Stars in our eyes
Some good news in more hopeful times
Spring has sprung early here in Portugal and there’s nothing like 25C, waves of beautiful flowers, and plans for the lifting of travel bans and lockdowns to raise our spirits.
Flights between the UK and Portugal will be back on by the end of the month, infection rates have plummeted, and the government is pushing on with vaccinations.
But this week we also heard some news which excited us, scared us and takes us a step closer to turning our big dream into a reality.
As a child I was never terribly good at drawing, but in art class I started painting in a way the seemed to impress the teacher – using lots of small, different coloured dots to create one big picture.
Maybe I was inspired by the pixels that were just becoming a thing on the IBMs and ZX Spectrums in computer club.
I thought about that style this week – pointillism – as the wide-open green canvas of rolling Alentejo hills is gradually being filled in…as each different colour of spring flower takes its rightful place on the landscape.
The luscious yellow lupins, the vivid orange ice plants that open and close with the sun, the small but prolific purple irises and the yellow and white rock rose flowers have really started bursting from the estevas plants.
The pine trees are topped with tall copper-coloured shoots which will transform into huge pinecones, and the fresh light greens of the new growth on the cork oaks breathes new life into our view down the valley.
I heard a cuckoo this morning.
I even caught the sun this week as Rui and I put the finishing touches to the reception room – the fiddly cutting of the tiles to size, their gluing and grouting, the fitting of doors and preparing for the glass curtain installation by laying more reinforced concrete.
And we really couldn’t complain about the view as we worked.
The cherries are in blossom, the fig leaves exploded from their skeletal frame in a matter of days, a couple of the agaves have started their final journey into towering trees…and when did all those bird of paradise flowers suddenly appear?
New shoots are even emerging from the massacre site of our small “vineyard” where we wielded the pruning shears without mercy.
It appears we only killed one or two of them.
Our French winemaker friend enquired as to how many grape vines we have so far, and I replied 22 – “plants, not hectares.”
“So, the…parcel is not…erm…unmanageable?” Baptiste replied with a chuckle.
It’s actually 24 plants – when you take off the ones missing, presumed dead, and add in the extras which somehow squeezed out from under the compost and those that emerged from the thick layer of grass and oxalys.
The unidentified, unkempt vines which were more tangled than Simon’s lockdown look coat have inspired us to learn how to make wine…and boy, have we got a lot to learn.
That’s the essence of the podcast that we’re working on: a travelogue around Portugal centred on a vineyard a week – learning with us about Portuguese wine and history, geography and culture through big characters and their great stories.
We have all our interviews in the bag for the pilot episode, but I just need to make the time to edit it…and this week has been all about building work and wondering whether our dream will actually come true.
After weeks of their probing questions and our pursuit of good answers, Turismo de Portugal has approved a zero-interest loan to fund more than half of the costs of building our little off-grid eco lodge.
But more nails will be bitten – and teeth will be ground a little lower – while we await the final piece in the picture: a decision from the bank.
We submitted our plan last September and have been waiting – our future plans on hold – to see if the people with real money back us as much as we back ourselves.
Although we’re now 85% funded, everything depends on whether the bank decides if our business plan is strong enough to risk investing in a diplomat and a journalist with grand plans for an off-grid little lodge with walks and wine tasting.
Without their support we won’t be able to start building.
But with their support we will absolutely have to start building…almost immediately…as our original plan had us starting to clear the land at the end of January.
And that’s the scary bit – if it is a yes (touching wood, not walking under ladders, being unsure what to do about cats walking across our paths) we will have to hit the ground running.
It’s been two years of thinking and planning.
We’ve pored over designs with our architect and have worked out how much solar power we need for electricity, hot water and heating.
We’ve discussed eco-friendly water treatment and recycling, and even painted a plan for the landscaping
We sourced quotes for everything from the last knife and fork to the last piece of garden furniture.
And we’ve been having more thoughts since we arrived – about micro-hydro power generation, about water purification and been back and forth over taipa building.
But Pedro the builder came over this week to walk the land and search for the best clay for those Roman-style taipa bricks that are a feature of Alentejo.
It seems we not only have plenty of great clay, but there’s also a lot of surface sand to get the mix just right.
After a long winter wait, we’re all poised to burst into life as all the different elements start coming together to create our big picture: as our colours find their rightful place on the landscape.
While we wait and hope and put everything else on hold, we have to start cutting down trees anyway – while we still can before the summer sun bakes the land and heightens the risk of wildfire.
And so on this UN International Day of the Forests we are meeting O Rei das Vacas (the Cow King)…our neighbouring farmer who has emerged from a busy calving ready to help us tackle the land.
We need to turn rows of industrially planted monoculture eucalyptus forest into a thriving new landscape of cork oak and pine, medronho bushes and possibly a small vineyard – when we learn how to.
It’s a testing time, so please keep everything crossed for us while we wait for news and help us out in the meantime with some advice…
We have narrowed down our choice of logo and have set up a proper survey for the final decision.
Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas to the first round – we built all 250 comments into our design process and I hope you like the results.
Please click on the link at the bottom and fill in the survey – it’s super short and will take less than a minute, but it’ll help us to make the final choice…so choose wisely!
We picked the name Vale das Estrelas – Valley of the Stars – for a very good reason on the first night we spent in the house sitting outside gazing up at the Milky Way.
So this week, after treating ourselves to local rosé and oysters for a fabulous sunset, it was the first time in a while we had been outside looking up at the night sky.
We still needed a Kenyan jiko to keep us warm, but it was absolutely beautiful.
Orion had made its way around to our main view and above it we picked out Gemini with Cancer next in line to our left and a little bit of Taurus on our right behind a bright moon.
Cloudy skies and cold nights had kept us away, but with the warmth returning to the valley and all the optimism and hope that spring brings – especially a year into the pandemic – it amazing to think how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, but how much more we still have to do.
We might be biting nails and grinding teeth…but this is an exciting and amazing adventure and there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing.