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Finding the Alentejo and building The Place

I’m not sure if it was because we flew in from Saudi Arabia at the end of December 2013 – but I can remember getting out of the hire car at the sea-side in Caiscais and thinking we had just landed in paradise. 

I mean it.

It was 3pm in the afternoon.  We walked into a restaurant and got seats looking over the ocean. A cool breeze was drifting through, as was fresh sea food on massive platters and the cheapest bottle of excellent house-white I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. 

Somewhere nearby a lady sang Fado – and the largely ‘off-duty’ staff were having their lunch and laughing. No-one seemed to be in any hurry at all.

We sat and looked at the view.  We drank the wine.  We breathed out.  And somewhere in these moments, after visiting over 60 different countries around the world, we started to realise that we would settle in Portugal.

It took just two hours for this most wonderful place to win our hearts forever.

As we sat there, feeling restored and at peace, it dawned on us that we still had two more weeks of this vacation to go.  And every day of those next two weeks added to the experience.  Wherever we went in this undiscovered gen – Portugal delivered surprises and rewards.  

Next morning we were up and drove slowly to Peniche, north of Lisbon on a small peninsular.  You can stand and stare out across the ocean in every direction and see only ocean.  Following the coast further north to the surfers paradise of Nazaré – calm on this day, but home to some of the world’s biggest waves and a surfer’s haven.  We then turned inland to head for a small village.  Well, actually a whole part of the village was deserted so it was bought by a wonderful couple and they are slowly restoring the quaint houses into holiday accommodation.  Villa Pedras.

Villa Pedras was our base for five days as we explored Coimbra. And the surrounding area.  Slowly you start to expect small villages and cafes at every turn, and you get used to the un-hurried ways and friendly existence.  At first we could not put our finger on it exactly – but then we realised that there were no chains in every town.  No MacD’s, Costco, WHSmith, Starbucks, etc etc.  Instead, every town had its own version of a high street with a very unique  range of shops and places to eat.  How refreshing it was to find something different in every little village you come across.

On Christmas day we travelled down to Evora.  Arriving from the north we entered the walled town and made our way to a world class, small hotel called Albergaria do Calvário. Here is where it started to dawn on us that the reason we felt so comfortable in Portugal was because the people were all so friendly.  Not in a ‘pushy” false way – but genuine and helpful.  

Once you get to chatting, you find the folks are all quite willing to help with just about anything.  Detailed recommendations about where to eat, considered suggestions about what to see – and seemingly all the time in the world to chat to you and sort your issue before moving on.

Over the New Year we travelled down to the south west coast which was breathtaking.  Not crowded at all.  And as welcoming as we had come to expect from everyone that we were lucky enough to bump into.   After five days we both agreed that we would come back to Portugal.  After two weeks we both agreed that we would like to come and live here – and especially live in the peaceful, undisturbed Alentejo.

Searching for a home in the Alentejo.

We were soon back, April 2014 to be precise, and we started the adventure of looking for a place where we could start a business and live. We had the broad idea that we would set up a Guest House, run a café/restaurant and maybe open a craft shop.  Or something.

We did not know where this might be but we were sure that it should be around the Evora region.  So we stayed in Evora and each day set out looking for old farm houses, buildings or ruins that might possibly be changed into what we were after.  Whenever we found a potential place we made a note of the numbers on the red-diamond signs that each piece of land seemed to display (a clever system for identifying land, we thought).  

After two weeks of searching we returned to Lisbon and proudly furnished our lawyer with all the pictures of the red-diamond "property identifiers”.  He was kind and patient as he explained to us that we had collected a set of photos of local hunting licences – nothing to do with identifying property at all. We felt so foreign.  

The up-side of it all was that we would have to come back again.  So we did.  Maybe five times in all in 2014.  All without managing to get the place we wanted.   It was starting to look a bit bleak when on our final trip of October 2014, Vicki saw an advert for a place at the top of a hill, inside the castle walls, right next to the castle!!

We rushed over with our friends from the UK in tow, and arrived for the first time in Evoramonte.  We had travelled several times from Evora to Estremoz and surrounds – but for some reason we had never ended up in Evoramonte.

The place for sale was part café and part unused rooms so we went in to the café and had a coffee.  We stood on a terrace and saw the most amazing views right out across the olive and cork trees below.   There was an old mill, a gently winding road and miles and miles of views framed by the mountains far to the west.  Where at that moment, the sun started to settle and cast a red mantle across the sky.


                                  Our first ever views of The Place…

It  was a Sunday and  we couldn’t get hold of an estate agent.  So first thing on Monday morning we were waiting at the door, found the correct agent, and had a formal tour of the place at Evoramonte.

