Island Madness

When I was younger I spent a year on Réunion, a volcanic island out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I remember it as a place of mighty green mountain-faces and cloud columns, battered by ferocious waves and patrolled by Great White sharks; full of creole superstition. I was young back then and impetuous. I got myself in some trouble and left the island with a broken arm and a hostile crowd at my back, my name bandied around on local radio.

I am a respectable man now but there is something about the cliffs and mountains of Madeira that is very similar. It brings back memories of that wild year and makes my heart run faster. Last time I was here, in the grip of island madness and suffering from blood loss, I accidentally proposed to my girlfriend on a mountain pass. Now I am back with her once again and our two children.

Madeira gives us a typical island greeting. We land into a thick sea mist and drive blindly across the island in fog and darkness, late-night reggaeton playing on the car radio, kids sleeping in the back. Overnight the mist becomes a squall and we wake to drumming rain and the banshee howl of the wind. When we venture out for breakfast our car is nearly blown off the cliff road. ‘Come to me!’ the Atlantic shouts at us far below, pounding the rocks in anticipation, throwing up spray as our wheels skid on the roadside. We have other plans though and we drive on; we eat breakfast in a warm bakery on the mountain top, then return to our house to do some half-hearted schoolwork and pace out the day. 

By nighttime the storm has passed and the next day is absolutely stunning. We are high on a cliff, with ocean below us and mountains behind. A series of vertical escarpments curve around the headland like folds of green corduroy, each ridge slightly more faded than the one before until they melt away into haze and shadow. Kestrels hover over the gorge.

Some way down below us the village of Paul do Mar is a series of pastel bricks tossed down at hazard behind the sea wall. It is only about three kilometres away as the crow flies, and so we decide to stroll down after lunch, using the rambler’s trails that zig-zag down through the vegetation. For the crow a 25% gradient is just wind and freefall, but we however are chained by gravity. We set off on the hike full of excited chatter, but soon we are blowing hard and conversing in grunts. The views are amazing, but our legs are properly shaking once we get to the bottom – and that was just the walk down. It requires a cool-off period, some beers, passionfruit mocktails and a serious pep talk before we are ready to attempt the return leg. We make it home though and Matilda doesn’t even moan once. Encouraged by this we drive off to a waterfall, then on to a lighthouse for sunset.

This sets the tone for our week in Madeira. There are too many beautiful things to see and it feels like we are racing against time, trying to capture the island in a week. We march to the rhythm of invisible drums. It is a novel way to travel after months of lazy meandering down the Portuguese coast. The frantic pace becomes a game. How much can we do in a day? How many sights can we see? Schoolwork becomes shouted quizzes that take place in the car as we traverse the island.

We spend a day in the capital, Funchal, bombing down vertiginous streets in strange sledges pulled by goat-like men in straw boaters. We go swimming off the quay and dress up for a colonial tea in Reid’s Hotel for a special Matilda treat. We do a 10km hike to a famous waterfall in the interior and try to swim under it, but it is too glacial to stay in that dark mountain pool for more than a few minutes. We spot the mighty Madeiran Buzzard. We take a cable car down to a deserted ghost town in the northern tip of the island and we eat a picnic on the rocks, then get drenched by huge waves as we try to paddle. We climb up the kind of cliff path that would give Indiana Jones second thoughts, scrambling over rockslides and slithering along wet ledges where all that lies between you and the abyss is wind and fear.

Arthur and I go rock-climbing in the cliffs in the south and Arthur astonishes our guides with his monkey abilities. I don’t astonish anyone, except perhaps by not injuring myself, but the challenge of man against rock speaks to something deep in my soul, and I resolve to do daily strength exercises in future and climb El Capitán with Arthur before he is eighteen. Straight afterwards, still soaked with sweat, we hike up the highest peak on the island and Matilda treats us to a glorious meltdown at the summit.

Amid all this motion I find some hours one morning to hide myself away and have a long chat with a lovely lady from BA. Then at lunch I am able to casually mention to the family that I have bought us one-way tickets to Costa Rica next week. It is a complete bombshell and it sends everyone into disbelief then squealing and dancing. I am puffed with triumph at my own largess, the modern day hunter-gatherer of airmiles and companion vouchers.
‘We are going to Costa-Coffee Rica-pica!’ the kids sing as we rattle over mountain passes and along cliff roads in our pathetically under-powered rental car.

They are distracted now, their heads far away, but as we drive along every curve brings a new wonder and I start to wish I had held back the news until later. I can’t help thinking that even the majestic Costa Rican cloud forests may not top this wild and beautiful island.

Fly Time

We have travelled back to Lisbon so that Arthur can sit his 11+ grammar school exam. He is supposed to be taking it back in London, but we have pleaded with the board to allow us to sit the exam in Portugal so we don’t have to face UK quarantine. They eventually conceded that these are indeed exceptional circumstances and so we have found an English institute right by the casino in Estoril where, for a small fee, they have agreed to invigilate him.

We stay in a quirky guesthouse where the décor is an interesting Eastern-whimsical-meets-gritty-boxer mash-up. It is called Lucky’s Guesthouse after the famous Lucky’s boxing gym and it is run by an weatherbeaten pair who are eccentric and charming. Francisco checks us in, talks nonstop, shows us many photos on his phone and rustles up duck for dinner, while Rosa is clearly the artistic one, that is to say she floats around in a beret, smoking, drinking and chatting to elderly acquaintances who keep popping up. I do lots of empathetic bonding with Francisco – as one hardworking henpecked male to another – but my backslaps and mock punches leave him confused.

Among the windchimes and stone buddhas in the garden is a glass conservatory which has been equipped with mats, a ring, gloves and punchbags. I try to get Arthur into a jujitsu class the night before his exam, to use up some of that testosterone and adrenaline, but he is nervous and tense and he balks at the at the last moment, goes all panicked and wild-eyed and refuses to enter the dojo. Instead we play Monopoly and everyone goes to bed early.

Arthur sits his exam and it is not the ordeal that he has feared. We are probably more nervous than he is on the morning. We have a secret treat lined up for afterwards which requires a bit of cover story.
“As a reward Artie, let’s drive into Lisbon and go shopping. You could use some new pants right?”
“Grunt.” Eye-roll. “Can I play on my Kindle while we drive in?”
“Of course you can buddy. You’ve deserved it.”
“No maths apps? No spelling tests?”
“Not a single one.”

We skirt right around Lisbon but the kids don’t notice this, and we stop in a very grimy satellite town for lunch. Menna and I can’t find anywhere that we dare eat in, so we break a long-standing rule and go to McDonalds. The kids are so elated that this may as well be the special treat in itself. Back in the car, lethargic with nuggets and milkshakes, they plug themselves straight back into their Kindles.  They don’t even notice when we pull up in an empty stretch of wasteland by the motorway, rather than the shopping centre they are expecting.  Surprise!

There on the scrubland, waiting for us, is a strange contraption, something like a dune buggy with a huge propeller on the back and a parachute stretched out behind it. Arthur isn’t yet old enough for the sky-dive I tried to book but I have found this compromise instead. We are going power-paragliding.

We introduce ourselves to our pilot, Eduardo, a taciturn man of the skies. His English is poor but his ultralight-aviation credentials are written across his craggy suntanned face. I throw various pleasantries at him but his washed-out blue eyes are away somewhere in the distance, scanning the horizon, reading cloud movements. Eduardo is a gyrocopter giant, I tell the kids, a maestro of microlights, the professor of paragliding. We are in safe hands.

As guest of honour, Art goes first. Eduardo in the air has a playful side which was somewhat absent on the earth. He climbs up and immediately puts the craft into a screaming descent, throws Arthur around in some pretty extreme loops before cruising off for a twenty minute tour of the local countryside. Once they’re back on terra firma, Arthur staggers out grinning and shaking. Matilda is up next, huge worried eyes staring helplessly out of her aviator helmet as she is strapped tightly in. The pilot promises to not do any scary tricks, but he can’t resist one low swooping buzz right past our heads so we have to duck. I can see Matilda’s little hands gripping on for dear life.

It is my turn last of all, and although I’ve now seen Eduardo’s routine three times and I’m mentally prepared for his antics, I am still caught out by how visceral the whole experience is. Take-off is a whine of propeller, a sudden bumpy lurch, a hop, a heavy bounce and then we’re swinging up like a pendulum beneath a canopy. We climb up thirty metres or so then immediately bank hard and swing around in three near vertical loops. The G-force is intense, my heavy helmeted head is pinned back on the headrest and I feel my slack cheeks wobble. My stomach rises and wonder if I am going to spray Eduardo with Big Mac. It passes and I am able to enjoy the long diving run that we embark on next, watching the ground rush up at us with a strange sense of detachment. Over the next few minutes Eduardo pushes his craft to the limits and it is terrifying and exciting. I am shouting out all sorts of rubbish.
“Wow! Crazy G-force man! Awesome. Vector nine-zero. Bogeys ahead!”

Then we are cruising. The drone of the motor is a low constant that fades into the background. The fields and towns are far below and the hills around Lisbon are lit up in the afternoon sun. Far away there is a castle on a hilltop and Eduardo plots a direct line for it. There is a moment when I suddenly have a cold reality check – I’m floating 100m above the ground in a go-kart strapped to a kite – but this soon passes. I flip up the visor, the wind stings my eyes and makes me cry a little but it feels good.

“Request fly-by!” I shout at Eduardo when we circle the castle, “Buzz the tower!” but I get no answer. I guess he never watched Top Gun. Actually, who am I kidding? Eduardo probably did the Portuguese voice-over.

Soon we are back on the ground and I step out of the machine, tuck my flying helmet under one arm and slip my sunglasses on. Mission complete. The aviator has landed. Arthur and Menna come running up across the turf, shouting. It is the hero’s welcome I deserve.

