A week of rain. A week. Still, Portugal needs it after a very dry summer so we mustn’t grumble. It was just a week. Not too long. Just a week. Seven days. Actually I lie. It was really six days as there was one good day in amongst the seven wet ones. So, six days then. Not a week at all.
As we weren’t cooped up in the van it didn’t bother us. The donkeys were miserable though. They really don’t like the rain. They are desert animals after all so who can blame them. They don’t have a double layer waterproof suit so they are susceptible to skin problems if they stay wet for long periods. Normally the older ones go to various different grazing spots during the day (I call it donkey day care) but when it’s wet they’re confined to barracks as that’s the only place where there is any shelter from the rain. And they get bored. Sooo bored. It’s also tricky trying to feed twenty donkeys inside when it’s wet as there isn’t much room and hooves start flying as they jostle for the best positions.
The donkeys weren’t the only ones who were bored. When we took the dogs out on Friday they were all absolutely manic. Not so many volunteers turned up so we went out with our usual three for an hour and then came back to get three more.
Trying to get three hyper dogs all booted and spurred ready to go out was no mean feat. Tim just leaves me to it and waits for me to hand him a lead or two when they are ready. No chance of him getting muddy.
But the monsoon season appears to be over now as we have had wall to wall sunshine for the last couple of days.
Meanwhile back at the band Tim has been busy with various rehearsals, functions and festivities. Food seems to always feature at the various different functions he has played at.
A week or so ago they did a tour of four villages doing a short concert at each of them and food was provided at all but one of them. I received several text messages throughout the day just keeping me abreast of what was going on: 1st concert and meal finished. 2nd finished, no food! 3rd one, on a roll, port and cake! They stopped after that but later he smugly told me that a three course dinner was laid on after the last concert.
The final concert before the New Year was on Saturday where the band played at a Christmas meal for one of the local banks who had donated some money to buy some new instruments. A new bass clarinet, timpani, euphonium and glockenspiel have now been added to the bands stable of instruments.
So with that I’ll wish all of you ‘Boas Festas’ whatever you are doing and thank you all for reading the blog this year.
The eve of the local Christmas Market here in Aljezur has given me the nudge to remind me that it was about time I updated the blog. It’s hard to believe we’ve been here for six weeks already. It’s also quite hard to believe we are nearing the Festive Season as it’s much more low key here. There are some lights up here and there around the town but if you’re like me and don’t go out much after dark then Christmas could pass you by which is exactly how I like it. My former work colleagues would attest to the ‘bah-humbug’ I used to be (and still am) at this time of year. Secret Santa? No thanks. Work Christmas do? Not for me. But here I do like to go to a few of the local events so we’ll be heading on over to the Christmas Market later on today.
Aside from that we have established our routines here with our various interests. The Banda Dos Bombeiros Volunários de Aljezur has welcomed Tim with open arms. A seat was rustled up, music was printed off, a uniform sourced from the depths of the store cupboard, and voila, you’d never know he wasn’t Portuguese. Principally the band is made up of young people between the ages of twelve and twenty six but they didn’t seem to mind or notice the age gap. The band is bank rolled by the fundraising efforts of the Bombeiros (fire brigade) and seems to be very active within the local community.
They were joined by two other bands a couple of weeks ago for a Festival of bands where the three bands marched through different parts of the town followed by a concert.
December 8th was a procession in Monchique, twenty miles away, for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception with a coach laid on to get the musicians to and from the town.
The film ‘Brassed Off’ came into my mind. If you haven’t seen the film then I’d recommend it.
Then tonight there will be a concert at the church in Aljezur. Starting at 9.30pm. 9.30pm? Everything seems to start late here. Me, I’m normally getting ready for bed at that time but I’ll make an exception tonight and support it.
As for me the donkeys continue to keep me busy three mornings a week.
We had two new arrivals a couple of weeks ago. Pasquale, an elderly donkey, was in need of a home and a chance at a comfortable retirement. He worked in agriculture in his previous life so he can now enjoy a bit of down time in his later years.
Isabella came with him but she is much younger so will hopefully make a good trekking donkey with a bit of time and training. She’s a big girl of some sort of Spanish origin and she’s bigger than nearly all the males.
They were both pretty nervous to start with but after a few days began to trust their new humans and I think they now enjoy the attention.
