That was the year that was

That was the year that was

So another month goes by, and another year. We finished last December’s blog with So good riddance indeed to a horrid 12 months. 2021 must surely be a brighter, less turbulent year. Not really. A year of more lock downs, a total lack of movement as regards our new house, and a general feeling that it’ll probably get worse before it gets better. We are back in a ‘state of calamity’ and there are yet more restrictions on eating inside restaurants.

The weather in 2021 has been good overall. Once the summer got going it was cooler for us than normal, lower temperatures meant there were no major fire incidences which is always positive, and the autumn and winter (so far) have been bright and sunny. And it has meant we have been able to eat outside a lot too, not only in the our courtyard or garden but also when we’ve gone to restaurants, nearly all the meals we’ve had have been al fresco. This is certainly something that has kept us going.

Today was another marvellous day for walking, something else we have been doing even more of. The countryside around us is lovely, with loads of documented walking tracks for us to explore. And we have yet to meet a single person on any of the trails we have taken.

We take Betty for a long walk every morning still, Jussi a much shorter one. She is doing fabulously considering she had a major operation in January, in fact it is Betty who is more reluctant to get off the sofa in the morning let alone give us her customary bark to get us up.

Skittle is now three and a half and continues to be a more reliable alarm clock. Sadly, we said goodbye to two of the hens, the two youngest which is annoying, but the others seem fine. We have just four now. Hatty, the biggest one in the foreground will be five next spring, but we still get a few eggs every day which is all we need. Having said that today we passed a farm selling free range duck eggs (the ducks were out and about with turkeys, hens, guinea fowl, geese and goats) and we bought a dozen for €2.50. We will start the New Year with those poached on homemade muffins and smoked salmon.

Richard dispatched all of the recent batch of roasties. We were a bit disappointed there too: having decided they were big enough not to be taken by a sparrowhawk and could be let out to enjoy the grass, a mongoose got one of them and we found its headless body in the corner of the field. I hate not being able to let them out so some serious work on the fencing is job number one for January. They seemed fairly happy together in the sun in the safety of the cage though. And we must do some more bird watching, January is such a great time to spot things. This redwing and great spotted woodpecker were on our old walnut tree earlier in the month.

We’ve had a bit of rain recently, not unwelcomed. One particularly sunny / rainy afternoon we saw the most amazing rainbow, the whole arc was visible. glowing against the grey sky .

Perhaps a sign of good fortune for the year ahead, we all need it. So wishing all our readers the very best for the New Year and 2022. Let’s hope it’s a good one this time.

Cold but colourful

Cold but colourful

The countryside around us is always surprisingly verdant for most of the winter as the types of oak, olives, pines and eucalyptus etc around us are evergreens. It was delightful coming across a row of these acers in a village we walked through as we took good advantage of the dry, sunny weather.

The garden is in flower. Well, sort of. Two of our three types of buddleia are putting on a show as are many of the roses, amongst others. I saw a red admiral the other day. And yes, we even have a few strawberries!

Meanwhile Richard has been getting his craft beer kit out again. I think this is a black IPA. He has made no fewer than 35 brews so far and very nice they are too.

Richard has also found time to finish, at long last, the wooden fruit bowl he carved from the fallen cherry tree. It certainly has an artisanal look about it but we like it a lot.

Meanwhile the Christmas cake has been made and is being ‘fed’ on a regular basis. (Am I the only one who forgoes the teaspoon and just sloshes the brandy over the cake each time?) The pud has also been made, only the slightest of hiccups when I realised I must have used self-raising rather than plain flour…

I spent a few hours in the sun cracking open some of last year’s walnuts. Some of them had divided themselves into three rather than two, rather strange.

I have taken the plunge and opened an Instagram account to promote my knitting patterns. I do not enjoy all this new malarkey, something always goes amiss. Not having a smart phone slightly hampered things but now that it can be linked to Facebook I have managed to do that through the desktop. However, the three posts I first put up were taken down immediately as they were against the community guidelines. They give great detail about what that entails (terrorism / nudity / fake posts etc etc but nothing was mentioned about hand knitted tops). I can post successfully through my Facebook page so am sticking to that for the mo (@kiddiwinksknits if you’re interested).

