As we launch into 2023, it’s time for a quick reflection on 2022, which was an about/face on 2021. So, if 2021 was characterised by lockdowns and restrictions, 2022 saw the "lifting", thank heavens (and science) for vaccines. As the weight of COVID lifted, this past year’s motto became was either Work Hard Play Hard, or perhaps You Can Sleep When You’re Dead. The dam was opened, and all the delayed social and family aspects of life became possible, even as work climbed and approached relentlessness.
A quick incomplete Cliff Notes: we bought that abandoned mansion, we half renovated it (the school closed in 2017, and it had not been lived in for decades), moved into that house, completed a full renovation of our last apartment, spent a total of 5 months seeing family and friends in Portugal, Spain, the USA, Canada and the UK (traveling for the first time since March ‘20 outside Iberia), weathered a bought of COVID ourselves (mid renovation!), and bought another renovation project (!!).
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Last year I summed up our goals for 2022:
“We have high hopes for 2022, including getting fitter with lots of riding and renovating, buying and moving into this old mansion (continuing our sad streak of never-ever living in a finished renovation…), and finally focussing on our Portuguese. We also need to finish the renovation of our current flat and find a lovely tenant. :-) And who knows, maybe a book?? [...] We also hope to see more non-virtual family and friends this year, with more hugs to add to the list (of 4 in a year)!”
Although we didn’t accomplish everything we had initially planned (Portuguese classes are rolled over into being 2023’s top priority, and it would be nice to finish one of the many books we have on the go), we accomplished a lot of other things. For example, we are now exceptional at installing and uninstalling toilets (more on that later).
So here’s a review of what actually happened:
A L ot of Renovating
The Calm Before the Storm
January was a quiet month...too quiet as they say....we knew the storm was coming, but when would it hit? Answer: Valentine’s Day. Our builder happened to see us walking along in Vila Viçosa (a nearby Ducal town), stopped to say hi, and said due to a sudden cancellation he could start with the big dusty works at our apartment immediately, or else it would have to be in two months. BAM! Time to quickly move out for ten days, for copious quantities of dust to be produced.
Stress was hugely reduced by the super kind offer from some good friends to stay in their house in Estremoz while they were away, so we shifted our things up the street and started to settle in...and then the next day Russia invaded Ukraine and we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the brutal news. An on-going tragedy that still feels like it is from the past, a land war in Europe.
In 2021’s Year in Review, I mentioned we were trying to buy an abandoned mansion, a townhouse from a grand old English family that used to have 7500+ acres in the area – and that finally happened. It only took six months and 300 pages of documents (yes, we counted), but at the end of March we became the proud owners of our new big project – and home. That 300 pages was one of the reasons so many people had baulked at it in the past (we have met more than one person who was interested in it but walked away due to the paperwork headache). One of the things everyone said, when we said we were going to move into it was:"but...it's a ruin!?"
At the same time, we received a message from a lovely American couple we had been talking with for several months in preparation for their move to Portugal. In short, their accommodation had been cancelled to house Ukrainian refugees, and although they knew our flat wasn’t yet renovated, was there any way the works could be completed by the summer so they could rent it? The Altentejo is severely limited in rental accomodation so although time was short, we said yes let's do it!
A Quick and Dirty Half Renovation
We launched into transforming not the apartment, but the abandoned mansion into a liveable home so we could quickly move in. This required securing it, installing a boiler, kitchen and bathroom plumbing, connecting the electrics to the grid, repairing various electrical switches and outlets, hammer-drilling open the hearth for the future pellet stove, and moving our belongings over. It also involved solving all the unexpected problems, such as fixing two separate burst mains (So. Much. Water.), treating the building for an active termite infestation, and repeatedly mopping the top floor as the roof leaked like a leaky sieve (32 leaks!).
As part of reconnecting the water, it involved checking or capping 42 separate taps and shutoffs, and closing or repairing the 12 separate toilets (it was a school after it was a private home, hence the number of facilities). Our governanta (a housekeeper of a grand home in Portuguese) was crucial to this process, she had put in weeks of effort deep cleaning to remove years of mould, dust, oils, etc. across two out of three floors, around 400m2. A huuuge amount of work.