As for the dogs? Well, there are about forty or so of them and they are reliant on the volunteers if they want to get out for a walk three days a week.
Generally there are enough people but some days have been a bit thin on the ground so we’ll take two or three for an hour or so and then go back for two or three more.
As I knew would happen, one of them is going to break my heart. I knew it as soon as I clapped eyes on him. He’s a scruffy young Pedengo (Mediterranean hunting dog) and he has stolen my heart already.
He’s not ready for rehoming yet as he is still really nervous of people but we can see a change in him with us since we’ve been taking him out as he seems much more relaxed and content with us now.
Tim keeps reminding me that three is a crowd.
I can safely say that I won’t be getting a scruffy Pedengo for Christmas then!
Ok, so we felt we needed a break from vanlife to remain in one place for a while. But what are we going to do during our static four months with so much time on our hands? Certainly this lifestyle we have has given us the luxury of time. Time to do as we please, live our life on our own terms and pick and choose what we want to do and what we don’t want to do. I can’t deny it’s a super luxurious position to be in and it’s one we try not to take for granted. Having so much time though also throws up a few challenges. At least for me. Tim is a much more laid back, live in the moment, don’t analyse it kind of person. Me? I can analyse something to the nth degree and then some!
I’m not talking about boredom here. I’ve never been bored on our travels. Yes, there have been times where I’ve felt flat, frustrated or cooped up during prolonged periods of rain but I wouldn’t say I’ve been bored. I’ll always find something to do. Pottering. It’s one of my favourite things to do but I’m not yet quite of an age where pottering about ALL day is fulfilling enough. Maybe in a year or two;) For me, the amount of time we have on our hands is more a question of purpose. Throughout our travels I’ve always been plagued by the ‘P’ word. Or maybe there’s a bit of guilt thrown in there too. Drifting around from place to place with no end game in mind can, for me, feel a bit like I have no purpose. I think I’m just the kind of person that needs a bit of structure and a ‘why’. It was one of the reasons we had decided that as part of our travels we would do some volunteering. We viewed it as a chance to meet new people, learn new skills, experience different lifestyles and ideas and generally make a difference to someone. It was also a chance to have a focus for a while.
It can be difficult to have a focus when you’re moving from place to place for an extended period of time. It can also be difficult to justify what we are doing. Lots of people nowadays take a midlife gap year which is totally understandable. Take a year or so out, explore, recharge and then pick up from where you left off. People can understand that. But take off with no idea of how long you’ll be gone for or if you’ll ever go back to a conventional life is a bit harder for people to take in. If we meet people and get into a discussion on our current lifestyle we have occasionally had the awkward question of ‘yes, but what do you do all day’? If I’m honest it’s not an easy one to answer without sounding a bit lame. It generally goes something like this: ‘Oh well, you know, we walk a bit, maybe go for a cycle, plan where to go next, sort out emptying and refilling the van, read, erm, go to Lidl, volunteer a bit, erm, you know, erm, stuff like that’. You see. Wishy washy and lame. You can see in people’s eyes they don’t really get it and are probably thinking we’re just a bit work shy. I think it’s partly an age thing as if we were in our late sixties or seventies I don’t think anyone would question what we do with our time. You’ve earnt your retirement so live it large and put your feet up. Or maybe it’s just my own perception of things. I don’t know but it’s not always easy to justify what we do with our time and where it all goes. But it goes. And very quickly too. Filling the time whilst on the road in the van is pretty easy though as you’re constantly stimulated by new sights, different landscapes, a changing set of neighbours, the odd challenge and hundreds of questions going through your head about this and that. Filling the time in one place though is a bit different.
So, after nearly seven hundred words I’ve still not answered what we’ll be doing during our extended time here. Well, for Tim one of the biggest sacrifices he made when taking on this lifestyle was leaving behind the music scene where we lived. Music IS a huge part of his life. HUGE. He’s had to adapt to not being able to be a part of several bands. He hardly played at all in our first year away but in the last two or so years he’s adjusted to playing solo. In an ideal world he’d want to be playing in several bands but playing solo has been a compromise. Over the last three weeks he’s been busy making contacts and putting out feelers to get into something here and/or start something new.
