Alentejo Days

July 19 to July 23

From Salamanca we drove about three hours to arrive at Monte da Fornalha, a lovely bed and breakfast in the Alentejo region of Portugal. We stayed there for four days of bliss. Following are the notes I wrote while basking by the pool.

The beautiful tiled pool at Monte da Fornalha

The Alentejo region of Portugal lies about two hours due east of Lisbon in a sun- soaked land of cork and olive trees, rolling hills, blinding white hill towns, and clear skies that turn almost white in the afternoon heat. The pace of life is slow, very slow. I emerge from the relative cool of our room—kept dark with heavy brown wood shutters—into a blast furnace. In the shade, the heat is tolerable—an all-enveloping warmth that dries my skin and feels like a snuggly wool blanket on a winter’s night. Then I step into the sun and the very hair on my arms crackles and singes. Sometimes a breeze cools sweat and makes the heat friendly. At other times, the breeze stops and the heat in the stillness is a reminder of the intense power of the southern sun.

Monte da Fornalha is located right smack in the middle of the countryside down a sunny dirt lane near the town of Barba and about 10 k from Estremoz where Gregg’s exhibition is. Orlanda, the owner, is from Madiera and lived for about 20 years in Toronto. She bought the property in the nineties and has transformed an ancient building designed to hold farm workers into an oasis of luxury and calm. She has sculpted a garden of clipped green hedges, massive cactuses, trees with bright green leaves that rustle in the wind, olive trees with silvery, shimmery leaves, and masses of petunias and roses spilling from pots and overflowing beds. There is even an orange tree. All around the base lie fallen oranges, many squashed and oozing.

A constant chattering of small birds enlivens the trees surrounding the blue-tiled pool. And then the heat seems to get to them too and the chattering stops. A few brave ones dive bomb the water, snapping up bugs and soaring back into the trees. The sound of water trickling into a nearby fountain, a rustle of leaves, and silence. We are the last people on earth here in the heat.

Freeze squeezed orange juice kept cool in the fridge since breakfast this morning goes down just right when cut with a bottle of fizzy water. Today we have done virtually nothing. The only activity was an appointment this morning with a local osteopath to tend to my very sore back. I’m not sure that my back is that much better but it is certainly not worse which is something to be grateful for. Yesterday I was barely able to walk. Standing up was a new experience in pain and getting out of the car was torture. The doctor fortunately spoke some French so at least we could kind of communicate. I was able to follow his directions to get twisted into a pretzel and then jerked—hard! I heard a lot of things pop. I’m not sure if all the pops were good ones but it wasn’t like I could ask what he was doing! He was certainly strong and I think at one point he was complimenting me on the tone in my upper back muscles! Well, I can hope.

The acutely painful squeezing has abated, replaced now with a low ache that lets me walk slowly and carefully. Fortunately, in this heat, I have no wish to walk any other way but slowly and carefully.

Since Sunday, we are the only guests at Orlanda’s beautiful place. She is a wonderful host – offering cups of coffee, the use of her fridge for our food, and making the appointment with the osteo guy. This afternoon I helped her a bit with the computer to get her place onto – one of my travel go-to places (along with Trip Advisor). This place deserves to be much better known.

A few hours after writing the above, I’ve had two more swims and am now settling down with my pre-dinner glass of Alentejo red wine (6 euros for a good bottle!) and a spot of computer work. I’m in one of the lovely lounge areas on the property –open on one side to the garden and roofed over with ancient beams and a rush ceiling. All is white washed plaster and stone lintels with comfortable wicker furniture, big fat pots and plenty of white gauzy draperies stirring in the slight wind. From where I sit I can see a 1000 year old cork tree. Just the trunk and two enormous sawn off branches remain but the old thing is still alive encircled by a low dry stone wall. From here back to our room are stone walkways inlaid with swirled designs of pebbles that feel smooth on bare feet. Lavender scents the air and in the distance I hear the moo of one of the big brown cows that graze in the fields just outside the perimeter of the property.

Life in the Alentejo is slow and good. Here is a series of pictures of Monte da Fornalha:

Entrance to Monte da Fornalha
Restored building containing the rooms
Lounge area in the main part of the house
Breezy, shady loggia leading to the rooms
1000 year old cork tree at the entrance to the property
Oranges fermenting in the sun
Amazing cacti

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