23 October 2010

Meat and Two Veg

We are blessed by having the choice of three villages to do all our shopping in, all within 10 minutes of our house by car.  Village shopping is pure joy.  Takes you back to being a kid, the only thing being that the 'penny tray' does not exist any more.

Although I was born in Surrey, I moved with my parents and sister to the north west of England when I was 6.  We moved to a hamlet in Cheshire called Kettleshulme and I was enrolled in the village school and village life.  I loved every minute of it and that is why I think I love life here in the hills of Sintra. 

Kettleshulme in those days had a Post Office that also sold stationery and other bits and pieces, although the lady who ran it had a bit of a fearsome reputation.  Her husband was the local Postman and as well as delivering letters, delivered our newspaper whilst trying to avoid being savaged by our normally tranquil spaniel, who for some unknown reason, hated the sight of him.  The village also had a very good general store, a cobbler and a man who sold bedding plants.  It also had a mobile fish and chip van and a mobile grocery van that called at least once a week.  The doctor used someone's front room as his visiting surgery and the village school doubled as the C of E church on Sundays.  It also had two pubs - one strictly for locals, The Bull's Head, and the other for the rest of the village - The Swan. 

The Bull's Head

The Swan

Here the villages of Mucifal, Colares and Almocageme cover all our needs extremely well.  As well as the villages we have a weekend fruit and vegetable market on the main road between Colares and Almocageme, a daily market in Mucifal, fresh fish markets in both Almocageme and Mucifal and fresh bread everywhere.  Colares also has two petrol stations, BP and Galp (the big portuguese one).  Almocageme and Mucifal have chemists (different to a pharmacy), butchers, ironmongers, grocers, baby supermarkets (of the local portuguese type), coffee bars and general shops selling everything from fabrics to chicken feed. 

Weekend market stalls in Almocageme

Colares is the only place with a pharmacy and Post Office, the others I believe, are served by the mobile post van.  Colares has a choice of three banks whilst the other two have cash machines tucked away on the sides of buildings.  Colares and Almocageme have large fire stations and also swimming pools.  Mucifal has an amazing junkyard (more of that in another blog), a jewellers, an optician, pet shop and a funeral service.  All have a very good bus service which runs until about 8.00pm.

The newsagents in Colares

Colares Grocery and Coffee Bar

We try to split our shopping between all three as each village has a good choice of goods.  Mucifal is favourite for the junkyard, the ironmongers and the pet shop.  Almocageme for the butcher, the other ironmonger, electrical shop, grocer, coffee shop and laundry and Colares is for bus tickets, the Euromillions on Friday, the newspaper on Saturdays, another ironmonger, the bank, two coffee bars, antique shop and a brilliant village shop where we have made great friends with the people who run it.

Fish market in Almocageme

Grocery shop in Almocageme

I had a heated debate with someone recently (an ex-pat) who considered the opening of a main supermarket in Colares would be a good thing.  She seemed unable to comprehend that people's livelihoods depend on these shops and way of life.  For me it is no contest between shopping locally and frequently for totally fresh produce, against driving for 20 minutes or more to go around a sterile supermarket. I believe a few extra cents on the price of a product is worth it to keep village shops and people in work, rather than lose this way of life that has been systematically destroyed in the UK by the big supermarkets.

We have also found that once the locals realise we are actually living here and putting something back into it, they go out of their way to make us feel welcome and tell us about activities that might interest us.  For example, back in August the butcher told us about a fruit and vegetable auction we might enjoy - we did and have noted it for next year. My auction bargain being a tray of beefsteak tomatoes (about 4kgs worth) for 5 euros!

21 October 2010

Whiskers, wings and tails

Living in the heart of the country means we have quite a lot of different animals, birds, insects, reptiles to contend with.

The first 'visitor' was brought to the patio by my tom cat, Pompey.  I was sitting on the sofa looking out of the patio doors musing on what I could plant in our raised flower bed when to my surprise he appeared round the corner of the cottage with something large and green hanging out of both sides of his mouth.  I went out to investigate - and yes, I admit it, to yell at him - and he dropped a massive lizard.  I grabbed him, shot inside the house and shut the door.

Luckily the estate gardener was to hand and he managed to persuade it away from the house.  In fact Lionel, as I called him, shot down the drainage hole in the patio where he stayed for well over half an hour, obviously collecting himself from the terrible experience of being grabbed by a cat. 