For me I have the donkeys! I’m spending a few mornings a week cleaning up after them and generally enjoying some donkey time. Mucking out wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I find it quite therapeutic and of course I love spending time with the donkeys.
One of the things I wanted to do when travelling was to learn a new language or two. I’d dabbled in French on and off since 2016, did a few months of learning German when we were in Germany and then promptly forgot it all again and ditto last year for Spanish. Unfortunately, spending an extended period of time in a foreign country doesn’t mean to say you miraculously absorb the language. Alas, it takes consistent time and effort. Consistency had never been my strong point regarding languages. Or anything else for that matter but this lifestyle has forced me into creating a few routines as I know I feel more content if I feel I have achieved something each day whether that be physical or mental. At the beginning of this year I set myself the challenge to improve my French and I’m glad to say, even though I’m not yet where I want to be with it, I have made some mprovement. So a consistent effort at continuing to improve the French and learning some Portuguese will be a feature of my day too.
Then we have some dog walking to do. The AEZA refuge is a non-profit association taking in stray dogs and cats. Three days a week volunteers are welcome to walk a dog or two. Tim unwittingly gave me the idea when he said ‘I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to do the dog walking at the dog refuge’. As a dog lover and having had four of our own dogs in the past he knows I have a weakness for them but when our last one went to the big kennel in the sky in 2013 we agreed we would have a period without the responsibility a dog brings. I’ve done pretty well in sticking to it. It took all my resolve not to take home half a dozen strays from Greece a couple of years ago. But, the dogs need walking and I have time on my hands so it was a fait accompli.
I just have to hope I don’t fall in love with one…………or two.
So, we’re currently on a break from ‘vanlife’. We arrived in Aljezur in the south west of Portugal just over a week ago and we are intending to spend at least four months here. So, why the extended break here? We spent two months in this area in 2016/17 and then another two months here in 2018/19 doing some volunteering so got to know the area a little bit during those extended stays. When we left here at the beginning of February this year to continue our travels we felt like we could have stayed longer but we were also ready to move on. If that makes sense? No, I thought not. I’ll try to explain.
During our two extended stays here we did some volunteering with Sofia who runs a donkey trekking business. It gave us time out of the van, a focus on something other than travel, enjoyable work and a chance to live like a local for a short while. And of course, for me, spending time with all those donkeys was a super enriching experience. However, after two months we were ready to live our independent life again but we would have liked to spend a bit longer in the area. We really like the laid back slow pace of life here and it’s really the only place we have been to since starting our travels where we could see ourselves spending a chunk of time during the winter. However, at the time we had already made our plans for our trip to Morocco. We’d organised our Green Card for the insurance on the van in a non EU country and we were looking forward to exploring a new country. But. Had we not organised ourselves to go to Morocco we could have easily stayed another month or two in Aljezur either renting a house or staying at the campsite outside the town. Tim had established a few connections with his music and I was happy to help with the donkeys.
We decided, then, to look at the possibilities of renting somewhere in the area during the winter of 2019 to try out an extended stay here but one that was on our own terms where we weren’t volunteering in exchange for accommodation and food. Going into our fourth year of continuous travel we were ready to stretch out a bit and stay put for a while. Travelling fulltime can become tiring. Not in the sense that you feel flaked out all the time but more in a sense of mentally dealing with a life on the move. Planning where to go to next, taking in new sights and experiences daily, emptying and refilling the van, sorting out laundry every couple of weeks, living cheek by jowl with each other twenty four hours a day!
When we embarked on our life change to give up our jobs and do something completely different we viewed it as a new chapter in our lives. It wasn’t going to be a ‘gap year’ it was going to be more of a ‘gap decade’ to travel to different countries, experience different cultures, experience and learn new things and live in different ways to the norm. There wasn’t any time limit on it. We were just going to see how things unfolded and go with whatever felt right at the time. This little sojourn in Portugal, then, is just a chapter within the chapter. It’s as much a time to recharge and give our brains a rest as it is an opportunity to experience living in another country for an extended period to try it on for size so to speak.
Our travels are far from over but we are ready for a break from them.
So we’ve hunkered down and settled in to our little house on a hill in the old town over the last ten days and we’re looking forward to seeing how it all pans out.
