The One is here on holiday! We have been houseminding in a delightfully forgotten corner of Sydney, which despite owning a perfect little beach has up until recently remained unmolested by property developers. For the last 100 years half of the suburb was a hospital, originally for infectious diseases, due again to the end-of-the-line geography of the place.
Now, the hospital has been developed, but this isn’t such a bad thing. It’s quite a groovy piece of urban planning. Many old hospital buildings have been kept, and although there are more than a few new multistorey apartment buildings, most of the development is freestanding houses which have been built, it appears, under a very strict architectural code.
It’s hard to say what era the place belongs to. Some houses have a whiff of Frank Lloyd Wright, others suggest Japan or Jacques Tati. It’s all a kind of post-vintage, neo-Truman Show mid-century modern-modern.
Inspired by a rubbish article I just read on Hello! I’m going to say something about Lisbon. The main point of difference will be that I have been to Lisbon.
When I say rubbish, I don’t just mean the spelling and bad writing, or the regurgitation of suggestions made in most guidebooks with embellishments like “discover” and “savour” as though the visitor will be overcome by rapture and stupidity from the moment they set foot off the plane. It’s rubbish as in nonsense, bullshit, fantasy. Take the …“endless white sands and unspoiled beaches in Cascais”. Sorry, nope. They end. Quickly. And they are crowded and grubby. Anyway, does anyone visit Lisbon to go to the beach?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great town. It’s bad travel writing I have a problem with.
When you live here you get spoiled. It’s hard taking guests around places you’ve been to several million times before and still maintain some enthusiasm and pride.
So this is my guide:
Don’t take people anywhere you won’t enjoy yourself. This means nothing you’ve done before unless it’s really worth doing again. No “must-dos” or “quintessentially Lisbon” just for the sake of it.
Eat a lot, relax a lot and remember you’re on holiday.
Don’t try to walk everywhere.
Torre de Belém
Fortunately Lisbon does have a lot of quality stuff to see. I can keep going back to the Gulbenkian and the Berardo in Belém because they are world class museums. The Gulbenkian is not trying to represent a nation’s cultural identity, and yet it does. This originally private collection shows you what one person can do in a lifetime. If that’s too serious then there’s the ridiculously camp Museu dos Coches or for a Portugal-specific experience there’s the Museu do Azulejo. I recognise that these museums are commonly recommended, but I’m happy to put my neck out to say that it’s because they are good, relevant, interesting and/or… fun.
Architecture is my thing and Lisbon is full of really remarkable buildings, new and old. It’s one of the things that drew me here. Oriente and Rossio stations exemplify the contrasts of Lisbon but also the boldness of this seemingly shy country. I can’t drag every guest around to my favourite buildings but most will happily take in a palace. Palácio da Fronteira (more like a private house, not like Mafra) doesn’t make it onto top 10 lists, give thanks, but it is a beautiful and memorable sight and very typically Portuguese.
But I always start a tour of Lisbon with a massive scoff at Confeitaria Nacional. If there is one single thing that defines Portugal in my mind it is pastry, and Lisbon has the best cafes in the country. The Nacional and Versailles are the pinnacle in show-off grandeur but there are less audacious shrines to the art of sweetness all over town. I challenge you to find better cakes and coffee anywhere in the world.
Lalique at the Gulbenkian
Public transport can be more than simply useful if you buy tickets for everyone before they arrive. I keep a stash of old cards which I fill up for the sole purpose of a tram to Belém, a ride on one of the three funiculares and for the ferry. Either very early or late in the afternoon get down to the docks and take a ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas, if only for the views of the city from the water. Gorgeous.
Lisbon is certainly not fashion Mecca, but if you do your research you can find some excellent small boutiques of designers lesser known and more original. Custo Barcelona is a favourite with us, but there are other stores in the Chiado-Bairro Alto-Principe Real area that are home grown and representative of the small but lively creative industry in Portugal. Fabrico Infinito sells homewares, jewellery and miscellany. Less a souvenir, more a piece of art.
While restaurants serve food and hotels are places to sleep, in Lisbon they can be worth selecting for their historic value and interior design alone. You don’t necessarily go to Galeto or Casa do Alentejo for the food, but for the decor. Both high grandeur and cool can be found in Lisbon’s hotels, from the over the top baroque Pestana Palace, to the art deco Britania, über stylish Fontana Park and the very funky Florida or grass on the walls at Living Lounge Hostel. Just go for a drink at the bar if you’re not going to stay.
Overrated Lisbon: a strictly personal list
Castelo São Jorge
The Expo site: Parque de Naçoes, The Pavilhão and all that stuff
Cascais & Estoril – there’s nothing left of the 1930’s glamour
Vasco da Gama bridge – yes, it’s very long indeed, but there’s nothing on the other side and Ponte 25 Avril looks better.
Praça do Comercio – nice arch. The end.
Things I can do again
Jerónimos, Belém Tower
Taking pictures in the crooked lanes of Alfama & Graça
Eating with the povos: Casa da India and a hundred other tasquinas
Hunting fabrico próprio pastelaria, claro.
