Monday, April 2, 2018

Repeat until fade

When you write a blog about your life you soon realise that life is fairly repetitive! I mean, apart from those big moments that naturally happen throughout the course of 12 months (the fire in June last year for example) life pretty much just gets on with itself.

That makes for a boring blog....I mean you don't want to hear (again) that I miss central heating, that Christmas came and I made a wreath, that Spring is once again on its way.  But that got me thinking, life is pretty repetitive and during the winter, I think life here in the middle of the hills of Portugal can be very boring, especially during the winter.

- get up - walk the dog - eat breakfast - work - walk the dog - eat dinner - walk the dog - bed - 
repeat until fade

It doesn't help that when the rain comes, it sticks around. In March it rained for three weeks non-stop. The dog was wet, the house was wet, clothes were just didn't stop.  Don't get me wrong, Portugal was in desperate need of the rain, but three weeks of rain is enough to drive anyone a bit insane.   It's raining again now, it's cold too and the fire is going on again....I am sure this time last year we were outside in the sun enjoying a BBQ.

- get up - walk the dog - eat breakfast - work - walk the dog - eat dinner - walk the dog - bed - 
repeat until fade

The thing is, it's great here when the sun shines.  When you can live your life outside (or at least with the door open all day), the whole country opens up to you and you can enjoy life.  But for some reason Portugal does not cope well in the rain and cold. I feel shut inside, everywhere is cold, we go for lunch and it is in a cold room, there is no pub with a warming go out and you keep your coat on.  Without central heating you wear 5 layers at home, then slowly strip as the fire heats the room you at in, only to have your bum frozen off when you leave the direct heat to visit the bathroom.  Bed time turns into a full change of clothes, socks and extra jumpers and that's with the electric blanket turned up to 9!

- get up - walk the dog - eat breakfast - work - walk the dog - eat dinner - walk the dog - bed - 
repeat until fade

So, life in Central Portugal in winter is's not that I sit for hours doing nothing, there is always some chore to do, some repair that needs fixing or some floor that needs sweeping, some work that needs doing some Portuguese homework waiting to be started.  But in the winter I feel it is harder to appreciate the reasons we came to Portugal.  That's a surprise for people moving here, who think the sun will shine all the time, that winter won't be as bad as the UK.   But this area of Portugal is green, and it's green for a reason - lots of  winter/spring rain. 

So, if you are thinking of making the move, make sure you know about the winters...not those bright cold days with the beautiful blue sky, but those weeks of rain with the grey sky.  Know in advance how you intend to cope with feeling like you are stuck inside during the wet weather, and make sure you buy an electric blanket!

I know that in a few weeks I will be complaining about the heat and that's the biggest difference between here and the UK.  I know that we will get a summer, I know that for months on end we'll be able to get outside and enjoy everything Portugal has to offer....and that makes all the difference.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

After the fire

June saw Portugal's worst forest fires in living history....174 square miles of central Portugal burned and tragically, 64 deaths and people still in hospital.

Area of fire damage

We were lucky, the fire reached the top of our village then, as we were evacuated, took a turn and moved upwards...we were lucky. People have lost their land, their home, their family, their life.

We were very lucky.

We ran, we ran for the coast....away from the fire, away from the smoke, away from the fear.  But in making this trip we drove along the main road out of town passing the burnt-out cars where people died  in their cars, fleeing their homes as the fire moved at over 200 miles an hour, at temperatures which melted glass.  I try not to think too much about what that was like for them.

The fear of being surrounded and trapped by fire was very real, friends of ours in other locations were already surrounded in their homes. What I'll never, ever forget is the smell of fire, the yellow colour of the sky, the sick churning of fear and the basic instinct to flee - but what surprised me was the sound of fire....a boom as trees went up in flames and the sound of birds singing as they made a desperate bid to escape too.

Here is a video of the fire coming over the hill into our village and our car journey out of town and you'll get a sense of what I mean.

The reason for the fire is not yet confirmed, but what is known is that the fire created it's own 'weather'...created an inverse tornado which spread the fire far and wide with a terrifying strength.  It was certainly helped in its progress by the eucalyptus trees planted everywhere (for the paper pulp market) a tree which just loves to burn.

There's been a lot said (and the debate continues) about the cause, the blame, what can be done to enforce the laws relating to eucalyptus farming and changes to the law to make sure this never happens again.  It won't be easy...change is never easy and in Portugal, I fear it'll be even harder....but change has to happen.

What has struck me has been the support 'after the fire'.   Very quickly donations started coming in...currently over 2 million euros has been donated.  Clothes, shoes, and domestic products have been donated from across Europe and now fill  the previously empty spaces in Castinheira de Pera and other affected towns. Food and drink have also been donated, from someone dropping off a bag of drinks to the local fire station to corporates donating thousands of litres of water.