But no. While I was off flying dangerous missions, Arthur has found a shard of porcelain in a rubbish heap nearby that he has chipped into a dagger shape, then in some angry snatching game with Matilda, he has managed to slice his finger right to the bone. He is weeping and spurting blood everywhere, Menna is chasing him around with antiseptic wipes, Matilda has run off in shame and hidden.

“Mustang, this is Voodoo 3.” I say, “The remaining MiGs are bugging out.” It makes no real sense but it feels right. Then we patch Arthur up and go and find a steak restaurant for dinner.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

Another month passed somehow as we meandered our way down the southern coastline of Portugal. Without the anchor points of the school dropoff or work, we were subject to some pretty surreal distortions of time. Some days were featureless and stretched out like old chewing gum, but then everything flicked into double-time and we couldn’t cram enough stuff into the hours we are awake. ‘What did we do that week after Aterra?’ I asked the kids, but whole sections of our recent past have compacted into a series of fragments and we can’t tease them apart, only watch the showreel and listen to that crackling soundtrack. And it’s bloody Bob Dylan of course.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while / But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles.

A week in Vila Nova de Milfontes was disappointing. After many frothy recommendations from fellow travellers we were excited when we arrived, but our AirBnB was small, dark and expensive; we were in a boring suburb and we had to drive twenty minutes to find indifferent surf. The streets were too rough to skate on. On one beach trip we lost our beloved old Nikon camera, an inexplicable disappearance that puzzled us for days. We went standup paddling on the river mouth and got caught up in a gale so Arthur nearly got swept out to sea and was very shaken. We saw a man dying in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident. 

I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

Near Aljezur we found a crumbling old sun-baked mansion, perched on a hill that overlooked the sea on one side and estuary plains on the other. It was full of eccentric African ornaments and Swedish books and it flooded whenever it rained. We loved it. We extended our stay for over two weeks there. Menna and I dusted off old memories from a weekend break we took near here a decade ago and bored the kids with them (“Look children! That’s where we sat and drank vinho verde – or was it port honey? – and watched the fishermen come in!”). We threw a lavish Halloween party for all the family, that is to say, the four of us, project-managed ferociously by Matilda. The organisation took her nearly a week, what with all the baking (severed-hand pies!), inventing complicated spooky games (spider web dash!), choosing the perfect film (Adams Family!) and it culminated with everyone ‘sleeping over’ in our bedroom. We were all tucked up by nine, which is how our parties generally end these days.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.

We hit the bottom of Portugal and turned the corner onto the south coast. Salema was a pretty little town that seemed to have been packaged up for winter hibernation. We walked the empty streets and spent some time observing a colony of stray cats living a enviable life on a abandoned mattress behind the recycling bins. Our nearest proper surf break was Zavial, a fast hollow wave that jacked up suddenly on a shallow sand bank to create perfect turquoise barrels. It was fantastic to watch and dangerous to surf. We went on a boat trip and standup paddle boarding with our friends Josh and Meg and explored the coastline from the sea. A section of porous sandstone cliffs, full of caves with shell-fossil walls and twisted stone columns rising up out of the waves. The boat trip turned into lunch, into dinner, into a birthday party that went on until nearly midnight. (Midnight! I know right?) I had my first proper hangover of the year next day. A night or two later the whole family awoke to intense strobe light in the early hours. We thought must be some malfunctioning streetlight, but it turned out to be the most epic electrical storm going off right above us. It felt like the world was ending.

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line /
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine

As we drifted along, it felt like our time in Portugal was winding to an end somehow, but our future beyond was still misty and worrisome. Lockdowns were looming, but not just here, everywhere we looked. Menna and I had long muttered arguments on beach walks about where we could go if things got bad. Africa was dangerous, Australia was shut, South America was sick. We expended ever more energy into loving Portugal and some days we thought that maybe we could winter here and it would be ok. We would find a remote house on the clifftop and stock up with winter provisions, surf huge cold Atlantic waves, watch lightning strikes out at sea, go for wind-blown walks in the early light. These stone houses are built for summer but we could find one with a wood burner and we would huddle around it and read the Greek myths aloud to the children while the viral armageddon raged outside.

A worried man with a worried mind / No one in front of me and nothing behind / There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne …I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train.

Yurting Real Bad

We are staying in a yurt. It is decorated like a Mongolian warlord’s tent with animal skins on the floor, carved wooden chests and iron candlesticks. A claw-foot bath sits outside under the stars. All the beds are draped with gauzy mosquito nets that look like a fairytale to Matilda but look ominous to me.

The kids are spinning around and Menna is jubilant. She has a thing about yurts and has been trying to engineer this for months, overcoming a wall of passive resistance from others in our party (me). Now she has been vindicated.

Our yurt sits nestled up above the tree-line overlooking a small valley. Outside we can see wigwams and cabins, gazebos, other yurts, outhouses with sawdust loos. Artful lighting illuminates key features in the dusk. Flaming torches reflect across the lake, willow trees are uplit with soft yellow spotlights, candlelight marks out the paths. There are peacocks shrieking, moving around like satin shadows in the twilight. It is a beautiful scene, though strangely devoid of people for such a grand site. It feels like a festival where they forgot to book the bands but no-one turned up anyway. Except us.

“Isn’t this wild?” I say, and no-one knows that I am secretly referring to the sort of wild that drinks from your ankles and buzzes.

And this is true. October has brought rain and insects. The kids have circular mosquito nets that provide good protection, but the one that hangs over our double bed is comprised of four overlapping veils that inevitably come open as we toss in the night, so it lets mosquitos in then traps them inside! I kill twelve on our first morning, fat and ripe with our blood. Throughout the week we hear them whine past our ears, so we slap our faces in the darkness, hoping to catch one. One morning I wake up with insect legs and blood smeared down my cheek, proving that the strategy isn’t always ineffective.

We have arrived at the campsite the day after a staff wedding, our receptionist tells us as we check in, and consequently everyone is a little discombobulated. She is an Amazonian woman, tall and strong with high cheekbones and extensive tattoos and she doesn’t look at all discombobulated. Later we find out that she was actually the bride.

Through various conversations and clues over our stay we sketch the outlines of the event: a humanistic ceremony; the camp staff released from their duties to go wild; a small but committed contingent of international guests braving quarantines to attend; crazy decorations; extravagant outfits; several days of partying. Our imaginations shade in the missing texture: shamanistic vows, peacock feathers, bonfires and bongos late into the night, nude dancers emerging from the lake, copious psychedelics, Goa trance, tears and mascara stains. We used to go to parties like that, I think wistfully.

As we walk around over the next few days we find mementos of the great wedding scattered throughout the site like the relics of a lost civilisation. A plywood archway covered in peacock feathers lies overturned in the dust; a bottle of tequila sits among the cinders in the fire pit; hundreds of footprints swirl around the amphitheatre; in a far-off outhouse in the woods I find an enigmatic lipstick heart scrawled on the mirror while strange powders are smeared around the sink. A feather boa lies coiled around a eucalyptus branch.

There are no other guests for most of the week and so we eat with the staff each night, or rather ‘volunteers’, for as well as looking after the guests, they do eco work around the site for food and board. The wedding came right at the end of a busy season and everyone is tired and emotional. It feels rather fin de siécle. There are small flare ups at the table in Italian or German. Gardeners down tools and drape themselves over the sofas to smoke spliffs and mutter to each other. A blind dog hustles for scraps under the table. We lie next to a pair of volunteers down at the lakeside beach. They are having a long and indignant conversation in German and as I doze I hear fleisch emphasised heavily, salat and veganer.
“Someone put meat in the vegan salad. Total nightmare!” I whisper to Menna knowingly. There is a mutiny on Thursday when the chef refuses to fire up the pizza oven and I think it will go to blows, but alas no. It is typical for the Nicholls to arrive just as the organ fades to silence and the drapes are thrown over the carousel I think. This year has been a bit like that.

While I am watching the staff for drama, the kids are spotting nature. The peacocks move in an intricate hierarchy on the ground. Up in the air there are buzzards and flocks of blue-winged jays, even a hoopoe looping through the trees. Menna claims to see a turtle in the lake, which I secretly doubt, but then Arthur goes and actually catches it, and brings it back triumphantly for everyone to see. We find a dead snake on a forest run. I walk headfirst one evening into a thick web and come eyeball to eyeball with the hugest spider I’ve ever seen, and I properly scream like a six year-old child. It’s wild.

Atlantic Highway Blues

After a month in Baleal it feels like autumn is closing in. We decide it is time to head south. The purpose of this year isn’t to live comfortably in a modern condo for months on end, it is to find adventure dammit. We are getting fat.

We spend a couple of nights in Azen Cool House, a chic guesthouse parked incongruously in the middle of a paintball and treetop climbing course. We lie by the pool while rifle shots and the screams of the wounded echo over the matting fence. I catch Arthur and Matilda sneaking onto the range in a commando crawl like a little pair of feral war orphans looting the battlefield. They are on a mission to collect intact paintballs which they will later fire at various (inappropriate) targets with Arthur’s catapult.

Arthur is below the minimum height to go climbing, but there is a slack line, archery and a giant basement rumpus room where he expends some of his considerable energy on the punch bag. I get the gloves on and spar with him for a while. He is getting worryingly strong now, all muscle and sinew, and I am feeling old today. My injured shoulder snags when I threw a left hook. I manage to land a couple of good blows anyway to give him a message then I slink off, feeling like the old grey alpha wolf who knows that his days at the top are numbered.