The great thing about vanlife is that if you arrive somewhere and don’t feel the love for it you can just move on. Equally, if you do feel the love for somewhere you can stay longer than you’d originally intended. Marvão, a few kilometres over the border into Portugal was one of those places that waylaid us. By a week. We’d intended staying a night or two but……..well…….we couldn’t tear ourselves away. If we hadn’t needed to be further south by the end of October we would probably have stretched our stay into two weeks. Or three. Admittedly we had a spell of warm sunny weather so that always makes a difference. Pitched up at Asseiceira camping we relaxed into rural life in Portugal.
The hilltop town of Marvão probably is the main attraction for visitors to this area of the Alentejo region of Portugal.
And it is spectacular perched on top of a high peak, but for me it was the rolling, granite bouldered landscape with miles and miles of traffic free lanes to explore on the bike that captured my attention.
I’d been sadly disillusioned exploring Cornwall by bike whilst we were working on a campsite during the summer by the amount of traffic I had to contend with even on the minor roads. Everywhere seemed to be rat run to get from one place to another. In contrast the bike riding around Marvão was completely stress free and practically car free.
According to Wikipedia the Alentejo region of Portugal covers over 27,000 square kilometres with a population density averaging less than twenty people per square kilometre. Cornwall on the other hand covers 3,500 square kilometres and during the summer months has a population density of over 12000 people per square kilometre. Quite a difference then. Sheesh, no wonder it felt soooo busy in Cornwall. Anyway, hopefully I’ve got the maths right there as it has never been one of my strengths.
So the Alentejo then is a vast area covering a chunk of Portugal which stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Spanish border in the east and the Algarve in the South. We’d explored some of the south eastern area around Monsaraz in 2016 and really loved it and we weren’t disappointed with the north eastern part either.
You really can’t beat a hilltop town for a good old exploration on foot. Marvão at over eight hundred metres is the highest village in the Alentejo. It is enclosed by 13th Century walls, has a castle at the top where you can walk the walls if you’ve a head for heights, some formal gardens and narrow medieval winding streets lined by white washed houses. On a good day the panoramic views all around are worth the climb up.
The campsite we stayed on is just outside the workaday little town of Santo António das Areias and just under five kilometres from Marvão.
After a walk or a cycle we enjoyed popping into the mini market everyday for a coffee and a pastel de nata to observe village life in action. There’s a little cafe inside the mini market with a couple of tables and it seemed to be the hub of the town.
A steady stream of people would come in, order a coffee, have a chitty chat with whoever happened to be in there at the time, buy a few groceries and then go again. Everyone seemed to know everyone and happily spent a few minutes chewing the fat. Barely a mobile phone in sight. You do have to have a bit of patience or time on your hands when buying your groceries in rural towns and villages in Portugal as no one appears to be in a hurry. News is swapped and children are cooed over. We are so used to standing in a queue at a check-out, being served briskly with no one exchanging a word because everyone is in a hurry. It’s quite the mind set change but a refreshing change at that.
It felt good to be back in Portugal but time was pressing on so after a week we reluctantly moved on. Having been brought up by the sea and then spending over twenty years being a two hour drive away from the sea we’re still always drawn to it. We do like a good coastal walk so after an overnight stop in Évora we spent a few of nights on the Atlantic coast before arriving just over the border into the Algarve for an extended stop.
As regular readers of the blog will know we are swapping van life for bricks and mortar life this winter.
It will be a chance to take an extended break from travelling and van dwelling to relax, recharge, regroup, reset, reflect and reboot.
Well that’s the theory anyway.
We moved out of the van yesterday.
Time will tell to see how it all pans out and how we get on.
Some days don’t always turn out how you expect them to. On leaving the chateâu our plan had been to get south of Bordeaux for our first stop. Unfortunately, the sat nav seemed to be having an ‘off’ day. After lack of use over several months during the summer I was thinking she was a tad rusty. She just didn’t want to take us the way I thought she should be taking us. And she was being really stubborn about it by trying to get us back to where she wanted us to go after I’d over ruled her. Again. And again. And again. So anyway, after a diversion following a road closure and what seemed like forever we arrived in Cognac well short of our intended first stop.