The Wallpaper guide
Museu do Azulejo
I can’t resist a brown sign. Especially the ones with the arch, symbolising an historic monument. The ones with the pillory symbol I can pass on, along with the beach ones and the water ones. If you followed all of those then you might end up at Praia das Rocas (beach), and that would be disappointing. On the other hand a brown sign saying Osso da Baleia(beach) – well that’s intriguing.
Thus, when I’m let out by myself I spend hours chasing brown signs. The One will not stand for my random turn-off adventures, and who can blame him when the monument in question might be 28 kilometres from the signpost and if you can actually find it it may only be a small rock covered in duck poo.
I’ve spent years chasing small rocks around the world. Greek and Roman rocks mostly, from Palmyra (Syria), Nemausus (France) to Bulla Regia (Tunisia). And now, just down the road.
Indeed the great city of Conimbriga is not far from here. But more interesting are the smaller ancient fragments scattered around, hiding under the stones of Portugal’s not-so-modern villages.
Take Condeixa-A-Velha, which sits in a deep gorge in the shadow of Conimbriga. It’s a classic Portuguese village with more than the usual dose of oldness. No doubt that the houses here would have been built with stone from Conimbriga. Indeed if you are renovating in Condeixa Velha an archeological team come around and dig a hole in your foundations. In an inaccessible alley crowded in by rough little houses and built upon by a large unused barn, are three roman arches, their purpose buried by time.
A few kilometers away another brown sign lured me to the village of Alcabedique, surely one of the best place names in Portugal. There, without a shred of indication are the remains of the Roman reservoir which supplied water to Conimbriga.
All around this area the landscape looks ancient, biblical. Especially in the dry heat of summer with crickets singing and vines heavy with fruit. The villa romana in Rabaçal sits in an olive grove with trunks as old and wide boababs. There’s really nothing left of this Roman house-complex except the shapes of the walls. Although under the sand which covers the internal spaces there are some fading mosaics.
Antiquity is best kept in the dark. The brutal exposure that most ancient ruins have to endure makes their deterioration inevitable. The older the ruin, the more it gets subjected to terrible restoration. Especially in the 20th century when tour buses and cement trucks collided.
The Residência Senhorial dos Condes de Castelo Melhor is a monument of the 21st century. A grand 16th century Manueline castle and villa of aristocracy was acquired by the council last century and left to rot until being made state heritage in 1978. Subsequently it slowly began to be restored and in 2002 Roman ruins were officially discovered in the foundations. Fortunately no one had listened to the plumber who worked on the tavern built in a part of the villa back in 1975. He discovered the mosaics entombed in the foundations, in rooms in which a family lived until 2002.
Had they been discovered in 1975, their rescue and preservation would not have been so sensitively managed, such was the politic and science of the time. Today, despite the imperative to preserve the 16th century building on top, these mosaic carpets might be exactly as they looked to 5th century Romans.
This Roman house was massive. It far exceeds the boundaries of the castle, where excavations continue. The foundations show that the Roman house was occupied over a few generations, with higher levels and differing styles of mosaic works showing renovations. Apart from the mosaics in the small subterranean houses in Tunisia, these are the most beautiful floors I’ve ever seen.
Between the Italian city of Herculaneum, the underground Bulla Regia and this single house in Santiago da Guarda, it’s obvious to me that the Romans built the most beautiful homes in history.
It makes renovating a place first built in 1937 somewhat bemusing.
Everyone deserves a holiday. Even us poor people, right? But we are not going to use the bad credit credit card. We want a cheap holiday. What can be done for a week in Portugal under €500?
Even when I was living on a beach, I still wanted to go to the beach for a holiday. Another beach. A less crowded beach. One with kangaroos on it.
Portugal has an oddly arranged coastline which is almost one interrupted beach encased in about 5 kms of deep forest. I applaud how pristine and undeveloped it all is but I wish that at the end of the road there was just one or two really nice restaurants and a couple of places to stay. Where there is development it seems to have gone out of control, like Peniche and Ericeira, which could be any surf town anywhere in the world.
I wont slag off Ericeira too much because at least there’s Coxos Beach Lodge, which fits in the under €500 budget if you have 3 friends you can live in close proximity with. That would put the accommodation at €910 between four for a week. The apartments are self contained so you can cook for yourself most nights and also have a splurge at the restaurant next door. Coxos beach is a short walk away, out of the way of the main drag, and it’s the least crowded beach at Ericeira.
However, the cheapest beach holiday you can have is to camp. Sneaky-camp. Yes it’s not very legal and you may get shot by hunters, eaten by bears, or stabbed to death by a family member, but if you can handle all that then paradise is yours. Get your hands on a brown or green tent, and a matching car, or better still, leave the car and hike in from the nearest station. I spent my sneaky-camping life under the stars because a tent can be a bit much to carry for one little chick. I’ve sneaky-camped in roman ruins, in the middle of sandy deserts and woken to a flock of wild swans staring me down at the edge of a lake in the middle of nowhere. Sleeping in the open is one of life’s small pleasures.
