Plaster and paint make a huge difference – all we need now is doors and windows and we’re getting somewhere!
Plaster and paint make a huge difference – all we need now is doors and windows and we’re getting somewhere!

Off Grid and Ignorant in Portugal – Big ambitions

In the day-to-day battle of managing a big building project in the Alentejo, it’s often easy to miss the obvious evidence of just what’s been achieved so far.

Returning visitors insist “so much has changed” and then we allow ourselves to reflect a little on the transformation of a patch of scraggy, neglected eucalyptus forest into an-almost-tourist-lodge in two years.

When I occasionally find myself in a deep mud-filled hole in the valley trying to get a water tank level, looking up at the new buildings on the hill, I realise that, somehow, we made this happen, and then I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real.

And the end of one year and the beginning of another is always a good time to think about what’s gone before and how much lies ahead.

A misty morning view down the valley
A misty morning view down the valley

Everyone has horror stories about bureaucracy – and we are no exception – but bureaucracy is terrible everywhere … it’s only slightly better to cope with in places where you’ve grown up with it.

Thankfully, we moved to Portugal from a country where it can often be much more challenging to get simple things done – and we’re grateful for that experience.

Our friend Vera’s mantra has become our own – “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it” – but you sometimes wonder why they might want to …

The answer is because this is the most amazing part of the world, on what some call the last wild coast in Europe, with endless views over hills and mountains and with a peace and quiet which is hard to find anywhere amid global turmoil.

Every off-grid property needs infrastructure and this ditch will help us collect rainwater and recycle waste into irrigation
Every off-grid property needs infrastructure and this ditch will help us collect rainwater and recycle waste into irrigation

I’ve lived in some far less stable places – Afghanistan, Thailand, Kenya – and I suppose the United States of America counts just as much these days with uncertain times ahead.

So that’s why, as 2023 comes to an end – less than 18 months after starting – we have three buildings awaiting windows and doors, but with (most of) their floors; an unfinished infinity pool; a stranded shipping container waiting for a makeover; and ambitious landscaping plans.

When you’re off-grid, whatever your level of ignorance, there’s always the need for new infrastructure: the water pipes and electrical cables that link your boreholes to your taps and your solar panels to your light switches … and all the various things in between.

Digging in – Alastair over his head trying to get a new water tank level while pondering the houses on the hill
Digging in – Alastair over his head trying to get a new water tank level while pondering the houses on the hill

We decided not to try and do all of it ourselves, as some brave souls do in our part of Portugal, instead relying on Senhor Manuel – an old-school Alentejano builder with decades of contacts and experience, and a couple of stalwart workers who turn up every day at 7am.

We’ve learned that having local clout counts for a great deal – and naïve estrangeiros like us just don’t have the leverage to get things done on anything approaching a decent timeline.

In order to make our investment go as far as it could, we applied to Turismo de Portugal for European funding and were awarded a zero-interest loan for a large chunk of the project.

Installing a 200,000-litre pillow tank to make us water-secure
Installing a 200,000-litre pillow tank to make us water-secure

Just to apply, everything had to be budgeted from foundations to knives and forks, and despite COVID and inflation ravaging our spreadsheets, we should have just enough life savings left to get the work done.

It may be zero-interest, but it still all needs to be paid back, so as we dig in water tanks and waste treatment systems, roll out pillow tanks to make us water-secure, and dig trenches to connect everything up, our minds start drifting to what happens when we finish?

The answer, of course, is that we’ll never finish – it will always be a work in progress as we learn how to do things better and plough those hoped-for, hard-earned profits back into improvements.

A badly-maintained eucalyptus forest covered the level ground on the top of the hill where we decided to build
A badly-maintained eucalyptus forest covered the level ground on the top of the hill where we decided to build

While we project manage the construction, we are also planning the interiors – buying ahead where we can in the hope we’ll be ready by the end of March.

The best beds we could afford and some colourful signature Alentejo woven headboards are already ordered, but there’s so much more to do as we try to switch from learning to build to learning to decorate and run a small sustainable guest lodge.

It’s ambitious, as you can see from the photos, but it’s good to have a target which will hopefully give us time to get the licensing in place ahead of the tourist season, work out how to run wine tastings and events.

Just a year on, two of the buildings really started to take shape
Just a year on, two of the buildings really started to take shape

Then there’s the art of landscaping a building site into a welcoming environment in just a few short months.

That bit, we are taking into our own hands and doing what we can in the small winter window before going for it big-time in the Spring.

The other week we acquired saplings and horse manure and planted 200-odd olive trees to create a boundary hedge that might just make us some oil a few years down the line and have put a scattering of medronheiros here and there.

Fruit trees and raised beds will follow, with jasmine and creeping rosemary high on our shopping list.

We’ve been watching the weather to time our cover-crop seeding in the area known as “the future vineyard” with a mix of cereals and legumes to provide some organic material and fix some nitrogen in the soil.

The building site and the view from the middle of this year
The building site and the view from the middle of this year

Part of the plan is to plant a third of a hectare or so of indigenous Portuguese grapes in 2025 when we’ve learned even more about Alentejo wines – I’ll tell you about our upcoming podcast series before it launches in the New Year.

We’ve been very lucky so far and, despite a few big delays here and there, remain broadly on track.

Every day’s a work day, but also a school day, and as we accelerate towards the end of December, we look forward to a bit of a break and a renewed surge in the Spring – the new start to 2024.

And may it be happy, healthily and prosperous for one and all.

See below the video of our building project:

By Alastair Leithead

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.”