We eat a Sunday fish lunch in a quiet restaurant on the cliffs by Praia Magoito. I don’t have cash to pay the bill so the proprietor gives me a lift up the hill to the nearest bank. As we drive he tells me a sad tale of empty tables and rising costs; of fine sea bream thrown away uneaten. This place would have been packed on any Sunday last year he says, indicating the empty square. All his family members are working free shifts now to get the restaurant through the crisis. I think of all the melancholy restauranteurs up and down Europe at this very moment, standing in empty dining rooms, polishing glasses perhaps or twisting napkins in their hands as they look out on silent streets and forlorn town squares. Johnny Cash growls a soundtrack to my reverie: There’s nothing short of dying, that’s half as lonesome as the sound, of the sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning coming down…

Next day we move on to Costa Caparica and stay in a graffiti covered hostel where local kids come to smoke weed and play banging Detroit techno in the garage. It is in the sketchy end of town and we are advised to completely empty our car, which is a total ball-ache, particularly as we are only staying for one night.

We take our skateboards down to the boardwalk. It is a public holiday (Republic day!) and sunny. The world is out on promenade. There are Lego apartment blocks that loom over the esplanade and in the distance we can see the misty silhouette of abandoned fairground machinery. There are bars and restaurants made from shipping containers placed up and down the seafront, so we mooch for a couple of hours then try to get dinner, but everything mysteriously shuts down around seven. There is only one place left open and the waitress there is so incompetent that we give up and walk out after half an hour of trying to catch her attention. We find ourselves some dinner eventually and then get the kids hot churros as a treat. We go back to our shared room in the hostel and watch Twins, getting slightly stoned on recycled marijuana smoke.

At three in the morning Menna’s godfather dies after a long illness. For perhaps an hour she paces around our room, whispering to family members in the darkness. She spends most of the morning in tears.

Arthur and I go for a surf before breakfast and I have two collisions with the same girl. The first time I go left on an indifferent wave and she takes a right, so we meet in the middle. No harm is done but ten minutes later I am paddling out through the set and she wipes out right in front of me, gets rolled in the barrel and her board (a rather elegant wooden single-fin) comes flying at me. I roll to avoid it and it smashes down just where my head had been, and the fin sinks deep into my deck. She has about a second to make an apology before we both get hit by the next wave and then a few more after that. I am left with an ugly axe wound right in the centre of my brand new surfboard and have to grumpily paddle back to shore.

Menna is sad, I am grumpy and the kids take the brunt of it. I grill Arthur mercilessly on syntax in a café-based homeschool session and Menna and Matilda both end their lesson sobbing. We head back to the hostel to pack, parking our car outside on the narrow street so I can load it. Occasionally other cars arrive and they mount up onto the pavement to inch past, until the driver of a Citroen Picasso decides he doesn’t want to do this, and instead honks me to move. I haven’t got the surfboards strapped down yet and I gesture for him to squeeze past, but no, he really doesn’t fancy it. I point again and offer to direct. He refuses. We argue and I call him a shit driver. I hop in the car and reverse up in order to tuck in further and I end up hitting him. ‘Now who is the shit driver?’ he asks me as he rings his insurance company. He possesses a far better command of English than I had credited him for.

We catch up with an old friend in Melides for lunch. This means we have to put our calamities behind us and crank up the smiles.  Joe has a beautiful little house up in the hills and a brand new kitten that a local bartender left on his doorstep last night.  He plans to open up a yoga retreat soon on his land, or a standup-paddle rental bar in the local town. Or both. Once the bank comes through with the funding that is. Joe is an entrepreneurial type but it’s a tough time to be launching a small business in this environment. I remember that ghostly cohort of sad restauranteurs and wish him luck.

Berlenga

The far-off island that we can see from our roof terrace is Berlenga. It is a shadow on the horizon right where the sun sets; misty, distant, often hidden. Over time it has worked its way into our imagination: it is a fantasy place, an enigma. The kids are sure there are pirates there. We catch ourselves gazing at it – particularly Menna, when she’s in one of those wistful moods.

We head there by boat one day, after some early morning haggling on the Peniche quay. We travel in a rib to be precise, light and buoyant but with a ton of horsepower. With its inflatable hull and lack of keel, it feels like the wrong sort of vessel to tackle the unexpectedly large and brutish waves that greet us when we swing round the headland. The captain seems to know what he is doing though and we smash our way bluntly over everything that the sea throws at us, airborne at some points with engines whining, before skidding down into dark troughs where the sun disappears and the spray feels very cold. Matilda squeezes my hand throughout the journey, and lets out keening cries like a little storm petrel. There are no other signs of life upon the ocean.

After an hour the vague shape of Berlenga solidifies into a rocky mass in front of us. Cliffs soar, the sun steadies, and the grey of the ocean lightens into a post-card aquamarine. We putter into a bay where a ramshackle cluster of white cottages and a taverna are strung up the cliff road and the rocks are draped with fishing nets, lobster pots and buoys. We clamber onto the dock all damp and unsteady and lurch off to explore the island.

We’ve done this trip the Nicholl way – which is to scorn all of the organised tours but then to forget to do any of the research ourselves – so there is a period on the quayside where we march backwards and forwards waving our phones in the air to find signal and load a map of the island. In the end we give up and stride out to navigate by visual clues. The standard island symbols are all present here: a fort, a lighthouse, some ruins, the ubiquitous clifftop church. This much we can see without Google’s help. It turns out moreover that there is also one of those tourist information boards halfway up the mountain road. Peregrine falcons nest in the cliffs it says, and there is a huge cavern in the Northern rock face – a Catedral. Best of all though… pirates! It turns out actual pirates were here, ransacking the monastery, butchering monks and generally having fun.

We cover the island in a couple of hours, snacking on salt crackers and pomegranate seeds like true buccaneers. Berlenga is a windswept and rugged place, handsome from some angles but very forlorn. It is how I imagine the Falklands to be, only without the puffins. There is very little vegetation though there are plenty of epic rock formations. We see a lot of bird skeletons and Arthur is able to scavenge various interesting bones for his collection. We find the cathedral cave, which is truly awesome, but we do not sight any peregrines.

The highlight of the island is the fort, where you can read stirring accounts of the Spartan-esque heroics of twenty Portuguese soldiers who held off fifteen Spanish warships and a combined force of two thousand men in 1666 (though a little later digging shows that they simply surrendered once they ran out of ammunition). It is the Portuguese Thermopylae and we are honoured to be there. The Portuguese don’t have a lot of military victories to celebrate, but like the Scots, they savour their heroic defeats.

The fort is an imposing structure, jutting out to sea but joined to the mainland by a stone walkway that zig zags over some very clear turquoise waters. We picnic here and spend some time snorkelling. We see lots of fish, some crazy underwater geology and then Menna spots a huge octopus. We follow him along, pointing and making excited whale-like snorkel sounds to each other, while he changes colours, squirts ink and finally folds himself away into a crack in the rocks to be rid of us.

With rash bravado I have opted not to bring my wetsuit and despite the sun I get very cold floating in the Atlantic waters. I drag the family out of the sea and march them back over the cliffs to catch the afternoon boat home.

A bare-chested chap in Hawaiian shorts is the Berlenga harbourmaster. He greets incoming boats, ties mooring ropes and bosses around a pair of barefoot urchins. His belly taut and rounded and he has a fine black moustache which gives him authority. We watch him explaining some important unloading procedure to one of his underlings when he astonishes us by throwing himself off the pontoon mid-sentence. It is a neat dive and he enters the water with barely a splash. Some seconds later he re-emerges on the slipway at the far end of the jetty, walking slowly and majestically up the ramp and it is like a messiah is rising up out of the sea. Best of all, he resumes his conversation as if nothing has happened, although he is now quite some distance away and has to shout. Arthur and I are deeply impressed.

On the way back the waves are with us and the ride is noticeably smoother. The boat is pumping out house music. We plane along the big rollers until we reach the port at Peniche. Then our captain decides to give us all a virtuoso finale. As soon as we are level with the ‘4 Knots. Speed Restriction’ sign on the harbour wall, he slams his throttle forward, revs up to maximum and slaloms his way through the breakwater at high speed, tipping the boat hard up on its side through several sharp curves. We are horizontal at points, thrown one way then the other and only our seatbelts stop us being ejected into the water. Everyone screams and an elderly Dutch couple look like they’re going to have a heart attack. It is a bizarre manoeuvre and I’m not sure if it is intended to generate tips, demonstrate his helming skill or as a anti-disestablishment ‘fuck-you’ salute to the port authorities.

Once inside the marina the captain kills his speed and glides smoothly into his pontoon slot. He cuts the engine, turns off the music and says nothing. We all turn to look at him but he is inscrutable behind his sunglasses.

We disembark and head off into Peniche to look around the prison, but it is shut on Tuesdays.

SOMAD

Almost all of our time in Spain and Portugal had taken place during the summer holidays, and so when school term rolled around again in September it really disrupted our carefully constructed lack of routine. Menna and I had to call an emergency meeting on the evening before term started to take stock and build a plan.

We had some resources (various maths and English books, stationary, old exam papers, downloaded versions of the curriculum), we had amazing grandparents, generous with time, ready and willing to support via video link. One of Menna’s many jobs is as a senior lecturer for a london medical school, so naturally she would be headmistress of our little school and do the bulk of the teaching, while I would work on various side projects and pop up occasionally with esoteric and unsuitable ideas.

We will make this so much more fun than real school, we exclaimed, bubbling with good intentions and red wine. On top of the normal curriculum, the kids could learn astronomy, languages, philosophy, sculpture, bushcraft! With a few hours of dedicated coaching each week, Arthur will totally ace the 11+ exam he is due to sit in November.
“We’ll call it SOMAD! The School of Mum and Dad…”

And on the first week it goes pretty well. We cover core subjects first thing while the brains are fresh, then we switch to project work. The novelty of the situation brings attention and enthusiasm from everyone. We cover fractions, refraction, prefixes and prepositions. We design a renewable energy strategy for our last campsite, Terra Sangha. The research and schematics are impressive, energy high, collaboration strong. The children present their ideas to a virtual audience that we have roped in on Friday evening. They are proud of their work.