Camping is no joy without the right equipment. Battery powered or headlamps, a trangia or single mount gas cooker. Stuff to eat from. An esky. Mosquito repellent. Pack of cards. Chocolate. Quality bedwear: a down bag, a good thermarest and a silk liner will last you a lifetime. If you’ve got the car then all this is too easy and you can live like royalty. Don’t consider lighting any fires – but you could make a hangi on the beach. Bring a bag of coals and firelighters, dig a hole in the sand about a foot deep (away from the water, dude) get your coals red hot then throw in that fish you caught earlier, wrapped in foil and loaded with garlic and ginger and coriander, then cover it over with sand and use your intuition to decide when it’s cooked.
There are sneaky camping opportunities throughout the Pinhal de Leiria, or basically anywhere north of Nazaré. Reasonably quiet and vast beaches (with a café and a shower) like Tocha, Palheira, Costa do Lavos, Leirosa, Osso da Baleia and Pedrogão are all worth a survey. The further north you go the quieter it gets (except for around Fig de Foz and Porto).
The law of sneaky camping is to keep a low profile, don’t leave a scrap of rubbish behind and bury all your droppings. If you think you might be on private property then try to find the owner before they find you.
o homem verde
Roughing it isn’t The One‘s idea of a good time, so I’ve also researched cheap roof-over-head style lodging too. If the crowds at Nazaré don’t bother you, there is certainly an abundance of rooms to rent which are not on the internet. Go there now and let every little old lady show you their place and book it up for August. Or find another obscure beach you like and ask around on market day. There are a couple of hotels that might be worth investigating. The Hotel Teimoso, in Termoso, Cabo Mondego, just north of Figueira da Foz has rooms for €55-€60 a night per double. It’s right on the beach and although the photos of the Teimoso in the 1950′s make me weep with joy, the latest renovation isn’t too repulsive.
Searching for a official camping ground that is genuinely on the beach brought me to Cabedelo near Viana do Castelo. Hell knows how busy it gets in August but it does look like a reasonably nice camp. Again in the far north the beaches will be less crowded and there may well be small hotels begging for customers, not forgetting more little old ladies with rooms for rent.
For serious tranquillity and some adventure there are bargains-a-plenty in Central Portugal. The buzzword of the day is Glamping, as in glamour camping, which is something I should’ve invented. It’s for backpackers who grew up. Yurts are popping up everywhere around here, offering a different, comfortable, getting- amongst-nature-without-the-dirt-in-your-food type experience. In Central Portugal you’ll inevitably be right near a crystal clear river for swimming or fishing. Many provide meals, or breakfast at least or the facilities to cook for yourself. Some yurting/glamping retreats will offer extras like lessons in permaculture, massage, hiking, pottery, horse riding or whatever they are into. And they are usually run by laid back people who don’t mind if you get nude and want to be left alone.
Glampelo has cabins of the luxo kind perched on the side of a valley. It’s near the village of Campelo which is a top spot for trout. €39 a night a double and the possibility of 3 meals a day for €24pp. Lobos Retreat in Sertã has a really plush yurts in an idyllic spot with your own river. €400 a week. O Homem Verde also has a yurt for €210 week, self contained. Quinta da Fonte is a B&B, has tents, a caravan and is also a campsite set in absolute seclusion in a stunning spot with a small river outside of Figueiró dos Vinhos. Prices up to €32.50 a double a night and dinner for €15.
If you need more action and excitement in this neck of the woods, you can talk to Go-Outdoor who can take you canoeing, caving, hiking and whatever other heart-pumping pursuit you fancy. In Lousã there is paragliding, and the hostel there is really not bad (and there’s €10 bar meals at the Palaçio – very civilised).
I live in Central Portugal so I wont be doing any of these things. I want to go to Minho or Trás-Os-Montes and stay in a dinky little village with a small dividend of minor attractions during the day and an ungainly quantity of delicious food and wine at night. With dessert.
Castro Laboreiro, a small village near Melgaço and the Peneda Geres National Park is one of these lost in time Portuguese treasures. As if the traditional village life isn’t ancient enough, there are roman ruins and megalithic monuments and a medieval castle.
If stomping about looking at old rocks isn’t your game then you can get some white water rafting action in Melgaço with Melgaço Radical for a steal at €39.
I imagine you might stay in a sort of bedsit at the back of Dona Maria’s but Aldeias de Portugal have a bunch of little houses for rent of a quality and charm that even The One would find acceptable. €50 a night for two.
the chocolate factory, aldeias de portugal
Or there’s the odd bargain plush hotel like Casa Dos Braganças in Montalegre where a week would be about €385.
The Parque Natural de Montesinho seems to have more than its fair share of very nice places to stay, and is dotted with picturesque, rarely visited villages. The park is a haven for the endangered Iberian wolf, but you are more likely to see otters, birds of prey, deer and wild boar. Photographer’s nirvana.
casa dos braganças
Living in the interior one does get rather culture starved, and starved in the culinary sense too. But Lisbon and Porto will in all likelihood bust your budget. You might spend €500 just on cocktails, for example. But if it is big city you need then look for private apartments to rent. Don’t get sucked in by a cheap hotel, I have tried and tried again. As for eating – research your fine dining and share a main with dessert and coffee. We struck gold (excuse the pun) at Casa D’Oro, a stunning architect designed building on the water in Porto, with a pizza place upstairs. As for culture, there is usually free music to be had somewhere, and theatre and music are not always expensive. Look for small theatres or musical groups. It’s the clubs that will kill your wallet. Seeing an international DJ like Boy George, (in March in Porto) was €20. Ouch.