There are a couple of ponds on our dog walks. This one, if we remember to keep quiet on arrival, is a favourite spot for a heron and we can catch it keeping a beady eye out for the frogs.

There are loads of jobs in the garden to do, the asparagus bed needs to be cut down and mulched but it is gloriously golden in the sunshine and I am reluctant to remove it.

On the animal front, Jussi survived an operation in January to remove a tumour, but alas has a few more now and has been on a diet of eye-wateringly expensive pills. They do seem to have helped but she won’t be able to be operated on again so we just hope she continues to be in high spirits, she is well over 13 now, and nothing has affected her appetite as yet.

Betty is slowing down and has become rather soppy wanting cuddles on the sofa, but again she is still in high spirits. It’s a dogs life for her (not).

Autumn is the new summer

Autumn is the new summer

We said in the last post that September was springlike. Well, without doubt, October was summer. It was marvellous: the average high was 25, with the highest reaching 30. And average lows were only 11, and some of the evenings never got below 16 so some lovely balmy evenings.

We took advantage of these nice days with a number of trips to the beach, plus a night away with friends by a lagoon. This entailed eating lots of seafood, walks on the sand collecting shells and flamingo feathers, and bird spotting too.

It also meant the barbecue hasn’t been put away yet and the smell of grilled fish lingered in the courtyard many an evening. We are regulars at the local markets, trying to do our bit to keep them going. There have been quite a few supermarkets open in the region since we arrived and they are taking their toll. However, there is usually a good range of fish, and fruit and vegetables too. (Although it remains a mystery what the Portuguese do with the aubergines, cauliflower and broccoli as we are never served those in a restaurant).

The month ended with some downpours though but despite that it got top marks. The weather has now turned to winter: temperatures have plummeted, the fire is roaring in the living room and the leccy blanket will be taken out of its box soon. So spring, summer, winter in two months… Oh, and there’s snow on the Serra da Estrela!

Second spring

Second spring

We’ve said this before about September: a few days of autumn rain and everything starts to turn green again, there’s bird song (where do the robins go over the summer?!) welcoming us in the morning and on the dog walks, and wild flowers too. It really does feel springlike.

You may remember the awfully cold January and I thought the plumbago had died. However, it’s made a full recovery and is providing some lovely autumn colour in the courtyard:

I mentioned the red / yellow peppers in the previous post. They have all been picked now, many roasted and marinated in oil for some delicious toasty toppings. The chillies have also been picked, some of those dried and others turned into chilli jam. And we’ve had the last of the pimentos padrón, always a winner whenever we’ve grown those.

Those were all the last of the harvest, the raised beds have now been prepared for the winter: the plants pulled up and compost and chicken straw piled on top. There’s a few parsley plants here and there but that’s it for the crops this year.

Having said that the walnuts are almost ready, there are more figs to be picked and the prickly pears have been great so perhaps more jelly from them this year.

Meanwhile we have been out enjoying the autumn sunshine. We’ve had a few trips to the beach for some seafood and we decided to pop over to Extremadura in Spain for a couple of nights with the dogs. This was our only holiday away this year.

The journey was fine but Jussi didn’t settle at night for some reason (all the excitement?!) and Betty decided to bark her way along the walks (all the excitement?!) frightening any wildlife we were hoping to spot. We did, however, manage to see some amazing birds though and back home recently spotted some stags and deer up on the hills.

Portugal has so far this year recorded its lowest number of wildfires since 2011, indicative of the weather more than any success with forest management. We had a long weekend of very high temperatures, those that I always complain about, but otherwise it’s been quite pleasant over the summer months. The morning mists have been with us for a while now, and the waterproofs weren’t actually put away, but fingers crossed for a few more spring weeks ahead.