Amazingly quickly the excitement wears off though. There’s a strange sullenness that creeps into the air on a Monday morning. A petulance in the voice. Slumped posture, fidgeting, window-staring. Tears might appear mid-lesson. Our gentle, well-modulated teacher voices falter and harden.
“I’m sure you never cry like this in real school!” We hiss.
“This isn’t real school.” comes back the sulky response. Emotions flare up rapidly and suddenly the air is heavy with barely-restrained shouts that might be unleashed at any point.

I realise that part of the issue here is the unease of redefining our relationships for those few hours on a weekday morning. From being easy-going parents we suddenly flip into being teachers. Where does this sudden new authority come from? How should the kids adapt their attitudes and responses? Our tolerance levels suddenly flick down into a much lower setting. We have unrealistically high expectations and we are instantly critical. We judge the kids on their ability to absorb what we are telling them; we judge ourselves on our ability to impart knowledge. All are found wanting. The kids probe us for weaknesses. It feels like this really matters, and that removes all levity from the proceedings. We become like two Victorian schoolmasters.

“No Matilda, I’ve told you this so many times. If you can’t take away from the tens, then you have to borrow from the hundreds column. Will you listen!… No, look. Now there needs to be one less in the hundreds. Cross it out and write it on top… No! Write it there… THERE! Now you have to add that to the number in the tens, Oh no – don’t just stick a one in front of it… I tell you what, just give it here. I’ll do it. Ah, that’s better. Now look how easy that was. I’m just going to do the next one too…”

“Arthur, if you spell ‘hopeful’ with two ‘L’s ONE more time, I swear I will make you write it out a hundred times! …LOOK! LOOK! You did it again! Right! That’s it my boy. …Well, yes, I know that says ‘meaningful’, but it’s still the same ending and you spelt it with two ‘L’s, just right after I told you! One hundred lines. ‘All words that end in ‘ful’ are spelled with only one L.’ – write it out.
Well, no, yeah, Ok, that’s the exception. Good point! But ‘full’ is a whole word, it’s not an ending… No! I am not writing it out 100 times. I know my spelling! Do NOT be cheeky with me!”

“Isosceles is the pointy one right? Hey, Menna, help me out. It’s the thin pointy one, isn’t it?“

Eventually after a few weeks we find our groove – well, a groove anyway. We chill out and stop caring so much. It’s only education after all. They’re bright kids, they’ll catch up. Arthur can do a B-tech in skateboard design, if such a thing exists. If Matilda doesn’t become a doctor, she has expressed a desire to be a baker, or run a leggings shop. Lesson plans start to become a little more fluid, that is to say they mainly get made up on the day.

Fast forward another month and somehow homeschool has morphed into the freewheeling non-curricular event-driven education that I had always dreamed of. We find a dead snake and bring it home to observe it decompose over the course of a week. Arthur embalms a dragonfly in a jar of hand sanitiser. We get a workshop in fluid dynamics by a local surfboard shaper. We see a live octopus while snorkelling and go on to study its lifecycle in depth using Netflix. To support Matilda’s project on teeth we extract the incisors from a dog skeleton we find washed up on the beach. We identify the zodiac constellations. We understand the atmospheric conditions that cause swell. One Grandpa does daily maths tuition, the other Grandpa does poetry workshops, the Grandmas read literature and host art sessions.

And for pretty much everything else, we have downloaded an app.

Anybody there?

The family dynamic has changed as our travels have progressed. The kids have grown up, and we are no longer as protective over them as we were back at home. We push them out into the world to explore: ‘Take your bikes and check out the place for us,’ we say when we arrive in a new town and want to unpack in peace (or have a siesta). We want them to build confidence and independence over this trip, to learn initiative and be at home in a variety of situations. Sometimes they get terribly mouthy though and I wonder if we have gone too far.

We are all a little socially hungry at the moment. Coronavirus means that the flow of travellers that one normally meets on this kind of trip has dried up somewhat. When we stay in a campsite there is a vibe and perhaps some fleeting friendships can be made over that week. Camping long-term is hard work though, and in any case the season is over now, so we mainly stay in rented houses, inserting ourselves for a week or so into some residential area of town where the locals have little interest in hanging out with tourists. Having kids with us, we don’t go out drinking and partying much in the evenings, which closes the door to many chance encounters.

It’s not all barren. Menna meets local girls in her yoga classes, I chat to other surfers, we exchange stories with tourists when we drop into the surf hostels for a drink and to use the skate ramp. Random baristas get a quick life history together with our coffee order.

We don’t see many kids around though, certainly not English speaking ones now term has started and all the sensible international parents have repatriated themselves. Arthur plays football on the beach with local Portuguese kids, getting along as boys do, without needing to exchange any words. Matilda struggles.

So what does this mean? Well, us Nicholls do pretty much everything together. We go surfing, we go on walks, we go on sightseeing trips, we play games in the evening, read books out loud and have film night twice a week. I wind up the kids, play silly pranks on Menna. She tells me off and the kids laugh at me. Menna and Matilda bake bread and cinnamon rolls and go running together on a Sunday. Arthur and I skate around town and have mock fights with bamboo sticks that occasionally get serious. We have all our meals together and argue over what music to play during breakfast.

Arthur and Matilda are inseparable now. They have strange catchphrases and songs they have invented, imaginary games that last for many days. Even when they are arguing furiously and hate each other, they still hang out together. Menna and I have the evenings. We spend long hours discussing life, what we will do in the future and planning the next stage of our travels. We concoct wild visions of the post-apocalyptic future once Covid has decimated 90% of the population. We watch horror films on Netflix.

We have been gathered up, shaken around and thrown on top of each other, and generally we have found it fine – until suddenly one of us has had enough and throws a tantrum. Then we rant and rave for a while, go off for a walk then come back chastened and wanting forgiveness.

This is travelling after all, it’s what we signed up for. It’s intense.

Down from the mountain

We left the mountain and went back to the normal world. Back to electricity and phone signals and running water. Back to the sea.

We strode down like heroes. Forged of iron, unwashed, streaked with warpaint of river mud, shins scabbed up and parasitic trophies lodged deep in our livers. We had been put to the test up there in the rocky scrublands, far away from civilisation. We had confronted our demons and reevaluated our guiding principles; a lonely company bound together, hiking upwards through rocky scrubland, sticks in hand, using stars and the lichen on treetrunks to find our true north. We had seen snail tracks meandering on river rocks and we had read something there of our own true nature. Our children had changed. Arthur could now slip silently into a muddy pool and emerge several minutes later with a crayfish squirming between his teeth. Matilda was a little less scared of spiders.

We missed the ocean and its breezes though and also, dare I say it, the convenience of modern digital life. It seemed as though driving back into Baleal was a kind of celebratory homecoming, even though we had only ever spent three days there. It was the first time on this trip that we had returned somewhere and this time we were going to stay put for a longer period. Throughout July and August we had spent no more than a week in any single location. It was time to halt the never ending packing and moving, arriving and departing, loading and unloading the bloody car. Perhaps the kids could even meet someone their own age. In a moment of zeal we tried to enroll them into a local Portuguese primary school but the bureaucracy was prohibitive.

So that is what we did throughout September. We stayed in a nice apartment full of gadgets that seemed like the height of luxury (a gas barbecue, hot showers, a dishwasher!). We walked through bamboo plantations to get to the sea. We met locals and surfed every day. Menna signed up to a yoga class and then pilates too. The September term started and brought with it an unwelcome new routine of homeschooling – the twin evils of discipline and structure. Matilda got a new bodyboard, I got a new surfboard. We skated up and down the empty road outside our front door. We visited the walled castle town of Óbidos and the misty island of Berlenga. Arthur learned to drop in on the quarterpipe skate ramp down at the nearby hostel. We did long walks across the cliffs northwards, or over the dunes to Peniche. We marked sunsets out of ten from our roof terrace.

In short we lived a fairly normal lifestyle, and of course we got bored. Before long Menna and I were right back in the realm of anguished late-night conversations about the purpose of this trip, the definition of adventure, the meaning of life, the pursuit of happiness. Dangerous destinations started to get thrown into the mix: Costa Rica, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, Morocco. Our dreams were of deserts and reef breaks and scarlet macaws.

It was time to head south.

Away from it all

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.

Stone and Water

We spend several days exploring Terra Sangha and the mountains around. We climb up ancient terraces that are carved into the hillsides and buttressed with lichen-covered stonework. Further walls criss-cross the land like a maze and the ghostly outlines of old, old buildings can be seen in certain clearings. From the hills above we can clearly trace the foundations of the Roman and then Moorish settlements that must have dominated this landscape for miles around. This was once the heart of a thriving civilisation, but nothing beside remains, only a stone farm with a few outbuildings, some olive groves and a couple of wooden hunting lodges that now house occasional travellers like us. Poking around under the ground we find pottery and iron fragments that we think might once have been arrow heads.

When one evening we climb the mountain behind us to watch the sunset, rather than risking snakes in the the bracken, we balance our way upwards on top of one of these creaking ancient walls. It is a simple thing of dry balanced stones with no cement, and clearly hasn’t been touched in centuries, but is so carefully fitted that four of us in succession pass up safely with barely a stone moving.

In this dry land we become obsessive about water, and from our cabin, the chatter of the river is a siren call. We find shade down at the river, we swim there to cool off, we use it to chill our milk and beers, we make complicated dams and stone towers. Arthur is in his element here and irrepressible as a water rat. He splashes, hangs from trees, throws stones, catches lizards and chases dragonflies, carves a bow, whittles arrows, makes elaborate snares in the bushes, diverts water into a series of fish catching pools. Matilda meanwhile sits on a sunny rock and sings to herself.