A few other cities in Portugal has a healthy cultural program. Coimbra seems to always have a festival on of some sort, and has theatre, fado & film fests. Try Guimarães and Viana.
My pick for a city week would be Braga, of course. I’d be quite happy staying at the Francfort for €15 and eating at Taberna Felix every night €15-€20. The river beach of Adaufe will do fine for lying about and there’s always tea at the Amares pousada. The Câmara has a cultural agenda published monthly, as do most town halls.
You have to have a stash of good places to stay even when you live here. And they take some time to find, except if you’re lucky and you chance upon a sweet spot when you first land. I had that luck in Braga. The hotel francfort will probably always be my choice while Dona Eugenia’s doors remain open – which will not be forever.
The francfort is a old maid of a place and by old I mean about 100 years. Check out this postcard – that’s the francfort behind the tree on the right. She is a bit worn and tired and the hot water is crap but you will not find a better collection of furniture or bedspreads anywhere. And it’s a bargain. Don’t forget your earplugs.
Speaking of grand dames, the Viscondessa of Espinhal’s old house in Lousã – the Meliá Palácio da Lousã – is another of my favourites. I love a historic palace conversion, but they so rarely get it right – ripping out too much of the old character in favour of blandness and mod-cons. But this little countess of a place is a treasure. I confess that the rooms are a bit beige (and forget staying in the new wing) but the restaurant and the three salons are some of most charming interior design I’ve ever seen. I adore the white painted ornate doors, partly mirrored, subtley gilded. Gorgeous. Get married there, go on.
Also old and not renovated is a place in Porto whose name cannot be spoken. We are afraid, you see, that we will never be able to get in there if everyone knows about it. The castle, shall we say, is something unique. Of indeterminate age, this fabulous hotel is a pastiche of time-forgotten Portuguese splendour. It’s all wallpaper and tiles, obtusely decorated. Unlike the Meliá, you wouldn’t call it stylish. It’s probably a private home which the hoteliers have left just as they found it. Everything seems to work perfectly, so there must have been some discreet renovations, only you wont find them in the bathroom porcelain or door handles.
I don’t just like old hotels. I also like the Living Lounge Hostel in Lisbon. And the Lisbon Lounge Hostel. They are sister hostel/hotels both in the Baixa and both funky as all get out. The Lisbon Lounge is a hostel – it has dorm rooms and is more of a party place. Although the Living Lounge has it’s parties too… but they have very groovy little themed doubles and singles. It’s all modern and clean and very ipad friendly.
I feel like the concept of these hostels came from an ex-backpacker like me, who wondered why hostels worldwide had the charm like a mental institution. Someone clever here also realises that Stylish and Expensive are mutually exclusive things. Although I do know they spent some money on the fit out, it needn’t have cost a million. Take a nice old building with original stonework feature bits, add retro furniture, funky junk decoration, some wall decals and a whole lotta white paint and you have a hostel that puts all others to shame – and outclasses hotels of the same price range.
You have to book weeks ahead. It can be noisy, the bathrooms are shared (in concept, but not really in practice) and the luggage thing is a hassle. But if you’re not too decrepit, you only brought a small backpack and you always carry earplugs, you might be very happy here.
The Living Lounge is also fortuitously located across the street from a sushi place. And if you’re arriving late after a long train or longer flight there’s nothing better for it than a big plate of ricey fishy wasaby goodness. Oh and did I mention the pancakes in the morning. Mate, I am (still) a very happy backpacker.
Speaking of young people, you might have to be one (deep down in your heart) to get a smile out of staying in this rat-infested, cold and cranky creep-o of a hostel. No, the Pousada Juventude Gil Eannes in Viana do Castelo does not actually have rats, but it should. The Gil Eannes is an ex-army hospital ship part slightly-macabre hospital museum and part state-run youth hostel. And it is faithful to the rudimentary-institutional theme of most of the Pousadas Juventude, only here, floating on the water in a genuine rust bucket, the brutal austerity is appropriate. And rather fun.
On my first trip to Portugal I spent quite a while in Viana, looking a property in the Minho. I must have been young then as a youth hostel and a small joint were my poison. At the Gil Eannes there was usually just me and one other resident (hello daniel) staying there and we would sneak around the dark and sinister ship, freaking ourselves out a little. It was not just the ship’s long, narrow passageways and portholes, but the rooms. The girl’s dorm room is huge, but stacked with triple bunks – truly sardine like – but if you’re a sailor-boy-guest you get to sleep in a real metal hospital bed. As the only guests however, we had our pick of the officer’s quarters. I was a bit peeved that my friend would get the captain or first officer’s rooms and I would get the nurse’s. Still, that was preferable to the room for “infecciosos”.
I attended a rather pious little Catholic primary school where a spooky caricature of a priest presided over our Christian indoctrination.
