The ups and downs of creating the Relaxscape retreat
It’s been exactly six months since the cats and I came to live here in Central Portugal, in the hottest heatwave on record, after three days on the road. We arrived in Cardal, a tiny little village in a crook of the River Zêzere, slightly shell-shocked and more than a little excited. Well I was anyway. The cats were a bit more suspicious, until they discovered the smorgasbörd of new wildlife on offer for them to torture.
Ironically, although I came here to build a relaxation retreat, my life has been going at the speed of a Portuguese Alfa Pendular train, and in some ways I can’t believe I’ve only been here six months. In fact, four and a half, if you subtract the times I’ve had to go back to the UK to carry on my day job to keep the cash flowing and the business going.
Starting a new life
In that time, I’ve registered as a Portuguese Resident (for 5 years - should help keep the Brexit wolf from the door); gone to ALL the Festas in and around Cardal, Olalhas and Ferreira do Zêzere over the summer; started clearing 4000sqm of land; built up a load of muscles I never knew I had; spent a fraught night at the emergency vet; found some yoga classes, Portuguese and English; butchered the language with my own version of FranSpanEngDutchPortuguese, but somehow managing to make myself understood in the most bizarre circumstances (like discussing technical plumbing and building issues or registering with the Health Service and having to undergo various medical tests); planted some cabbages; cremated various cat-kill; picked 150kg of olives; kept the Scottish tradition of New Year’s Day Swim alive with a dip in my (freezing cold) local river lagoon to the horror and amusement of my fellow villagers; discovered some beautiful places; and most of all, met a bunch of amazingly friendly and supportive Portuguese, British, and Dutch people.
And that’s just the half of it.
For anyone who’s ever wondered about chucking everything in the air and changing their lives, I say to you, stop worrying and just do it. It’s all going to work out just fine, however it goes.
What has living in Portugal taught me so far?
That Portugal is the only country where you put your coat on to go indoors, but take it off to go outside. Seriously, this past winter I've been the coldest and most uncomfortable I’ve been in a long long time. But it’s taught me a lot about myself, and also, without wanting to sound too virtue signally, to appreciate how lucky I am with the luxuries I take for granted, and some of which that I now realise I can easily do without.
That the wine is very cheap, and very good.
That it’s not that easy to survive on a gluten-, sugar- and lactose-free vegetarian diet in this part of Portugal, with all the physical labour I’ve been doing. There’s only so many eggs and cabbages you can eat!
That the sun really does make me happy and that I am more resilient than I realised.
That you find out who your real friends are. The love and support has been incredible and I think I would have found it a lot harder without all the encouragement. There is another side to this too though - all of a sudden people you haven’t spoken to properly for years get pally and want to come and visit!
That it’s really very easy to survive without telly, but much harder to live without decent wifi speeds. And that Telecoms providers’ helplines are just as painful to deal with in Portugal as they are in the UK.
That (as far as I can gather), the Portuguese don’t have a word for “too much”. They just use “muito” (= “a lot”/”much”/”very”). I love this concept of there being no such thing as too much, just an acceptance of plenty, of abundance.
That it’s surprisingly tiring labouring in the sun during the day, working on the (slow) internet at night and having to process everything in a foreign language that you still only part understand. And then having to get up at 6:45 every morning to be ready for the builders when they arrive promptly by 8!
That I’ve been very lucky with my builders, and that, a bit like Stockholm Syndrome, I’m going to miss them when they’re gone!
That I really, really like it here.
Heritage and the local community
One of the things I love most about this area, is that everyone who lives here has a respect for the land, the seasons, and growing and eating their local produce. The people I have met, at least, are proud of their heritage and their countryside, and take care to look after it and to help incomers like me to learn the local customs as well. There’s been no shortage of advice coming from all quarters - neighbours, builders, complete strangers. All totally well-meaning and gratefully received, as it’s by far the easiest way to learn what I need to be doing with my land.
There is a real sense of community here as well. Partly because of the shared purpose and partly because of their naturally sociable tendency. People come together to help each other, and they enjoy sharing food, stories, good times. Over the last month alone, I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in three locally organised events, all centred around eating, drinking and keeping traditions alive. Simple, good-hearted fun, where I’ve been welcomed with open arms.
Keeping traditions alive
There was the Cantar dos Reis on 5th January, the local equivalent of Epiphany. Eight hours of wandering the streets wassailing outside houses (even the ones that were obviously not lived in)! It took so long because we kept getting invited in to have something to eat, and to drink (often home-made) wine. As the night wore on, the singing became more lively and the stops more lengthy. Singing and supping together is such a bonding experience, and as we were going round I also realised that it was a way for the community to keep up with who lived where, who had moved on, or in, or more sadly, who had died. There was only one song, and I was interested to learn that the words had been written by Tio Armindo, which made me feel connected in another way too.
The money collected during the Cantar dos Reis goes towards the Church fund to pay the local touring priest so that the occasional services can still be held in the little village church. For example, last weekend was the Día de Nossa Senhora de Purificação (one of the Saints’ Days), which involved a mass, followed by a candlelit procession through the village, then a bring-a-dish get together in the village hall. Much to some of the villagers’ bemusement, I broke with tradition and introduced a new-fangled vegetarian dish - chickpeas and spinach sautéed in garlic and lemon, with cumin, turmeric, and coriander. (I did try to disguise it by adding some of the local cabbage leaves!) It was funny watching some of them gingerly trying the first mouthful, then tucking in as they realised that it tasted good!
And on Sunday there was a fantastic “Back to the 1930s” fair in Ferreira do Zêzere, the nearest town to Relaxscape. A great example of communities coming together. All the villages and municipalities around had a stall showcasing their local produce. People dressed up in traditional 1930s costumes of the region, and there was music and dancing and an old bicycle race and obstacle course. Next year I will be joining in (the dressing up, probably not the bicycle race)!
Building the Relaxscape community
Collaboration and community involvement has always been very important to me. Through my work as a business and change coach in the UK, I have built up a great network of creative, enterprising and like-minded people, and one of the best things about this new venture is being able to collaborate with them out in Portugal too, as Relaxscape slowly but surely becomes a reality (take a look at some of the retreats we already have planned together!) At the same time, I am making new connections with the wonderfully welcoming local community here. It feels absolutely right to be based here in Cardal, where we share the same values of what’s important (if not always the same taste in food!). I am looking forward to seeing what the next six months will bring.
If you'd like to be part of the Relaxscape community, I'd love to hear from you, so please get in touch. And if you'd like to join the Relaxscape Revolution, take a look at our crowdfunding campaign below!