Our First Christmas
After moving in, we found, as we had expected that we were extremely busy. We had so many plans and ideas that at times is was difficult to stop ourselves from jumping from one thing to another. Some things we knew needed to be a priority and others were indulgences that had to wait their turn in making our dreams into a reality.
We wanted to make our new little home “homely” so put up a tiny little Christmas tree, some fir cone decorations and the Christmas candle we had brought from the UK. We set the log burner, lit the candle and sat back to reflect and enjoy the peace that surrounded us.
Our main focus, as it always had been, was to actually close the deal on buying the property so that we could let our imagination and creativity take hold and grow. It has been two years now since we first fell in love with Vinha Das Almas. Mark, with his trusty partner in crime, Andy Hipwell spent the summer of 2019 converting and renovating the derelict longhouse from being three separate buildings with no facilities into a single dwelling with adjoining rooms complete with a functioning kitchen and bathroom. The building was then approved and given habitation licence subject to the septic tank and water samples being legalised. Simple process on the face of it, but in reality, not so much.
I remember contacting Lilliana in December 2019 to chase the closure on the sale. She had told us that it was imminent and that all should be done by the following month. A year later we find ourselves asking the same question so that we are able to start making our dream a reality. We were certainly learning the art of being patient.
Once we had settled ourselves into the annexe, we set about getting the plot tidied up, wanting to make our mark on it as soon as possible. The ride-on tractor really came into its own and within days we had cleared 90% of the land from weeds and tall grasses. It was tricky getting over the little brook to clear the terrace at the bottom of the plot, but with the help of Mark’s trusted decorators planks and the couple of bits of wood we had found near the outbuilding, we managed to get the ride-on across the brook onto the plot on the other side. As this area of the plot was naturally watered from the water mine and one of the wells, it was also the most fertile and home to the a mini copse.
The problem with manoeuvring amongst the weeds and brambles is that it is practically impossible to see what lies beneath. A couple of times I came dangerously close to the edge of the terrace and at one point I did drive into a big hole where perhaps a tree has been removed or some animal had created a pot hole. IT took some effort to get it out again and grom then on I gave this little spot a wide berth. The ride on was challenged to do some serious work and managed admirably. It was drinking petrol though and the amber warning light came on which was a bit of a worry. We had bought it second hand back in the UK, with no instruction manual. We consulted Google which gave us a rough idea that perhaps it was in need of a service. I wasn’t too sure about this diagnosis as we had invested in servicing all of the land machinery before leaving, kowing full well that it would need to do some hard work. Mark, on the other hand was happy to accept this reasoning and so we decided we would wait and see if it progressed from amber to red before doing anything.
Frustrated with the lack of progress with the purchase we decided to email our Portuguese solicitor, Lilliana, Oscar from Remax the estate agents and also the sellers solicitor. We expressed our annoyance and reminded them that we are here in Portugal, that we have done everything that has been asked of us, that we have the funds ready to complete the sale and asked for some explanation regarding the delay.
Not sure if it was a co-incidence or a direct result of our communication, we received an email with an appointment at 11:30 on the 4th January to sign the deed of sale. Result!
Our work over the next couple of days consisted of more land clearing, moving our belongings into one end of the longhouse and repairing the annexe roof to stop the leaks.
We were invited to spend Christmas with the Hipwell’s in Lourical which we were very much looking forward to. They are great company and we always enjoy our visits there. Linda is a wonderful cook and Andy has a wonderful sense of humour so we knew we were in for a treat.
We gathered up some lavenders, brush, oranges and fir cones from the plot and spent a lovely evening before we went making Christmas wreaths – one to put on our gate and one to give to Linda and Andy.
We arrived at Lourical on Christmas Eve, just before dinner. It was lovely coming back – we got a very warm welcome from Mitzi and Beans and had a walk around the plot before darkness set in. It was a mild evening and as we walked along the well kept terraces there was a lovely earthy frangrance in the air, interspaced from time to time with lavender and other fragrances that I am yet to learn to identify. The orange trees were heavily laden, in fact one had so much fruit a branch had broken off and fallen into the next terrace. The pond that the Hipwell’s had created a couple of years ago was almost full with a variety of different flowers and plants around its edge. It felt so peaceful. Linda had told us that it was a regular visiting ground for a Black Heron and as we walked we kept one eye out in case we caught sight of it.
Dinner, as always was delicious and we were able to share the news we had received from Lilliana earlier in the day letting us know that we had an appointment with the notary in Castleo Branco on January 4th to sign the deed of sale. “Finally” Lilliana had written, “it seems as though we have the completion in sight”.
We sat by the log fire with the Christmas Tree and it’s covid aware angel standing guard until late into the evening chatting about the past few days on the plot and the plans for working on both our own Quintas. We have got so much to do it is difficult to know where to start really. Raphael’s words keep coming back to us – the foundation is in the roof. We need to get in weatherproof and watertight. Andy on the otherhand has completed most of the renovation work at Quinta de Oles, and is now planning more routine maintenance. He and Mark talked about increasing the size of the entrance gate to make it much easier to drive in without damaging the car. It was agreed that in the New Year, they would both crank up the welder and try their hand at gatemaking. Mark hasn’t really done any serious work with his new welder so it will be a good test for it.