If you can stay clear of the paedophiles priests and the violent nuns, a Catholic upbringing can be very entertaining for a child. Catholicism is full of drama & costumes, and of fear of the titillating kind children suck up. Father Gayley of Our Lady of Good Counsel (no one knew what that meant) was of the damnation school of teaching, but in a reasonably benign way. As far as I know nothing nasty happened, he just freaked us out with his oldness and weirdness and the way he shouted at you if you had nothing to say at the confessional. Both my sisters recall having to lie about sins they’d committed to avoid receiving penance for… lying.
from the excellent wax museum at fatima
The most thrilling of our Thursday afternoon catechism class was when Father Gayley pulled something out of his collection of 16mm films. Setting up the projector was fraught with problems and the projection results pretty dodgy which just added to the mystique of the films themselves and of religion lessons generally. If Jesus was in the movie, you never saw his face, and if god appeared the special effects went into overdrive. The sound was always bad too. All this created a baffling atmosphere in which it was impossible to determine what was fact or fiction.
Thus The Story of Fatima was taught to us. How exciting to find, as a grown up, that Fatima the location was a real place and the children really existed!
At this point I would cross to wikipedia to check the facts before regaling you with my version of events as I remember it. Except that in this case there are very few actual facts. We can rely on the idea that the event happened and the characters existed – a bit like Jesus Christ – but after that the story is tainted either by religious belief or by those with vested interests or indeed by both.
So, back to the story as I was told it then.
In 1917 three children – Jacinta, 7, Lucia, 10 and Francisco, 9 – were out in the fields of Cova da Iria, near Aljustrel, Fatima, Portugal shepherding sheep. An angel appeared to them out of the blue and asked them to repent, pray and come again next month. So this they did and the next month on the same day she appeared again with a few more messages, and told them if they came again every month she’ll eventually tell them who she was.
In between dates with the angel they told a few people and were forbidden by their mother to ever see the angel again (not hard to believe). The local “anticlerical administrator” person interrogated them but they stoically kept to their story. Word spread about the visions and on the next few visits by the angel they were joined by an increasing number of onlookers. The angel started showing them stuff like visions of hell and asking them to get the world to repent and said stayed tuned for next week’s episode. By the 6th visit, the angel had been replaced by the Virgin Mary herself and the crowd had swelled to 70 thousand people – a mixed gaggle of the pious, the curious, at least one journalist, one scientist and those with nothing else on that afternoon.
They all waited with great anticipation and watched the sky and the nice but mysterious patterns the clouds were making. They all looked at the sun a lot and when the Virgin appeared, although she could only be seen and heard by the children, most other people experienced some sort of solar event of significant colour and magic. This was considered a miracle, one that had been requested by the clergy, via the children, to prove that they weren’t bullshitting. The swirly sun thing satisfied everyone and the Virgin went away and was never seen again.
apparently this is an actual photo of people witnessing the "Miracle of the Sun"
The following year Jacinta and Francisco died from the Spanish flu, (thanks for nothing Virgin Mary) leaving only Lucia to carry the whole story. The children had been told three secrets, it seems, which were of interest to the Catholic church as was the Fatima story of interest to Portugal. In the visions various predictions had been made about things I’m not convinced the children would’ve understood at the time. Take the prediction of another world war (when WW1 was still being played out), the conversion of Russia (where’s Russia, the kids must have asked, near Porto?) and the assassination attempt on the Pope, in 1983.
Whatever was said, the Fatima story hit a chord and became a huge success for the Catholics. Pilgrimages by the faithful to Cova da Iria started almost immediately and a chapel was built at the site. Lucia had become so famous that she though best to second herself in a nunnery where she wrote books about the experience.
Theories about what really happened at Fatima are as numerous as the variations on the story from a believer’s point of view. A UFO, magic mushrooms, gases which caused hallucinations, mass hysteria or religious zeal, whatever. The prominent scientific explanation for the “Miracle of the Sun” is that everyone simply stared at the sun too long.
But for me, there are bigger holes in the story. If you were an omnipotent being, would you choose three illiterate children to convey your message? If you were an omnipotent being and you had some predictions for the 20th century, would you really put the ‘conversion of Russia’ ahead of say, the holocaust? Is the attempted assassination of a Pope really more important than Hiroshima? Yugoslavia? Burundi & Rwanda? Just who is this omnipotent being anyway for failing to warn us about Hitler?
The Catholic church has a long history of visions and the 19th and 20th Centuries they were particularly in vogue. Other stories of seers may well have been told to the children of Fatima, as they are just the type of story that travels well by word of mouth. The most notable in their time was in 1858 in Lourdes, France where 14 yr old Bernadette saw visions. Unlike Lucia, she was not particularly religious beforehand and only initially identified the vision as being of a small young woman. In later appearances, the figure identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, a concept only recently invented by then Pope Pius IX. Bernadette’s family, extremely poor and illiterate, claimed that Bernadette could not have heard the term before. The story of Lourdes is even more curious than Fatima.