Over the next 45 minutes I watched him slowly and incredibly carefully, extricate himself.  First his head, then his shoulders, then a front leg, then the other front leg, then the body and in two quick moves, the rest of his body and tail.  He then rested a little more before making his way slowly towards the back gate.  Unfortunately when he got through the gate he took a rather nasty tumble down two steps, but he was free and off and away into the undergrowth.

It was very interesting to watch and although I have a wealth of experience with small gecko lizards - in fact Gregory Gecko has just finished a three day indoor visit and gone off outside this afternoon, however Little Gordon is still somewhere in the study waiting his turn on the computer - this was the first large one I had seen close up.  

They are very colourful and are actually protected in Portugal so  Pompey was told in no uncertain terms not to get him again which did not stop him pestering Lionel when he discovered he was living in one of the drainage tunnels by our garaging.  Not seen him for some months so hopefully he has moved away from the irritating feline.

Shortly after this it was the turn of the female cat, Pansy, to do a David Attenborough but this time with a bat!

As I was dropping off to sleep one night, I vaguely felt something flutter past my head but thought it was a moth or something so fell asleep only to be woken at 2.30am by the classic sounds of a cat climbing curtains.  I got up, put the lights on to investigate and found Pansy prowling the floor and Pompey half way up the curtains.  The usual verbal debate ensued and then I saw what was going on.  It was a baby bat flying blindly around the house.  After much swearing (me at the cats, them at me for spoiling their fun) I got them trapped in the bathroom and bedroom which meant I could confine the poor bat to living room area. 

It was flying high and although I had the doors and windows wide open, I could not get it out.  I then resorted to gentle tapping with a tea towel hoping this would bring it down low enough to go out through the patio doors; sadly I got over enthusiastic and managed to stun the poor thing.  It was flat out on the rug.  I quickly gathered up the rug and took it on to the patio and left it there in the hope that the bat would recover.  Released cats and gave another lecture on wildlife protection and went to bed.  In the morning it had gone so I felt less guilty about thumping it.  Pansy had been acting oddly in the early evening by the curtains so I imagine she had caught it early dusk and when she brought it in to show me, had dropped it and it had hidden in the curtains until all was peaceful and it felt it could try and fly home.



One evening returning from dinner in the next village, our headlights picked out a hare sat by the garage area.  He was beautiful and bounded off up the driveway as we approached.  Since then we have discovered a rather nice bunny living further along towards the main estate house.  We met under rather different circumstances a few weeks later when Pompey yet again, dragged the poor thing into the garden to meet me.  Pompey got the garden hose and bunny raced for freedom and can be seen some evenings munching with one eye over his shoulder.

We also have a number of partridges on the estate.  One evening one of them walked down the driveway followed by five babies and proceeded to supervise them having a dust bath.  When she considered them dusted up enough, she led them back up into the grapevines.  We have been told that when the grapes are ripe, the partridges love to fly in and eat them.

The honey here is fabulous and when you drive around you often see brightly coloured beehives dotted around the hillsides.  The bees are different here too.  They are black, large and make the most incredible noise - a bit like an old Lancaster bomber!

Butterflies are huge and beautifully coloured, moths abound and some are also rather big and furry.  Caterpillars are either small or big and hairy.  Spiders are spiders and I prefer not to dwell on that subject.

There are lots of small birds, sparrows, tits, blackbirds etc as well as buzzards, hawks and the other days whilst over by Cabo da Roca, we saw an eagle floating up above on a jet stream.  Glenn has also seen a robin and we definitely have an owl somewhere as we can hear him hooting at night.  As the weather is still glorious at the moment, sunny in the day but a tad chilly in the evenings, we are still hearing wonderful birdsong in the mornings.

16 October 2010

From the high views to the low wall

In about 1995 my friend and were in Lisbon on a well deserved break and decided it would be good to visit the Palacio de Pena, which had been used on a tourist poster for Portugal and looked rather bizarre.  Stupidly we went the day after a rather excessive night and early morning out in the restaurants and bars of Lisbon.  We took the train from Rossio Station, which at that time had not been fully restored to its current beauty.

The journey takes about 40 minutes through the suburbs of Lisbon and up to Sintra.  When you get out at the station and start to walk up to the old, historic centre, one of the first things you marvel at is the Town Hall which would not have looked out of place in an episode of The Prisoner.

Then you start the walk up to the centre along a statue-lined road with a park on the left and on the right a view down into the valley bottom and a glimpse of the imposing Royal Palace in the main square.


