"We set out on a road trip guided by wine"

Off-grid and ignorant in Portugal

The Treasure Hunt

We had a clear plan in mind: to find a ruined house on a little patch of Portugal, a summer fixer-upper as we wandered the globe. But it didn’t quite end up that way.

Instead, we arrived mid-pandemic having given up our careers, living on savings and off the grid in deep rural Portugal with a steep learning curve and even steeper spending curve. And it all began with the treasure map.

Treasure map

I had spent two decades travelling the globe as a BBC foreign correspondent when my Portuguese/Swedish diplomat wife Ana and I decided to start searching for a place in the countryside.

After years of covering wars in Afghanistan and Africa, hurricanes in America and tsunamis in Asia, we wanted somewhere calm, but the treasure hunt needed boundaries.

Last day at the BBC

We decided on the Alentejo – where Ana’s dad’s family comes from – confident that a region spanning a third of Portugal from Lisbon’s River Tagus to the Algarve and from the Atlantic Ocean to Spain would give us enough options.

I fully embraced the colour-coding capabilities of Google maps, prioritising wineries and pousadas – the old monasteries and castles converted into grand but affordable hotels.

Ana did the real work: trawling through hundreds of Portuguese real estate websites to see what was available in places where we could afford.

The treasure map was soon adorned with clusters of little house icons on a yellow-through-red property excitability scale, and we set out on a road trip guided by wine.

We began by heading east to the heart of Alentejo wine country – to Évora and Estremoz and beyond – but decided we needed ocean. So, we cut cross-country to the Costa Vicentina, the Atlantic coast of southwest Alentejo, and it immediately felt like home.

After a blur of disappointing ruins, we stumbled across a piece of paradise: seven hectares of cork oak, pine and eucalyptus with a solidly-built house and separate guesthouse.

The German owners had installed shiny solar panels, it had a lake, and was just a few minutes’ drive down a dirt track from a main road, a supermarket and the most beautiful wild beaches in Europe.


The view over montado forests and rolling hillsides to distant mountains is wide and spectacular.

On our first night, the Milky Way was so clear in the sky we decided to rename our new home Vale das Estrelas, or Valley of the Stars.

In retrospect we should have stopped to consider what “off the grid living” actually meant.

I’m one of those people who knows milk comes from cows and not supermarkets, but also who thinks water comes from taps and power comes from a hole in the wall.

Morning mist

They do – until they don’t – and that’s when the fun started.

It’s not like I’d always longed to live in remote rural anywhere.

I care about the future of our planet and environment, but I had never imagined living the sustainable dream: surviving off the power of the sun and harvesting water from the earth beneath our feet.

I’ve now become a sustainability nut who turns off the tap while brushing my teeth, switches off lights going in and out of rooms, and mocks the idea of putting a tin can in the glass recycling bin.

When the sun shines, we’re carbon neutral, but it’s not been easy.

Over nearly 20 years as a foreign correspondent, I was shot at by the Taleban in Afghanistan, by al-Qaeda in Iraq, was ambushed in South Sudan three times in one day, dodged Ebola and accidentally slept on a shallow grave.

In Thailand, reports of my death were greatly exaggerated, but this off-grid living thing is something else altogether.

When the taps ran dry and the lights went out, I had to work out where water and power came from and why they weren’t coming from there anymore. There was no instruction manual.

We discovered a borehole on one side of the valley and a water tank on the other – it would be months before we would find the pipe linking the two.

The solar power system was an utterly incomprehensible line of large, gurgling red boxes full of lead and acid.

An undiscovered leaking toilet was not only wasting water, but also constantly running an electric pump which obliterated the old battery in two weeks. We had to buy expensive new lithium ones.

When the weather started to get cold, both boilers broke at once and you can’t just call Portuguese Gas. They are so old even online instruction manuals are only written in German, and I still can’t tell a Verbrennungsluftgebläse from a Rückschlagklappe.

But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Now we collect rainwater and filter it for drinking, we’ve replaced gas with a wood burner for when the sun doesn’t shine, and we have a fantastic radio-link internet which keeps us connected.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else”

We’re building a sustainable eco-lodge with help from the tourism authority, are making a podcast about wine and are constantly challenged by an endless array of issues.

I hope you’ll enjoy following our big adventure. It’s hard work, but every day’s a school day, and we never get tired of that view.


By Alastair Leithead

Alastair Leithead is a former BBC foreign correspondent now living off the grid in rural Odemira. We writes the blog “Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal” on Substack here and is on Insta @vale_das_estrelas