The success of the Fatima phenomenon needs to be seen in the context of the socio-political landscape of the time. Since the 19th century, religious participation had become more the domain of women rather than men. Catholicism had seen a feminisation in favour of the worship of Mary and female biblical stories and saints. Contemporary visions of Mary were almost always reported by women or children. Portugal’s monarchy had been abolished in 1910 and since then its government was in constant flux. The first republic was anti-clerical and the rural classes (traditionally monarchist) must have felt disenfranchised. Portugal was also fighting in the Great War. The children at Fatima had overcome the local authorities’ wish to suppress the story and Fatima’s followers continued to grow massively every year. This was a huge coup by the Catholics against the ruling classes. Lucia, along with the growing faithful, continued to keep the story alive long enough to have it recognised by the Pope. By this time Salazar had come to power. Catholic and ultra conservative, with an agenda to keep the Portuguese people quiet and ignorant (and thus retain power), the Fatima story complemented his ideals.
Fatima today receives about 4 million visitors a year, but if you come to experience a quaint story of shepherds and angels you’ll be disappointed. Surrounded by souvenir tack shops (nice sheep with halos though), the shrine of Fatima is a utilitarian worship factory housing two large and charmless (especially by Portuguese standards) basilica centred around one humongous concrete quadrangle. The latest one was finished in 2007 and is apparently the fourth largest church in the world. Built at a cost of 60 million euros, it’s another example of grotesque which begs the question, if the Catholic church never built a single cathedral would there still be poverty today?
This furniture is an inspiration. I spotted it in the Portuguese interior design magazine Attitude, impressively included in an Orgulho/National Pride editorial, a couple of years ago. I kept it in the back of my mind to go and see them whenever I got to the Alentejo.
When I finally made the trip visiting the Agua de Prata workshop it was the highlight of my visit to Evora. Roman era temple? For what we came. Pre-history Cromeleques? Saw them. But Nossa Senhora Da Graça Do Divor… Conquer me!
The studio is situated on an enviably pretty hill, next to a notable church on a gently undulating Alentejan plain, dotted with the ancient water wells that supplied Roman Evora its silver water, agua de prata.
The wool producing town of Arraiolos is about 15kms away, and supplies the artist, João Videira, with the wool with which he reinvents and revives old furniture frames and other objects. There’s a magic fusion that happens between the old framework and the intensely coloured wool that creates an altogether new and beautiful design piece. The warmth of the recollected meets the tactile wool in a way that makes this furniture irresistible; it’s at once modern and antique, designer and personal, precious and cuddly.
And the recycled and recreated philosophy fits perfectly with the concept for my house. By taking what has heritage and soul and stripping back the parts that have deteriorated. Then restructuring and repairing those bones for a modern use, adapting outdated living concepts for today’s needs and integrating modern desires for comfort and pleasure. The result is honestly beautiful, luxurious and unique furniture of character and simplicity.
My favourite things from Agua de Prata are, naturally, the Pedras de Lã, Wool Rocks. At first glance their organic shape made me curious about the support around which the wool is carefully wrapped. Their weight gives nothing away, except that inside they couldn’t be hollow. Nor are the stones hard; they have a sponginess that adds to the organic characteristic of their shape. The answer is, that the Pedras are solid wool, a ball so carefully and tightly bound that it has taken on its own natural form, and like all the Agua de Prata works, is individual and unique.
And if you’re passing the town through at lunchtime, as we were, wondering where all the folk could be, tuck your head into the first café on the left, which will be packed and dishing out delicious local plates with atmosphere and conviviality. Happiness all round.
No posts since 30 September? I think it was around that time I stupidly thought we would move into the house before going to Oz for 3 weeks in November. Ha ha. October was a month of bedlam: frantic house building like the umpteenth coat of interior render, intense fiddling with the windows, watching the painfully slow progress of the plumbers, cars breaking down, friends I haven’t seen for 15 years visiting… My random lists of to do things ran roughshod over genuine priorities with the delusions of a stressed out mess head: finish first window, change banks, vacuum sofa, make door frames, fix washing machine, cut doors, get cat food, clean mattress, buy tracksuit, paint bath ceiling, die.
Thus somehow we arrived at Coimbra train station with 60 kilos of luggage and The One desperate for a pee. Train arrives, train departs, husband returns from men’s room. We buy new tickets for the next train which might get us to the check-in in the nick of time, with the kind cooperation of a taxi driver on speed. Once this feat was accomplished, Emma discovers she has no passport. Of the hundreds and hundreds of flights I have caught in my little life and it has to be this one: a great gorgeously generous gift from my sister-in-law to surprise my brother on his 50th birthday. This flight could not be missed. This could not be happening.
I’ll spare you the next half hour of head exploding panic in its gruesome detail. The passport was located, a new seat found for me on the next flight (lucky, lucky) and husband sent forward to Frankfurt on the existing ticket. Good friends, who will drive your passport to you two and a half hours away, are the most important thing in the world. And yes, I am your slave for life. Anyway, a couple of valium and several hundred kilometres later and The One and I were boarding our Qantas flight for Sydney only to discover we’d been downgraded.