At the end of the month, the day after we brought our appliances over and had our first night sleeping (our bedroom set up in the drawing room of course), we headed to Lisbon to meet my parents at the airport – the first time seeing each other since 2019! We were so lucky to have them stay for a whole month, and they were instrumental in the next phase: unpacking our things and helping us set up life in our new, crumbling home. Quite a few things we hadn’t seen since 2016 when we’d packed up our life in Madrid into boxes and never fully unpacked in our last apartment, so it was an adventure down Memory Lane as well as Bubble Wrap Alley.
We still have roof leaks in the double digits, mysterious damp patches, temporary pipes coming through windows, and crumbling walls BUT we get to live in a old-timey historic home, one which we are excited to transform over the years. Fun!
A Visit from COVID
But all highs are only highs because there are lows to counter them: during the last week of their visit, both Vientiene and I came down with COVID and we needed to self-isolate from them – even through my father’s birthday. We couldn’t risk infecting them or delaying their flight home. But not hugging them goodbye was awful.
We both tested positive for the full ten days, and the moment I was negative I headed back to our old home to work on the renovation. I lasted 20 minutes before crumbling onto the floor, and eventually dragging myself back to bed. The next day I managed about 30 minutes before my energy vanished, and the next day Vien joined me, where he also was exhausted within the time it took to get our tools set up. However, as anyone who has renovated before will know, so much of any renovation is research, planning and ordering, so we focused on that – until energy ran out and then we mostly just lay still waiting for some spark of life to return to our exhausted bodies. I can’t imagine what COVID is like without all the jabs and boosters, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
We had a deadline for when the tenants needed to move in, and this was the reason for the urgency. We did not want to delay their move-in date, even with a good COVID reason, if we could help it.
Back to Renovating
We have much to be grateful for though: when Vien’s parents heard how badly we’d been hit and how much renovating remained to be done, first his mum came over for a week to help prepare the walls for painting, and then his father, stepmum and step-brother came over to tile and help install the bathroom and build the kitchen units. So so much work which we are so grateful for – thank you all!!
We also had exceptional luck that our builder who was now working on our leaky mansion roof was able to come help too. His team installed new false ceilings so we could insulate the entire flat, as well as bringing in a new electrician for the re-wiring (as our existing electrician had gone AWOL).
The bulk of the hard, dusty work was in June – when Estremoz hit 46ºC / 115ºF during a rare heatwave. The hottest summer since records began 90 years ago! Our British family deserves extra brownie points, as that is extra-meltingly hot in the UK… As does our wonderful governanta, who offered to do some brutal 12-hour days cleaning cleaning cleaning at the very end, to get us across the line, when our strength was close to zero!
Back to work renovating our previous flat
And now to the happy ending: the apartment was successfully renovated. There was a Phase 2 a few weeks later painting doors and last things like that, but it looks fantastic and our new tenants moved in on time. As we walked into the kitchen-living room with them on day 1 "it's like a show home!" was very nice to hear indeed.
We were done. We then collapsed into the nearest lake for a cooling swim. During the last few weeks of the reno I managed to dislocate my shoulder (and then re-dislocate it) and Vien’s right hand wasn’t opening properly which was a bit scary, so we were in desperate need for a rest. Painting, drilling, mortaring, and carrying without cease resulted in Vien having the Trigger Finger where his right hand wouldn’t open unless he used his left hand to unfurl his fingers. There is always a cost, and it is sadly so easy to put health further down the priority list.
We also had a chance to look at ourselves and realised something impressive had happened: we were ripped! Serious muscles and toning. Which quickly vanished as we stopped working and started hosting friends and family in our new home, with all the good eating that accompanies houseguests!
Summer in the Alentejo
The hot golden days of August in the Alto Alentejo are as close to heaven on Earth as I can imagine: fresh early mornings grow into a baking heat by 10:30, and the wise thing to do is head to a barragem (reservoir), this time with family, or river beach to swim and sit in the shade. The sky is so big, and so blue, and cork trees so deeply green against the dry pastures, and the sheep bells ringing such perfectly rounded peals through the dry air. It almost makes me feel permeable, like I’m absorbing the scents of roasting sage and lavender, filling to the brim with sun and sky and light breeze. Then the sunset comes with a freshening breeze, the stars burst into view, and everyone who was dozing inside heads outside to chat, shop, eat, and stroll.
We partially indulged in these summer rhythms, just a few days of rest, but then needed to re-focus on “the Mansion”: we had family coming, and soon! Vien's Mum, both sisters and one sister's partner. So we set to work on some new rooms that had just filled with random furniture we had been given or found (there are perks to living in an antiques town).
