On our final morning in the Algarve Elise arranged for us to go on a boat trip to see dolphins. It was fabulous! The boat was an inflatable raft fitted with high seats that you straddle rather than sit on. Only those able to touch the ground once seated are allowed on them, so the small Dutch girl in front had to sit on a low seat at the back, leaving me a clear view ahead. We sped out to sea, hanging on tight – a bit bumpy, but OK if you imagined you were riding a horse – and after 7 kilometres we arrived at a place where there were dolphins.

These were common dolphins, the ones that come up to boats and seem to play around them. The water was warm and clear, and we could see the animals swimming alongside the boat and crossing under it. Perhaps they thought the boat was a whale which would create favourable currents, or perhaps they had simply found a shoal of fish into which the boat had intruded. In any case, as they swam in front of the boat, and turned around and under it repeatedly, they certainly looked as if they were enjoying themselves.  Another boat soon arrived, and we moved to a different place. The captains of the boats exchange information by radio on where they have found dolphins. In all we saw three different groups of common dolphins, at about the same distance from the coast.

Much too soon we had to leave, but on the way back we spotted a group of the less common bottle-nosed dolphins, which were following the line of the fishing nets along the coast. They are not so tolerant of boats and we had to keep at a certain distance, but we saw several large adults and a mother and baby.

it was a wonderful trip, great to see the dolphins and fun to try to catch them on photo. It was rather frustrating that my zoom lens was getting unreliable and would not focus close to, but a few shots worked well. Here are the best of my photos. Next time I’ll do better!

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Thank you Elise!

We decided to go to Alvor to see Elise in September. Not knowing the place at all, we left the arrangements to Elise, so we set off without much idea of what we would find. All we knew about Alvor was that the harbour was good for seeing rare migrant birds, that there were supposed to be lots of dragonflies, and the name of a good restaurant.

View from hotel roomThe hotel Elise had chosen for us turned out to be superb! It is perched on the cliffs above a lovely beach and it has wonderful views. Our room had a view (photo) over the garden, the beach and the sea. Picture us sipping cocktails on a warm evening with the setting sun making those long shadows on the bright green grass, and the cool sound of a trickling fountain in the background… Then next morning eating breakfast outside, on a broad terrace overlooking the pool, with palm trees and the sea beyond. That is definitely the good life!

Tres Irmaos beach at AlvorBelow the hotel and the pool is this beach, where you can recline on a shaded daybed and drift down to the sea for a dip or paddle if you wish. Although it is technically still the Atlantic Ocean the sea is astonishingly calm.  The water, a picture-postcard emerald green and blue,  is very shallow, so you can wade out for yards before it even gets to your waist. It is very clear, and offers good snorkelling. At low tide you can walk round the sea stacks and through arches in the rock, passing through a succession of rocky coves to beaches barely accessible from the cliffs. In the other direction the beach curves away westwards for miles as a bar of open sand backed by the dunes which enclose the Alvor River estuary, until it is cut by the harbour mouth where the river flows into the sea.

Alvor harbourThe river estuary turned out to have lots of interesting plants as well as the birds and dragonflies. It is a vast salt marsh, criss-crossed by boardwalks.  At low tide the water withdraws from almost everywhere except the central channel of the harbour below the fishing village. There is quite dense vegetation on the dunes above the waterline, and a more restricted variety of salt-resistant plants in the sand below it. Most of the plants had finished flowering by September, but in early summer the marsh must be a sheet of colour.

Elise at SagresWe spent an afternoon on the Serra de Monchique, a slightly disappointing place after all we had heard about it. The view is certainly spectacular but the area that is accessible is too limited, urbanised and controlled to have many interesting plants. The tiny spa of Caldas de Monchique, which dates from Roman times, was an interesting discovery on our way down.

Elise took us to Sagres on her day off, and we visited the fort built by Prince Henry the Navigator. Elise thought I took rather too many photographs, but she was very patient. After an excellent lunch we went on to the Cabo de San Vicente, the southwest tip of Portugal.


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End of summer visitor Louis

Bauhinia purpureaOur last visitor was Louis, who came for nearly a week at the end of August. By this time the Bauhinia, adequately warmed and with the irrigation restored,  had produced not only new leaves but its first flowers!

