Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Temporary Home Portugal

So here we are, and it has already been over a week. Time flies when you're on the edge of nowhere, watching the weather coming across the distant ridges. We have managed to land at another fantastic viewpoint, high up on a ridge top, looking south west. Our view is of the valley and a small settlement where we pay our water bill, and then some other ridges rising up behind it - all dotted with tall, slim pine trees. The first few days we were here the weather was hot and dry. When the owner of the home said it will get damp and cold we found ourselves doubting that that was true. But she should know, she's lived in this house for three years, and lived in Portugal for seven.

And sure enough, a big stormy wind started to blow a few days ago. First there were a couple of clouds rushing by, then billowing columns that moved across from the west to the east. And when they pass overhead, these clouds drop a fair amount of rain. It must be fall. We've been lighting the wood stove, staying cozy in our new little home.

Every day the farmer next door moves his sheep, sometimes along the road that goes right behind the house, sometimes down below on what must be some of his "grazing" land - although what they graze on is a mystery. We wave to the farmer as often as possible. One day Joshua is hoping to ask if he can help out. They are definitely milk sheep. But our Portuguese will have to improve considerably. A simple conversation with a cashier in town was a blurry jumble to us both.

So, some photos. They do not do the view justice. I cannot capture the depth of the ridges and valleys. Usually the light is too bright in the sky and the camera either bleaches out the clouds and bright blue or it loses all the land in shadow. Oh well.

part of the view

Joshua's workstation (the furniture on the terrace is in high wind formation)

sunrise, which happens after 8am due to the high ridge to the east

another attempt at capturing the view

sunset on a particularly cloud magical day

One wall of the house, the side facing the view, is glass; giant floor to ceiling sliding doors open onto a terrace. The side of the house that faces the street also faces a small pine wood where we've been walking. It feels open and empty and dry compared to the lush, wet, bright green forests we've been in lately.

We walk into town for groceries, about 2kms one way. The cheeses have been amazing, young and aged sheep cheeses that each have their own character.

Queijo fresco, which is somewhere between queso fresco (which we miss) and cottage cheese, is delightful. The stores all have beans in bulk and sell fresh cilantro, which is something we have also missed. We will be able to make proper salsa, beans, and rice. Can you tell we miss Mexican food? Tortillas are the only thing missing. And while there are so many different versions of what seem to be white rice, that is the only grain sold. No quinoa or bulgur here.

Town is north and east of where we are, and we've tried a couple of routes. Pedestrian infrastructure is sadly non-existent. And we've only seen a couple of people on bikes. We had planned to buy a couple of used bikes to use while we are here, but the routes to town aren't that friendly (and very hilly) and so far we're enjoying the walking. Our commitment here is almost exactly three months, so we have some time to learn more. There are taxis for the rainy days when we need to get anywhere, so even though we're a 30 minute walk from town, walking will be our primary mode of transportation.

Where are our bicycles? In Zurich, where they will stay until we go back. The riding will begin again next summer and plans are already forming... we didn't get quite enough touring in this past summer. Gotta buckle down and work hard this winter so we can make up for it next year.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Our Way Out of Europe and back

We took the train from Limoges, France to Poitiers, and there we finally tried Grimbergen, a beer we'd been curious about while we were in Belgium this summer. Brewing since 1128? Yes, that is a year. And it's the monks who have been brewing it that long, no doubt.

In Poitiers we caught the night train on it's way from Paris to Madrid. We got on fairly late at night, so we were shown our cabin and promptly went to sleep in our beds. The night trains to and from Spain are the Spanish Trenhotels and they are known as the nicest trains in Europe. We didn't have dinner in the dining car, as it was quite late, and we didn't even go to the bar. But we did have breakfast looking out the huge windows at the Spanish landscape. We had clearly traveled south - trees are a darker and somehow paler green, pines and cypress and ceders that can handle long days in the sun. The rocky, somewhat mountainous landscape was definitely a change from the wet and green of western France.

We arrived a little before 10am in Madrid and went straight to the Metro. The stations seemed entirely too huge, cavernous and empty - and very, very new. We stayed with a fantastic couple through the website Airbnb.com. We highly recommend using this site, and if you do, let them know that we recommended it to you - I think we get credit although we haven't figured out how yet. Air BnB is a site where you can browse listings by locals who have a couch, spare room, or whole apartment or house that they are willing to rent out, usually at much better prices than you'd pay for a hotel room. We used this in Venice also, and stayed with a really nice couple. In both places we were treated very well, allowed to show up when it was convenient for us, and given the local insight on where to go and what to see. Highly recommended.

