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“Fasten Your Seatbelts Folks!” … A Visit to the Quinta

Once a hamlet, the Quinta (farm) ‘Mizarela’ blends easily into the valley landscape. The Schist houses, which take their name from the local brown and grey slate, appear to be carved from the hillside. Now abandoned, they wait, patient and awake, for their new caretakers to take residence.

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The intricate walls, terraces and myriad styles, shapes and sizes of their steps, stairs, bridges, pathways and waterways speak of a subtle intelligence which calls to us, and of a mystery at which we can only wonder. On the day that we needed water to plant trees, the dry stream started to flow. On the day that all our efforts to get water to flow into the irrigation channel failed, the pipes ‘accidentally’ fell into the perfect position for the water to flow easily through them.

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We found an ancient and substantial stairway while clearing a huge thicket of brambles, its purpose and destination are still unknown. On the several days that we had no idea what to do or where, when or how to do it, the land appeared to have its own agenda; gently and tangibly coaxing us and teaching us to leave our limiting will power behind, and to release the full potential of our imagination; to plant trees, clear stairways, create new paths, prepare terraces for planting and use the traditional and specialised tools which are sold in the local markets.

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The land guided us, energised us, and the cool, clear water urged us forward to open up the irrigation channel to the fertile terraces which, once again, will provide abundance. In the evening of a good days work we had more energy than when we began. After planting trees, opening water channels that have not flowed for 50 years or simply taking in the breathtaking presence and vibrant tranquillity, it was often difficult to leave the harmony of the soft evening light, the silvery green of the olives against the vivid greens of the vegetation and the deep blue of the sky; and in between the striking tones of orange, brown, purple and black; the light playing in the scintillating energy that is the quinta.

Our days have the loose structure that eating, sleeping, cleaning, keeping warm, chopping wood and carrying water (literally), provides for those who live off the land. We generally live without the luxuries of power and light, as they must have lived in the quintas for decades, if not hundreds of years, which provides its own challenge, satisfaction and fulfilment. It provides the basis for a life that is full, unpredictable, fiercely creative and participatory. These are the elements that we need to work on the land, and to reclaim it, while discerning, with eyes, hands and heart, its own natural flow.

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The villagers of Benfeita and Pardieiros have accepted Pete and Cynthia as their own, and in some cases as the next best thing to family. As friends of theirs, Ian and I were greeted with a warmth and welcome that is rare. After only a few days in Benfeita I was greeted by name and was able to return the greeting. They have a delightful innocence and enjoyment of life, of giving and including, and very quickly I felt completely relaxed and ‘at home’ in this small village, in this remote region of Portugal.

The one immovable feast of the week is market day. We all put on our best togs for going to town, which is a useful euphemism for looking like we have just left the farm; and head out to Arganil, a town about 45 minutes drive away. Many of the people at the market know Pete and Cynthia, which is a smart thing to do if you are a market person in a small town in Portugal, but again there is genuine warmth and good humour and laughter, and I love going to the market. My ‘cinquenta palabras’ (fifty words) of Spanish went a long way, and along with my Greek phrasebook of hand and eyebrow gestures, and the several words of Portuguese that Pete and Cynthia taught us, I felt that I could communicate with confidence.

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My favourite tent in the market is the hardware stall. There are many tools that we do not recognise, and many more which, in most other European countries, would be in a museum of Anthropology/Ethnology. They all have specific uses and are technologically advanced in their efficient design; they are a thrilling discovery in circumstances in which a modern tool would simply not be useful. There are many things in the market which were available in my youth, just a few years ago, but have since disappeared from high street stores, and only reappear in up-market car boot sales and the collectors’ pages of Ebay. My next purchase will be a set of eight goat bells from egg cup size for the kids, to tea cup size for billies and nannies, all hand crafted and ringing true.

After the market, and a few mundane tasks like keeping Pete out of jail; we have a relaxed lunch at the preferred snack bar – O Telheiro, often meeting new people and discussing the day’s events; the ‘ementa do dia’ costs the princely sum of 6 euros for a three course lunch with vegetarian options, wine, bottled water and coffee. Elsewhere three teas, one coffee and a delicious piece of home made cake, big enough for four, costs 2.60 euros. The last task of the day is to pick up and drop off the laundry, which is a little confusing; sometimes we drop it off and don’t pick it up and sometimes vice versa. Like Tom (James Fleet) in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ I was never quite in and never quite out of the picture. I’m also not sure if there is a word in Portuguese for ‘dry’, or at least one that can be used in the same sentence as laundry. In English we actually include ‘dry’ in the word laundry, so that one really does get the picture. Fortunately we have all visited India.

There is a richness and charm in Arganil and throughout the day we speak to 25 or 30 people. Although it takes more time, it is more connected than the supermarket or banking online; we are an essential part of the market pageant, and happy to give and take in this natural and healthy exchange. We are, in many ways, renewed by the experience.

The loose structure of our days and the vagaries of the weather also allow time for sightseeing. The land adjoining the quinta has one of the top ten areas of natural beauty in Portugal, the Fraga de Pena; a spectacular series of cascading water falls. Needless to say we were a little hesitant when diverting its source, and thankful that mother nature herself channelled our enthusiasm.

The village of Piodao, a World Heritage site, is a complete schist village, carefully restored, but blessedly unaware of mass tourism at this time of the year.

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We could handle and examine all the exhibits in the museum; and the proprietor of the local unbranded, peach brandy tasting stall, would have happily entertained us all afternoon, which we couldn’t necessarily handle; we did, however, buy hand knitted woollen sweaters from his very kind and helpful wife, who was very adept at handling visitors, and who spoke perfect English after establishing our intent.

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Her father, irresistibly solicitous, and in a strong show of family solidarity, owned the shop down the street, which sold honey, bee pollen, a particularly invigorating and anonymous Aquadiente, and a colourful variety of unusual rural items such as head rings, used by the upstanding and righteous, who presumably didn’t drink the Aquadiente, to balance and carry large heavy items, possibly Aquadiente, for long distances on the top of their heads. And if these seem like long sentences, then you get the idea of how life was in an authentic schist village in the mountains, and some of its more vital ingredients.

It’s a wonderful life at the quinta and there is so much more that I could write about; the vitality of the raw organic vegan diet, the joy of our intimate times together, our discussions around a wood burning stove in the candlelight, listening to Peter Ragnar CDs, the songs and guitar playing of Pete and Ian, and the ‘saudade’ of the Portuguese Fado music; of our discoveries and of every large and small triumph on the land, and the vastness of the stars above the Serra da Estrela (Mountains of the Stars). You step out of time and into the timeless, into an unbroken symphony which gives voice and action to the pure energy of the Quinta Mizarela, and this particularly pristine region of Portugal.

I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to visit this place, and at this time, in these circumstances; in many ways it has changed my life.

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Rich Scanlon

2 Comments

  1. L says:

    very lovely and very lovely to spend time with you.Xx

  2. jay pierce says:

    Hi,

    I love your blog, I am really impressed by what you have manifested in your reality. We are looking to move to central Portugal, we don’t have the money to buy property so we are looking into having some land on a long lease-hold basis, which is proving to be easier said than done.

    Keep up your great progress.

    Blessings

    Jay

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