Our cabin has an outside tap with water that is pumped directly from the river.
“Don’t worry. The water is filtered,” Said Ben when we arrived “and the pressure is pretty good right now because I’ve just changed the filter.” He turned the faucet with a flourish. It hesitated, shuddered, coughed out a spray and then subsided to a dribble.
“So we can drink it then?”
He thought a while. “No-o. I wouldn’t advise you to drink it. It can be drunk. But I don’t think your insides are ready for it.” Looking at our worried little faces. “Don’t worry though. We’ve got a spring on the site. You can fill up bottles from there. It’s very pure.”
“Oh right. A mineral spring. Like your own Evian?”
“Um yeah. Like Evian.”

We don’t want to use our car unless we have to, it seems against the subsistence ethos of this place, and who can argue with a natural mountain spring? Arthur is dispatched cross country to fill our water bottles every day. He doesn’t complain, but when I go with him to fill up at the spring one evening in the half light, I find it teeming with worrying wildlife and full of over-rich organic smells. You must descend down some steps to a dank pool that is full of frogs and mosquito larvae, thick spider webs and who knows what else. The ancient donkeys of Terra Sangha come to water here and the air is pungent with the smell of their piss. The precious spring water trickles out of a mossy pipe inches above this dark pool. Your water bottle must be slotted onto the pipe with some dexterity to avoid contamination with the stagnant water beneath, and then you must push downwards and submerge it in the slime to find an angle so the bottle will fill. You squat there for several long minutes, hunched in the darkness, waiting for the water to trickle in while sly reeds pretend to be spiders on your neck, frogs splash around and small biting creatures drone in your ears.

A few days into our stay I have a wild and feverish night, roaming and tossing in the darkness, creatures running over me in strange smothering dreams. For some hours I battle my demons until at 5am I give up and leave the cabin to wait for dawn. I wrap myself in the Indian rug that I call my bearskin and take myself down to the river. Crossing the stepping stones to the far side I wedge myself between two tree roots that trail over the water and settle in for sunrise, hoping to see kingfishers. I have a strange hallucinatory time there in the half light, immersed in the sound of the river. I find myself slipping beneath the surface to slither through pebbles and submerge myself in the silt. Reborn slippery and grey in the ancient coiled roots under the river bed I take on many forms. The kingfishers don’t come.

When Menna finds me some hours later I feel very cold and have a sickness deep in my stomach.

I face down the illness. I am determined that I will not lose a day with my family in this special place. It is just some food poisoning from the chicken kebabs I barbecued last night (they did taste mushy in the darkness) or perhaps a small stomach upset from swimming in the river, a germ from dirty hands. It will pass.

We go out walking in the late morning climbing up to the eastern peaks that face down onto the property. We have been told about a high viewpoint from which you can admire the topography of the São Mamede plateau. I lag behind on the ascent and sweat a lot. We make it up to a high point and see an undulating landscape of yellows, browns and deep greens. The trees bring life to this dusty world: sage colours of olives, walnuts and twisted corks up on the higher mountain faces, the deeper greens of oaks, limes, poplar, birch and hazel amassed around the hidden river below.

We try to make a homeward circuit and get totally lost up there in the hills in the midday heat. Our landmarks for safe return are strange rocks and twisted trees, a sunken path, a certain hilltop ringed with white stones. These milestones shift and change from different perspectives; similar features trick us and take us clambering up false paths. We end up following circular goat tracks that end in impenetrable thickets, always convinced we can hear the river close by and will somehow overcome the banks of thorn and brushwood to find it; that one true path home. We have no water and the whole thing is slightly nightmarish though I am determined not to indulge in further dream cycles of death and rebirth. One mustn’t panic in front of the kids.

We are on the mountain for a couple of hours until we find a path that leads to the river and finally we see the Roman bridge that means safety and I nearly cry.  We make it home, bruised and scratched. It is 3pm and kids are hungry for lunch while I collapse into the hammock and pass out for hours. The kids take secret pictures of me asleep. It is a horrible sight.   

Two days later Menna looks at our water bottle as it is illuminated in a shaft of light. There, in the ‘Evian’ spring water we have been drinking all week, are tiny nematodes, long as a finger nail, furiously alive and hungry. They coil and twist like malevolent worms. I feel mixed emotions: a resurgent nausea, vindication at a bona fide parasite to blame, slightly bitter that I was the only one to fall sick. Am I now the weak member of the herd?

We don’t drink any more water from the spring and when we leave at the end of the week, Menna doses us all with her most potent antiparasitic medicine.

Off Grid

The Serra de São Mamede is a spur of the Toledo mountain range, sitting high above the Alentejo, dividing countries and climates. On the eastern side you have Portugal and the Atlantic terrains, and on the west is Spain and the Mediterranean. We are staying deep in the protected national park that nestles on the Portuguese side of the mountains, and it takes us five hours driving cross-country to get there.

There is a symbolic aspect to the journey as we gradually leave civilisation behind us and wind our way up mountain roads into the wilderness. Towns become villages, vegetation thins out, roads get pocked and increasingly rutted until finally the asphalt ends and we bump the last few miles down a red dirt track, squeezing between rocks. Then we have arrived – that is to say there comes a point where we can’t drive any further and we abandon our car in a scorched sandy clearing and proceed on foot as the sun begins to set.

The domain of Terra Sangha stretches out over the hillside like a dusty crumpled blanket, seamed with dry stone walls and scored by a river’s crease. There is an simple farmhouse in the middle of it all and that is where Ben resides, cooking on wood and lit by candles. He has no power at the moment, the solar panels have been out of action ‘for a few weeks now’, but Ben does not let such worldly matters affect him. It won’t affect us either, he tells us as he takes us to our cabin, we didn’t have solar panels to start with.

After some months of relatively civilised living on the Iberian littoral, we are now going totally off-grid. That means living with no electricity, drinking water, flushing toilet, oven, shower, tv, window-glass, wifi, phone signal or refrigeration. “There’s a cool box somewhere if you need it. I can bring you ice.” Says Ben vaguely and disappears off into the dusk, leaving us alone in our glade.

Our car, full of the heat-sensitive provisions that we have purchased for this week, is about a kilometre away and darkness is falling fast. The evening is dry and windless, the temperature still sits obstinately in the low thirties. We have some work to do.
“Does anyone know where the head torch is?” Asks Menna pointlessly.

We toil backwards and forwards to the car, laden with many (un-eco) bags full of (non-vegan) provisions, (unsuitable) clothes and (unchargeable) electrical items.  We leave surfboards and bikes dumped on scrubland by the car. We climb walls, stumble over hidden obstacles, get scratched by tree branches and curse a lot. The night falls quickly once the sun has dipped behind the mountains and the darkness is complete and unequivocal.

Dinner is a basic pasta, cooked by torchlight outside on a rusty two-ring gas stove. Around us the night comes alive with wild calls and rustling that may be leaves in the breeze but may equally be prowling paws. The Iberian lynx still lives in these remote mountains I tell the kids, maybe bears too, certainly wild boar. They have both gone very quiet and don’t venture outside the safe sphere of light that the solar lamp throws over our trestle table. Matilda screams occasionally as flying creatures suddenly zoom past her head. This is a sanctuary for bats as well we remember, and our cabin has no window panes. They will come in and sleep in the rafters.

By ten o clock we are all tucked up in our single room, wide eyed in the darkness, listening to the forest breathing around us.

The best thing about arriving somewhere after dark is that you get to arrive all over again in the morning. Our cabin sits up on a flat terrace and when the dawn sun emerges over the shoulder of the mountain opposite, it throws beams between the tree tops and through our windows. The light illuminates the dust motes floating in our dark wooden room and falls across our faces of our sleeping children in their driftwood beds, making them look unwashed and strangely angelic. I stumble to the window and stick out a squinting sun-scrunched face to take in our new world. A glade of yellow grasses, a wall of poplar, cork and lime trees, the mercury flash of running water glittering in the shadows, mountains ahead and behind, forest all around us. Birds flitter through the foliage.

We can live without wifi for a while I think.

Ericeira

It’s a nightmare driving around Ericeira. The streets are narrow and cobbled with a one-way system that only seems to apply to foreigners, while locals are permitted to come racing the wrong way and then face you down – anda tourist! – until you reverse back up. We rattled around for a while in circles, trying to find our new place. On one particularly tight corner we get properly jammed in, with Menna out in front of the car, alternately beckoning eagerly forwards then and squealing ‘Stop! Back!’ until I have see-sawed my way right into the bend and am revving and farting diesel smoke into the faces of all the brunch-eaters outside a vegan café. Eventually the owner came out and helped extricate us before I scared all her clientele away.

Once we find our apartment and ditch the car, Ericeira becomes a pleasure to stroll around. The houses are all built in the traditional style: gleaming white walls; contrasting blue fascias and architraves; burnt orange roof tiles with ornate chimney and gable work. Walking the streets is a tactile experience, the limestone mosaic calçada are warm and slippery smooth underfoot. It makes me want to go barefoot, though no-one else is doing this, and dog shit still exists, so Menna makes me put my flip-flops back on. The centre is traffic free and home to boutique surf shops and organic cafes, restaurant tables and the overspill from bars. Bougainvillea features heavily. There is noise and movement everywhere until there isn’t. You turn a corner and hit a pocket of stillness.

Our apartment here is tiny and opens right out onto a street that is too narrow for cars to park in but serves as a pedestrian thoroughfare down to the sea front. We leave the door open when we are home. Sometimes we sit out on the step with a beer and chat with passers-by as if we’ve lived here all our lives. Sometimes I play the guitar badly. Menna makes a worrying friendship with the Brazilian surf instructor who lives opposite. The kids rattle around on their bikes or play shouty games and try to climb the lamp posts.