Still, Cognac isn’t the worst place we could have ended up in and the aire is just a few metres from the river. I had thought the quickest route to get us south of Bordeaux avoiding tolls would be via Niort but the sat nav was trying to take us via Poitiers. On hindsight I should have kept my nose out really and left her to get on with it. Long story short, and though it pains me to admit it, I think her route via Poitiers would have been better. Ah well. I didn’t admit that to Tim until a few days later. It was baking hot when we arrived in Cognac though so we enjoyed a stroll around the town in the evening.
The following day we did manage to get south of Bordeaux and arrived in the seaside town of Capbreton just before a massive storm. The sky had been looking ominous for several hours and the heavens opened just as we got parked up at the intermarche.
We’d been to Capbreton last year and, as it’s just a short detour from the motorway, it made an ideal stop for the night. The aire (read: carpark) is directly behind the beach, has electric hook up, water and services and a bread van that visits in the mornings. €10 a night is all they ask.
Fortunately, the aire is fairly sheltered behind the dunes as it lashed down nearly all night.
Faced with more rain in the morning we were on the road early heading for San Sebastián just over the border into Spain. The aire in San Sabastián is easy to get to, cheap, quiet and a fifteen minute walk from the seafront. After visiting for the first time last year we really love it.
The town has a really nice vibe to it and we were happy to pass the evening sampling various different Pinxtos, the Basque regions answer to Tapas, in one of the bars.
Even though we only do about four hours or so of driving per day when we are on the move it does feel like enough. Having nearly three weeks to get to where we need to be in Southern Portugal we do have time to linger so after four days of driving we pitched up at a campsite twenty kilometres outside Burgos close to a via verde (cycle route on a disused railway) which looked interesting. Tim could swap the driving seat for the saddle for a day. I’m sure he was thrilled. No excuses now we have the magic of electric bikes. Alas, electric bikes don’t shelter you from the rain. And it was raining again in the morning. The via verde would have to wait for another time.
We are both fair weather cyclists. I don’t mind walking in the rain but I hate cycling in the rain. We like to think we are quite the ‘outdoorsy’ kind of couple but, in truth, we are quite the ‘indoorsy’ kind of couple when it comes to inclement weather. We were southern softies before we started our trip and now we are even worse. We don’t venture out unless it’s dry and at least twenty degrees! It can be a bit of a hindrance as we have shied away from countries where the temperature is likely to drop into single digits. I’m looking at you Norway.
So anyway, the bikes didn’t see the light of day and we were back on the road again heading for Salamanca.
It never ceases to amaze me how inexpensive public transport seems to be everywhere except the UK. We pitched up for a couple of nights at Don Quijote campsite several kilometres to the east of Salamanca and took the bus into town. At €2.90 return each it was a bargain.
There is a cycleway from the campsite into the city but dodgy weather and the thought in the back of our heads that the bikes might disappear in a large city put paid to that idea. It’s always in the back of my mind that our bikes are likely to be stolen when left for a few hours in a large city but it doesn’t usually put us off leaving them. However, knowing that we will be spending four months in Portugal in one place in a couple of weeks time with the bikes as our only form of transport did make me feel a bit precious about them. It was either that or the fact that I’ve been reading several things about the ‘law of attraction’ recently that made me think if I keep thinking that the bikes are going to be stolen then they probably will be!
Salamanca is worth a visit. It’s quite compact and easy to navigate and explore on foot. Most of the interesting bits are traffic free giving it a big tick from me.
The 18th Century square is ‘wow’ inducing even with a book festival being set up in the middle of it.
We stopped in at Cáceres for the night before heading for the border into Portugal.
Oh it’s attractive enough but I thought we would be seeing a bit of drama with ‘hanging houses’ perched on rocky outcrops which I’d read about sometime in the dark and distant past. Obviously if I’d done some research before we arrived I would have realised I’d mixed it up with Cuenca. Ah well, it’s an easy mistake to make……….maybe.
Anyway, Portugal was on our radar and couldn’t be ignored any longer.
It’s always a risk going somewhere or doing something a second time if you’ve enjoyed your first experience of it. There’s always the risk that the second time around doesn’t really match up to your expectations or what you were hoping for. Some things are worth seeing or doing once but you wouldn’t necessarily want to do them again. We’ve enjoyed all the Helpx’s we have done (some more than others) and they were all worth doing but there are just a few that we have ever considered going back to. One of them was Donkey HQ in Portugal which we went back to in December last year and another was Chateau de Jalesnes where we are now.