We went to Costa de Lavos one day, to show Louis the ocean, so different from the sea near Seville. There were no fishing boats this time, and the tide was low. On principle Louis went to swim in the sea, but the water was cold and the current so strong that he could hardly do more than duck under the waves a few times. New veranda bedWe also went plant shopping and bought a tibouchina to inaugurate the new flower bed in the corner of the veranda.

Then we all three set off for Paris, on the same train though in different degrees of comfort. Louis was on his way to see friends and family in Scotland and England. We went to meet Alice, who was just starting her year at Sciences Po, and to deal with any possible repercussions of the leak in the flat.

On our return we found that the weather had been very hot again, and more of our plants were suffering from drought, including the precious tibouchina. Copious watering revived that, but the tomato plants never recovered.

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To the sea with Christine and Jean-Pierre

Fishing boatsThe weather became very hot and none of us felt like doing much. A trip to the seaside seemed a good way to find a cooler environment so we headed across to the coast at Costa de Lavos, which tuned out to be an ideal spot. The sea was too rough for swimming, but the breeze was cool, the sand clean and sparkling.  The tide was high and from time to time a fishing boat went out, propelled briskly into the water from a tractor trailer. There were great numbers of gulls standing around on the beach, which was rather puzzling until we realised that they were waiting for the return of the boats with their catch.

Fishing boats The conditions must have been ideal for fishing; there was a man fishing from the beach using double lines and we twice saw him land 2 fish together.

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Summer visitors Cathy, Nick, Alice, Poppy and Evan

PoolLightsAt the beginning of August the Litlington Goldmans arrived, in full complement (except animals). It was mostly sunny but not too hot during their stay. We had supper out of doors by the light of the newly installed pool lights.

Swimming and sunbathing and Kingmaker were the chief activities, but we also spent a day canoeing on the Mondego (a first experience for Clare). Nick did a lot of running. Having become something of a celebrity recently he also held telephone interview sessions. We ate at the churrasqueira on the IC2, at the second attempt.

BearThe girls had to go back to their jobs in England after a few days, but the others stayed to the end of the week. We went to the serra zoo at Miranda and managed to spot the bears asleep. We saw boar this time, and the lynx cubs, now grown quite big, were stalking sheep in the next cage. The otters were the firm favourites.

On the last day we had a big family lunch with Christine and Jean-Pierre, who had been touring the north of Portugal in their 2CV.


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Mountains and caves with Clo and Vroni

Vroni and CloClaudia came in the third week of July and a couple of days later Vroni followed. They stayed till the end of the month, generally doing not much, but looking at old photographs, and making good use of our new hammock and the pool. They also did a great job of turning the compost heap. One day they made delicious pizzas for us.

Clo and VroniWe took them for a couple of days to the Serra de Estrela hoping to show them its glory, but alas! the hot weather had dried up the lush vegetation, the grass had been mown, many of the dazzling flowers were faded and some incredible Portuguese vandal had thrown a lavatory pan and seat just at the spot where we had found some of the prettiest mediterranean plants! Nevertheless they saw the lakes, now much smaller than before, and the frogs and dragonflies.
Vroni and I spotted a crag martin practising swooping and turning against the wind along a high dam wall. It proved a very challenging photo subject.Crag martin
We also made a couple of trips closer to home, to O Circulo and the caves at Casmilo,Clo and Vroni at Buracas
and to see the serra zoo at Miranda, where we were thrilled to see lynx cubs.

For Vroni’s birthday on 29th Claudia made our traditional rich chocolate cake, a real success. Since it was eaten for breakfast (a Hoffmann tradition, it seems) as well as for tea, it didn’t last long.

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Summer visitors Emily and Paul

Emily and Paul playing pool volley ballEmily and Paul were our first visitors this year. They came in early July during a very hot spell, arriving by train from Lisbon.  There they had already done a lot of walking and sight-seeing, so they spent a fairly relaxed few days here. They went for a day’s canoeing on the Mondego, and apart from that their most energetic activity was water polo in the pool.