There is a small port which we walk through to get to the beach that gives a glimpse of old world Ericeira. There they dry-dock all the fishing boats, then pick them up by tractor and tow them back out to sea as needed. It smells like a port should – of brine and sea-weed with an oily undertone of rotting fish – and it is full of weatherbeaten old sea dogs sitting around playing cards. It is messy and real, contrasting with the postcard town above. The gulls fight over huge spiny crabs that have been discarded there in the sunshine.

Life here feels easy. We get fresh fish from the mercado. We settle into our tight space and have a well-coordinated furniture rotation routine, so the table is prominent at mealtimes and the sofa comes out in the evening. We leave our surf and skateboards propped up outside the front door and hang our washing on a pulley system out on the street, until someone steals our wetsuits from the line one night and we get more cautious. We surf most days and there is an epic skatepark where Arthur is desperate to spend all his time (politely waiting his turn at the ramps as local street rats muscle in and pull impressive aerials). We wander down to the harbour wall most evenings to get an ice cream and watch the sunset. I find a charming old-school barber and have my first haircut since lockdown. He cheerily ignores all my styling requests and sends me home shorn and brutal. Menna makes a Portuguese caldeirada fish stew, dark and spicy, with squid, ray, conger eel and prawns.

After some days we are more attuned to our new town and start to pick out the weave of the social fabric here. We are part of a large and transient tourist component that stay in hostels, camps and short term lets. Entwined with the tourist group are the seasonal visitors who have come here to surf or are on retreats, working as instructors, yoga teachers or masseuses, and have a slightly longer-term legitimacy. Then there is a tribe of settlers who, drawn by the waves and the liberal vibe, have moved here permanently, put down roots, started businesses, formed a little artistic community. They live in shorts and flip-flops with flexible work patterns that accommodate tides, swell and good living. They frequent each other’s restaurants and cafes and chat on the street and in the surf. One day when we finally settle somewhere, I think, it would be good to be part of a vibrant and committed scene like this. Close-knit, stress-free, fun. A group of like-minded people, living outside where possible and tuned in to the rhythms of the ocean.

Then there is the local young no-fear generation, big aerials in the skatepark, aggressive carving in the waves, World Surf Tour aspirants with flamboyant surf-skate moves and great tattoos. And of course you have the older Ericeira locals who have been residents here for generations, moving slowly in time honoured circuits around the port, town squares and the market. A soberly-dressed, polite, churchgoing people, passing their twilight years on benches around the city, impassive observers of an ongoing sea-change that relentlessly reshapes their landscape. I think I would also like to grow old like this.

For now though we are content to be in the floating tourist group and wander round aimlessly, absorbing the vibe. Nothing very exciting happens to us in Ericeira but we feel happy and lazy and well-fed. By the end of the week we are starting to get twitchy again though and we talk about heading off somewhere wild.

I am who I say I am.

Our place in Ribamar was run by Jose, a tattooed surf hipster who talked a big game. He greeted us on arrival and sauntered around the house, talking expansively about his portfolio of rental properties; various big waves, the local night life. There were hints of a kid somewhere back in Lisbon and a girlfriend, also conveniently distant, in Sintra.
“Sometimes I sleep here, sometimes there, sometimes in one of the other houses. I just see what I feel like.”
Nice set-up, we thought (or was it just me?), AirBnB keeps the rent flowing in, hassle free, while he surfs all day, parties all night and keeps his dependents at arm’s length. Is this an economic model we might consider for the future?

Alas, as with all things that are too good to be true, the ideal didn’t stand up to prolonged scrutiny. During our stay Jose’s grandeur gradually ebbed away like the tide. He went from owner to implied partner, then manager and eventually he settled as a glorified caretaker (to the distant and fearsome Miss Maria, who we never met, but who Jose kept scrupulously updated through a rapid-fire stream of text messages). Jose had a single dark room at the back of the complex with a mess of ketchup bottles, complicated coffee apparatus, ashtrays and piles of clothes. He would emerge from this little cave around midday in his skinny jeans, silver bracelets jangling, baseball cap awry, blinking and scratching. His footloose agenda seemed to be rather on hold. I suspected he usually crashed in any of the rental properties that were vacant, though I doubt Miss. Maria ever got a text informing her of this.

We talked whenever we met in the courtyard but Jose would often get called away just as I was getting a review of the local skateparks, or a description of the killer octopus in O Pescador. The Sintra girlfriend seemed to stay in Sintra much less that Jose might have wished. She was a strong-jawed, hard-eyed lady, and seemed to have him firmly in check. The kids were scared of her and maybe I was too. She would sit chain-smoking outside our back door late into the night and I would have to make excuses when Menna told me to take out the rubbish.

There was always a surfboard propped outside Jose’s door, but on the days when the swell got big at Coxos, he lay suspiciously low.
“Dude! You are mad to surf there. It is far too heavy this wave!” He admits one afternoon when I tackle him,
“But you said the entry point was tough and it was a fight to manage the rips. I thought this was your local wave.”
“Yes, but only from watching I know this. I don’t go in there to surf. I am only surfing for a few years. I like the beach break over at Santa Cruz. This is where I learned”. In this moment of candour and mutual levelling, I am able to confess that I too am far too poor a surfer to attempt most of the big waves we have spent hours talking about with such implied familiarity. We have both tacitly overstated our abilities. Now we bond over the pragmatic unlikelihood of ever being able to surf Coxos, Supertubos or Nazaré.

We all liked Jose more and more as his pretences dropped over the course of the week. Our leaving impressions were of a super open and pleasant guy who loved to chat but would sometimes get a little carried away with the detail. I have a lot of time for people who don’t let reality dull a good story. Menna likes to mother lost souls. The kids would do skateboard tricks for Jose in the courtyard and he would applaud.

Our relationship was slightly strained on departure though, when Jose spotted what looked like fresh graffiti all over our gleaming white doorframe. Stars and lightning symbols had been scrawled at waist height together with – the smoking gun – a clearly visible ‘A’ and an ‘M’. The kids made a good attempt at denying all knowledge of this, but the evidence was fairly incontrovertible. Under sustained interrogation they broke down. It had been an experiment. Scientific really. They had used the leaves front the potted agave plant here, which gave out a little juice like this, which when smeared on white paint, leaves a dark line like that. Arthur had done a project on cycads last term, so it was all in line with the school curriculum. Homework almost.

“It’s just leaf juice Jose. I’m sure it’ll come off easily!” I chuckled and we enthusiastically grabbed cloths and set to it. Jose frowned and grimaced, sent texts to Miss Maria. After twenty minutes of scrubbing it is clear that agave juice actually does not come off white walls. We offered to send Arthur back next day to repaint it, but after silently appraising him for a moment and estimating the quality of workmanship he would deliver, Jose declined. It is best he takes care of it himself he told us with a sigh. The Sintra girlfriend rolled her eyes.

We leave Ribamar with the kids in disgrace.

Who Dares Paddles

For the next ten days we floated up and down the coast. We were based for a while in Ribamar, a sprawling little village strung along the coastal highway as it loops up through the hilltops. It was a good place from which to explore a long run of scalloped bays with exotic longwinded names: Ribeira D’Ilhas with it’s stone shelf and excellent left point; Praia do Banco do Cavalinho (Pony Bank Beach?) where the rockpools are perfectly round like manholes in the flat rock; Praia de São Lourenço, with smuggler caves high up in the cliffs and a suddenly shelving beach which generates a booming shore break, no good for surfing but awesome scary-fun for children to mess around in. Our favourite bay though was the closest and also the most notorious: Coxos, another of the famous big wave spots of Portugal. It comes with this ominous warning in Surf Europe:

“Coxos is a right-hand point break. Long, fast and furious, the wave is no kindergarten: heavy sections can turn the barrel of your life into a nasty beating. Lots of water running along the rocks make getting in/out of the water a game of patience and know-how…”

Surf Europe Magazine

It’s a world class wave and the swell is pumping, so what do the Nicholls do? Well, they paddle out of course! Not on a surfboard though, because they still value life, but just with their little naked feet, in the shallows. It seemed like harmless fun, but when there are giant Atlantic rollers battering the beach, even venturing knee-deep into the water means taking your life in your hands. We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again. That is to say within minutes we nearly lost Arthur, who got totally smashed by a giant wave, properly rolled around in the shingle and then sucked back out to sea underwater. I grabbed a handful of his shorts and yanked him up again just as the lifeguards came running for us and the beach turned silent.

Arthur thought it was hilarious but not the lifeguard. We got an earnest lesson on how to paddle without getting drowned. We felt chastened and we went to sit quietly up on the cliffs to watch some people who knew what they are doing instead.

Watching waves is mesmerising, particularly when they are breaking like this. We spent some hours up there on the cliffs, sitting in the sun, tuning into the ocean. It’s very hypnotic: the rhythm of the swell, the power and force of the break, the subsonic roar, the moment when a huge wall surges up and seems to hang there in the sunlight, the lines and swirls of the waveform clearly illuminated for a moment before it all crashes down in clouds of foam.

There was a whole crowd up there on the cliffs, standing, chatting, photographing, sitting on rocks and camper chairs, maybe sipping beers. We were all watching the surfers (only two!) who had braved it out that day, offering them encouragement, criticism, armchair wisdom. Our kids loved being part of this scene and sat quietly for ages up on the rocks, murmuring appreciatively about a particular face, tutting and pointing out where the surfer should have taken off to get deeper into the barrel, or, best of all, moaning with horror, little hands over their eyes, when our hero got caught inside and took a hammering.

The next day I surf at Praia Azul where it is not nearly as big as Coxos but still worryingly huge and messy. I imagine the audience up on the cliffs, and spend the session with their eyes mentally upon me, gravely critiquing my performance as I get smashed around. I see Matilda peeking through her fingers as I am caught out of position, (“Daddy’s getting a beating, she will be saying!). I hear phantom cheers as I finally catch one after many minutes of drift. I paddle back in after an hour or so and get turned over by the shore break, rolled twice, sucked back out and then dumped upside down on the sand. The comedy finish! Oh, they’ll love that!

