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Months of anticipation. Dates changed, cancellations. Storm Emma and The Beast From The East. But at last I was on my way to Portugal, to take part in the Sketch Tour Portugal project, the brainchild of Mário Linhares and in collaboration with Tourism Portugal. Twenty-four sketchers – twelve international, twelve Portuguese – would travel to different parts of the country in pairs, a local sketcher accompanying a foreign one, to sketch the sights of each area. We would be assigned different themes, and were asked to come up with a minimum of six sketches a day, but within that we could take our inspiration as we found it. This is a PREMIUM access article. We use a simple to use web wallet that can be filled up using a credit card, PayPal or with XLM using a secure payment system. Once you have paid, you will have ongoing access to the article from the device (tablet, phone, PC) that you used to pay for it. You can access the post by topping up your web wallet with 20 stellar lumen tokens (the price of a stellar lumen is currently [price id=”stellar” fiat=”usd”] ) if you haven’t already done so and then making a micropayment of 2 lumens to continue reading this post Remember: NO subscription required, NO monthly fees, NO personal information, just a new secure micropayment mechanism for content you want to see.
I was assigned the Algarve region in the south, and my host sketcher was Hélio Boto, a talented sketcher from Portimão on the coast. Our themes were Sun & Sea; Nature and Gastronomy & Wine. It sounds like the sort of job you can only dream of, right? Well…there was a catch, in a way. All the sketchers had to make their tour during the off-season months: Portugal is already thronged with visitors during the busy season (April – October) and Tourism Portugal wanted to increase their off-season visitors. The resulting sketches would be curated and made into a book, as a gift for people visiting the country: I think they are aiming to have it ready for the Eurovision Song Contest, which Portugal is hosting this year.
Tuesday 20th MarchAnd so I found myself in Faro Airport on a late March afternoon, where a beautiful, smiling girl in a silver puffer jacket and a tall young man bearing aloft a sketch of me were waiting. Both were Portuguese: the girl in silver was Susana Neffe, representing the Tourist Board. She would be our guide, minder, driver and general go-to gal for the next week; the chap was Hélio Boto, the sketcher from the Algarve. From the minute the three of us got into the Tourist Board-issue white Jeep, we knew we were going to get on.
Settling in in OlhãoIt took us rather a while to find our hotel – notwithstanding confident directions from several old fishermen whom Susana stopped to ask – and in the end someone had the bright idea to look it up on the phone. Far better to ask the fishermen, demonstrating from the off how friendly your Algarve native is. Here’s our hotel room:
The room was clean and colourful. I sketched it: we had been given two sketchbooks each in which to work. I wasn’t overjoyed about this, since I am a bit fussy (very fussy actually) about paper and am easily put off. But it seemed to go okay, and I wondered if perhaps I could leave the Arches hot-pressed paper I had brought with me to one side. In the event, I liked the new sketchbooks so much I have ordered lots more. They’re handmade in Portugal and the name is Laloran. Then it was time to head out for dinner. On the way we passed some storks in their huge nest on top of a church. I sketched…
…and I wasn’t happy. Stage fright? Drawing with a sketchbook on my knee? Using a sketchbook that was new to me? Whatever the reason, I worried that I wouldn’t be on my best game during the trip. I have my pride! At the restaurant, mindful of the theme of Gastronomy & Food, Hélio and I sketched our meal. We had a plate of all kinds of fish, fresh and delicious.
“That’s spider fish,” said the very nice waiter. “My friend, a grown man, stood on one once, and he cried.” “Well, that was his story,” I said to him, and he laughed. His English (and that of everyone I met in Portugal) was superb. Susana and Hélio explained to me that this is because the movies are in English without subtitles, unlike many in Spain or France. Soon Hélio and Susana had added their own stories of their grown-up menfolk who had also wept bitterly after stepping on spider fish. I drew the sangria, a light, sparkling rosé full of fruit. It went down a treat, especially after the tension I had felt leading up to my arrival in Portugal. I couldn’t resist drawing the gleaming beer barrel in the background.
