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…”
“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.