I’m sitting in the soft, dry sand of the municipal campsite in Peniche, Portugal looking out across a sea of caravans and tents. There is blue sky overhead, warm sunshine and a stiff coastal breeze. Jerry is busy cleaning our bikes and checking them over for any mechanical issues. So far this year we have had a good run with no punctures since March when we bought new outer tyres and no major mechanicals. The only ongoing issue we have is with my onboard phone charging system. It worked well until the middle of May and since then has done no charging. A German guy in Galicia with an interest in electrics checked the current across the cables, dynamo, transformer and cache battery and reckoned the problem was the final connection to the phone. We have replaced this cable but still no charge. Humph….. A problem still to be resolved.We spent the second half of July and almost all of August on two Workaways in Central Portugal. This has been the hottest summer here for a very long time with temperatures sometimes reaching over 40 deg Celsius in the shade. We got up early and started work around 7.30am – 8am to get the greater part finished by lunch time, and then did shorter jobs, such as watering vegetables in the early evening.
Our first Portuguese workaway was on an 11 hectare Quinta (farm) that our hosts, Steve and Caryn, had worked for around 25 years. They came out to Portugal in the 1980s and have made this place their family home, learning fluent Portuguese, and bringing their children up here. Two of their girls are now grown up, one working and the other at university, whilst their youngest, Angela, is just going into secondary school. Angela lives with the challenge of cerebral palsy. She was keen to show us her new computer and head gear that enables her to write and speak using an electronic voice. It substantially increases her breadth of communication with those around her and she is taking advantage of the opportunities it offers.
Everything on Steve and Caryn’s land is grown organically and using biodynamic principles. They have an extensive vegetable and fruit garden that provides much of their food. One of our main tasks was to get the weeding under control. Steve had spent the previous two months building new access tracks and paths around their land to enable wheelchair access in preparation for their exciting new project offering activities, events and holidays tailored specifically for disabled children and adults. All the ground works had diverted Steve’s attention from the garden and the weeds were growing as large as the crops. Lots of couch grass corn marigolds and other invaders needed pulling out and laying on the raised, no dig beds, to act both as a mulch and fertiliser. This was an early morning task whilst the weather was still cool.
The biodynamic approach involves using the phases of the moon to direct the planting, tending and harvesting of different plant types. The idea being that plants thrive more, or fruit lasts longer when tasks are carried out at a particular time, be it, for instance, a roots day or a fruit day. Rudolf Steiner is credited with much of its development, though here in Portugal, it seems that the locals have been doing something very similar for hundreds of years.
Whilst on this Quinta we discovered the ever present risk of summer fires in Portugal. Between May and October, the Portuguese are banned from having bonfires. They must strim or mow all their grassland and remove the cuttings to lessen the risk of fires starting, and only in the morning when the dew dampens the likelihood of the machines sparking a fire. Steve and Caryn had a close call with a forest fire a few years back and were ever vigilant to the danger and reducing the risks. There are websites Fogos.pt that show where each fire in Portugal is occurring, its current status(eg. starting, large, resolved) and how many bombeiros (fire staff) are attending. Some days we could smell fire on the wind or see the smoke in the distance, but luckily it was never near this Quinta or the later one at which we worked. Other people have not had such an easy time. We met one couple who had a forest fire right up to their home’s boundary wall. A frightening experience with the heat of the flames and burning eucalyptus leaves dropping out of the sky. They and the bombeiros were keeping all their garden and house as wet as possible to prevent the fire from catching hold, and watering their car to prevent the paint from blistering and the fuel igniting. Thanks to their efforts, their home survived.
We have tasted local wines from many countries on our tour around Europe and keen to find out more about viticulture we arranged to work for about a month on a small hobby vineyard attached to a bed & breakfast. Lines of green vines march roughly north south across terraces cut into the valley slope above a river.
