close protection, and despite his calm demeanour, his warning barks could accurately be described as spine-chilling.

Even Simon, who only keeps his top dog status through age and Garfie’s good nature, prances with annoyingly more confidence knowing the big dog has his back.

So with these instincts already running through his blood it’s not surprising that he likes bagpipe music, even if he’s not terribly sure why.

Taking Simon & Garfunkel to a quiet summer beach - Simon managed to get a cactus thorn in his paw and so was even more demanding for a day

One question you may have at this point is why on earth I was listening to bagpipe music in the first place, and this brings us on to another close-protection gentle-giant who has sadly passed away far too young.

I first met Michael “The R” Rautenbach in Cape Town with our friend Roger who recently came to stay, and it was the video clip from his wake which featured the lone piper playing the lament Flower of the Forest.

“Rautie” was a legend: Roger’s business partner in the security business, an ex-special forces, anti-drugs officer in South Africa who Ana and I were lucky enough to spend some time with...particularly in the Cape winelands and occasionally at our Dog & Hound bar in Nairobi.

Rautie as we remember him

In the days before he died of a heart attack at 58 after years of heart trouble, Roger and he had been discussing an upcoming visit to see us in Vale das Estrelas.

It was such a terrible shame we didn’t get the chance to braai with Michael one last time and to share a Portuguese wine tasting or three.

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Wine tasting is not top of my list this weekend after an amazing couple of days in Estremoz in the winelands of inland Alentejo.

One of our favourite wineries is Howard’s Folly in the centre of the historic walled city and the occasion was Howard’s 60th birthday – a two day party with hugely generous quantities of food and wine from hosts Howard & Susie.

Happy birthday Howard - and thanks for inviting us!

We met an amazing group of weird and wonderful people from all over the world – including our old pal DC who was en route to another filming assignment in Ukraine – stay safe buddy (and that goes for everyone else working there, and that includes you, Q).

Dinner at the Folly Restaurant on the first night was very special with a modern and international take on Alentejo traditions, and the most wonderful amuse-bouche that exploded in the mouth like a xiao long bao soup dumpling...perhaps not surprising with Howard’s long association with Hong Kong.

As ever, the wines were great – the empty bottle inventory for the winery meal and Estremoz pousada dinner the following night was impressive.

If you ever find yourself planning a trip to the Alentejo winelands and Évora or Estremoz make sure you eat at Howard’s Folly restaurant and try some of his wine.

The head winemaker is David Baverstock: a giant of Portugal’s wine industry, a consultant to many wonderful wineries, who spent decades developing Esporão into an amazing vineyard: one name from Alentejo many people around the world probably know.

Esporão vineyard near Alqueva dam - the biggest man-made lake in Europe

We were lucky enough to interview his successor, the brilliantly skilled and passionate Sandra Alves this week – despite the pressure of the harvest having started early courtesy of the summer heat wave.

There’ll be much more about her and about Esporão – one of the world’s largest wholly organic vineyards – on the wine blog in the coming months.

And speaking of grapes, we’ve just harvested our first bunch of table grapes from the vines beside the house.

I honestly thought I’d killed them when my Spring pruning was overenthusiastic to say the least.

I’ve torn off the odd diseased leaf and trimmed them back once or twice, to avoid mildew and given them absolutely no water at all.

But the mists that sometimes roll in did their work and the red grapes are sweet and juicy, the smaller white grapes also ready to eat...and this year we’re going to eat them all and not try drying them...which did little other than attract a load of flies to the valley last year.

And with our landscaping architect friend Wade Graham heading here from LA, and with Ray Morison volunteering to stay with us, decades after he first lived here in São Teotónio, the late summer focus will be plants, seedlings, and perhaps building a greenhouse...although I haven’t mentioned that yet!

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