In all its glory: who could say no to a free bar like that?
In all its glory: who could say no to a free bar like that?

Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal – Operation free bar

In my experience, it’s never good to turn down the offer of a free bar, as it’s always fun and it usually leads to new friendships.

The lengths people will go for a free bar do differ, but, for us, it was two return trips from the southwestern Alentejo to Porto and involved a lot of help from our friends – old and new.

We received the generous offer from a British/Kiwi couple who had just bought a quinta (country house) and read about our plans to build an off-grid tourist lodge around wine and felt the bar which had come with the house was a bit big for them.

“It’s quite large, some see possible beauty, some see a large monstrosity, but it’s free to a new caring home,” said Vanessa, who sent photos.

I saw it and thought: “Wow, that looks amazing … but my wife is going to think it’s hideous.”

My wife Ana saw the photograph and said: “wow … that’s hideous”, but then surprised me (as always) by adding: “We must get it – I have the perfect place for it.”

Bar on a hill: a temporary resting place for Alastair, Alan and the new bar
Bar on a hill: a temporary resting place for Alastair, Alan and the new bar

My eye for interior design is, at best, short sighted and my stylistic vision similarly blurred, but undoubtedly every eco-lodge needs a sturdy, solid, Brazilian oak, four-metre long, German-built, tiki-style bar topped with a suspension bridge.

After months of distractions and procrastination – and with the arrival of some animal-sitters – we headed north with our trailer to meet Vanessa and Jeremy, pick up the bar and bring it home.

But it was immediately obvious how our trailer was painfully insufficient both in size and carrying capacity – this was truly a giant among bars.

We’ve noticed German taste leans towards strong, solid and utterly unshiftable, so this clearly needed more plotting and scheming.

‘Operation Free Bar’ started its planning stages as we left the trailer parked at their place and manoeuvred our tractor into the narrow streets of Porto (‘Cassiopeia’, our Hilux, is a necessity in the countryside but a nightmare to navigate around big cities).

AL & Francesinha SML
Everything on: but with a heavy heart our correspondent couldn’t finish it

I shamefully hadn’t been to Porto before and so we tagged on a few other visits to check out some cork suppliers, meet the man behind Scoundrels Distilling Company and to be introduced to Francesinha by friends. The Porto speciality sandwich, which, curiously, translates to “little French woman”, hardens the arteries on sight, but with a heavy heart I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t finish it, while my friend’s 13-year-old polished it off in no time … and had dessert.

The experience of eating Francesinha at the legendary CUFRA diner was only enhanced by FC Porto’s UEFA Champions League match playing on the telly – especially with three quick Porto goals which got the place buzzing.

Back in Alentejo, ‘Operation Free Bar’ began in earnest as Ana started searching for a van – and a plan – for getting more than a metric tonne of awkward, solid Brazilian wood from one end of the country to the other.

She tried Ikea and Leroy Merlin, every van hire company you can think of, calculating the most cost-effective pick-up and drop-off points to do it in a couple of days.

With fuel and tolls, it was looking expensive and time-consuming, but just as hope was starting to fade, our Swiss friend Niels stepped in and offered his not-quite-large-enough van and a tractor-jack for heavy lifting.

Vanessa and Jeremy after the first, unsuccessful phase of Operation Free Bar … her mallet wasn’t big enough
Vanessa and Jeremy after the first, unsuccessful phase of Operation Free Bar … her mallet wasn’t big enough

But Ana’s maths had established it should fit … just … on its side and at an angle, and with my bloody-minded, determined, unmovable machine of a former rugby coach Alan in town helping us with some tiling, there was hope.

So, with spanners, jacks, wheel-boards, a heavy metal pry bar and the last-resort chainsaw, we headed north once again with steely determination.

With a few extra hands drafted in to help, mallets were swung, pry bars pried, and, amid much huffing and puffing, we had the four-metre piece of solid hardwood halfway into the van when cobblestones threw a spanner in the works.

“Right, time to go Egyptian,” Alan said. “We need rollers.”

A CO2 gas bottle from the bar provided the necessary support and, with far less faff than anyone (except Alan) expected, the whole thing was speedily secured in the van and the chainsaw remained blissfully untouched.

Sunrise valley SML
A view, bar none: a bar with a view

Back home, we drafted in a whole cast of characters who happened to be passing and the bar was assembled in its new temporary home on the hill.

It’s wonderful … it will look even better in front of the infinity pool when it’s all finished … and, with a little cleaning and protecting, it will be an iconic landmark in our Vale das Estrelas.

In the best Hollywood tradition, I would like to thank everyone involved in making this move a success, but, above all, Vanessa and Jeremy for donating it … and Alan for going Egyptian and raising the bar to a new caring home.

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.”