I’m sitting here in front of our new pellet stove, sun streaming past the new thermal windows and a clear blue sky providing the backdrop to white buildings and red tiled roofs. It’s the end of December, and time to reflect on the year gone by.
Unlike 2020, this year has been one of acceptance and adjustment to the new normal, not just for us but across the world: travel is possible but hard, vaccines are here (hurrah!) but limited (sigh), new COVID variants will arrive every few months, and masks and restrictions are a rolling requirement. Plans are something to make within a month, and shipping anything to or from the UK is a non-starter thanks to Brexit’s fallout. New rules, new considerations, new opportunities and new challenges.
Last year I summed up our goals for 2021:
“This coming year promises to be a busy one, with goals including renovating and renting both flats here in Estremoz, finding a farm to buy, making our tea shop carbon positive (the first ever from what we can tell), leasing or buying horses, and if we’re really productive publishing at least one book (we have a fiction one half done, and a non-fiction tea book partially complete). My most ambitious hope is that 2021 will allow us to hug someone - but now I’m really getting ahead of myself.”
So here’s a review of what actually happened:
Renovating & Renting
At the very start of January last year, serendipity brought someone to us who wanted to rent one of our flats, and wanted to sign even before it was renovated. So the three of us took a leap of faith together and began the most intense renovation we’ve ever done. We were starting with a shell: concrete floors, no kitchen, ancient wiring, rotten windows, burst pipes. Our electrician who we had already booked in January disappeared, and we began a scramble to get a new sparky in – it took three weeks to get someone to come quote, but when he came he also brought an entire building crew (a service we had also been looking for!).
Within 48 hours we had 10 guys on the job, and within two months we had gone from a dark, freezing box to a warm, furnished, liveable home. It was a hard slog, as last spring was when the shipping container crisis was ramping up, and we found that in the time it took us to add something to the cart online to getting to checkout, half of what we were ordering was out of stock and we had to start again.
Portugal also went into a full lockdown from January to April, meaning we couldn’t drive to the large, half-empty DIY stores in Evora or Elvas for supplies, such as lumber or light fittings. We also went into it not speaking that much Portuguese, but given our crew for the most part didn’t speak a word of English, our ‘builders’ Portuguese had to rapidly improve.
We learned a lot, including…
The difference between ‘fodas’ and ‘porra’: two different ways to say the F-word, the first being common in Lisbon, but not common here, and the second being very Alentejano and common, but would be exceptionally strong if used in Lisbon. We also learned that Vien was allowed to say ‘Porra!’ but not me, because it’s just not right for a woman to swear like that! I’ve never seen five grown men look so uncomfortable as when there was a problem with the new plumbing and I light-heartedly swore in front of them: five bright red faces and a rapid desire to leave the room with the crazy foreign lady in it...
The correct way to have lunch on a building site: set up old doors as tables, build seats out of bricks and cinder blocks, layout the roast chicken, bread, oil, crisps, and red box wine, plug-in the Keurig coffee maker, and tuck in. At the end of lunch, have your coffee, and then on a Saturday break out the aguardente (a white Portuguese brandy). They carefully explained to us the necessity: One shot for one leg, one shot for the other, and then you’ll be balanced to use the hammer drill after lunch. Note: we each had two shots, and slept the entire afternoon afterwards, bloody hell it’s strong stuff.
Don’t paint your front door a new colour: the carpenter couldn’t find us again, because the green door had vanished! I ended up needing to meet him at his car and walk him to the site, where he did a cartoon-esque double-take.
In our builders’ Portuguese, if you want to say something is going to look good once it’s done, you say, “Fica nice!” or “Fica beautiful!” (It will be nice/beautiful) :-P
In the last few weeks, once the builders had gone and it was up to us to paint, floor, clean and decorate, three friends came to help us out, and it was one of those rare experiences: getting to work with friends, all pulling hard towards the same goal, sweating and swearing together, having well-earned tea and lunch breaks on the terrace. Although we were knackered, I also didn’t want it to end: working in the fresh spring air, feeling April develop, seeing a beautiful place grow around us with every brush stroke.