At this time the transport and promotion of the beauties of Sintra had not yet begun, so you hired a taxi to take you up the mountain and return after an hour.  We had a reasonably scary taxi ride up and were deposited at a set of iron gates where we got a ticket to visit the palace.  I remember being very sad that the gardens to the side were neglected and overgrown and had been full of roses.  We set off to walk up to the Castle, wondering if it was a good idea with the vague lingering hangover and the heat.  Well by the time we got to the entrance, it had definitely been a mistake!  The castle was looking pretty good as it had been recently repainted but the inside was dark, damp and very gloomy and left an impression of sadness. 

Visiting it again this week was a pleasure.   Our friends had been bored witless by our countless "there's the castle up there" as it is possible to see it from every part of the area sitting on the top of the mountain range as if it is watching the world.

The closer you get the more amazing the structure becomes with towers and turrets and different colours.  Now, instead of the walk up to it (although if you are fit and not hungover and enjoy walking, please do it), you catch a shuttle coach which grinds its way up the mountain to the entrance.

The changes have been immense within the palace although it is crying out for a new paint job as the climate of Sintra is pretty harsh in the winter.  The rooms have been protected with plastic screens to stop people touching, there are 'guards' in each area and some of the floors are now carpeted.  The atmosphere is much better too as although the lighting is low to protect things, there are now proper descriptions of each room - previously it was a bit of guesswork to work out what each room was.  The palace has been created on the remains of a monastery and some of the rooms are actually the old cells of the monks so they are very small and very unusual.  The furniture is very interesting as it is quite simple in some rooms - very unlike our palace counterparts in England.

To see more about the interior and its history please have a look at their website: http://www.parquesdesintra.pt/

After leaving the palace and taking in the breath taking views out to the Atlantic and realising another visit is necessary to take in the restored gardens, we went off for a late lunch in a great restaurant near the village of Manique.

I love taking visitors to the true portuguese restaurants or tascas and introducing them to the fabulous home cooking.  If you visit another country, don't stay safe and eat at fast food chains but search out the small, individually owned places that, even if the clientele does not look very sophisticated, are usually the best value for money and the best flavours.

Our friends have been very impressed with all the meals they have had, and been in raptures over the red wine.  Portuguese wines are not widely known out of the country - they like to keep them for themselves!  They giggle about the British loving (years back) Mateus Rose, a bit like the French being rude about the British and their love of Beaujolis Nouveau.  The other 'hit' was cheese.  The range of cheese is huge and you often get a choice on the table.  Goat and sheep are very popular and come in a variety of sizes, strengths and texture.   Some of the most expensive are round and plump and after you carefully slice off the top to make it a lid, you scoop out the inside and spread it on bread or toasts - divine.

So after a super day and supper of fresh bread, tomatoes and cheese, we set off for home.  I managed to lose my footing on the slippy cobbles and unable to right myself as it was on a steep hill, careered inelegantly across the lane and head butted the dry stone wall opposite.  After a very traumatic few minutes trying to regain my senses, I was assisted home and covered in Savlon and retired to bed only to wake up yesterday with one eye shut and looking like I had done about 6 rounds with Mike Tyson, a twice-the-size right forearm and elbow and scrapes on hands, nose and very dodgy looking eyebrow.  Needless to say our friends could not contain their laughter when they came for a farewell lunch yesterday and took photos.  I am now confined to barracks until such time I can appear in public without laughter! 

12 October 2010

Palace and Gardens of Monserrate in Sintra

As you drive from Sintra towards Colares, after you descend from the heights to the valley, the road goes through a village called Galamares and as you exit this village and look above and ahead of you, a vision called Monserrate appears in the distance.

For quite a few years when I first moved here, nothing could be seen of the palace except for scaffolding and green netting and then, in about 2006 (I am not certain of the exact year), the netting came down and this beautiful palace was revealed in its glory.  I had never been inside but had walked around the gardens once before and had managed to obtain a ticket for a visit around the restoration works for my sister and brother-in-law, who found it fascinating.  Yesterday, again thanks to having visitors - does make you visit places you idly think about but never get round to - we went to check it out. 

You can visit the palace and gardens as a separate visit or combine the ticket to visit the other Heritage Monuments in Sintra, so we decided to do the combined ticket as we could then cover the Pena Palace, the Mourish Castle and the Cork Convent.  The cost of this was a staggering 20 euros per person - I would imagine you pay nearly that for one visit to a National Trust property these days.

