The road to Redondo has been long. It has been winding. There have been a few cul-de-sacs and many adventures along the way. But here I am in this small town (population approximately 4,000) in the Alentejo region, the hottest area of Portugal and, possibly, the whole of Europe. It is about 50 kilometres from the border with Spain. Deep Alentejo, the locals say.
I have to write this piece quickly because Redondo is, as I type, undergoing something of a miraculous transformation and I need to post this before I become swept up in the general excitement of this transformation and the associated influx of close to a million visitors over the course of a week. This is something that happens every two years, but more on that later.
The good intentions of posting a daily vignette/snapshot from here have evaporated in the heat and in adjusting to life in a small place whilst running parallel careers. From before dawn until lunchtime I work on a start-up permaculture project that is aiming for Demeter/Biodynamic certification and, when I have recovered from that, I keep my mainly online homeopathic practice going in the afternoons.
Fortunately, I have lived in very small places before and have learned something of small-town etiquette and how to survive, hopefully with a certain amount of grace. At least I know to keep my zips lipped and never to repeat gossip (once I can understand it, of course). I doubt that Redondo will ever be a vortex of intellectual stimulation but it is safe, peaceful, friendly (at least towards this estrangeira) and, I hope, will afford me the distraction-free space to embark on a project of my own before too long. It has already offered up a few unexpected gifts and synchronous encounters.
Some Redondo reflections ….
The day before the permaculture job starts, and desperate to find somewhere to live … early morning in the village square with free wi-fi. Sitting on the marble steps (this is marble country) in the shade under a tree, zillions of swallows whirling about, they are a feature of Portuguese life. Grateful for a breeze. The women who work as cleaners for the council are busy sweeping. The cafes are open, people are going about their day, it is school holidays. Breakfast is included at the hotel, one goes next door to the bakery, apparently, which opens at 7.00 am. The bus was direct from Lisbon yesterday afternoon and we travelled on a lesser road/not highway – had been there before, I realised, last year – so lovely, through flooded fields of green rice-growing, lots of farms, cork oak forests, small villages.
It’s a 45C day and I’m wondering if I am mad or starting to suffer from heat stroke (I am trying to remember the symptoms) or both as I walk back to the village (I want to call it a village but, strictly speaking, it’s a town) at lunchtime from the farm. The heat roars up from the road, burning my calves. This is an easy one kilometre flat walk but today it feels so much longer. I flop down in some shade under a tree, peel off my socks and shoes, release my ponytail from its band and am grateful for the hot breeze through my hair. I am beyond caring about how I look. My lungs hurt. I eat my leftover sandwich (note: cucumber should not be warm), drink all the water I have with me, slip on my flip-flops and then walk the short distance to the nearest fountain. I worry that my Made In China flops will melt onto the road. They don’t. I put my feet into the cool water, imagining it hissing and sizzling as I do so. It doesn’t. I guzzle water at the drinking fountain, getting wet in the process, and walk the short distance to what is now home.
I look like something out of Mad Magazine’s ‘Spy Vs Spy’ when I step out into the blinding heat – shirt collar up, sleeves rolled down, re-gifted suede cowboy hat pulled low, shades clamped to my face. And when I get back from the farm in the above gear I am dripping with sweat and hiding my labourer’s hands. I always hope like hell that I don’t bump into anyone I know, but, at this stage of life in Redondo, it is fortunately not very likely.
I do wonder what on earth the locals are saying about me. I had heard that ‘some Irish’ had come to live here (clearly, a big event in a small town) long before I met them so fortuitously on a hot street corner, and the sweet woman who met me to show me the houses to rent knew I was staying at the hotel and involved in ‘agricultura biologica‘ …
My new friend the sculptor and his beautiful wife (tottering in her ever-so-high cork-heeled wedgies across the cobblestones, dressed in bright blue, looking like an exotic bird) kindly arrange for me to meet the (note the ‘the’) Portuguese teacher. We are under an umbrella at a cafe in the main square. It is blindingly bright. Sadly, I have an instant and powerful aversion to her. She has no books to teach from and I need structure. My books are in storage in Coimbra. I don’t think this will work for me …how not to cause offence to all concerned?
Redondo has a centuries-old history of ceramic production and this is one of the things that drew me here – I have been longing to get my hands back into clay. It has a Museum Of Clay, quite one of the best small museums I have seen anywhere. In the 1940’s there were dozens of potters and their salesmen used to travel around the region with the highly decorated functional ware in baskets slung across the backs of donkeys. Now there are only a handful of ceramicists still working here and they are all elderly men. None of the younger generation are interested in continuing this venerable craft. A lot of the work is too gaudy for my taste but some of the simpler work is very appealing. The sculptor is very keen to start an informal ceramics group. This is an extremely exciting prospect for me. We are looking for a studio space.
The saving grace of Redondo in summer is the pristine Hockney-esque municipal swimming pool. I can deal with the chlorine in exchange for the relief of being in turquoise water (albeit 28/29C on the 40C + days …) and of having shady trees, green lawns, spotless amenities and a cafe. No hope of serious swimming during the school holidays, but even on the hottest days it is not all that crowded.
That’s it for now. I have to go and see what is happening on the hot evening streets. Much hammering and chatting is going on outside the front door.