To give you an idea, here are some before-and-after photos (the best part of every reno, I’m sure you’ll agree!):
Click to enlarge
Finding a Farm + Our New Plan
Our leap of faith paid off, and our new tenant arrived and began to settle in, as we began to refocus on the rest of life. While renovating and during the winter lockdown, we of course had had to put the farm hunt on the back-burner. There was one property we had fallen in love with, but after far too many emails, calls and meetings we learned it wasn’t mortgageable and so had to withdraw our offer. Disappointing, but educational!
We eventually viewed the perfect place: within view of Estremoz, multiple buildings, enough land for horses, private enough, at a price we could all agree on, but...the barn and house were still in the process of being legalised. Expected to be approved by June or July at the latest. So we stopped hunting, this was The One. Worth the wait.
But as the months ticked by, and the legalisation was delayed to after August holidays, and then needed to go to the Forest Fire Commission, and then required new concrete pads to be poured, and then, and then...we came to a decision: time to change our minds and our plans. Ultimately, the goal is horses. Waiting on this farm, and knowing how long it would take to get horses given the unknown costs of taking on a 5 hectare multi-building place that needed renovations, we decided to instead start riding at a local stable, and look at other options in town.
Which is how we ended up finding our new big project: The Mansion.
It’s an abandoned 700 square metre ( 7500 square feet) Casa Senhorial in the centre of Estremoz, and for the last fifteen years it was a school. It was built by a British port family 200 years ago, so has a beautiful mix of English and Portuguese architecture, and has been empty for the last four years. We will breathe new life into its old classic bones, and aim to split it into several apartments, and we currently have about 1000 ideas for how to split it up, plus create a home for ourselves.
We have paid the deposit, but haven’t completed the purchase yet at time of writing, fingers crossed the sale all goes through smoothly. And once we move into that, we can finish the renovation of our current flat…
Yes, we are still living in a semi-renovated flat, because we’ve done (almost) all the things we can do before hammer drilling and major dust are required. New windows, new pellet stove, repaired roofs, repaired patio, new curtains, repaired shutters. Now it needs some walls knocked out, new wiring, a new kitchen, and a new bathroom. And then a fresh coat of paint all over. Feels easy compared to last year…!
(And yes – as of December, the farm we fell in love with in May still hasn’t completed its legalisation procedure and at this point a sale would happen next summer, so we have definitely made the right decision)
This new mansion project will be our focus for at least the next few years, so the Farm Dream will simmer on the backburner a little longer. One real solution is we’ll be so happy in our own apartment that we may not need an entire farmstead, but instead a smaller countryside idyll close by perhaps. It still needs to have at least one orange tree though.
The Tea Shop
Meanwhile, we have continued working on our tea shop, and although this year had some ups and downs on balance it was a good year: a joy to see regular customers develop, we started supplying restaurants, and in November 2021 we became a fully carbon positive tea shop.
This means that we actively offset more carbon emissions than we create, so that shopping with us is a better environmental choice than not. We both dusted off our environmental and economics degrees and went full climate science on the project, and enjoyed getting into the numbers - read all about it here. We think we are the world’s first carbon positive tea shop (as in, not just carbon neutral), but it feels too arrogant to officially claim that!
In the coming year, we are hoping to change the brand of the entire business to better reflect our climate positive approach, as well as investigating how to go plastic and water positive. We don’t want to make the world worse by selling tea, basically.
We also started to offer ethically sourced black teas, and have more to list in the coming year. Plus another gazillion smaller tasks to do in 2022 as always!
Exploring Portugal & Spain
On the exploration front, we spent the summer exploring parts of the Alqueva, Europe’s largest man-made lake that is about an hour south of us. We visited the tiny, spectacular mountaintop village of Monsaraz with the best defensive positioning any general could design, and experienced the UNESCO Dark Sky Alqueva with new friends. What does this mean?! Well, because this region is so sparsely populated, is rarely cloudy and has such an expansive lake, the stargazing here is some of the best in the world. It's the first starlight tourism destination in the world - pretty cool.
Once we got our double-dose of vaccines in August, we felt a bit freer to explore, and visited friends in Spain for the first time, having an actual “week at the beach” in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Quickly followed up by visiting the mountains of Andalucia, where the almond harvest was in full swing.
August in Spain and Portugal is filled with figs, almonds and plums, plus an abundance of tomatoes and red bell peppers. So at home we dove into the world of canning and preserving, as our neighbours kept dropping off more and more and more plums (over 50kg/110lbs in total!).