There have been rewards and frustrations with all the Helpx’s we have done so far. I think we have stayed with seven different hosts and, other than Donkey HQ where we stayed two months, we have spent between three and four weeks at a time with a host.
Helpx involves staying with a host (generally a couple or a family) and doing, on average, four hours a day in exchange for accommodation and food. The types of opportunities you can apply for range from helping out on farms, smallholdings, B&B’s, backpacker’s hostels, summer camps, language exchanges and the like. They all vary and what the host expect varies as well although they are all supposed to follow the guidelines outlined on the Helpx website.
Generally you live with the host in their home although some hosts provide separate accommodation. As you can imagine living with other people in their home can be challenging sometimes especially when you are on the mature side like us! Despite the challenges though we’ve always laughed our way through them and we would still say that all the Helpx opportunities we have done have been worth doing, we’ve learnt loads and we’ve been able to have a go at things that we would never be employed to do without some experience. I mean no-one was ever going to pay us to be let loose with forty four alpacas without some sort of certificate in Alpaca care were they?
So, after that rambling introduction, was coming back to Chateau de Jalesnes a second time and committing to staying nearly four week’s worth it? Absolutely. I think we can say we have enjoyed our time here more the second time around. The balance between work and free time has been spot on.
After the wedding the first weekend we were here, when it was all a bit manic, things quietened down considerably as the season came to a close. The guests have been few but there is still work to be done but it’s not been all go at the chateau. I mean, it’s not a holiday, you do have to work every day but our hosts, Jenny and David, are exceptional and have just left us to get on with things at our own pace.
There’s always something to do either inside or outside. After the wedding guests had left all the beds needed making. Fortunately, there are a couple of ladies who come in to clean the apartments after an event so we just needed to make the beds. It was a lot of beds but we had quite a good system going and managed pretty well.
Thank the Lord for fitted sheets and whoever invented duvets with slits in the top corners to yank the top of the duvet through is a genius.
We’ve had plenty of free time to ‘do our own thing’ and have had access to the chateau car for trips out.
I have to confess we’ve not been out a great deal as generally the weather has been poor but also we have been happy to potter about with our own interests during our free time.
We’ve frequented one of the local bars in the village a couple of times and were made to feel really welcome.
Tim went along to a local band a couple of times and was made to feel really welcome and I think they were a bit disappointed he wasn’t in the area longer. I’m not sure Tim was too disappointed though!
We’ve been invited at least twice a week to eat with Jenny and David, our hosts, and Tim has been able to play at a couple of them.
It suits us here as the volunteers are housed in an outbuilding in the garden of the chateau which is affectionately known as the ‘Hi-De-Hi’.
Anyone middle aged living in the UK will understand why.
We’ve shared the Hi-De-Hi with Alex from Brazil and Jigmy from the U.S. who have both been considerate house mates.
We are given a weekly allowance each to buy food at the local supermarket and we can just shop for whatever we want and put it on the Chateau tab.
We all shopped separately and cooked for ourselves which suited me as on other Helpx’s I’ve ended up doing a fair amount of cooking which takes quite a lot of time and can be a bit tedious if all I really wanted was a sandwich.
All the people who had worked at the chateau throughout the season were invited to a lunch as a thank you for all their hard work.
The Hi-De-Hi was in need of a freshen up so we were tasked with doing just that. Now, decorating wouldn’t normally be my kind of fun activity but as the weather had been pretty grim since the wedding guests had left I was quite happy to have an indoor project that would keep us going for several days.
We’ve managed to get the walls and ceilings done in the three bedrooms, the living room, kitchen and bathroom and we’ll leave all the window frames and doors to the next Helpxer’s.
So our time here Helpxing at Chateau de Jalesnes has come to an end and it’s time to hit the road again.
Thank you to Jenny and David for hosting us again and being such great hosts. We’ve been here almost four weeks and it really only feels like two but we’re ready for the next chapter in our travels.
We’ve decided not to dilly dally in France for too long so we are heading towards San Sebastian in Northern Spain as it feels like time for a new country and culture. We spent a few days in San Sebastian about the same time last year but it had turned really really really cold so we’re hoping this time we can experience it with a bit of sunshine and warmth.