Au revoir, August

Au revoir, August

It’s been a surprisingly busy month. First up, village news. Only in the last post did I mention how many houses were for sale. Well, the house next door (although there is a field and path between us) not only has been sold but the pool has already been renovated and the sounds of splashing and children’s laughter have been ringing out over the last few weeks. It seems two families have bought the place and are using it, for the moment at least, as their holiday home. It has completely changed the feel of the village, it actually feels alive rather than on its last legs. So a very welcome change indeed.

We have, after all these years living here, decided to do something about the external walls of the property. We have only concentrated on the inside of the courtyard, garden and house; the outer parts have been ignored. Well, we (Richard mainly) has addressed this and now you need a pair of sunglasses when walking past. He’s also given all the other walls a fresh coat of paint too. One day we’ll have a house number to put up…

In the garden we inherited a load of fruit trees. We have rather neglected them to be honest, we do try and prune them but it’s a big job. One of the old peach trees has surprised us with a bumper crop this year. The branches were overloaded with fruit. They don’t look much, smaller than the commercial ones in the market, but are really quite tasty. They have been bottled for the winter days ahead.

We planted new fruit trees as well, many back in the winter of 2010. The pear tree was just a stick back then but is now way taller than me and has given us a great crop this year too. Many of these have also been bottled but we have some cooked in red wine for pudding. I should add that the fruit from both these trees were almost completely bug free. We of course never spray the trees with anything, the birds keep on top of the bugs for us.

Talking of bugs, here is a collection of some recent creepy crawlies.

It’s been a little hit and miss in the veg patch but hurrah! the peppers are turning either red or yellow and are just enormous. Can’t wait to have those. After we stopped eating the fresh runner beans the plants were left to dry and the dried beans have been collected for winter stews. There was about 400g from the 6 plants, not bad. Presumably they can be used as seeds for next spring.

I recently found some of the marvellous rock lichen that produces an interesting purple. I lost patience a little and didn’t wait as long as I should have for the colour to develop but it was good to get the dye pots and pans out again.

And Richard has also got his wood working tools out again. An old cherry tree in the field opposite was cut down last year and he snaffled a part of the trunk. He reckons it’ll be finished in a week or two.

Finally, we spent an evening on top of the local hill watching the Perseids, we’ve had a few trips to the sea, and a pleasant morning spent at one of the many river beaches in the area. Just a shame Richard got water in his ears and was deaf for most of the month. Pardon?

The village

The village

Or should that be villages? When we first moved in there was a lot of paperwork to be done: forms to be filled in, proof of residence to be made, photos taken… we traipsed round various offices together always taking all the documents with us, never knowing what was needed when. It was therefore with some amusement when we got any authorisation, our residência for example, as it seemed we were not living together. We were given different postcodes, one of us is living in the village to the east, Galega, and the other to the west, Chão de Ourique! We are in fact living bang smack in the middle of the two, perhaps the village boundaries go through the house.

Anyway, this was way back in 2010. Although the house may be in two villages it has neither a number nor a street name (the bank manager is always moaning about that). Some of you will remember the council had a village meeting back in February asking for suggestions for names. Last month we received a note from them saying that the proposed name for ours was Rua da Escola (and giving us 10 days to object and come up with something different). Ah, I hear you say: you’ve never mentioned the school. That’s because there is no school. There is a building which was used as the school, D. Elena went there when she was a child in the 1940s, but it hasn’t been used as one for decades. A name is better than no name though and now we wait for our number. (Which might help us to send parcels to the UK; at the moment the customs declaration form has to be done online but all attempts to fill it in fails as the address is incomplete…).

The old school house

D Elena told me that the schoolteacher used to arrive by bicycle. In those days the road was just a dirt track and when it rained heavily he wasn’t able to come as it was all too muddy, especially as people kept oxen which made the road even more impassable in bad weather. She used to complain that she wasn’t allowed to go to the bigger school when she was old enough, as her brothers did, because it was in another village and she was a girl. She had to stay behind.