The grapes were green and to help them ripen we cleared off the leaves on the morning sun side of the plants. The leaves on the other side were left on to protect the vines from scorching by the hot afternoon sun. Dave and Danny, two kiwi workawayers, had already completed most of the vineyard by the time we arrived, so we just had a couple of rows to hone our skills. I was surprised by how tough the vines are, we could rip the leaves off without worrying about damaging the main stem or the grapes.
A few weeks later we were back in the vineyard to trim off all the trailing shoots that would not fruit and were now taking energy away from grape production. After three days walking around 4000 plants, the vineyard was looking very smart.
It’s great having a go at new things, and we both thoroughly enjoyed learning to prune olives. Almost everyone with some land here in Portugal has olives and Jane and Hugh, our hosts, were no exception. They have about 150 olive trees for making olive oil. Usually pruning is carried out in the autumn after the olive harvest, but as this year the fruit had failed to set during a very wet spring our hosts decided to take advantage of four hard working volunteers and prune their trees early. Pruning involves cutting off all the small growth around the base of the tree to expose the trunk. Then clearing out branches growing into the centre of the tree to give light and air. Where a trunk has been cut back to lower the height of the tree, we selected two or three new shoots of the regrowth to create the new canopy. You can see the results below:
4000 vines produce about 4000 litres of wine. When we arrived at the Quinta these litres from 2013 were all sitting in large stainless steel vats waiting to be bottled. It’s a labour intensive task that involves siphoning the wine into a tank with four tubes attached that fill four bottles. The full bottles are removed one by one and replaced with empty ones. The full bottles are placed one by one on the hand corking machine. When the machine’s lever is pressed down strongly, vice like grips squeeze the cork as a steel rod pushes it down into the bottle. Adjusting a round nut on the steel rod sets how far the cork is pushed into the bottle. The ideal distance is a millimetre below the top of the bottle. From the corking machine, the wine bottles are left to stand for a short while to check whether the corks are leaking – a small bubble of wine appears if they are – then they are hand stacked interlinking the necks of the bottles to form layers.
Two and a half days of bottling saw all the 2013 red and last year’s rosé laid up in the Adago (wine cellar) and ready for further maturing, or in the case of the rosé, drinking.
We both enjoyed the wine tasting, seeing the differences between one year’s wine and the next. All sorts of things affect the taste of the wine: the weather, the soil, the mix of grape varieties, the amount and type of chemicals used, the storage containers and the length of time the wine is left in each. We both preferred the 2015 rosé and the 2009 red and Jerry, in particular, found them very drinkable.
So now we are back on the road again, continuing our journey south through Portugal. It is still hot but we are hopeful of cooler weather as autumn approaches.
Portugal is surprising us with its wealth of natural and built heritage. Before we arrived here, I had only heard of Porto, Lisbon and the Algarve. In a week we have visited five world heritage sites, a limestone natural park complete with stunning caves, a walled medieval town, and the long, golden surf beaches around Peniche of international fame. Here are some pictures of the delights:
Coimbra University dates back to the 12th century and besides the chapel has a library with books that date back to this time.
Conimbriga Roman town has only been partly excavated and already the most amazing and complete mosaics have been discovered. Each villa’s rooms have a different design.
The Convent and castle in Tomar date back to the middle ages and the times of the Templar knights. The fortification design comes from the middle east.
The monastery at Batalha incorporates designs similar to York Minster and Canterbury cathedral. Like them, it is medieval and has the most spectacular gargoyles, each one different.
At Alcobaça, the Cistercian built a simple but immense cathedral and monastery. We enjoyed seeing around the monastery complex as it is still complete unlike most in England that were destroyed in the 16th century by Henry VIII.
The limestone caves in eastern Portugal have formed over at least 8,000 years. Each stalactite grows one centimetre every one hundred years.
Obídos was one well defended medieval town. Now it is a major tourist attraction full of souvenir shops. Its town wall is still complete and we walked around its full extent.
The long sandy beaches at Peniche are home to surfers from around the world as well as many sunbathers. We spent a happy afternoon watching the surf dudes catching Atlantic rollers and soaking up the relative cool of the seaside.