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Serra da Estrela

frog pondAt the beginning of July, during the hottest of the weather, we took ourselves off to the Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain in Portugal. It is not at all a range of sharp peaks like the Alps, but a sort of high, flattish-topped hill rising abruptly up from the surrounding fertile river valleys. It does go up to nearly 2000 m, though, and so it has quite different flora and fauna from the surrounding area. The upper part has a surface of bare rock, peat bogs and ponds. There is a surprising amount of water up there; the largest lake and one or two others are actually dammed to make reservoirs. At the very top there is a tiny skiing resort, with 5 or 6 trails, which manages to retain the air of a ski station in spite of a pair of strange oriental domes and a mediaeval style stone tower (hence the name, Torre).

LOTUL Before we went up the mountain we called at CISE, the Centro de Interpretaçao da Serra da Estrela, in Seia, and asked for information on what plants we might expect to find. As it happened the person responsible for explaining was off duty and we were received by someone very senior who not only showed us the available books but also later sent us copies of out-of-print publications and a plant list. We bought a couple of books about the high plateau and about medicinal plants on the serra. On the way up the mountain we stopped on impulse at a particularly colourful spot where there was a small spring, and found there were many unfamiliar mediterranean-type plants to identify and photograph even before we got to the high plateau.

HAIAL In the two days we followed two of the circuits described in the high plateau book, one by the Lagoa Comprida and the other by Salguadeiras. There were brilliant flowers everywhere, cytisus, heather, halimium and sedums. We found ponds full of floating vegetation and inhabited by dozens of frogs and dragonflies, and boggy meadows with cows.. We drove down and up the upper Zezere valley, which is a classic U-shaped glacial valley, to visit the small town of Manteigas. We stayed the first night in a small hotel in Gouveia on the north-west flank of the serra and the second in a pousada in Belmonte to the south-east. It was extremely hot in both places, but on the mountain itself, although the UV radiation was powerful, there was a good strong breeze and it just felt pleasantly warm.Calf

At the end of the two days we attempted a cross-country return to Coimbra and found it was a very long road indeed, uncomfortable because of the heat and very tiring because the setting sun shone straight into our eyes as we drove westwards.

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Extremes of temperature

The cold weather went on and on, and even when it wasn’t raining there were cloudy skies and chill winds. We wondered whether the Bauhinia would ever grow any new leaves. Then suddenly summer burst upon us. The temperature, barely 20° for most of June, soared to the mid 30s, so that it became impossible to work out of doors except in the early morning or the evening.Brunfelsia

The irrigation system hadn’t needed much repair this year, but it wasn’t yet functional. So we used a sprinkler in the evenings, moving it to different parts of the garden, to enable our plants to survive.  The Lagunaria lost an alarming number of leaves but resisted. The pool and terrace plants were another matter, alas. They suffered like everything else from the dryness of the air and soil, but in addition their roots got cooked in the exposed pots. In the end we moved everything we could into the shade, but we weren’t quick enough to save them all, and we lost a Leucodendron, a Banksia and a sasanqua. The only plant that thrived outside in the heat was the Brunfelsia (photo), which flowered as soon as the weather got warm and remained green throughout.

ScolopendraThe heatwave continued for two weeks, and in the end conditions became brutal. One day in early July the highest temperature in the country, 46°, was reported in Coimbra. At that time we were finding numbers of dead centipedes at the bottom of the pool and in the filters, Scolopendras up to 12 centimetres long like this one. We’d never seen them before. Presumably the exceptional conditions drove them to look for water in the pool.

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A disappointing May

Like everywhere else in western Europe Portugal has had one of the coldest, wettest Mays on record. The plants in our garden have in general profited from the rain, but the cold has held back their flowering. Those plants that must have heat have grown very slowly, or not at all. The bauhinia, for example, has only put out a few tiny new shoots, and it looks rather tatty since many of its leaves were browned on the edges by frost in the winter.

The roses are splendid, however, the front garden is a riot of pinks and lavender, and the general impression in the back garden is of lushness.

Maniola Jurtina hispullaThere are not many bees and butterflies around yet, but from time to time one surprises a couple of  Meadow Browns mating. When disturbed they fly off still connected, looking like some strange new insect. Of course they are not very agile, and one has no difficulty pursuing them to observe their astonishing handstand climax.

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