Which brings us to the next topic: it seems the village is for sale, including the old school house. There are 17 buildings on the west side, Chão de Ourique. Only six of these are lived in: three with Portuguese and three with Brits. Alas, at the start of the month there were seven occupied houses but we had to say goodbye to Ol’ Man River who lived alone at the far end. There is a lamp post in the village which serves as a notice board and as most notices are about who has died it is referred to as the death pole. We were sad to see his name and picture there but at 96 he had had a good innings, as they say. Despite his age he was always quite cheerful, we could often hear him singing, and always asked us what day of the week it was. His house, along with D Elena’s, is to stay with their families, as is another house, but the remaining are either for sale (five of those, I exaggerated a little) or abandoned (three).

Luis’s house opposite is for sale…
…as is the house next door…
…and the one next to that.

There might even be more abandoned houses but as they have no roofs and have become one with nature it’s not always so clear what was a barn and what was a house. I often wonder what the village must have been like when all the houses were fully occupied and the old people who live here now, or up until recently, were children. D Elena used to talk about the past with pleasure until she remembered how hard it was without water and electricity (and the muddy roads) and got a bit tearful.

For sale
Empty since we have been here

Meanwhile the greenfinches in the plane tree in the courtyard have left their home. They fledged this morning having stood on the edge of the nest flapping their wings and tweeting loudly for the last four days. They haven’t gone far, we can still hear them in the olive trees over the wall begging to be fed.

The last word goes to Jussi. Despite being a pedigree Labrador, with a whole string of operations and emergency treatments and medicines under her belt, she has, amazingly, turned 13. I have lost count how many times I thought she wouldn’t make it through the latest saga of illness, including the operation for the tumour at the start of the year, but she is quite perky, for her age at least, although her daily walk is just through to the end of the village and back. Alfredo is still around to shout Gordo! and chuckle whenever he sees her. Parabéns to Jussi.

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Just around the corner…

Just around the corner…

It may be the longest day of the year but it’s also the shortest summer. We have gone from spring to autumn. It’s grey, wet and a bit miz. We are wearing jumpers. The idea that ‘the nights are drawing in’ seems a tad depressing. There have been some bright days but the barbie is covered up again. Unsurprisingly, we have been watching the footie: all those games in the sunshine! With cooling water breaks! Anyway, the resident meteorologist assures me, yet again, that summer is around the corner…

So let’s go outside and see what’s there. The strawberry pot, planted up in February, is doing well. We just have to move it out of Jussi’s way before she gobbles this lot up. The raspberries have come and gone (the blackbirds won) as have the gooseberries (having been turned into 2 clafoutis, 2 large bottled jars for winter pud and 4 pots of jam).

The plums, at least the yellow ones, are going to give us a bumper harvest. And the two linden trees were amazing with their flowers this year. Picking those for herbal teas was a sense sensation: the sweet, honey-like smell was quite overpowering, and the bees overhead buzzed incessantly. I managed to get, between downpours, a good few baskets for drying.

We have a pomegranate tree, or rather bush. It looks stunning now with its bright scarlet red flowers; we only get one or two fruit, they just drop off before maturing, but it looks lovely.

In the veg patch the runner beans are doing well, we have 6 plants and manage to get plenty for a meal every day. The aubergines, melons and peppers have shot up in the wet weather so hoping for a good year for those. The courgettes are also delivering the goods now: courgette fritters, stuffed courgette, courgette pasta… when they work they are fabulous. The salad toms, the ones that escaped the blight, have fruit although those are still green. We really need some heat and sunshine to get them going.

Meanwhile the rewilding of the garden has taken a different turn. It did look lovely last year but it’s a tad scruffier now with loads of grasses and brambles coming though.

It’s all great for the wildlife though. We mentioned in the last post that the hunting ban meant seeing more animals, and we continue to see deer on many of the dog walks. Richard came across a dead one unfortunately but he took the head and he now has a rather impressive skull to add to his collection. It belongs (belonged?) to a roe deer. The moth is a passenger moth apparently.

Meanwhile we can hear baby barn owls, always very pleasing, late at night. We were also excited that, after 10 years, we had an apricot harvest. Well, we got three! The joy of small things.

Flowers and showers

Flowers and showers

So I went onto our digital photo albums to see what pics we had taken to remind me of the month only to see they were mainly of meals we had eaten outside or knitting projects! I think the reason for this has been the rain again; the excitement of al fresco dining at last and firing up the barbie is always a photo opportunity, and then being inside meant time spent designing more patterns.

