It’s hard to imagine a world without noise, how empty life would feel. If we could only see the unending blue of the sky, but not hear the stillness beneath it, could we truly comprehend it?The noises of our environment deepen what would otherwise be only a cursory brush, strengthening it into an encounter.
Take, for example, the sounds of the Alentejo: A vast region covering a third of the country, yet filled with only a comparative handful of people. Big sky country. Cattle country. Horse country.
Find a spot to sit and open your ears. In the distance you’ll hear the atonal ringing of cowbells, huge metal tulips on leather straps, wrapped around the neck of every fifth heifer. Every step and toss of the head bongs the bell, a deep clang fading across the golden pastures. Perhaps interrupted by the whuffle of a horse clearing its nose of dirt or a bug.
But then, higher ringing and jingling, what’s this? The sheep, of course. The Alentejo is also sheep country, and their bells will accompany you always. Visiting the hardware store in the centre of town? You’ll hear sheep nearby. Buying groceries at Continente? Next to the ample carpark, by the Lidl and the tile shop – sheepy bells. Interrupted every few minutes by an affronted bleat. Leaving town for the back roads, visiting a national park or reservoir – don’t worry, they will still be there.
Even from our little terrace in the middle of the cobbled castle, as heavily fortified as you like, the ringing of sheep finds a way in.
Beyond the ovine and bovine, there are the subtler sounds that sit beneath: The soprano buzzing of black flies, steady and patient. Outside or inside, their sounds permeates, and inside they congregate in drunken vortexes in the centre of every room, all day. There’s the baritone buzz as well, of the big black flies who seem too heavy to move, and crash between plants without shame. Outside you will hear them every few minutes, but in the house it’s the event of the day as they bumble within in the late morning, smash into every surface and then somehow thrash their way out again as the air cools outside.
For percussion you can always rely on the dogs to break the hot stillness. The farms and homes we have visited always seem to have sets: small dogs for energetic yapping, big dogs the size of calves to maintain the bass line. The small dogs frantic, willing to strangulate themselves at the ends of their ropes. The big dogs are usually rafeiros Alentejano, or Alentejo sheep dogs (the direct translation of rafeiro is mongrel, but that feels a bit harsh).
Rafeiros live with their flock and if they suspect a threat, their woofs will boom through the air with depth and ferocity. Because they are sweet enough to live with sheep altogether, though, we have yet to encounter a rafeiro who doesn’t immediately wag and preen the moment we stop to say hello. So not the guardiest of guard dogs...
During the day, perhaps because there is more activity, fewer barks – but at night you could map out your neighbours’ farms by bark-ecolocation, as they patrol the perimeter.
In the morn, you’ll notice the birds of course. First, the swallows and sparrows who are endlessly chatty and hopeful. The Alentejo has a surplus of swallows and the summer is when their songs are loudest. Sometimes they trill, but settle mostly for high-pitched chirps.
In town their mud nests are built like reverse drip-castles and hang below eaves, in archways, and in every abandoned house you can find. From the street, looking up, little faces peep back and wonder where their parents have got to. All day, all night, the swallows chirp and the sparrows, who flit about with more curiosity, contribute a quick warble to deepen the timbre of the day.
Morning doves add a sadder refrain to the chipperness of the little brown birds, long intakes of breath that wobble into a haunting who. If their call were a shape, it would be conical and ridged, faded blues and greens and greys, starting wide at the mouth and spiralling in to the tip where it finishes, breathless. These gentle birds coo in the morning and the evening, their songs overlapping like sorrowful hoops of sound.
As for domesticated birds, you may sometimes hear the derisive and somewhat indignant quack of a duck, but mostly you will notice the vocal warm-ups of chickens. Long croaking sighs like a motorbike accelerating, interrupted by the buck buck buck that hens everywhere hum as they search for grubs. There aren’t as many roosters as you might expect, but that doesn’t mean it’s zero – there are plenty of nasal cockerel alerts through the day so you don’t forget who’s in charge.
And then, of course, there are the caged birds: come the summer months, many households hang their bird cage outside, and the parakeets, love birds or budgies chatter away. Captive soloists.
Beyond the animals are the sounds of the land: breezes rustle the thistles and cork trees like distracted barbers. During the day the winds are soft, but every evening they strengthen, steadily washing the vineyards of that day’s dust.
During the winter and spring the grasses are green, so the sound is soft and enveloping. During the summer, the fields and windrows have dried and become like the crunch of onions. Now, the winds threshes, rather than wooshes, rattling seed pods loose. It’s still somehow quieter, though.
When you do hear a vehicle, it’s a toss-up whether it’s a tractor or car, but a certainty it’s a diesel hence the difficulty. The throbbing engine will convince you a lorry has come to deliver some enormous parcel, but in reality it’s a Fiat 500, waiting for a friend, its round eyes all a-flutter. In the vineyards, each between-row needs to be mowed, and in the fields the perimeters must be ploughed for wildfire management.
These tractor jobs are lengthy, but by the time July arrives the rumbles reduce. A short break before August, when it’s time to harvest the grapes and queues of tractors idle away outside the wine cooperatives, delivering the morning’s fruit.
If you’re very attentive, you may hear the tramping of black ants along their neat ant
highways. Collecting dried flowers for the nest doesn’t happen by itself you know –at least 5000 ant-power is needed. First to make the path by clearing away all the pebbles, grasses and sticks, and then to trundle back and forth from the blossoms back to the hill.
On a very quiet day, when the larger farm animals are far off, you can hear the little scrunching noises of these behemoths carrying their dessicated treasures.
And then, if you’re more attentive still, you can hear your breath like the whisper of a conductor’s wand, pulling in the smells of wild sage, lavender and rosemary, tinged with hot marble dust, accented by the musk of sweaty cow and sheep, and finished with dried grass, pine needles and abundant honeysuckle, with a whiff of pungent eucalyptus and jacaranda.
Each breath finds new scents, just like your ears keep finding new sounds, but that is another story. Below all of this, the steady pulsing of your heartbeat, rich and calm, and gloriously uplifted, by the song of the Alentejo.
If you missed it, here is our detailed recounting of our time in Portugal so far:
Part 1 (Arriving in Portugal)
Part 2 (April & May)
Part 3 (Why we moved + June - October)
Gallery 29: Silver Coast in Lockdown, Portugal 2020
To follow our adventures in real-time: Instagram.com/travellingfortea
If you are interested in visiting or moving to the Alentejo (because, who wouldn't be), check out our friends' site VisitEstremoz.com which is full of detailed guides to moving here. :-) Or drop us a line, we love to chat too!
And if you need tea as you trudge through 2021, head to our very own tea shop for some delectable loose leaf (free US shipping no minimums, it's so easy to give it a try!):