The beach is empty, the kids are building a sandcastle and no-one has seen a thing. Menna gives me a casual wave like, oh, there you are!

I take a bow to the imaginary clifftop audience and invite them back to my next session.

We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again:
And, by that destiny, to perform an act,
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge

The Tempest. William Shakespeare

Massacre of the Innocents

We got back into Portugal at midnight on a Friday. Reunited with our car at Lisbon Long Stay, we drove valedictory laps through some industrial estates before eventually finding our room for the night. Menna had booked somewhere cheap and cheerful and we had no idea what we would find. It turned out to be a huge ‘family room’ with a chintzy Louis XIV vibe, high up in an apartment block. There was no private parking and it wasn’t the kind of neighbourhood where you just left a car piled with possessions on the street, so I unloaded the bikes and the boards in the dead of night and we carted them on up to the fifth floor. Our suite quickly became the cluttered dosshouse we were used to.

We were down in Café Angola early next morning. We ate custard pastries, drank exotic juices and got very engrossed in a snooker match that was playing on a tv suspended over the bar. At some point Menna and I remembered that it was our wedding anniversary and we had a quick peck over the table while the kids made grossed-out faces. She admired the croissant crumbs in my beard; I thought the guava on her breath smelled like the tropics. A man called Wilson eventually won a dramatic last frame and took the semi-final.

Over the next two weeks our intention was to explore the area between Peniche and Ericeira, starting North and working our way down. Our first stop was Baleal, three hours from Lisbon, on the (toll-free) scenic route, where we would camp for the weekend.

Urban Art Camping was an indulgence for the boys. The website had various soft focus pictures of graffitied walls and skate ramps, laughter around communal barbecues, brightly coloured surfboards tossed artfully upon the grass. We had booked a ‘chalet’ (trailer) for the weekend and looked forward to immersing ourselves into the party scene.

I had to raise a admiring hat to the Urban Art marketing department when we arrived, for those careful blurred shots had made so much of what there was little, and made so little of what there was most: hard earth and grit, a veil of dust hanging in the heat.

There were some murals there it was true, and a skate ramp too, in an area of sandy wasteland among abandoned breeze blocks and plastic pipes that coiled like snakes in the silt. There were also two concrete barbecue grills as promised. They were hidden on a little walkway between the toilet block and a chainlink fence that looked out onto a desolate vista of weeds and rusting agricultural machinery.

The website certainly hadn’t mentioned that the site was right next to one of the most decrepit, rundown chicken farms that can ever have flown under the animal welfare regulation radar. The tang of ammonia and chicken shit hit hard when the wind turned westerly, cries of tortured poultry haunted our nights.

We were one of approximately five occupied berths in the campsite, so the bonfire surf vibe was muted. It became quickly clear though that the real residents here were of a different species entirely, and they were having quite the party. Flies everywhere! They came coursing into our trailer if we left the door open. They danced over my face when I tried to siesta. Matilda had twelve of them in the shower with her. Their buzz bored deep into the cranium.

There is a family philosophy that we don’t kill any creatures unless they are mosquitos. No stamping on spiders or harpooning manatees for the Nicholls. Live and let live. I have to explain to the kids that there is however going to be an exemption on flies.
“But Dad, why? They’re not actually hurting us.” Asks Arthur, rightly.“Is it ok to kill something that just annoys you? Can I kill Matilda then?” There is some difficult semantic legwork to do to build a moral case for this one.
“They carry diseases and they are super annoying. It’s just better for the world if we reduce the fly population”
Arthur proves coherently and at some length that if you were to eradicate the fly population then, in a complicated web of cause and effect, there would be at least sixteen other species that would become extinct including, somehow, the Golden Eagle.
I am reduced to: “But they eat crap and then crawl on your face. They vomit digestive juices on you and then lick it back up!” And then I am plunged into a long difficult period of self-reflection. Why can’t I argue a better case for the morality of fly swatting – or at least a more eloquent one? The fly has faster reflexes than any other living thing. They are perfectly adapted to their environment and clearly a highly successful species. They play a vital role in the decomposition of biological waste. Perhaps we should just leave them alone.

Our campsite apart, Baleal is a beautiful little village. The old town sits high on granite island and its churches and towers make a classic medieval roofline silhouetted against the afternoon shine of the westward sea. It connects to the mainland by an isthmus: a single span of tarmac that runs through a spit of beach with a unspoken ‘who dares first’ priority system. There are curved bays with fine white sand and turquoise waters on either side. This is ideal surf terrain as there are waves approaching the spit from two opposing directions, so it works on both northerly and southerly swells, and one side will pick up an offshore whatever the prevailing wind direction. We eat toasted cheese sandwiches and pickled lupini beans at a café on the cliffs, marvelling at our luck.

There is a series of beautiful beaches to the north of town with terracotta sandstone crags towering above them and this is where we spend Sunday. The waves are booming and I have one of the best ever surf sessions until my leash breaks, leaving me with a long swim back into shore. There is no harm done though and we walk the dusty road back to our campsite tired, scorched and happy. I find my spot behind the loos, fire up the barbecue and cook us up a chorizo-themed feast to finish the weekend in style. I am mellowed by surf and sun, the wastelands now stretch in front of me like a blank canvas full of promise. I superimpose all sorts of heroic and unlikely visions of the future there.

The mood evaporates later though when we return to our cabin and are greeted by a terrifying sight. We have left the door open and the flies have invaded. The ceiling is dark with them, so are the walls. They are flying lazy loops in the kitchen like they own the place. There are too many to count, though Arthur tries.

We have a family meeting. While it is true that we are a peaceful lot who seek no quarrel, tonight the fight has been brought to us. The sovereignty of our very trailer has been attacked and we must respond. We arm ourselves grimly with towels, magazines and Grandma’s fly swat, and we stride forth with murder in our hearts.

I have only fragmented memories of that night. A strange dark ballet. Metallic swirls in the dusk. Menna howling and swinging wildly. Arthur grinning diabolically as he leapt from chairs, his face streaked with some dark residue. Fluorescent lights flicker like strobes. The air-con unit groans. Dismembered limbs and wings; dark streaks down the wall; piles of small furry bodies amassed upon the floor. Matilda is a blur, twirling and stamping, teeth gritted, letting out animalistic cries. But still they pour in. They are in the plug sockets! Under the fridge! Hiding in the toaster! Sweat, blood, buzzing, shrieks. We killed them in their hundreds. Stamped on their mute bodies. Plucked off their wings. Did we…eat them?

We drive out of Urban Art Camping at nine the next morning still twitchy and agitated, the bloodlust barely subsided. We leave the crime scene behind us and flee south.

Somewhere in the car there is a buzzing sound.

Nazare

Nazaré is Europe’s big wave Mecca and we are here on pilgrimage. We are not the only ones either, a wave of this notoriety pulls a crowd. Firstly you spot the life-or-death hardcore surf crew with their deep tans and bleached eyes. Then there are the others, softer, like us, who seek vicarious thrills from the sidelines. Around all this is the periphery: the tour operators, guides, rickshaws, buskers and falafel vans.

For your surfing to qualify as ‘big wave’ you have to be paddling into monsters that are 20 foot high or greater. As a family we watched Riding Giants, the seminal big wave documentary, when we were staying in Croyde – some decades ago it seems now. It tells the story of a wild renegade scene, a group of guys who had dropped wilfully, out of straight fifties society and set themselves up on the undeveloped North Shore of Hawaii. They slept wild on the beach, lived off the land and discovered and surfed the largest waves that had ever been ridden. This scene then grew over subsequent decades as boards developed, bigger spots were found and new generations of surfers pushed the boundaries ever further. As surfing became commercialised, the big wave hunters remained splintered from the mainstream in their own secret club, a circuit without sponsors, a cabal of riders with their own mystique – until films like Riding Giants brought exposure. Now the XXL and other big wave competition are worldwide; Arthur and Matilda can recite the roll-call of largest waves ever surfed. They drop those exotic names casually into conversation: Waimea Bay, Pipeline, Mavericks, Jaws, Teahupo’o, Cloudbreak, Nazaré.

They know the big wave legends too, the stories of mythical waves were hidden in plain sight, or thought impossible, crazy, chimeric until some hero stepped forwards. Mavericks, one of the biggest, ugliest, heaviest waves in the world, was surfed alone by Jeff Clark for 15 years because he couldn’t convince anyone else it was worth the long dangerous paddle out. It was said impossible for such a wave to exist in California. Greg Knoll paddled for three hours in a unique storm swell to be the first to surf the third reef at Pipeline. Jaws was thought too fast, and heavy to surf until Laird Hamilton got a jetski to slingshot him right into the heart of the tube. And Nazaré is a deep water dragon who awakes only when the wind is right and direction of the swell merges with cold funnelled up through a 130 mile underwater canyon. This is a wave that is commemorated in shrines and for hundreds of years meant only death in this little fishing village. Until someone persuaded Garrett McNamara to come over from Hawaii to take a look at it. The picture of him riding an 80 foot smoking black mountain put the town right on the surf map.

Nazaré itself is built on legend. A twelfth-century lord hunting up on the cliffs; a white hart; a sea mist. Our Lady of Nazareth reached down from the skies to miraculously suspend his horse as it reared out over the void, she brought him back to safety. Now the old town that bears her name, with its churches and shrines, sits proudly up on that clifftop. It is connected by a funicular railway to the lower part of town, which, seen from above, is a labyrinthine swirl of of red roof tiles, white walls and narrow streets that extends down the South beach. Old ladies salt their fish in the traditional way out on the sands. A surf school runs lessons in the mild waves in the bay. A veneer of wave-generated tourism sits uncomfortably over the traditional fishing village, ‘Rooms for Rent’ say the handwritten placards that women in traditional dress wave at you. Surfer Paradise! Nazaré Monster Wave Tour! American Burger Bar! At the other end of town, Praia do Norte, where the big wave breaks, is still wild and undeveloped.