So Richard has had more practise with grilling sardines…

plus he has honed his paella making skills:

There have been some winners. The raspberries have gone mad thinking we have moved to Scotland and we are having a monster crop. Not that we are eating them all ourselves, the blackbirds are feasting on them too. The strawberries are also doing well but I just saw Jussi helping herself to one so we are sharing those too!

I’m not really a big fan of roses but the ones of the front door have also enjoyed the rain with the sunshine, as have others in the courtyard. The serins will be nesting above the door as usual this year we hope.

The clematis too looks marvellous and in the countryside it’s been an astonishing year for the bee orchids, we’ve never seen so many before, just wonderful.

There have been casualties though. For the first time the blue tits’ nest box failed. We saw them making their nest, and a few hatched but then, for some reason, they all died. Very sad. Perhaps the rain meant there were not enough caterpillars for them, perhaps one or both of the parents got predated. We’ll never know, and there doesn’t seem any more interest in the box. One lunchtime a buzzard tried to take one of the blackbirds feeding on the ground, there was a load of squawking and it flew over our heads but the blackbird got away. Nice to hear them and the nightingales singing.

In the veg patch the rain and warm temperatures meant one thing: the dreaded blight. I had to throw away all of the cherry tomato plants, they were already very tall and covered in flowers. But the tell-tale signs were there and when I made myself dig them up they stank horribly. A little later two of the salad tom plants also had to be pulled up, I have four of those left. There are still six plum tomato plants to go in, struggling a bit in their pots, but they are to go in after the broad beans and will be next to the others and I really want to wait and check they’re in the clear. We’ve had a marvellous proper hot sunny day today but I’ve just seen it’s only going to be 20 tomorrow with a chance of rain (more!) so perhaps it’s just as well I’ve waited.

On another positive note there are definitely signs in the countryside that the hunting ban has made a difference. Deer, rabbits and red-legged partridges are regularly seen. Oh and yes we’ve both had our first Covid jabs, the next one is late June.

We’ve just looked outside: the skies have turned a distinct pewter grey and the wind has picked up. It really does look like we’ll start the first of the summer months needing our waterproofs for the morning dog walk. Ho hum.

Sing a song

Sing a song

We are right into spring now. On my morning walks the countryside is a riot of green. The olive green is with us all year as is the green of the pine trees but now they have been joined by the green of a wide variety of oaks including holm, kermes and the ubiquitous Portuguese oak as well as the slightly different shades of the hawthorn and strawberry trees. As well as taking in the greenness of the trees we also have our eyes combing the ground as it’s also the orchid season and we always see at least a dozen species. I must admit to being a bit of a wild flower nerd as well and have compiled a list of almost 200 species of wild flowers found in these parts.

But this year I’ve also been trying to attune my ears. A couple of years ago I couldn’t tell the difference between the song of the Robin and the Blackbird so I made a concerted attempt to identify the common birds we get around here by their calls and songs. The tea-cher, tea-cher of the Great Tit and the calls of the Wood Pigeon and Cuckoo are obvious but there were many birds I could hear on my daily dog walk and without seeing them I had no idea who was making the sound. I therefore made a real effort to remember and if possible record the songs I was hearing and then check them on various websites when I got home. Fortunately there seems to be a progression from winter through to spring. Winter is pretty quiet on the whole but we get a few thrushes who are winter visitors to mid Portugal and they are the only ones singing, certainly in February and luckily they have a distinctive and clear song.

Thrush singing

The Robin is famous for singing all year round but on my walks in March I was hearing loads of them and they are not shy so you can often see them singing as well which helps. Later, another group of birds started up. After concentrating on this song, I identified it as the Chaffinch. I think of its distinctive call as reminding me of water tumbling over rocks rising to a crescendo. We don’t get many in the garden but this at least told me there were plenty in the countryside.