As you enter from the main road, there are signs indicating the various gardens, from Japanese to Mexican to Scented etc.  We made our way down a winding, cobbled path through an mixture of trees, plants, bushes and every so often a strange water-filled deposit - a basin - which is part of the complicated watering system of the gardens.  As you reach the bottom of this path, it opens out with a glimpse of the towers of the palace.  To the left is what is called 'a tank', filled with small goldfish and an enormous one, which led rise to various silly comments about its provenance.  Along the retaining wall of this piece of water was an insert small water run, which if I remember what I learnt at the Alhambra in Granada correctly, was called 'a rill', something the Moors ran through their gardens which gives off a soothing, trickling sound.

Walking up to the entrance of the palace you notice that a large majority of the plants in the flower beds either side of the steps leading to the palace terrace, are what would normally be termed 'house plants' in the UK.  Very odd to see them neatly spreading in a flower bed.

The palace is incredible to see and its history is even more fascinating.  I won't go into too much detail here because if you would like to know more about it and see photos, please go to http://www.parquesdesintra.pt/, but briefly it started life as an estate which supported a hospital in Lisbon.  Then, in 1540 a chapel was built on the site and in 1601 the whole estate was sold to a wealthy portuguese who had been the Viceroy to India and who sadly died there and never actually lived on the site.  It was then leased in 1790 to Gerard de Visme, a rich English merchant, and he started work on a new house but two years later, he returned to England after subletting the place to William Beckford, at that time the wealthiest man in England - he apparently inherited £1 million at the age of 10 which brought him a rumoured £20,000 a year income - nice work if you can get it in those days. 

Beckford has a rather murky history in England but he was responsible for building Fonthill Abbey (the design supposedly based on sketches he had taken of the abbey at Alcobaca in Portugal) and had lessons as a child from Mozart.  In 1808 he gave up the lease which is thought to be because of the dangers threatened by the French under Napoleon - he was quite correct because at some point the estate was occupied by French troops.  The area was left to its own devices and nature until 1841 when another Englishman, Francis Cook acquired it.  He again was incredibly wealthy - the family were the third richest in the country at the time - and he decided to make it a summer residence - in modern parlance, a holiday house!!  He would occupy it with friends and family for two months in every year.  He also purchased 13 other properties in the area for friends to stay in when they were in residence.  The mind boggles at the numbers of carriages and horses that would have been belting up and down the mountain roads in those days.

The family lost their fortune in the Wall Street Crash and slowly were forced to sell off the 13 properties for friends and then Monserrate had to go.  It was initially offered to the Portuguese State in 1946 but was actually bought by a Saul Saragga who - I could shoot him for it - auctioned off the contents of the palace.  In 1949 the Portuguese State acquired it and does not appear to have done much with it until it was designated part of the Cultural Lanscape of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

The restoration work is on-going and slow but so, so worthwhile.  As you enter the building there is a staircase running up and round to the left, a tiny chapel to the right and then in the centre, a large fountain.  Walk past the fountain and look left or right and you see the most amazing corridors of marble - so reminiscent of the inside of the Alhambra.

The restoration is in its third phase at present and there are very detailed displays around the ground floor showing before and after and how they have been using laser technology.  In one of rooms off the corridor, I believe the old Billiards Room, there is a TV with a slide show that gives a timeline of the history of Monserrate along with amazing photographs of how the interior looked before it fell into disrepair and nature well and truly took over again.  Each of the rooms has incredible views out over the gardens - it has the first ever lawn laid in Portugal - and before the trees grew so tall and before the villas on the hills were built, they must have had an uninterrupted view out to the Atlantic and the incredible Mafra Palace.  We did try to see if we could see our place but although we like to say Monserrate is our neighbour, we appear to be out of view to Monserrate.

The library has been restored fully and must have been an amazing room when it was filled with books - there was a photograph of it and the desk in the middle was practically the length of the room.  All the shelves are edged in leather with gold detail. Wouldn't I have loved to have spent hours in here with the fire lit and books to read.

My one niggle about the rooms you could view in their various stages of repair and dereliction was the use of cheap Ikea centre lights - did not quite fit with the incredible ceilings.

If you have the chance, come and see it for yourselves.  It is literally too difficult to describe in detail but it has a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere and as you walk around the ground floor -there is no access to the other floors - you are literally blown away by the beauty, the architecture and the fact it was a holiday home for only two months of the year.

