A journalist and a diplomat walk into the Portuguese countryside, find a great view and decide to give up their jobs and build an eco-lodge. It sounds like some kind of a joke.
We’ve done nothing like it before – I’m not even very good at DIY, let alone have any previous knowledge of how to install off-grid power and water systems.
But despite that, and delays and bureaucracy, COVID and inflation, somehow we now have three buildings with roofs on them where there used to be a eucalyptus plantation, an almost-finished infinity pool and a plan to open in the Spring.
There’s still a long way to go, but we’ve come far enough to start believing we can actually do it.
And every day is very much a school day.
Building anything anywhere is always fraught with problems and we’ve had our ups and downs, from applying to the tourism authority for a loan to having our designs approved by the local câmara municipal and then finding a good builder to do the work.
On one memorable day trip to Porto to do a story on cork for the BBC, my wife Ana spent the drive up telling me how it was never going to happen while I argued we could do it … only for our roles to completely reverse on the way home and for me to insist we should just quit.
We had no final funding approval, planning permission or builder contracted to do the work, but one day a load of steel reinforcing rods turned up on site and we realised it might be happening anyway.
Slowly the pieces all started to fit together and, for a year, we’ve been working on two luxury buildings for accommodation and one with a restaurant and bar for events and wine tastings.
And we’ve learned the subtle art of bothering. It’s a bit like worrying – the thing dogs to when herding sheep – or perhaps a mild stalking of craftsmen.
Things move slowly and we, outsiders, can be a pushy breed. There’s no place for frustration to become anger.
Bothering doesn’t always work; in fact, it sometimes has the opposite effect.
But not bothering also has the opposite effect, so we are constantly striving for the correct level of balanced bothering.
We are clearly not getting that balance right in a couple of key areas, but it seems the town hall now has the paperwork it needed three months ago and hopefully we will imminently receive our plan for the water infrastructure.
But I digress.
“Off-grid” means different things to different people – for us it simply means there’s no connection to mains water, waste treatment or electricity.
Sustainability is something we all strive for, and while it’s easy enough for a small family to get by with a few panels and by drinking filtered rainwater, providing essential services for up to 20 guests is another matter altogether.
We now have solar panels to generate enough electricity to run a small town and racks of lithium battery storage to get us through the night and through the cloudy days.
I’ll admit that, in my excitement of building a three-phase power plant, I forgot the bit about connecting the electricity to all the houses.
All I have to do now is get hold of about 1.4km of various sizes and types of cable and someone to connect it all without blowing our budget completely.
There’s no “selling the surplus to the national grid” as there’s no connection – we run pumps when the sun shines, heat up water by day to use by night, and maybe will get an electric car charger if my power-use maths adds up.
But water has been our biggest concern since we arrived, as our borehole supply contains mineral salts.
A two-year obsession has turned me into the water-bore at the party – within a few minutes, I now actually bore myself.
We have spent two years pondering the best options for capturing and keeping water – dams and swales, bombas for furos and poços.
We’ve reversed our plan for reverse osmosis, and will dilute the salts and minerals rather than remove them, and today I can reveal to you my current and most colourful water solution yet.
This isn’t the first mapa of how Vale das Estrelas will keep its guests and its grapevines in water and it certainly won’t be the last, but it’s almost there.
It’s an easy to follow, schematic and beautiful thing, but please don’t spend too much time working out what on earth is going on … life is too short.
Our life is currently deciding where taps, lights and sockets should go, coordinating heat-pump guys, plumbers and concrete pouring people while stressing about whether we’ll even be able to run the place when it opens.
Not only have we never built anything before, we’ve never run an eco-lodge either.
The bothering goes on, the view remains great, and we still have no idea what we’re doing, but it’s all going to be OK.
Alastair Leithead is a former BBC Foreign Correspondent and freelance journalist now living in a remote rural part of Alentejo with his wife Ana. You can see a video tour of their building site on the blog “Off-Grid and Ignorant in Portugal” which he writes alongside “The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure.”