I’ve never really been very patient when it comes to Christmas and after a bit of nagging and gentle persuasion, managed to talk everyone into opening one gift each just before midnight. Finally we called it a night retiring to the annexe with a bathroom that doesnt have to be accessed from outdoors. Luxury!
Christmas morning was a wonderful affair – with lots more presents and video calls with our family back in the UK. Opening the bag of curiosities from Mark’s dad, Ray, is always great fun with lots of unexpected gifts. Throughout the year he buys a collection of very individual items – some unusual, some practical and all very thoughtful. Mark has often commented on some of the more “unique” items that on first thought he could never conceive he would ever use such a thing only to find that there is always that one job that nothing else would suffice. It was lovely seeing Mark’s mum and dad on the call and being able to thank them for their gifts. Brenda had found a lovely little hessian sack full of different seeds (and thankfully operating instructions) that I will thoroughly enjoy growing. There are eight different varieties of tomatoes and I am planning to have an area of veggie patch dedicated to this fruit.
It was a joy to open each and every gift and so much thought had gone into choosing them. My sister Jodie had also researched and bought some Portuguese fruit, vegatable and herb seeds, complimented with some ferocious looking secateurs, some very smart leather gardening gloves and a box of little wooden plant identification markers. I’m starting to feel like I really am living the good life and would love to watch the tv programme again to see if it resonates with us.
My middle sister, Twiggy, always gives hand-made Christmas presents. quite often this consists of home made cakes, biscuits and sweets, but as we left the UK early in December, this years gifts were different. We had enjoyed a craft day making ducks out of chicken wire with Twiggy earlier in the year (really not as easy as it would first seem) and she had created a 18″ high wire mushroom, some terracotta planter pockets and three little stone men. We cant wait to start introducing them onto our plot.
Christmas dinner was a wonderful feast of roast goose, braised cabbage, Linda’s special stuffing recipe and all the trimmings followed with not one but two puddings and plenty of the red stuff. Portuguese wine is extremely cheap, very palatable and always with a cork not screw capped. Portugal only produced wine with cork stoppers – the cork trees are protected. and anyone found chopping one down faces prosecution, even if the trees are already dead or diseased. We have at least three cork trees on our Quinta so will be careful to avoid the temptation to give them a haircut.
After our Christmas dinner we all put on our coats and walking boots and went for a stroll up the mountain side collecting pine cones as we went along to use as kindling back at Vinha Das Almas. We didn’t have to walk far before the views changed. The higher we walked the further we could see and before long we had magnificient views of the Baragem and Castelo Branco in the distance. It was a lovely afternoon, the sun was casting long shadows across the mountainside and the cool breeze brought with it the smell of pine and lavender. We strayed onto some overgrown land which Wanda enjoyed sniffing out, obviously there had been wild animals roaming around and she was very interesting in checking out the area.
Boxing day was another food fest. Linda and Andy had invited their friends Steve, Angela and Danielle over to join us and we had a great time. We had already met them on previous visits to Portugal and always had a good time together. Andy had prepared an after dinner quiz which was great fun. Not being particularly gifted in the general knowledge area, Mark and I did not really anticipate getting many of the answers correct and were pleasantly surprised to find it was an “alternative” kind of quiz with a hotel chocolate goodie for the first person to get the correct answer. Danielle, who is an ex-school teacher and very petite was the overall winner and ate 7 seven chocolates, Angela ate 6, Steve, Linda and myself ate 4 and Mark ate three!
Boxing day was also a time for catching up with family and friends. We talked about the situation back in the UK, which sounds pretty dreadful and we felt so relieved that we managed to leave when we did. It does feel strange not seeing family but feel good working on the Quinta so that we will be able to invite them to come and stay with us.
All too soon our stay with the Hipwells came to a close and we packed up our car full of Christmas presents and headed back to our own Qunita.
We had been carefully to leave our one room clean and tidy with the fridge well stocked and the log burner set ready for lighting. We took a stroll around the plot. Everything was just as we left it. We picked an orange each when we got down to the bottom of the land and ate this as we went along. Clearing the land has made such a big difference and we can now see clearly defined terraces with overgrown vines and olives trees in need out cutting back. We started to formulate an action plan and over the next couple of days we cut down the trees that Raphael and his dad had told us would be in their way when coming to do the roof. This would give us some wood to store away until next year ready for burning.
New Years Eve and the news that everyone needed to be home by 11pm and that for the next 3 days we had a 1pm curfew. Short on supplies and wanting to make the most of the sunshine that was forecast for the next 3 days we decided to do a mad dash into Castelo Branco. We bought fruit, vegetables and beer from Auchan, quite proud that we were able to work out the system for pricing the loose produce – it was all much easier once we had pressed the button for the information to be shown in English but gave ourselves a bit of credit that we had managed without it.
Next up was a trip to Aki to buy wood and brackets to make some kitchen improvements, some rat poison and traps for our furry visitors and extension leads.
We are managing to get around fine without the need for our Sat Nav. Quite impressed that we have managed to get some sort of a sense of direction in less than a month. We caught up with Mark’s mum and dad on a video call. It’s always good to see them and have a chat especially in such surreal times. They are always really keen to hear what we have been doing, what we are planning and how things are generally here in Portugal. It would be great to get them over here to see for themselves – we just need to get the place a little more habitable.
Locking the main gates, packing away our shopping and standing outside the annexe looking down the plot. We will never grow tired of living our dream.