“It’s a lovely sketch,” said Susana, “but I’m really sorry to say that the Tourist Board can’t advertise companies…” Oh well, another sketch that would end up on the cutting room floor, and I lost interest in finishing it. But at six a day, there would be plenty more opportunities. I cut my losses and went on to sketch the dessert, a fabulous creation in a tinfoil wrapper called a Dom Rodrigo. As you can see from the ingredients, it’s very rich!
Wednesday 21st March
The Sketch Tour Begins: OlhãoThe next morning it was time to start the tour for real. First stop was the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa (“Natural Park of the Beautiful River”), a national park and bird sanctuary. The eponymous river runs parallel and very close to the sea. The theme was clearly going to be Nature today, and we walked along trails of stone pines and agaves under a blue sky, on the look-out for some resident flamingoes. We found some: I sat down to sketch, and Hélio went off to draw an old mill nearby.
A few white flamingoes grazed calmly in the shallows…no pink ones as they don’t eat those shrimp that give them their colour! – and, my sketch done, I went to find Hélio and Susana. Unfortunately a cold wind was blowing in from the sea, and with my Raynaud’s disease (basically really poor circulation) my fingers were the usual white claws that I put up with for most of my outdoor sketches in Ireland. Having found Hélio, I began a new sketch. Susana walked past and I called to her to keep still while I included her in the sketch. I may or may not have been a bit bossy about this (but how else do you get your subject to stand in the right place?!) and soon had the sketch in the can…thank heavens we were out of the wind, and the sun had restored me to comfort – as you can see, my fingers had warmed up by then.
Unbeknownst to me, Hélio was sketching me barking my instructions at Susana. One of the funniest sketches I’ve seen in a long while…
Here are Susana and Hélio taking a “very natural” photo of Hélio’s sketch!
I’d noticed some agaves at the entrance to the park, and I leapt at the chance to sketch them before we left. Here’s the sketch I made:
Time for lunch, and we went to one of the many fish restaurants along the waterfront. We had a “cataplana”, a mixed seafood dish made with all kinds of lovely things in a beautiful beaten copper pan…once again, it tasted so home-made – there’s no other way to put it.
Sun and Sea on FarolAfterwards we hopped on a ferry to Farol, one of the “Ilhas Barreiras” – barrier islands – that lie just south of Olhão. I liked seeing the ferrymen silhouetted against the sky, waving their hands to better explain what they were saying to each other. Looked like politics.
Hélio and me on the ferry:
Farol is the furthest island from the mainland. They are all tiny, and you can walk around them in about twenty minutes. Farol (and, I imagine, the others) are covered with dwellings that were until recently illegal, built without planning permission. Then a group amnesty was granted. The houses are actually lovely anyway – their styles all chime beautifully with each other, all one or two storeys and white, with yellow or blue accents and pretty gardens of cacti and succulents. Here’s my sketch of one such house:
Susana came upon me sketching – not difficult as there’s only one or two narrow little paved paths between houses – and chatted as I sketched. “When I was a girl, I used to take my little bicycle and go off on my own,” she said, “and I’d be gone for ages, and I would make a feast of pine nuts for myself…” There was something so charming about remembering a little girl, so free on her bicycle. Then Susana decided to make a collection of pine nuts for us both. She took a rock and bashed away at the little lobes on the pine cones she found littered around. Here she is, making us a feast…
I had never eaten a fresh pine nut, never mind a whole handful presented to me. Mmmm…heaven. Lovely though they are, they are a million times better fresh. To keep our tally of sketches to six, Hélio and I figured we’d do another before the last ferry left for the mainland. So we found a spot on the beach and got down to work. I found it hard as I was so cold…but not half as cold as I would be while waiting for the ferry, though.
My hands were white claws again, even stiffer and colder on the ferry home to Olhão than they had been earlier, but eventually we were home in our warm rooms – with a few minutes to get ready before we headed out to Faro to another wonderful restaurant, where we had octopus and a lovely glass of something white in the old, Roman walled city.
