What Julia did

About five years ago my friend Julia bought a rundown property on some land close to the village of Alegrete in eastern Portugal. Last weekend we paid her a visit to see how the project is progressing.

The property is on the edge of a national park, surrounded by wooded hills. Her plot of land is home to olive trees, cork oaks and various other plants, herbs and bushes.

The building itself wasn’t much more than four walls and a bit of roof when she bought it. It’s now the warm, welcoming home of Julia and Vitor, stretching across two two floors, with a guest bedroom, wood-burning stoves for heat, and plenty of space. Of course there will always be a To Do list – they plan to plaster the exterior wall shown above and there are some chimmney issues to address – but it’s already a very comfortable place to live now.

There are upwards of twenty olive trees on the property.It’s not enough to generate a significant income; nonetheless, they can take their crop into the local press and take home how ever many litres of olive oil they produce. And there are plenty of olives for eating throughout the year too.

Another useful harvest comes from the cork oaks, whose bark is chopped off every nine years. It’s not of sufficiently high grade to use for wine bottles but there are many other uses. The axe above is used to cut a seam down the trunk of the tree…

….and then the bark is prised from around the trunk. The tree itself isn’t harmed, and another thick layer of bark grows back over the years that follow. The trees are marked to indicate when a harvest was last cut from them.

Julia and Vitor have had to clear the land of quite a bit of dead wood, which now serves as a useful supply of firewood. The bark also has to be stripped from these cork oak logs, partly to prevent unwanted ash from clogging up the flue, but also as even these off-cuts can be sold for a modest sum.

It’s quite a labour intensive process. I was happy to give it a try under the guidance of Vitor on Sunday morning. Between us we stripped three wheelbarrows worth of logs in about an hour, generating a couple of big sacks of cork bark. (He, naturally, did the lion’s share of the work, but I felt like I held my own.)

They’re not just removing trees from the land – they’ve also planted lots of fruit trees, with a clever watering system designed by Vitor to help them get through the hot summers.

While they wait for the new trees to bear fruit, they have many generous neighbours who are happy to share. This pomegranate tree is just around the corner – we made fresh pomegranate syrup – and some quince fruits from a neighbour were made into jam over the weekend too.

The longer term plans revolve partly around the distillation of essential oils. For example, there are lots of rock rose bushes on the land, which can be used to create a sought-after essential oil. And that’s just one example of the many plants that can be used in this way. The still above was bought at the market in the nearby town of Estremoz and can be used to distill oils above a gas flame.

The steam travels through a long pipe, cooled by water, before ending up in a flask like this one, which can be used to separate the oil from the water.

What will all that hard work harvesting fruit and cork and distilling essential oils, it’ll be necessary to relax too. The ground between these three cork oaks has been earmarked for a spa pool, with the trellised entrance already taking shape. A return visit will be necessary I think!

We took a stroll up a nearby hill on Monday afternoon. I got to watch the sun set from close to the summit – and to look down on the valley where Julia and Vitor’s place is.

A bird-watching hide has been erected from which you can spot a multitude of birds of prey. We, however, just used it to keep Robert amused!

We had a wonderful time sharing a few days with Julia, Vitor, Zoe the dog, and Antonio and Lou the cats. Robert was tolerated by the animals and spoiled by Julia and Vitor.

When we got up on Tuesday morning they had prepared a plate of special treats for the birthday boy.

They’re living in a kind of paradise, in circumstances that many people dream about, but few have the persistence and vision to see through. I admire Julia very much for the way she’s made this work. We were neighbours on Rue Jean-Violette in Geneva for five years – nice and all as that was, she’s in a much better place now.

Oh, and I should point out that I won the winner-takes-all domino match on our last night in Alegrete, taking the golden fly swat as my prize!

To finish, here are a couple of other shots of us enjoying the Portuguese autumn sunshine.