For our anniversary in October we took a quick jaunt down to the Algarve on the southern coast of Portugal, our first time visiting this tourist heaven. The coastline was as beautiful as the hype, with golden cliffs and turquoise water, and hundreds of coastal caves. The touristic development was also as extreme as we’d been told, with dozens of restaurants ready to meet the tastebud requirements of Brits and Germans on holiday: curry houses, Chinese buffets and pizza parlours, alternating with steak houses and a few Algarve seafood joints. Suddenly, our Portuguese was better than the restaurant staff, who half the time asked us to switch to English!
It felt like a trip to an international unnamed country, which was enjoyable for what it was (especially without needing to take a plane to get there). We know that further inland the Portuguese Algarve exists and flourishes, and we saw glimpses as we drove around and explored.
So with the change to our property plans, and continuously full plates, we didn’t in the end buy or lease any horses this year. HOWEVER, that is not to say we didn’t add horses to our lives!
First, competitions were finally allowed to have public spectators again, so we immediately began some weekend expeditions for our favourite hobby: watching spotless horses prance around in precise circles. Or jump over bright obstacles. From a schooling show in Elvas to a top-level 2-day dressage event outside Lisbon, and then the showjumping event of the year: the Vilamoura Champions Tour.
The Champions Tour is a multi-week showjumping competition with over 800 (EIGHT HUNDRED!) horses stabled on site. Just the jump storage area was an experience, not to mention the multiple rings and courses. We saw some of the biggest, most beautiful horses - and riders. We also chatted with a German vendor selling riding arena drainage solutions, and he said they were quite affordable, only 40,000€ for a small schooling arena…
But then when we thought we had seen the best of the best, we were proven wrong. One word: Golegã. It may be difficult to pronounce, but it is simple to understand, as it is THE horse festival in Portugal. We’ve never experienced anything like it in all our years of horses events in many countries. Held at the start of November, it’s a week-long celebration of the horse and the chestnut. You read that right. One problem: roasting chestnuts creates a large amount of smoke. And five million years of evolution have taught horses that smoke means FIRE RUN DEATH AUGGHHHH.
So picture this:
2000+ horses in a small town with narrow cobbled streets
Tens of thousands of pedestrians (a mix of horse lovers and tourists)
No separation between humans and hooves
Tremendous amounts of alcohol available at ride-up bars
Strobe lights and stereo systems at max volume
Arenas and concourses where everyone comes to ride and present their horse, all day and night, mixing ponies, mules, carriages, mares and stallions
In short, absolute madness and a testament to the Lusitano horse: we had heard they are a very calm breed, and given we didn’t see any injuries or major incidents it is mind-boggling. Truly the best horses on the planet!
(We imagined the impossibility of writing a risk assessment for the event - the paper would probably spontaneously combust)
Golegã: A horse walks up to a bar... (Click to enlarge)
Back in Estremoz, we have started riding as well, not only spectating. There is a little local stable that has warmly welcomed us, and we are now getting our muscles back. Very nice to be back in the saddle!
Finally, as to our other original goals for 2021, we didn’t finish writing a book but instead started planning a THIRD book. We’re very good at starting new stories…!
And the hug, did it happen? YES: we hugged 4 people this year. Vien’s father and stepmum came to visit us, and we were so happy to share our new home with actual family actually with us, not virtually via a Zoom tour. Great success!
What’s 2022 look like?
We have high hopes for 2022, including getting fitter with lots of riding and renovating, buying and moving into this mansion (continuing our sad streak of never-ever living in a finished renovation…), and finally focusing on our Portuguese. We speak enough Portunhol (Portuguese + Español) to get by, but we really need to improve and start formal classes. We of course also need to finish the renovation of our current flat and find a lovely tenant. :-) And who knows, maybe a book??
With luck this coming year will also see more gains against covid, and we are grateful that so far we’ve not caught it, and that our current projects are still possible in a pandemic. We also hope to see more non-virtual family and friends this year, with more hugs to add to the list!
With that, it’s time to open some espumante and bring 2021 to a close. Thank you as always for being such loyal readers and happy New 2022! May the coming year bring everything you desire and everything you need, and of course – stay healthy, stay happy, and stay safe.
And with that…
Happy 2022 from Travelling for Tea!
Elizabeth & Vientiene
If you missed our past Year in Review pieces and want to go down memory lane:
And to follow our adventures in real-time: Instagram.com/travellingfortea