i am a portu-gal

I have always considered getting on a plane in pursuit of a little winter sun to be a little bit soft. I am often to be found proclaiming that England is beautiful in every season and there is something of value whatever the weather. The bleak, spare, winter landscape reveals a purist beauty that sustains the truly discerning nature-lover...

I have been irritating people with this point of view for many years now, but all that is in the past because this year I have discovered... the Algarve!

Now I am a Grandma* my bones are beginning to feel the cold, and so we counted up our airmiles and worked out how far south we could fly without having to resort to eating our own skin out of boredom. The answer was - is - Faro...

Knowing nothing about southern Portugal, I had no idea what to expect, but what we found exceeded anything we had imagined. This is what we discovered:

A landscape nursed by sunlight, low-lying near the coast, with sand-spit lagoons protecting acres of saltmarshes filled with birds and inlets and little boats and ricketty houses and the smell of the sea.

Further along there are miles of nearly deserted sandy beaches, clean and warm with the sparkling turquoise waters of the Atlantic rushing and tugging at your feet. Fishing towns with wonderfully distressed houses and paintwork and Moorish castles and little cobbled streets.

Inland, there is a pinky white froth of almond blossom, carob and olive orchards, endless groves of oranges and lemons in their plump citrussy beauty, black-and-white storks nesting high in the chimneys of abandoned sardine factories, and exquisite Arabic influenced architecture. Further away are the hazy mountains with twisting roads leading to little white villages surrounded by wild mimosa, cork forests and row upon row of tiny umbrella pines grown for their pine nuts.

I am a total convert. Yes, there are expensive yachts and manicured golf-courses and big ugly concrete hotels and conversely an awful lot of rural poverty and sad little dogs outside deserted farmhouses and other things you might rather not see. But somehow these things make it more real, and I like that. It is a really lovely place.

This is a cork oak which has been stripped for its bark- the number 0 on the trunk shows that it was done last year. Seven years have to go by before the cork can be harvested again.

If you are tempted to go I cannot recommend highly enough the wonderful Quinta da Cebola Vermelha which is run by a lovely Dutch family in the countryside near Boliquieme. Everything is exquisitely tasteful, the food is delicious, the rooms are scrupulously clean, there is a pool and an olive grove and cypress trees and a log fire for cold evenings and a sweet little rescue dog called Jojo.

There are some more photos on Flickr including lots of the gorgeous, delicate, beautifully coloured, tangled fishing nets.

PS On the menu below, what would you have chosen...?

* This is a wonderful excuse for all kinds of previously scorned-upon behaviour

a living scrapbook

Wallpaper from the 1690s found in a house on Fournier Street in East London

If you love scraps of history, old wallpaper designs and tiny, amazing windows into the lives of real people over the last three hundred years, go immediately to the Gentle Author's blog at Spitalfields Life and read this wonderful, magical, humbling, inspiring post. Then have a browse and get lost in the maze of posts, and read some more. I love this blog.

the quiet harmony of perfect taste

February is not very old yet already I feel I have the measure of it. It is dark and grey and stormy, and the lack of light forces us to experience the world through a sort of blindfold: when our vision is diminished, we rely on our other senses. I had many things to show you in this post yet the light is so poor that cruel February has stolen even my pictures and so the 'illustrations' will have to remain in your imaginations.

It is said that those who are blind are sometimes able to experience light through other sensations, and in the same way it is through the heat of the log fire and the scent of hyacinths and a tiny sprig of Sarcococca(Christmas Box) that I am finding brightness at the moment. Also, through the power of sheer escape: last weekend we ate a delicious lunch and drank exquisite cups of hot strong tea at one of my favourite places:

There is a splendid old advertisement hanging on the wall as you queue for a table and I love its language and sentiment. It is exactly what I felt as we drove there:

"Let's go to Betty's, where we can meet our friends, and discuss things amongst surroundings that have the quiet harmony of perfect taste."

On the way we saw the patterns of twigs and buds and fields and sheep with a flock of lapwings twisting and turning overhead. On the way back we saw the most enormous red sun dipping away into the dark horizon. A wonderful tonic for these dark days.

Another excellent tonic is ordering a little but lovely piece of art from a talented artist: when I received my beautiful print from Amanda at Mangle Prints I found that she had generously slipped in this ephemeral printed waxed heart that hangs and gently turns at the window, filtering the lean pale light through its delicate design. Her work is lovely: have a look here.