Thursday 22nd March
Oranges and Storks in FaroThe next day was warm and sunny. We drove into Faro, which is only fifteen minutes or so from Olhão. In the walled city, we came upon a beautiful, open square, planted all around with orange trees heavy with fruit. “They are too beautiful!” I said to my friends. “Not allowed to plant orange trees in towns any more,” said Hélio somewhat dolefully. “Something to do with them being classified as agricultural, I think.” “But they look so pretty,” I said. I determined to find a likely composition that would include at least one orange tree. I began, trying to find a composition that would take in the drama and shadow of the pretty buildings and an orange tree too. A man struggled up the street that is in shadow in my sketch and when he made it to the top he coughed loudly and so alarmingly severely. He leant on my orange tree and coughed more, expelling a lot of fluid onto the street. A well-dressed woman approached him from the opposite side of the square. “Good,” I thought, “That nice lady is going to call an ambulance.” I could hear her clearly, a Spanish tourist from Andalucia. “Stay still, Santi,” she said to the man, “while I take a photo.” You can see him in my sketch, still leaning on the tree. Maybe she took him to hospital after she had her photo.
Then I took a selfie, a practice I have always made fun of. It’s my generation, we think it’s stupid and unspeakably vain. Oh well,I guess I’m unspeakably vain then. But how could I resist, warm in the sun as I was, in a sun hat that I’d made especially for the trip (and that actually worked!), on a tour of a country that I’d long wanted to visit, to sketch!
I felt I hadn’t done the gorgeous storks nesting at the tops of the church justice the previous day, so went to find some more. Hélio, sketching down the little street in my sketch, pointed me in the direction of a nest he’d seen. I drew them from a spot just outside the arched entrance to the walled part of the city, where I could see them clearly on top of a church.
After that it was time for a well-earned lunch. Susana had found a little place she liked the look of in a sunny square. The waitress took the order. “And you, Nino?” she asked Hélio. I thought that was so cute – menino is “boy” in Portuguese so “nino” is short for that. We ate razor clams (“Lingueirão a Bulhão Pato”) by the steaming terracotta dish-load. My first time. They were fat and firm and so tasty. “What does Bulhão Pato mean?” I asked Susana. “That’s the name of the guy who invented it,” said Susana. “Men have to name their recipes after themselves.” I wonder if I should name everything I make from whatever’s in the fridge after myself. Hmmm.
I slipped up in my spelling of razor clam in Portuguese a few times…my apologies.
Hob-nobbing at Quinta Do LagoAfter that incredible lunch we made our way to Quinta do Lago, a sort of resort for those not short of a few bob. “It’s a bit Disneyland,” said Susana, “in that everything is so perfect.” It truly was perfect – not a blade of grass out of place, not a vast plate glass window less than gleaming – but personally, I prefer my Portugal a bit more untamed. We decided to visit the beach, which is accessed via a very long boardwalk that traverses the Ria Formosa. The wind was ferocious and I tied my hat down with my scarf. When we came to the end of the boardwalk the beach was fenced off – repairs or something – so we sat under the walkway, next to a terribly chic place called Bar Gigi, and drew from underneath. I was putting everything on social media – we’d been asked to by the Tourist Board – and this one followed suit. “I can feel the heat from the sand,” said one person. Well, the sun may have been strong, but the heat part was an illusion, I assure you.
There was a quirky statue of a bright red metal fish with multicoloured metal scales beside the bar, perfectly positioned against the blue sky. Its intense colours suited the setting, and the contrast between it and the soft colours of nature around it worked really well. I liked sketching it but I’m afraid the multicoloured scales were beyond me.
Friday 23rd March
The Fish Market at LouléIt wasn’t long before the rain set in on Friday, but the indoor fish market in Loulé made a great subject to sketch. I found a stall selling goose barnacles. The fishmonger told Susana that he didn’t mind me sketching as long as I didn’t block customers, then welcomed me in perfect English. No surprise there.