The gardens are a joy to wander round, with lakes and ruins, an educational workshop and an amazing 'Boulder House' which used to be home to the carpenter on the top floor and the oxen on the ground floor.  The different shades of green are a wonder as well as all the glimpses of the distant Atlantic Ocean.  It does not have a 'creepy' atmosphere like so many wooded places but a peaceful, contemplative one.  I shall be going back again.

10 October 2010

New Beginnings

I called the blog from the River Avon to the River Apple, but really it should have been from the River Thames to the River Bollin to the River Almond to the River Avon to the Tagus to the Apple, if I am honest.

For those of you who might be confused I was brought up by the River Thames, moved to the north of England where I was close to the River Bollin, then I moved to Edinburgh and lived at the side of the River Almond.  After that I moved to Wiltshire and lived close to the River Avon and then to Lisbon where my apartment overlooked the River Tagus (or Tejo as we know it) and now I live on the edge of the River Apple in Portugal.

On Friday, a wonderful portuguese friend of mine, Gabi, created this blog for me to whitter on about my life here on the hills of Sintra.  Strangely enough, I used to find it very easy to write long letters to my friends in the UK about life here, but when you contemplate writing a blog, it becomes a quite a different thing.  Having puzzled about this for a day or so, I decided that I will just write about what I get up to.

My partner has his best friends from England staying.  They arrived yesterday and are staying in a beautiful apartment belonging to a friend of mine literally 10 minutes away from our house but on a higher part of the hills.

Today, having the advantage of being able to drive their hire car I was able to show them far more that was 'real life'. I took them to my local greengrocer/butcher/coffee bar to meet the lovely people who run it, then along to the ace market down in Sao Pedro de Sintra, where I managed to grab a pair of winter slippers in blue with lovely sheepskin lining for 5 euros. 

A lot of people do not understand that although this country has a lovely climate, it is also incredibly cold in the winter as the majority of properties, especially the older ones, do not have any form of heating, and because the walls and floors are tiled, it gets more than a bit chilly. 

I also picked up some neat blue wellies (Dunlop) for the grand sum of 15 euros.  They bought a selection of local cheeses (5 to a bag) for 5 euros, a pair of men's boots for 29 euros and my partner managed to snaffle a shirt, jumper and pair of 501 Levis for 45 euros!  I love our markets.

After this and whilst we still had some money left, I drove to the most westerly point of Europe - locally known as Cabo da Roca - never tire of taking people to see this amazing view.  Basically you park up, walk to a wall and look out over the Atlantic and it's next stop USA.  Today the sun shone, the wind was kind and therefore we did not look like we had been battered by the Atlantic when we left.  From there it was a 5 minute drive to a converted windmill for lunch out on their terrace looking down over the coast to the beaches of Guincho (windsurfers heaven) and the outer parts of Cascais.

Declining a dessert we headed off in the direction of Lisbon so I could introduce them, as I do to all my friends, to the famous Pasteis de Belem coffee shop.  The English love their custard tarts - sadly I loathed and detested them as cold custard was never a favourite but here in an amazing building that is like a rabbit warren of rooms with antique blue and white tiles, you are served small, flaky tarts, warm from the oven, sprinkled with cinammon and icing sugar and swoon.  I once saw a documentary on the bakery and it reckoned that they made 45,000 a day - yes I am not fibbing.  However today my partner informed me that he heard it was now up to 100,000 per day.  Today it was heaving in there.  As you approach the building, the first thing you see is a queue snaking up the street and around the corner. This is the queue of tourists who are waiting just to buy a packet (6 to a long cardboard tube with icing sugar and cinnamon sachets) to take away - sadly one of my friends who has now returned to Germany, thought this queue was for the cafe and never actually went inside.  

These tarts have quite a reputation.  My hairdresser, a very slim woman, confessed that she could scoff 9 - never eats anything else for the rest of the day though.  The recipe is like the recipe for Bakewell Tarts ie secret.  There is a Cafe Lisboa in London that serves them but they are not like these ones.

Returning along the Marginal (the coast road from Lisbon to Cascais) we had an 'incident'.  I always drive the window down and although the weather was good, the clouds were gathering and the Atlantic was getting frisky, to such an extent that at one point and before I could shut my window or get the back seat passenger to close his, a wave from the Atlantic roared over the sea wall and an idiot in a 4x4 belted up the side of me, causing a tidal wave to enter the car soaking us and giving the two on the other side hysterics as they stayed dry.

It's October, it's Autumn but although the rains have started, it is still warm and sunny and everywhere looks beautiful.