Water delivery

Clothing donations

Days after the fire swept through, the road crews were re-painting lines on the road where people died trying to escape. Burnt trees were being felled and chipped.  Electricity poles were being replaced and cables re-strung.  Just 2 and half weeks since the fire, we've had our fibre optic cable reconnected.  The infrastructure support has been impressive.

Working on the road 

But 'after the fire' the landscape has changed dramatically and in some ways the sepia tones which now dominate are strangely beautiful.  The shape of the trees are stark against the black wasteland and exploded olive tress create unusual shapes, the landscape has altered and revealed views through the forest to pathways and old stone buildings.

So what is left 'after the fire'?  Frustration at the eucalyptus farming practices, a need for more emergency services training, fear of the smell of smoke and grief, as we all come to terms with what has happened to us, to our friends, neighbours, acquaintances and all the people we don't know.

But there is huge pride in the local fire crews (many of whom are volunteers), there is a determination to rebuild and regrow and there is a movement for change, to ensure that this never happens again.  As new growth already starts to come through in the burnt landscape it's a time for new beginnings.

If I have got facts wrong then I apologise to the reader.  These are just my thoughts and are not meant to represent the thoughts of anyone else.  

Friday, March 3, 2017

Gates and Dates

One thing you do on dog walks is notice things, from the people on the bus (which passes at 8.10am) to visitors staying with family, how the sun is rising a little bit earlier every morning this time of year.

One thing that has always intrigued me is the initials and dates on house gates.  Once you start noticing these things then you see dates everywhere....and of course the JF initials on all the benches....who is JF......but more of that later.

So as a result of all this noticing, I've been thinking about the dates and what was going on for Portugal when our neighbours installed their gates.


The oldest gates I've found in our village.  The house is now abandoned, but it's a lovely place, with some great stone work.   This gate was installed during the First World War.  In 1916 Germany declared war on Portugal.   Portugal had honoured its old alliance with Great Britain by seizing German ships anchored in Lisbon’s harbour following a request to commandeer all foreign ships in their ports.  In March António José de Almeida became the President - born in Penacova in the district of Coimbra (our nearest major town) and trained in medicine in the University of Coimbra.

Almeida as a student

In May, at the Battle of Namaca, Portuguese forces suffer heavy losses when engaged by German forces in northern Mozambique.  Portugal’s participation in the First World War, never consensual, and the year was marked by a number of violent episodes against the war. Some of these were rural and urban mutinies,  some were strikes, and some were attempts at coups d’état. In December 1916 a failed coup was lead by Antonio Machado Santos. 


It was a troubled year, in 1929 the New York stock market crashed, causing repercussions across the world. It was a time of social and political upheaval both in the Portuguese mainland, the colonies and the islands of Portugal. Between February and May 1931, there were uprisings in the military garrisons of Madeira and the Azores that spread to Guinea.  In Madeira, discontent provoked by unemployment had been raging due to the economic and financial crisis and traditional exports of dairy and embroidery and the tourism industry crashed, leading to the bankruptcy of the main Madeiran banking houses.  

In other news..... In Fatima on May 13, 1931, in the presence 300,000 people, the Bishops of Portugal consecrated Portugal to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

There were big changes coming to Portugal and The Estado Novo (New State) or the Second Republic, was installed in Portugal in 1933.  Essentially this was the dictatorship doctrine of António de Oliveira Salazar.


I couldn't find any gates from the late 1930s and 1940s but Portugal goes through the following:
  • supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War,
  • the banning of all secret societies by Salazar,
  • numerous attempts on Salazar's life,
  • the outbreak of the war with Portugal claiming a neutral stance with Spain,
  • the start of Portugal's Secret Police, and
  • Portugal becomes one of the founding members of NATO.


Américo de Deus Rodrigues Tomás becomes President until the Revolution in 1974. Evidence later surfaced that the public voted for Tomás' opponent and the election was rigged to support by Tomás' friends in the regime of the New State.  As a result, Salazar, still in power as Prime Minister, abolishes direct election of presidents in favour of election by the National Assembly—which was firmly controlled by the regime.


Unlike other European nations during the 1950s and 1960s, the Portuguese regime did not withdraw from its African colonies.  During this period Portugal faced increasing dissent, arms embargoes and other punitive sanctions imposed by the international community.


The economy of Portugal and its colonies was growing well above the European average.  During the 60s Portugal saw a decrease in population as people emigrated to northern Europe.  Only a year later The Angolan War of Independence began as an uprising against forced cotton cultivation, and the war became a multi-faction struggle for the control of Portugal's overseas province of Angola.

Marcello das Neves Alves Caetano was appointed as Prime Minister in the late 60s although the real power remains in the hands of President Admiral Américo Tómas.


Independence of Guinea-Bissau (Portuguese Guinea) is declared and  Portugal participated in the Eurovision Song Contest 1973, with Fernando Tordo and the song "Tourada" a triumph of a mullet, some cow bells and a musical tale of the bull fight - have a look at the pale blue suit of Fernando here. 

1973 saw the world oil crisis but Portugal still had large reserves of untapped oil in its overseas territories of Angola and São Tomé and Príncipe, promising untold wealth to come!