A Dutchman in his sixties or seventies approached with another man and two women. “What is de name of dose in English?” he asked the fishmonger’s daughter. “I don’t know the name in English,” she said. “They’re goose barnacles,” I told the man. “I’m told they’re very special.” “They look disgosting,” he said in a loud voice. “And dey are very expensive!” I didn’t bother telling him that they are gathered at a risk to life and limb of the fisherman, who abseil down cliffs to gather the shellfish in churning seas, waves crashing all around them. Sometimes, Susana told me, they don’t come back. The price reflects the difficulty in getting them. I was offended on behalf of the fishermen, but even more so on behalf of these beautiful creatures. The women in the group didn’t seem bothered by his bad manners. If it were my husband I would have told him not to be so rude. (I’ve just learned that in Irish folklore, seabirds could not be eaten. The exception was barnacle geese, who weren’t really birds but fish – they took their other form, goose barnacles, at certain times of the year…making them fish.) Off I trotted to find another scene to sketch. I chose the wrong one. I started to draw a fishmonger, a short-ish lady with a very pronounced frown. I decided to give her a smile, because she was a bit on the intimidating side, and there was always the chance that she would come and look.
Sure enough, after a few minutes’ hard glaring, she came over to look, calling her younger colleague to come too. I don’t speak much Portuguese yet but I did my best. “Ha ha, em…is not very good…no look like you…I draw the market…the market is very pretty…I like much the fish…” I probably didn’t say that at all – as I say, I don’t speak much Portuguese. I should have spoken in my best BBC English. Anyway, the woman continued to glare at me terrifyingly, then after a bit she shrugged at her colleague (who was also unfriendly) and they each sauntered back to their respective stalls. There is a man on the left of the sketch, not the cross lady’s colleague, who was in reality to the left of the cross fishmonger. That’s because I was too chicken to finish the sketch as it appeared, and filled in the rest from another stall. The heavy man I drew on the far left wanted to see the sketch too – but he laughed and showed his colleagues. Then I drew another stall. The fish were just too beautiful to ignore. The fishmonger was kind and accommodating, admired my drawing and took the opportunity of me “watching” his stall to nip out for a crafty cigarette. So all but one of the fishmongers whose stock I sketched were very nice indeed.
I felt conflicted as I drew. The fish looked like people, in a fish sense, and I felt sorry for them, their expressions frozen in horror (not that they’d be any different frozen in joy, or sorrow etc.), heaped up on a cold icy slab (again, not that they’d prefer it warm). The thought of becoming a vegan felt closer that morning.
Beautiful Nature in Fonte BenémolaAfter Loulé, we drove into the hills to visit Fonte Benémola, a beautiful hiking trail in a valley cut through with a spring. It’s known for its flora and fauna and it’s a magnet for birdwatchers and lovers of wildlife. I found some agaves and a nice path to sketch. The sign I drew showed all kinds of birds you might see on your walk, and we were passed by a couple of groups of birdwatchers.
Just as we got back to the car, we saw an enormous toad scrambling calmly up the bank. I spent my childhood in the Wicklow Mountains hunting (unsuccessfully) for critters, so I was enchanted. A toad!! A huge and wonderful toad!!
I looked it up: it’s called a Western Spadefoot Toad and it lives in the western Algarve…which isn’t too far from where I was. Afterwards we went for dinner at a Swedish-themed restaurant in Vilamoura…we were kind of supposed to be having wonderful Portuguese food but I had gravadlax.
Saturday 24th March
Thermal Waters at MonchiqueIn the morning, we climbed into the hills towards the west. On the way we passed my favourite sight of the whole trip: along a straight stretch of road with hills on one side and a valley on the other, we passed dozens of telegraph poles…all with an enormous stork’s nest perched on top. Nearly all had a white stork in residence. It was as if an entire village had been constructed by these birds, and I imagined a whole stork society carrying on, with jealousies, intrigues, broken promises…or maybe they just felt safe together. Eventually we came to our destination, a thermal spa in the mountains called Monchique (pronounced “mon-sheikh”). The water that springs there is mineralised, and we walked past, and declined to sketch, a factory which bottled the water for export. We walked on, climbing the hill down which the water coursed, babbling and gurgling as it ran. I found an agave – a favourite subject of mine, as you may have guessed by now – and got busy. My black ink pen had started giving me trouble so I was working in brown, and I was really enjoying its soft look. Once again it was a tranquil experience.