We stay in a place belonging to Tim Bonython, a veteran wave-chaser, photographer and filmmaker.  It is a stylish apartment in the old town.  There are moody prints of giant waves on the wall and a DVD copy of Tim’s latest film The Big Wave Project has been left casually on the coffee table.

We watch it of course and we are immediately plunged into the gladiatorial world of big wave surfing. A spectator sport quickly becomes compulsive when the penalty for poor performance is death. When your adversary is as implacable and relentless as the ocean then you are deep in a classic myth archetype: man – small and flawed but big of heart – doing battle with the gods. In high definition slo-mo. We find this sense of poetic heroism throughout the Big Wave Museum within Forte San Miguel, housed right under the iconic red lighthouse that features in all those famous Nazaré surf shots. The gallery of hero’s weapons is laid out for us here, in this case the wall of ‘big wave guns’, huge elongated surfboards that can achieve the necessary paddle speed to catch a ten storey wave that is moving at 20mph. The padded wetsuit, with it’s impact protection and buoyancy aids, is up-lit in the shadows, glowing like armour. There are elegies to those who have fallen, messages to the wave. “Nazaré, you gave me the best and the worst time of my life” says one marker-pen homage, scribbled on a broken surfboard.

We go down to Praia do Norte but it is deceptively, quiet. There are some fairly mushy waves breaking late on the shore. You can see the water is seething though in heavy roiling surges, churning up behind the break, sucking back from the beach in dark angry rips. We watch some surfers paddle out and they get pulled around, dunked under the water for long times. They don’t catch much.

We shiver and remember the graphic descriptions of the wipeouts that we heard on the Big Wave Project. The ability of a wave to smash you down 50 foot under the surface in seconds, rupturing your eardrums, twisting limbs, breaking vertebrae. Then to hold you down there, rolling and spinning in your dark-water prison for long minutes. We’ve all experienced enough miniature versions of this scenario to understand the world of panic and limp helplessness that waits down there under the waves. We won’t be surfing Nazaré. The wave is hypnotic though and we sit for a long time up on the beach, just watching the suck and pull of its waves.

Casa Da Lagoa

Casa Da Lagoa is hidden away behind a high gate on a nondescript side street. We wait in the road for a quarter of an hour, unable to get a response from the bell, our fat Audi squatting menacingly like a black toad, blocking the narrow, walled street. Then the gates swing silently open, and the proprietor is there to greet us, beaming and gesturing us in theatrically to hidden inner courtyards that are full of shade and olive trees, like a Moroccan riad.

Joao is effusive and clearly very proud of his place. With rights too – he and his wife have created a little eco-agri-boutique-guesthouse of great style and calm vibes. The house was his grandfather’s, he tells us, but they have now remodelled it all. The yards are cobbled with cream coloured limestone, the walls gleam brilliant white inlaid with traditional blue Portuguese tiles, and there has been a lot of careful artisanal work with hard-woods throughout. We’re sleeping in a little annex that used to be the granary, where a system of small windows and channels direct a cool airflow though the building.

On our first night Joao and his wife cook for us. We got a feast: homemade chouriço, ham, tomatoes and olives from their local farm, little grilled sardines, whole dorado in lemon and butter, courgettes and carrots. Steaks for the kids.

Clearly Joao does front-of-house duties while his wife does the real work behind the scenes. He talks us through the menu, still sweating from the grill, savouring the details.
“This is the ham of porco preto, the black pig” he says with a flourish, “they are only allowed to eat the acorn or the seed of the cork tree. It is also a kind of oak actually.”
“Kind of like the Spanish Pata Negra ham?” I offer.
“No! No! This is the better ham. Most Spanish ham actually comes from Portugal anyway. We have more of the oak trees so we export the ham to them and they call it Jamón iberico – we are all Ibericos it is true! But the best, we save for ourselves.”

We are starved of good conversation and Joao certainly likes to chat. Furthermore he is knowledgeable and cultural and his English is great. He tells us about the farming, local history, the wine, the wildlife. We are surrounded by lagoons and marshlands so I am keen to see some birds. Joao is insistent that the birds here are very special, only his knowledge of bird names in English is a limiting factor, so we go down several cul de sacs.
“There is a beautiful small bird. Red, very intelligent. I see him when I am reading in the forest. He always wants to understand who I am.”
A Pipit, Redwing, Redstart? Surely they don’t have Cardinals here do they?
“We call him the Passaros, I like him a lot”. Google calls him the Robin.
“Yeah, we have him at home too. Anything more exciting? Maybe a Hoopoe – orange colour, crazy big crest, stripy wings…”
“No.”
“What about the kingfisher? The Rei Pescador?” I love kingfishers, but it is something of a sore point that despite growing up beside a river, I have never actually seen one. Menna and the kids spotted a docile king fisher in our local park in London (annoying!) and it sat on the branch for ages, being all picturesque, accepting photos, then gliding off on its way. It was literally the only Sunday morning walk I had missed.
“No, there is not this one any more. Maybe when I was a kid but now it is too rare. But there is another blue bird, larger, always he would come to the farm in my childhood, and we love him. Very graceful. He would take away the acorns to hide”.
This eventually turns out not to be a Roller or a Bee-eater, but a Jay, also fairly common.
“And there are ducks! Many ducks!”
The kids are squirming in their seats by now and it is time to go to bed.

The next day we visit the beach, we shop for sandles for Matilda and we consume lots more ham. Menna takes the kids on a bike ride around the lagoon in the afternoon while I write, but they get lost, cycle 15km further than planned and arrive back hot, thirsty and full of harsh words. Arthur is adamant that he has seen a kingfisher when he had cycled ahead alone. There is an undercurrent of skepticism in our response to this revelation. He picks up on this and it further sours the mood. I feel guilty – everyone seems to see kingfishers all the time except me. Why shouldn’t his sighting be true?

We set off the following morning on a proper expedition around the waterways. I bring my binoculars, penknife, birdguide and feel quite the ornithologist. Arthur leads us proudly to his kingfisher spot, telling the story of his sighting many times over, adding in various details with each telling. We stay for a long while but there is an extensive lumberjack operation in full motion nearby and they are converting large tree trunks into wood chips, generating a huge amount of diesel smoke and noise in the process. It is not the peaceful birdspotting environment we had hoped for and eventually we walk on discouraged.

It is a fairly uneventful trip, but a few kilometres later we do indeed see many ducks.

Bem Vindo a Portugal

Coronavirus was riding hard on our tail. Incidence rates were spiking across the northern provinces of Spain, the travel bridge with the UK had collapsed, so we fled to Portugal.

We drove out of Galicia on empty motorways and over huge bridges that looked down upon a world of faraway bays, rivers, and ravines. There was hardly anyone on the roads so we felt free to slow right down and drink in the view. The kids were deep in their Kindles and Menna and I listened to music, checked Covid stats and ruminated on where in the world we might eventually end up. We had surfed in the morning and still felt the tang of salt on our skin. It seemed we might go anywhere.

We were worried about what checkpoints and controls we might have to go through to cross the border though (do we have our travel insurance documents? Is there some form we should have filled in? Will we get temperature checked?), but in the end we just drove over the Minho river unremarked. ‘Bem-vindo a Portugal’ says a sign, and it’s done.

Our first stay in Portugal is on the coast, 100km south of the border. We cruise through Porto, wishing we could stop. We drive along the dusty roads of the Beira province, along tarmac which deteriorates with every kilometre southwards, where old men in hats sit out at the roadside with offerings of squash and pumpkins. Through the deserted streets of Mira we cruise, and a small boy on a scooter stares wide-eyed at our loaded English car as if we were the armoured cavalry rumbling through his town. We have picked up some deep electro-country beats on the radio and now in the heat haze, everything through the windscreen seems like it’s moving in slow motion.

And as we drift along, feeling strangely stoned, I realise that this is something that I associate with Portugal. This sense of temporal dislocation, a winding down of the clock. There is a different time scale here, it is a slow moving dance that is elegant but tinged with mournfulness. There is something in the architecture, the bullock cart full of watermelons, the town squares where the old men sit out. You see it in the young girls with their dark eyes on the boardwalk, even as they smile and chatter together.

There is a Portuguese word which has no direct translation in English. It is saudade, a suggestion of melancholy and nostalgia mingled in various ways. It is the dream of something that has not yet happened, or something that could not happen, or something that will never happen again. It is deep in the music and the literature of Portugal (think fado). It’s not an active sadness though so much as a sense of vague pleasant wistfulness.

I think of a people only loosely tethered to the present, drifting through slow courteous interactions, smiles tinged with a sad charm, always half-imagining a better world that is somehow denied to them.

In the wild seas off Portugal, saudade surfers skim offhandedly across huge Atlantic breakers, dreaming mournfully of perfect waves that could never be.

I explain this theory to Menna in some depth but her view of Portugal is different.
“But even the small towns here seem to have a real sense of community,” she says, “The houses are brightly coloured and people gather together, chatting on street corners and outside bars. There’s much more soul than in some of the empty towns we saw in Spain. Everyone seems happy to me.”

I concede that this is true on the surface, but I hold onto my theory that somewhere beneath there is a deep melancholic vein of saudade, It feels poetic and I’m in that kind of mood.

Menna and I work out that apart from Italy, where my parents live, Portugal is the country that we have most visited together: this will be our eighth trip. We love this place. There is something in the faded elegance and courtesy, the relaxed hospitality, that pulls us back. We too live through wistful moments of detachment, I think secretly to myself, where reality can never match the impossible ideal. We dream of the life that we might lead, the places where we could be, the people we might become.

“Saudade. A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

Manuel de Melo

“A vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present.,, [it is] not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

Aubrey Bell.