Our stay up in the São Mamede plateau was the closest yet to how we had imagined this year to be. Off the beaten track. Out in the wilderness. A simple life, miles away from the rush of the city – both physically and figuratively. It was an antidote to those moments of regret and mournful rhetoric about our altered plans (but we should be beside tropical waterfalls right now!) The self-pitying mindset is insidious and Portugal is an epic place.
The Terra Sangha project still felt in the early stages but was underpinned by a conscious attempt at slow living, traditional farming, sustainability, a rejection of digital life. It was a rugged and beautiful place, and it clearly took some work to maintain. There were olive groves, walnuts, figs and lemon trees to tend, terraces to clear, rutted paths to pave, irrigation channels to divert, log buildings that needed building. In one dusty terrace Ben had cleared a sparse vegetable patch where tomatoes, courgettes and pumpkins grew along with a few hardy flowers but full self-sufficiency still felt some way away. There were dogs, chickens and donkeys roaming around, and a fat pig called Madam Chestnut who captivated our children with her greedy charm. I couldn’t work out at first how she fitted in with the vegetarian eco vibe, but she was a long-term resident, not a food source, a survivor of the pig farm that once stood here. She reared up on her gate and grinned at us whenever we walked past and soon had the kids eating out the palm of her hand – only it was the other way around. Clever pig!
Aside from the domestic animals the place was teeming with hidden wildlife. There were the rooting marks of wild boars under the trees and we heard that pine marten and otters tracks could be found in the soft mud down by the river (though we didn’t see any). Porcupine quills and snake skins lay tangled in the scrub. We saw no traces of the Iberian Lynx but it was out there somewhere. We imagined a nighttime procession of creatures slipping and slithering down from dry hillsides to find their way to the river. Behind Ben’s farmhouse was a watching spot, a flat stone shelf by the water where he had an old mattress underneath dream-catchers, candles and other esoteric paraphenelia. He told me he had seen kingfishers there, hoopoes, egrets, a rare stork, golden orioles.
One day we drove out on a reconnaissance mission. Matilda called in an early sighting: red-green-orange swirls, gliding around and eventually solidifying into a flock of bee-eaters (or perhaps a cannonade of bee eaters). They perched for a while on a telephone wire overhead and we hung out there on the roadside beneath them, eating figs from a nearby tree and watching them through binoculars. Half a kilometre later we had to pull the car over again, as three Bonelli’s eagles (or golden eagles even?) emerged from behind a hillock right next to us, and wound their way up on the thermals, followed by maybe twenty huge griffon vultures, indistinguishable from eagles themselves but for their long necks. For a few minutes the sky was full of these huge tawny birds circling above our heads, and we were frozen there in awe, maybe a bit scared of talons and hooked beaks, like prey transfixed. We watched in silence as they drifted lazily upwards, until as tiny specks they were blown far away over the plains.
We drove on that day to Marvão, a mediaeval town perched high on the mountain top. It was a maze of glaring white houses, steep cobbled streets, a ring of churches and an old Moorish fort at the peak. There are layers on layers of historical masonry in this part of the world and this was another epicentre. Marvao was a breakaway rebel enclave in the ninth century, revolting against the moorish Emirate of Córdoba. It became a strategic stronghold through the Christian Reconquista, the war of the Spanish Succession and several exotic sounding wars I’ve never heard of (The Fantastic War! The War of the Oranges! The Peninsular Wars!). Away on a far off peak we can see another white mountaintop town, Castillo de Vide, flashing it’s battlements competitively at us. Perhaps there is a string of these fortifications all the way down the border, grimly holding back invaders.
High on the battlements of Marvao we found ourselves with views that stretched for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, and there again, against the hard blue sky, we picked out eagles patrolling the plateau below. We had been talking about how these stone ramparts were over a millennium old, but now it felt like this symbol of military power was undermined somehow by those overlords of the skies, circling, watching, enforcing their more ancient dominion over the land below.
Our week at Terra Sangha was over in no time. It was a proper adventure. Rough living. A fend-for-yourself kind of environment that suited us just fine. Crockery and cutlery were in short supply, there was no means of refrigeration, the water was suspect. The clean bedsheets waiting for us had disappeared from the washing line. The solar panels were out of action and we had no power. Although the website alluded to sunrise yoga classes, vegetarian dinners served by candlelight with homegrown ingredients, none of this seemed to be available and we found that we weren’t bothered. Instead of organised activities there were endless woods to explore, mountains to climb, a river that you could trek up for miles and stone ruins to poke around in. There was a a stone citadel where you could play guitar and watch the stars. The simplicity was part of the charm. Terra Sangha was a primeval place that and to have too many comforts would have diminished the edge.
There’s nothing like answering a call of nature as nature keeps on calling all around you.