I had time for a quick sketch while Hélio finished his, and so I did what I love doing – a sketch of people in action. Here are Hélio and Susana:
I hope you can see something of their personalities here – Susana’s bubbly vivacity and Hélio’s calm dedication. Later that morning Francisco the cameraman joined us, bringing our merry little band to four. After we’d finished sketching we set off for lunch. We stopped at a restaurant near a beach and I drew the sun hitting the glassware, casting translucent shadows on the tablecloth.
Afterwards, things got rather lovely. Our first stop was the beach at Mareta, near Sagres, where the rocks were golden and the breaking waves a beautiful turquoise. I sketched to a soundtrack of crashing waves. Before my trip to Portugal, my husband Marcel had said to me that spending 24/7 with people I’d only just met was a tall order, but the wonderful thing about this sketch tour was that we spent many long, tranquil periods in silence, totally immersed in concentration. I don’t know about the others, but I never felt in any way that I needed time on my own – because we had it, at different times all day, every day. The sun was warm and we spent an hour or so on the beach. The sea was hopping with fish, and if you looked at the curling edge of the waves you could see tantalising glimpses of their bodies suspended in the column of water.
Here’s the photo I need to look at when I’m feeling sorry for myself:
I had to get in those beautiful golden rocks…
After we wrapped up the sketching on Praia de Mareta, there was another treat in store. We made our way to a nearby beach that’s popular with surfers. The sea loomed in front of us…at the bottom of a cliff. I wondered how we were supposed to get down there (lazy much) and I soon found out. A long line of steps brought the determined to the shore, and down we went (although Hélio chose to sketch the panoramic view from the top!). Praia do Beliche is Susana’s favourite beach, and I could see why, when we did arrive at the bottom. There are only rocks there, and there were people getting in and out of wetsuits all around us. I was delighted to get sketching as the whole place had that fabulous vibe you get at a surfing beach – I remember it from my (extremely amateur and short-lived) surfing days in my twenties as a student, off the coast of Co. Clare. I wanted to put a surfer into my sketch, and luckily there were lots of people walking to and from the shore.
The cliffs are a lot higher than I have drawn them, but I had already drawn the tops of them when I realised…just imagine them a bit higher please!
Sunday 25th March
Praia da AmoreiraNext morning was possibly our biggest challenge yet, as the wind was absolutely nuts. We stopped at a beautiful beach along the west coast, Praia da Amoreira, I put on all my clothes, and threw Susana’s lovely silver puffer jacket on top of all that (I covet it). I tied my hat down with my scarf (again) and got to work, fearful that sand would blow into my paints. It’s just about the only thing I can think of that really, definitively ruins paints, as it’s nigh-on impossible to get embedded sand out of pans of paint. I know this because a little blind poodle crashed into me once on a beach while I was sketching. My paints never recovered. But no such bad thing happened this day.
AljezurAfter the lovely beach, we climbed once again into the hills and reached the ruined ramparts of Aljezur. It was lovely up there, sunny and windy, but my task was to make a sketch that encompassed both the massive walls of the castle remains and the feeling of being on top of a hill, with terracotta rooftops in the distance. I decided to draw through the entrance, and Susana sat nearby. There was just one problem: there was an ugly gate in the entrance. I thought I’d use artistic license and leave it out. Francisco looked at the sketch when I’d finished. “I left out the gate,” I said, “I feel kind of guilty.” “But it’s clear that the maintenance guy came and took the gate just as you were starting your sketch. He’s done whatever needed doing and returned it now.” That made us laugh a lot, as the Portuguese have the same attitude to maintenance that the Irish do – ie. we don’t bother.