The old place is so ridiculous(ly big) that for family coming we added two guest bedrooms, a second bathroom and shower, a new WC, and a dining room...and generally preparing for lots of guests to come. I also managed to sprain my ankle in the midst of this Rest Period (jumping into a pool friend’s pool and landing wonkily) and our hands were still recovering from the big renovation, so our work was slow…!
Our wonderful builder and his team continued work on our roof throughout, sometimes arriving at 5am to get a few hours of work in before the clay tiles transformed into a clay oven. The summer was blissfully dry (problematically for Portugal, but good for our house given we had no roof at all in some parts) and their work wrapped up in September, just in time for the autumn rains.
A Few Months Back On the Road
From September to now, our itinerary continued to be manic, but this time with family and friends and loads of little jaunts here and there. Far, far too many to detail! Here’s a very brief run-down:
Cocktails in Cascais with new friends, a seaside weekend away in a town west of Lisbon
A weekend in Ourique with Swedish friends, building an country homestead
Two weeks in Spain, visiting several old friends - fluffy cats, cute kids and a great tea shop. We lived in Madrid from 2014-2016, so wonderful to revisit
Four weeks in the Good Ol’ US of A, from Mississippi to northern Vermont, with Delaware and Boston in-between. A big happy family and friend catch-up, the first time on US soil since 2019 – we were lucky enough to see my parents, sisters, niece, nephews and many old friends. And most importantly, seeing my parents’ stunning new home, after a house fire destroyed the family home a few years ago
A weekend in Canada for our wedding anniversary – Quebec is a stunning city, that we could imagine passing a few months to learn French
Back to Portugal for more building works, this time prepping for winter, and hosting Australian family and German-Austrian friends in front of our toasty new stove
A birthday weekend in Marvão, a precipitous castle town with roast chestnuts galore
Then at last the UK for six weeks of property maintenance and Christmasy and New Year-y family festivities and the anticipated copious quantity of tea. Thank you to Vien’s dad for all his help with property stuff especially!
These bullets absolutely and drastically under-sell the joy of seeing over 46 different friends and family during the last four months, including a wonderful family Christmas and New Year just days ago. Apologies to everyone who barely gets a mention!
I originally wrote it all out, and put Vien to sleep as he was trying to edit four pages of travel itinerary into an entertaining blog post. So be grateful for the Readers Digest summary above!! A big thank you to everyone for all the wonderful meals, stories and catch-ups, and for hosting us all over the place!
What’s on the cards for 2023?
First off, a change of motto: perhaps Slow and Steady Wins the Race? Or maybe just SLOW DOWN? It will be another property year, as we have multiple tenants changing, our townhouse home to progress, and this new ruin to work on (bought November - we have an addiction please help us). But it will also be a year, we truly hope, to refocus on health, horses and our tea shop, as all three have taken a back-seat in 2022, dropping down the priority list (and this blog of course). And solidifying our Portuguese is a Non-Negotiable Must.
The tea shop has been ticking over, but we haven't blogged in months even though that is the real traffic source. We are getting between 5000 and 6000 visitors a month so we're still happy, and plan to continue blogging and a big name change to focus on our teashop being carbon positive (a net reduction in carbon in the atmosphere when you buy our tea). https://MatchaAlternatives.com/
One running theme through 2022 was also dozens of people contacting us for help and advice about moving to Portugal and finding property. So perhaps this coming year will see us formalise this, maybe a small consultancy where we continue to happily chat to help people think and learn about property, the Altenejo and Portugal but charging for property visits and in-depth analysis. We love meeting people who are moving or have moved, and we love talking property and visiting places. Get in touch if you'd like to chat! All very nebulous right now, but a possibility.
So let’s see what happens! Here’s to a wonderful 2023 to all you wonderful people, and who knows – maybe our paths will cross in Portugal!
And with that…
Happy 2023 from Travelling for Tea!
Elizabeth & Vientiene
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If you missed our past Year in Review pieces and want to go down memory lane:
2019's Year in Review & 2020's Big Plans
And to follow our adventures in real-time: Instagram.com/travellingfortea
Although we sadly dropped this blog for the year (and you now understand why), we continually posted on Instagram!
And for all your tea needs, look no further than us!
Looseleaf tea: Climate friendly and ethically sourced