Marcello  Caetano had taken over the leadership after Salazar suffered a stroke.  No one informed Salazar that he had been removed as leader of the regime!  Caetano's power was largely held in check by Tomás and although Caetano had been one of the architects of the Estado Novo, he took some steps to 'blunt the harsher edges' of the regime.

Marcello  Caetano

In 1973various hard-liners in the regime used their closeness to Tomás to pressure Caetano into abandoning his reform experiment. Caetano had little choice but to accept Portugal started to rebel. 

On 25 April 1974 the military overthrew the regime in the revolution. There was almost no resistance

Back to those benches....

So who is JF?  I've wondered for many years who this important person could be.  Did they pay for all the benches to be installed, was he the president when the village was at it's peak?  Was he a wealthy 1950s landowner.....?  I finally took a photo and asked a local.....unfortunately there is no story here.   It simply means Junta de Freguesia the very unexciting Parish Council!

any mistakes in history are all my own...despite frantic googling.....

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Now we are in February it seems like the right time to write about a Christmas tradition in Portugal.  The Presépio translated in Google as 'The Crib' is firmly routed in the Jesus in the Nativity and not the Pimp my Crib show on MTV.

The Presépio is traditionally a representation of the Nativity, from a simple Mary, Joseph and Jesus ornament arrangement at home on the mantle to a full on live procession with donkey, cattle and shepherds.

This year I spotted more representations of the Presépio around the district.  It seemed to me that each town had two or three interpretations of this traditional celebration of the Nativity.

Presépio made from recycled materials seems to be the big hit this year, here are some that have caught my eye.

All smiles and used car tyres...

Tradition in a town church...

Entrance to the Penela Presepio which included two iron cow statues humping (sadly not photographed)

Very traditional interpretation outside the main church

Made with re-cycled cloth and bottle tops...

Cardboard cut outs - love the donkey!

My personal favourite.  String and recycled paper/cardboard in a tent.

Amazing what you can do with some tarpaulin and gold spray!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Building our Barrel Vault Wood Fired Oven

This is a short description of my barrel vault build that I have done here in Central Portugal.

The final internal size is a 1m squared floor with a arch height of 50cm.

I hope you enjoy and get some ideas from it. I wish to thank ukwoodfiredovenforum for their advice and support.

• 1: First I dug out a hole in the flower bed, on top of the stone wall, where the oven was to be built

• 2: Set up a form to pour in the concrete base

• 3: Pour the concrete base, which was about 5-6 inches deep

• 4: On top of the base I cast 4-5 inches of LECA (light weight expanded clay balls) mixed with cement to hold it's form

• 5: Then I cast a 2-3 inch heat retaining base, to add to the thermal mass, using calcium aluminate cement with large grain sand, as a flat base for the hearth bricks to sit on

• 6-8: I then dry laid the hearth bricks on a dry bed of fine sand and clay mixture, with the surround/edge bricks cemented in place to give support to the coming vault

• 9-10: Here I cut the bricks for the back wall, which had to sit inside and under the arches, due to possible expansion of the arches when heated

• 11: Put up the back wall, using calcium aluminate cement and fine grain sand

• 12-14: The first arch of the vault goes up. I had to leave out the last two bricks from each arch until the next day, as the refractory cement dried so fast that as I tapped them in they knocked out the lower curved bricks

• 15: Showing the form I used to support the brick arches as they went up

• 16: Some front arch and entrance designs, which changed several times

• 17-18: The vault in progress

• 19: The front wall goes up

• 20: And then the doorway arches, which are 65% of the total vault height (in the centre)

• 21: The entrance walls go on, with many comments about the Sphinx

• 22-23: The start of the flue and chimney

• 24-25: The barrel vault then gets clad in another thermal mass layer of portland cement, clay, large grain sand and some gravel, sitting on a chicken wire support. This was left to cure and dry out for a couple of weeks

• 26: Then on went the insulating 25mm ceramic fibre blanket. I was advised to put this on before the curing fires so there was less temperature differential from the interior and exterior

• 27-29: I then did a series of curing fires, starting at 100C and going up around 50C each day and finishing at around 500C, and trying to get it to cool down in between. I also did a bit of cooking at the same time

• 30-31: Then on went a second insulating layer of LECA again, about 4-5 inches thick. I had to use a makeshift form to hold it in place, using foam insulation boards. This was also left for a week and then had another set of curing fires to try and get out as much moisture as possible

• 32-33: Then everything was clad in a concrete layer about 3-4cm thick, to weatherproof and protect the LECA. This was then put through a couple of weeks of curing and cooking fires

• 34: Then on go two layers of plastic coating paint with fibres, to make it fully weatherproof

• Pizzas and lamb: Some shots of the many dishes we have so far made with the oven

• The next, and final stage is to clad the whole thing in stone, so that it blends in with the wall and garden. This will take a couple of weeks, and will update with images...

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