We spent most of the day wandering around Madrid. Joshua got a shave and haircut and we bought a few things for our flight the next morning to Boston. Madrid is a fantastic city, and we are hoping we'll spend some more time in Spain in the near future. We had the obligatory sangria and tapas, and later found the most delicious restaurant where we ate dinner alone (the Spanish don't eat until at least 10pm and we hoped to be in bed by then). So if you ever find yourself in Madrid, go to Gabriel. You will not regret it - both meaty local specialties as well as delicious vegetarian options are always on the menu.

For a couple of weeks we traveled New England to visit with family and friends. First to celebrate my (Ramona's) cousin Lucy's bat mitzvah, and see some friends down in Quincy, and then to see Joshua's family in Maine and friends in Vermont and even upstate New York. We spent some time on the farm where Joshua was a shepherd and farm manager for a number of years. We got a ton of family time in with both families at large, fun gatherings and then spent some time catching up with old friends.

Thanks Bly, Judy, Christopher, and Benjamin! Thanks Sarah, Dave, Owen, and Anya! Thanks David, Yesenia, Austin, and Lana! Thanks Judy and Ike Moody! Thanks Jana, Zak, Django, and Desmond! And thanks Lucy for bat mizvah'ing, and all the Abrams and Marks family members we got to see in Boston! Lots and lots of love to every one of you.

And then suddenly we were in a rooftop room (another Airbnb find) in Lisbon, Portugal, on our way to the next house sit.

And now... more France!

We've only been on bicycles a few of times in the last couple of months. Sorry for the gap in posts. We have been doing a lot of moving about, however, and there is much to tell.

First, the really fun bike ride we went on after leaving Paris was in Basel, Switzerland, and it was a repeat of something we enjoyed last year: ride to swim in the Rhine. It is still thrilling to us both that in this city they have managed to clean the water enough to swim in it, and that people jump in whenever the weather is warm.

lock up the bikes

jump in the water!

Being the second year in a row, we are now calling it an annual tradition. Basel is where we were blown away by bicycle merging onto the freeway offramp to get into the city. It's also where the bicycle parking for the football (soccer) stadium is almost as impressive as the stadium itself. And there's a dinosaur in the park. We are lucky to have friends in Basel and look forward to going back again.

But because this post is about France, let's move on. Basel was a stop on the way to a small farm in rural western France. Somewhere between Limoges and Bordeaux are rolling hills, green and grassy or green and tree covered, and a house sitting gig awaited us.

The place is beautiful. The "town", or cluster of crumbling stone buildings, is almost impossible to find on a map. 

The services are limited to a van that comes up and sells bread to the elderly local population. We were about 10km from the nearest village where we could do any shopping and we had left our bikes in Switzerland. Fortunately, the kind owners took us for a comprehensive shop before they left - all the things that last like grains and beans and things, plus a fairly good stock of milk, cheese, and citrus fruits. The rest we'd have to get from the garden and the chickens.

That's right, a real farm. Ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese all quacking and chirping about, laying eggs every day. Twelve sheep, of a rare breed, who didn't seem to want to stay in their field. A couple of sweet black labs, one young who could have gone for miles and miles of walks all day every day and the other on his last legs. And a couple of cats, one who disappeared within the first couple of days and didn't reappear until the owners returned and the other who brought dormice into the house, sometimes dead, sometimes not so dead.

What a fun place to house sit. Letting the animals out in the mornings, collecting eggs, feeding, watering, walks in the woods, mushroom hunting, sheep chasing and jailing, harvesting vegetables to eat and to dry, and Joshua even used tractors. 

Also a nice amount of time to do some online work and plenty of lovely spots to sit and do just that.

Alfie (short for Gandalf) in the grass, Joshua at the table, 
Pippen in the foreground wondering why I haven't given him a treat yet

definitely a lucky place to be

what is this guy looking for?


We had a really lovely time. Joshua got to do all the sheepy things he hasn't done in a long time. Like put them in sheep jail when they escape, trim their hooves, and even some dagging or crutching. What is that? Well, you tell a sheep to sit on it's hip and then you trim the wool from around their nether-parts. No kidding.

I believe this ram is named Dell. Huge.

that's right, girl, you're next!

they kind of hate it

Joshua knows a bunch of moves to keep 'em from getting up
and yes, he is barefoot

the littlest guy, Norman, didn't try anything - what could he do?

and finally a rare photo of the owners, Peter and Mandy

We had a really nice time taking care of this farm. We managed to get the sheep in a field where they didn't escape, at least for a week or so. And none of the birds were eaten by pine martens. Peter and Mandy were kind enough to let us stick around until our planned trip back to the US for family events, so we did what we could to help them get things harvested, built, and the sheep happy and healthy. We really do hope to go back one day.