Two more valium later and we arrived in Old Sydney Town and to husband’s delight we were picked up in a caramel butter-coloured Maserati. Even I had to restrain myself from licking the upholstery. It set the tone really for what would be three weeks of luxy decadent bliss, oh except for the sanding painting cleaning & repairing part. Let’s skip that story for now and start with the champagne-museum-of-contemporary-art-party-overlooking-sydneyharbourbridge-and-opera-house… in full jetlag, it was quite surreal.
The first thing The One did on his holiday was get a new girlfriend. Every time I turned my back they were in bed together. It got a bit embarrassing when our dear hostess would wonder where the hell her cat was and would search all the usual hiding places like sock drawers, lumps of washing and inside the hi-fi speakers, only to find that the guest was bed-hogging her, like, again. The thing with the Burmese is they have a supersonic sense of who is most likely to get horizontal regularly, and The One smells like an immanent lie-down.
So then we spent a week of surveying the damage to my other property asset abroad. Tenants, mate. Can’t pay mortgage without them, can’t kill ‘em. Broken leg on coffee table, sofa, and dining table, filth smeared from aft to fore, damage to this and that and a charming hole punched into a wardrobe door. So we filled sanded painted repaired and cleaned in sensational 37º heat, when we should have been at the beach, hanging out with friends, visiting mom, or lying around with the cat. Sorry darling. Nice holiday. Not.
Fortunately our hosts (oh let’s be frank. You remember tinyartdirector? Well she’s my sister and we are staying with her) had some sense and whisked us away for an enviable long weekend which looked like this:
Some whales dropped by for our appreciation. And hung around for three days smashing their tails on the water and mucking about. Priceless. I know it sounds coy but whales really are something special. They are so damn big and out of our league, you can’t help but gobblesmacked by them. We certainly were. Better than tele.
The One insisted on seeing kangaroos in the wild. We got dressed, packed our hats and sunscreen and even locked the door of the timber shack holiday house such was the anticipation of the hunt. An extremely short drive later, there were half a dozen roos posing for our photos, racing the Volvo and just staring us out as if to say yeah, take the pictures and bugger off, would ya?
There’s no doubt about it, kangaroos are funny animals. Firstly they look funny. And like camels, they have attitude. A sort of, what do you want, yeah come as close as you want I couldn’t give a toss and now I’m bored of you, type attitude. They are one of those rare animals who is firmly in control of the situation. Piss me off and I’ll kick your arse. They are cool.
So. Whales, tick. Kangaroos, tick. Savage sunburn on pommy skin, tick. Prawns on the barbie, naturally.
But then as some people have to work, we returned to Sydney and yet another week of culinary sensations. Thai, Japanese, quality beef, real lamb, Pacific Ocean fish and even bacon and eggs on damper breakfast at 3pm. My superfluous sister-in-law had also remembered our wedding anniversary (who is this woman and why can’t we all marry her) and sent us off to The Best Restaurant in The World, Tetsuyas. Extraordinary. Unforgettable. Quite difficult to find the words for its awesomeness, other than, say, perfect.
Somewhat staggered by everyone’s generosity towards us we loaded up our trunks and headed, sadly, for the airport. We did not want to come home, not one little bit. Not to winter, not to house building, not to the pressing need to make a living out of an oily rag.
And we wouldn’t be flying if they wasn’t some sort of industrial action impeding our trip. Qantas on the way over (CEO of which is a dipshit) and now a Portuguese general strike on the return trip. I am a card carrying socialist but I reckon the strike cost me way more than it cost Paulo Passos Coelho. Not to mention my sister-in-law. I’m sure the general strike in Portugal really changed her mind on a few policies.
Thus a day or two were endured in the most boring city on Earth, Frankfurt. And jetlag and minus 1º centigrade do not agree with me. Christmas Markets still do not charm me. The German language does not charm me. Sausages and Gluhwein make me puke. Just get me home, oh god, where there are some little fur-people waiting for me.
What with penfold having the mumps, every timber yard gone camping, and mother and sister landing for a visit, there was nothing else to do but take a week off.
And a fine week of touring it was, not for the Portuguese in the same train carriage as mother and two daughters wept with laughter while mother played the The One’s hand of our seminal game of tricks and trumps. An impossible-to-explain-rooted-in-family-history moment that all reunions should be made of.
the living lounge hostel, lisbon and santa clara a velha, coimbra
Nothing hurts quite like going back to work after a break. The One and I failed to turn up on Monday and then spent Tuesday and Wednesday giving ourselves a collective hernia with things that were too hard and we did not have the energy nor strength to do. By Thursday we were both practically sick and stayed away. The next week though, with one woofer back on board, I managed to get a few things done: how excellent it is to have someone around who does everything in half the time I do.
pinhal do urso, central coast
And so to the subject of amateurs and expectations. Sometime I’ll draw up a list for the first time owner-builder-Portugal and probably beside the first number they’ll be don’t get disheartened when you find you can do only half the things you thought you could/would. Or make that a tenth. I am all bravo and força, sure, and if left alone I’ll do practically anything, but send in a few more experienced persons and watch my violet shrink. Not out of lack of guts you see, more out of the intelligence that they’ll be doing a better job and a good house is not a place for amateur crapola. Hear me humbled.