It was great and showed lot of potential.  So we went back to the UK, contacted our lawyer in Lisbon and made an offer.  The offer was accepted.  So now we had to sell our house in London to pay for the new place in Evoramonte.   Christmas, New Year and general admin delays meant that we finally had cleared funds in May 2015 and made our way to Evora for the formal signing and payment.  

All done, we drove back to Evoramonte and sat on the terrace, watching the sunset and drinking a glass of local bubbly.  


We thought we would find a builder, get the renovations done, and be operational by the end of the year.  Ho ho ho!  Not so fast Mr and Mrs Webber – allow me to introduce you to Portuguese bureaucracy.  

The bureaucracy.

Papel.  The Portuguese word for ‘paper’.  There is an unwritten rule in Portuguese bureaucracy that you should never approve something with one piece of paper if you could do it with seven pieces of paper.  And this comes along with the sub-rule that you should never require a single stamp and signature on any individual paper, if it was at all possible to insist on two signatures.  From two different departments.  In two different towns. 

Allow me to provide a short example, one of many that has led to us owning three lever arch files of suitably stamped and signed paper.

We went to Estremoz council to provide proof of existence in order to get the water and electricity into my name. I was asked. To provide proof that I was an EU citizen – easy, I had a UK passport (still fully part of the EU in 2016).  But that was not enough – the nice man said that I needed to get a certificate from my mayor in the UK to say that I was an EU citizen.  We lived in London, I was not sure that the mayor would have time to help me.  Anyway we went along to our local municipality and asked for proof that I was an EU citizen – the kind man asked for my passport, looked at it and said "You are an EU citizen” – and sent us away.  So we found a local lawyer with some experience in these things who produced a special certificate saying that I was an EU citizen and, as we needed it in Portugal, he added a wax stamp with a seal and had his partner counter sign (thus giving us the mandatory two signatures required). Thus set, I returned later to Estremoz to ask for water and electric in my name.  This time I proudly produced my new, special certificate.  The man at the desk gave it a cursory glance, made a photocopy and asked me to sign the copy (which he then also signed) – and then said "Good – now, can I see your passport!”…

I have long since stopped fighting the extraordinary layers of unnecessary "papel” that are always required before anything can happen in Portugal.  We just travel from meeting to meeting with the three box files and dare any man or lady at any desk to demand something we haven’t got.  (Sadly, usually, they can)

And thus it was about a year before we were able to get all the papers needed to start the rebuild of the place.  Ours was a particularly long journey as we were in an area of historical interest and had to entertain the conservation folks as well as the local council.  

The most challenging time was when we received a "papel” from the conservation folk saying that as we were in an area of historic interest, we could not install double-glazed windows.  This at about the same time that we received notice from the council to say that as we were carrying out a ‘re-build’, it would be a legal requirement to install double-glazed windows.  Great.  

But as long as you are not in a hurry, things will get done.  Usually tomorrow…

Along the way we learned so much about renovating an old Portuguese building.  Maybe we should write a book.  For example, we found out that the water supply to the top of the hill was hardly enough to run one shower, let alone 8 guests all wanting a piping hot showers at the same sort of time every day.  So we had to install special cisterns that collect the water during the day and into the night, and then pump it to the top of our place so that everyone can shower.  

The building is wonderfully climate controlled, and this is due to walls that are about three foot thick.  When we asked for the position of a door to be changed you could see the builders shoulders dropping.  They break down the outer skin of the wall and this reveals a ton of rocks and cement that are bundled in and stuck together. Amazing.  But it keeps the heat out in the summer and the warmth in in the winter.

It was January 2017 when we were advised by the builder that everything would be complete by the end of February.  At last.  So after two years Vicki resigned from her job and moved to Portugal.  The place was finally completed in November that year.  And in November we opened the place as a Guest House.  Naming of your baby is always difficult, and as we ran out of time our place assumed the name that we had been using since 2015 – The Place at Evoramonte was open for business.


Finishing and starting 

Finally Vicki could get among the decorating and furnishing.  A 40 foot container arrived from the UK and Vick paired these furnishings with a range of locally made and traditional things.  Also using things we had gathered from the 60 or so countries we had visited before settling in the Alentejo,  Vicki has produced simple, decorative and modern accommodation for the guests that feels like home.

We were now the proud owners of a self-contained suite with mini-kitchen and three stand-alone rooms – each blessed with access to one of three balconies with the most amazing views to the west.  The perfect. Place to sit and watch a sunset any night of the year.

At this point the equipment for the café arrived and the café/restaurant too was ready to go.  We were set.  The Guest House was open and hosting guests and in April 2018 Mitch finally moved from London and The Café at Evoramonte opened for business.

We were under way.

Some five years after first finding the place, The Place at Evoramonte was up and running.

We had a good 2018 and a great 2019.  Finally our dream was a reality.  We looked to the future, a future that sadly held a little surprise called Covid – but that is a story for another day….

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