Floating In Time
We’re floating in time and history here on the Rio Guadiana. 3000 years of history and time.
Phoenicians from the Eastern Mediterranean sailed up here 1000 years before Christ.
Romans, Visigoths and Moors have lived, worked and died here
On the riverbed, just ahead of us, lie the stones of an old causeway.
No one knows who built it. It could have been any of the previous occupants. It was mostly removed in the mid 1800’s to allow ships, heavily laden with copper ore, to more easily pass. If you look closely you can still see evidence of its existence hidden amongst the bamboo on each bank. We’ve seen yachts struggling to anchor over what remains. Modern anchors and big bits of old stone don’t work well together.
On the Portuguese side we are overlooked by the quaintly named ‘Village Castle’. It’s stood there since the 1300’s. On the Spanish side another, Castillo San Marcos, a new build in comparison. It’s only been there 370 years or so.
Actually there have been people hereabouts since Neolithic times. It’s not hard to see why.
Down the centuries this bit of river has echoed to the sounds of warfare, industry and trade.
Now it’s much quieter.
Church bells and the call of the Golden Oriole will be the audio memories we take with us when we leave.
It’d be easy to call this place sleepy, forgotten, hidden. To some extent it’s all of those things, but at the same time it’s very much alive.
The river both joins and separates. Boats cross back and forth constantly. Two countries, two time zones, two languages, but seemingly irrelevant to everyday life.
It’s not always been so. We’re talking of two proud nations here. A few hundred years ago those two castles were lobbing cannonballs at each other. Flags still fly prominently to leave the visitor in no doubt as to the sovereignty on each side.
The national and political border may be clearly defined here, but socially it’s blurred. The history of occupation by people from around Europe continues to this day. It’s long had a reputation for being a place that visitors find hard to leave, and in the short time we’ve been here we’ve seen the truth in it.
We’ve spoken to more than a few who’ve bought land, settled, become part of the place. The locals seem to embrace them, they know that without these incomers their towns would be poorer financially and poorer culturally. It is perhaps this mix of nationalities that contributes to the easy-going feel of the place. There are folks who live in Spain with kids going to school in Portugal and vice versa. Live one side, work the other? No problem. It’s normal here, we shopped in both countries the other morning.
There’s a place in Alcoutim called ‘The Riverside Tavern’. Every Tuesday there’s an informal ‘music night’ on the open air roof terrace. For less than €10 each you can eat a good home-cooked meal, wash it down with a few bottles of beer or glasses of wine, listen to the music, take in the view across to Sanlucar. It’s a weekly event for many of the folks who live on and by the river. Time to relax, talk, laugh, sing, as surely the Romans, Visigoths and Moors must have done when they were here.
There are tourists as well, in nothing like the numbers elsewhere in the Algarve, but enough to bring additional income. They come up river on the tour boats and stop for a few hours, they come to ride the zip wire across the river, there are kayaks, bikes and cross-country 4×4 buggies on offer, you can even try a water jet powered flyboard.
On the Spanish side is the Caminos Naturales, a nature trail that runs alongside the river right down to the coast at Ayamonte.
We walked a few kilometres of it the other day, never saw another soul, it was idyllic.
We got to see ‘Gleda’ from another angle as well.
We chose a cooler day to walk but it was still warm.
Chattering azure-winged magpies led the way, we came upon little lizards sun-bathing in the dirt. We caught glimpses of Golden Orioles and Gail spotted an even more colourful Bee Eater.
Flowering cacti lined the path. The air smelled fresh and clean.
It all felt very foreign, it reminded me why we’re here.
As we walked further we started to spot some signs of habitation. Half hidden sheds, the odd white-painted wall glimpsed through the undergrowth. Later we came across some bigger plots with gardens, chickens, orchards. We’d stumbled across some of the Guadiana’s fabled ‘Fincas’.
I wondered what it would be like to live in one of these places. Completely ‘off-grid’ with no road access, no near neighbours, completely self-dependant.
Looking at a few of the buildings I couldn’t imagine how they’d even been built given that all the necessary materials could only have got to the site by means of a small dinghy and a rickety landing stage.
In some respects there was a bit of a ‘Deliverance’ vibe in the air, it almost felt like we were intruding. If a guy in dungarees pointing a shotgun had appeared out of the bushes I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Time was getting on anyway, so we turned around and headed back to the boat for lunch.
As I ate I had no idea that my old friend Serendipity was about to pay a visit.
A few hours later I spotted a dinghy heading our way. The dinghy belonged to a guy called Christian who we’d met in passing a while back. His partner Polly had been aboard ‘Gleda’ a few weeks ago to talk to Gail about some holiday accommodation for her Mom.
Anyway it turned out that Christian needed some help. He, Polly and their two girls had plans to be away for a few weeks during July. They’d arranged for a friend to look after their place while they were gone. He’d just had an email telling him the friend couldn’t come, he was in the lurch.
He came straight to the point, Polly had told him we’d planned to stay around for a while, would we consider looking after their home for a couple of weeks? A dog, a cat, some chickens and a couple of sheep, not a lot to do, the place would be ours to enjoy in return.
He pointed down the river towards where his boat was moored. I told him that, funnily enough, we’d just come back from a walk down there and that we must have been close. It turned out that we’d stopped right by the corrugated tin roof of his workshop before heading back.
Just a couple of hours before I’d been trying to imagine what it’d be like to live in the place, now here I was being offered the chance to find out. If that’s not serendipity I don’t know what is.
This morning Christian dinghied us down to see the place, it’s amazing. We didn’t hesitate. Come July we’ll be living ashore for a few weeks, ‘Gleda’ will be moored at the bottom of the garden. It’ll be the perfect way to get the full Guadiana experience.
Oh, and if you needed any further evidence of how different this place is, consider this. Would you ask virtual strangers to look after your home for a few weeks while you were away? No, me neither. But isn’t it wonderful to know that there are places where you can, that there are places where people trust each other, places where people help each other out.
Places floating in time.