Because I was close to the entrance, a few people coming through stopped to talk. My favourite was an Englishman who was thinking of moving to Portugal. “I’ve lived in Spain for a long time,” he told us in a strong Mancunian accent. “And I’m thinking of coming ‘ere. I can buy a place for fifty thousand, do it up and sell it for a ‘undred and fifty. I can speak the lingo, too! But Spanish and Portuguese aren’t the same, you know.” Susana, clearly Portuguese even to the untrained eye I would have thought, nodded politely. “No,” he continued, pointing at Susana as if to emphasise his point. “not all the words are the same. Not all of them.” Hélio, Francisco, Susana and I talked, as you do, of national characteristics, and quite a bit about the difference between the Spanish and Portuguese. “The Spanish are much louder,” said one of my new friends. I remembered some of the many Spanish tourists I’d heard before I’d seen over the few days – and I’m speaking as a person passionate about Spain and the Spanish character. In fact, I said the thing about being louder to my Spanish sister-in-law and she agreed in her calm way (she’s not at all loud). She also told me that the Spanish and the Portuguese have a funny relationship – that although they share the Iberian Peninsula, each looks away from each other. But the most telling anecdote came from one of my new Portuguese friends. “I know a guy who came to live to Portugal,” one of them said (I can’t remember who), “and he went back to the Spanish town where he was from, in his Portuguese-registered car, for a wedding [or something]. He got lost and asked a policeman for directions. The policeman didn’t understand him, despite the fact that my friend was talking Spanish, and was from the same area the policeman was. My friend asked again. Still no comprehension. Then the guy explained that he was a local, but that he lived in Portugal and drove a Portuguese-registered car. Suddenly the policeman could understand him.” I’ve been on the receiving end of that from English folk because I’m Irish. We went on to have a good rant about our shared experience as a smaller country overshadowed by a larger one.
PedralvaIn the afternoon we drove to Pedralva for lunch. Pedralva is an adorable village a short distance from the coast, tastefully restored from a dilapidated state into a sort of holiday village by a local entrepreneur. You can walk around its pretty cobbled streets in about ten minutes, looping around to arrive back where you started. I really enjoyed sketching the beautiful traditional houses in Pedralva.
I wasn’t finished with Pedralva, and so, after Francisco had finished recording his interview for the project, which took place on a little wrought iron chair in a tiny village patio – so picturesque! – I made another sketch. This was done at the far end of the village.
I thought that was the end of the day. The end of the sketching tour, in fact. The sun was starting to set and it was getting cold. But no… We drove for a while, with a sketch and a bit of filming at a last beach in the minds of Susana and Francisco, stopping at last on the road to Vale Figueiras. I was really cold by this stage and was in no mood for a sketch, or, more precisely, in no mood to freeze to death while sketching. It’s funny, though – sometimes you make the best sketches when you’re under pressure. I had to make fast decisions. Luckily, Francisco took up position a short way along the path down to the sea, and I knew that since he was taking time to frame a shot I would have a few seconds to get his shape down. Susana had walked a bit further down the road, and I managed to put her in too, so that the two figures gave a sense of scale and distance. At least I hope they do.
I wanted to paint the hills getting gradually lighter as they receded in the evening haze, but the paint refused to dry in the freezing air. I did my best. Back in the car, Hélio and I mused that we’d just made our last sketch…and that would have been the case, except that the bottle of tea at dinner later that evening was too pretty to ignore. It had a burnt orange paper napkin tied around its “shoulders”, looking for all the world like a superhero cape: the bottle of milk beside it we decided was a babushka. Turn them around and they were cowboys. Such amuses the simple…but the table had burnt orange things on it everywhere, and I had to get them down. Whether or no our last sketch had been done, I couldn’t resist sketching the lively look and the colours of the table.
And so ended our tour. Five and half days of intense sketching; wonderful wining and dining; beautiful scenery. I will go back, for sure, not least to try out my progress in Portuguese. But mostly because I can’t wait to indulge in more wonderful fish, swim in that lovely fresh-looking water and explore more of the hills in search of toads and things. When we got back, I was talking to Marcel about a lady I’d met here in Ireland. I was telling him how I was jealous of all her achievements and how beautiful she was. “If she had just come back from a sketching tour of Portugal,” he said, “you would be extremely jealous, wouldn’t you?” I would.