A week or two later I started hearing another very distinctive song. This turned out to be the Wren. It is supposed to be the most common bird in the UK. A bit surprising as you don’t see many but its song is so distinctive, once you hear it, you know it’s the little bird with the strong voice.

Wren in its nest in our courtyard (2018)

Another distinctive call we hear is the Green Woodpecker. Almost never seen but its call can be heard from distance with its distinctive laugh, or yaffle. I remember Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss (UK TV series from the 70s) and remembered it was a woodpecker.

Jackie’s favourite is next. They arrive within a few days of 1 April every year and are of course distinctive for singing at night – the Nightingale. This year when I take the dogs out last thing at night, I can often hear three of them. Although they often sing from the top of a tree during the day, if you get anywhere near, they disappear so are also rarely seen (by us at least). Also at night, I nearly always hear the Barn Owl with its distinctive screeech. Again rarely seen (as they are out at night!) but I was lucky enough to see one at close quarters a few years ago perched on a wall right above me. I know they live in the abandoned house next door so hopefully we will hear the higher pitched screech of some youngsters sometime soon. We also hear the distinctive Twit, twooh of the Tawny Owl but these always seem to be quite far away.

rare spotting of a Nightingale in our garden

Lately there is one songster that has been loudest of all on my daily walk but I never see him. He repeats his call which is very distinctive. Jackie thinks they are singing, “I don’t want to have lunch with Ed Meeeel iband”. Strange that we don’t see them in the countryside as they are highly visible in the garden – the Blackcap.

Blackcap (male)

Every year we get Blue Tits nesting in our nest box and I know we have already got some eggs this year, however, I have never identified their song. Listening to recordings it just seems like a high pitched tweet but I’ll keep trying. Lastly but not least, the one bird we always hear in the garden rather than on our walks is the Blackbird. They are around all year but have only just started to sing. No doubt they will already be building nests in the garden. And after all my research, I think I can finally distinguish it from the robin.

One of last year’s Blue tit brood

If you want to check out the calls and songs there are plenty of websites out there but I have found the Britishbirdsongs website and the rspb to be very useful.

Greetings, Spring!

Greetings, Spring!

There’s a time when everything seems a little sad, the winter drags on and summer is a dream. And then, after the rain the sun comes out, the wind drops and in an instant everything really does spring to life. The trees suddenly have buds and most of them are in leaf, the meadows have some flowers and yes, there are more and more orchids to be seen. Along with the Early Purple (below) and Giant, we are seeing the Man, Naked Man, Helleborine and Sawfly on every walk.

Not to mention the birds and their chorus which greets us in the morning; the blue tits are flying into their box with tufts of Jussi hair and moss in their beaks, the greenfinches and sparrows are squabbling over the bird feeder and the robins are hunting for suitable nest spots. Richard is convinced there’s a couple interested in some nooks and crannies near the woodpile. It happens every year of course but there is something magical about the speed of the transformation. Now that the clocks have been put forward the chickens aren’t put away until after supper. The next two months sees the countryside at its best and the knowledge that that is around the corner is gladdening.

The warmer weather also means we can enjoy one of our simplest pleasures: eating outside. Richard’s birthday was in mid-March and we were able to enjoy our champers in the sun. He’s also been dusting off the bbq and rustling up some paella.

So there is definitely an air of optimism at Casa Azul. The Penela area on the national Covid map has gone from red to orange and now to yellow, just one step away from white. Actually, nearly all the country is now white, there is only a smattering of yellow and orange so all good news. Not that we will see anything of a vaccine for some time yet…

We took a trip up north to have another meeting with the builder. It was all a bit stressful, we have limited Portuguese and even less knowledge of building work and yet we somehow managed to discuss various types of materials for the walls, floors and windows; heating solutions and certain design elements (me brandishing pages from Casas de Campo and saying Isto é o que queremos!) We think we have arranged for him to show us some more of his work, and perhaps come up with a cheaper quote, but who knows. Oxalá!

We had a picnic in the sun and then pootled around Ponte de Lima, it really is one of the most beautiful towns in Portugal. Not only is it charming, it’s full of restaurants which, we hope, will be open the next time we are up. Oxalá!