osso da baleia, whale bone beach, central portugal
Humbled again am I by the scale of tasks still ahead. We were meant to be moving in yesterday and there’s more to do than I can make a list of. This week I’m chucking everything I’ve got at it: we are camping out with the woofers and hitting it hard.
moreton bay fig in quinta das lagrimas, coimbra
Indeed, the windows… loyal readers might remember a nicely popular post about the windows I bought and was/still am restoring. The update, two or what years later is that despite the project being lost some delicious windows and doors remain in the plan. The favourite Pombaline ones haven’t found a place yet, but the French ones that have been chosen for size are coming up a treat. Did anyone suggest using an angle grinder to strip them? Yes, like using a combine harvester to trim roses, but with a delicate feminine hand it is possible to achieve a brutal but satisfactory result. Mindblowingly quickly. Another thing about having 20 year old workers around: they don’t care for petty perfectionism, they just get on with one job to make way for the next. Once my attitude to getting a short film made: Don’t Make it Perfect – Just Get it Done. As for all that double glazing palaver: timber shutters and velvet curtains.
the toys going posh at the palacio de lousã
Anyway, I have about 37 windows and doors left over – if nothing else I’ll have the best greenhouse in the country.
Once upon a time in the tiny town of Castanheira de Pera there lived a boy who dreamt of big things. Like many boys he wanted to build, with tools and cranes and trucks. He lived at time of great prosperity and optimism, as since the previous century Castanheira de Pera had grown fat on the profits of linen making, its factories brimming with happy workers and an unrivalled supply and demand.
The Castanheirense were a proud people, and rightfully so. The patriarchal hand of Salazar blessed them and their dues and Castanheira flourished in a devout, obedient and Sporting sort of way. The great gardens blossomed and the people built fine houses to live in. Castanheira’s streets were as grand as any in Lisbon. The Castanheirense felt special, privileged, enough to speak their own language, a cautious melée of Latin and Portuguese called Laínte de Casconha, so that outsiders would not know what they were saying.
It was in this setting that the boy who would be The Mayor of Big Things grew up. His youth was fired with ambition and confidence, but as adulthood beckoned Castanheira’s fortunes started to change. The regime was no longer there to protect them from the outside world where fabrics were made more cheaply with modern machines. Young people had different ideas and brought change and disruption. Families favoured by the old system were now spurned by the new and many fled to safety in Brazil, abandoning their stately homes.
And worst of all of the disgraces, other nearby tiny towns, those lacking any heritage or respectable family names, began to grow, modernise and be recognised.
Meanwhile Castanheira’s elegance began to fade. The people no longer spoke their secret language and the factories fell silent. It enraged Abilio Anibal Aurindo de Silva Fonseca Salazar Alves de Piedade Conceiçao Pena – or Zé, as he was known to his bosoms, to see his town dwindle into insignificance. He resolved to redeem Castanheira’s reputation and fame.
On a platform of development which embraced the modern ideas of tourism, expansion and urbanisation, The Mayor of Big Things came to power in the tiny town. The people were intoxicated by his big ideas and his even bigger personality. Riding the tsunami of a mandate, The Mayor embarked on his first Big Project: a gargantuan swimming pool, the biggest in the entire country, designed in the image of an exotic beach, replete with an island, blue palm trees and best of all, a machine that made waves.
“Build it Big and They Will Come”, the Mayor had said. And the Praia de Rocas was thus. The people came from far and wide to experience the beach of the interior, under the blazing sun of the Portuguese summer. They brought their big eskies, their big floaties and the sensible ones brought their big hats and they took their place in the big long queue that formed every morning at the gates of the megapool.
Fortified by his popularity The Mayor of Big Things carried on his campaign to drag the old dame of Castanheira kicking and screaming into the modern world. Big Art began to appear at every crossroads, every square and to dominate over every pathetic patch by the side of the road. When no more public space was available, the Mayor, in another fantastic moment of enlightenment, invented the roundabout. He set about demonstrating his new creation following the posturing style of the Romans and the Soviets. Enormity ruled. But it wasn’t traffic dispersion that was the driving his concept: The island at the centre of the triple-lane-super-rotundas was opportunity for Really Big Sculptural Statements.
His artistic sensibilities mollified, The Mayor of Big Things turned his attention to business and recreation. He built a Big Business Park called Prazilandia for want of a bigger and better name. And then he built a Big Concert space, where he gave some big speeches. When there was nothing to do he built big signs. Not last and not least (never least), and arguably his greatest legacy, he had erected the Big Fake Grass Rat.
The Mayor was, at last, almost out of big ideas. It was a long career. In his final years, he cleared some massive areas in preparation for the big future ahead. A big supermarket perhaps? A big housing project?
Who knows, because the people never came. The only space in Castanheira de Pera that serves the heaving sweaty masses is the big pool (and occasionally the nearest pastelaria). But otherwise the public squares remain empty, the roundabouts lonely for traffic, the offices vacant, the monuments untouristed. And yet, big cranes still decorate the landscape with their odour of potential, prosperity and big dreams.
This post is almost entirely fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. Quite good cake can be found at the Esplanada and Antigone, but the coffee at Esplanada is better, and wookies can run around on the grass, but watch out for the moles.