Mud, mud…

This might be the first of  a series of descriptive pieces about places I like going to, or it might be a one-off. Apologies for any factual errors.


The area known as the Lezirias is a cultivated flood-plain bordering the Tagus river, about thirty kilometres north of Lisbon. It is a kind of irregular peninsula, bounded on two sides by rivers – to the west by the Tagus, to the east by the much smaller Sorraia – and to the south by the north-eastern shore of the enormous Tagus estuary, into which the Sorraia also flows. At low tide the southern and western sides are fringed by acres of oozy black mud.

The Lezirias are easy to get to from Lisbon. Take the A1 motorway, turn off at Vila Franca de Xira and follow signs for the N10 and Evora, taking the old iron bridge across the Tagus. Half a kilometre east of the bridge there is a wide gateway on the right and you are there. Just drive in.

Today is a good day for a visit. By mid-morning, the sky has cleared, and there is warmth in the low mid-January sunlight. I am in my nineteen-year-old Citroen Berlingo van, and I take it slowly on the pot-holed dirt road. On each side are deep ditches, lined by rough verges of the rich leafy ground-cover which goes wild in the Portuguese winter. The view of the rice-paddies beyond is partially obscured by tall, faintly rustling reeds, feathery heads nodding and swinging. On a cloudless day like this morning, the rain-flooded fields are sky-blue, dotted and striated with dark bristly rice stubble.  They will remain flooded until they are drained for replanting in April. Feeding there are storks, scores of purple ibis, and slim, high-stepping black-winged stilts, scanning for frogs and crayfish. To the left is pasture.

A vast quiet presides over this broad level place. In the haze to the west, far beyond the fields and the unseen river, there is rising ground on which are visible tiny soundless factories and red-roofed housing blocks the size of cigarette packets. Beyond rise the dim hills behind Vila Franca de Xira.  To the east and south, the view is clear to the horizon, where the spindly electricity pylons dwindle, faint and minute. Three or four miles away is the church of Nossa Senhora de Alcamé, boxy in the surrounding levelness.

Today I take a right-hand turn early on, down a road I haven’t explored before. After a couple of miles and a turn or two, I am following a wide, reed-edged channel. There is a low, scruffy white house ahead, where the dirt road rises to the top of an embankment and stops at a broad gate. Well before I park, a rabble of dogs are barking their heads off behind the house’s makeshift fence, and the racket reaches fever pitch as I walk past and up to the gate. Down to the left, the embankment is pierced by a cement sluice-gate, above which runs the path. Beyond it, the much-reduced channel trickles out between soft banks of dark, glistening mud to join the Tagus.

I turn left above the sluice-gate, bearing water-bottle and sandwich, camera, binoculars and a rolled-up lightweight groundsheet. The sun is now very warm, and I remove my scarf and open my jacket. As I walk along the dyke, the yelping gradually fades behind me, finally disappearing entirely into the  enormous, drenching quietness. There are avocets picking about on the estuary mud, and pied wagtails scurrying and fluttering across the rice-paddy. After a few minutes I unroll the groundsheet, spread it out billowing over the knee-high ground cover, and settle down for elevenses. Around me the sunlight strikes the colours into life: the bottle-green of prickle-weeds veined with bright white, the luminous translucence of the broader leaves nodding above them. My sandwich consumed, I sink back for a snooze.

The flood-plain is farmed by the Companhia das Lezirias, who also contribute to EVOA, the organisation which runs the birdwatching centre near the southernmost point of the flood-plain. I drop in there later for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. The centre is recent, a pleasant well-run space with a café, lecture rooms and three big artificial ponds occupying the reedy space which runs south towards the estuary. There are three or four hides for those who don’t mind sitting on a bench in a wooden box for hours, but a visit is not cheap, and in fact there is just as much to see on the way to the centre – far more birds than the ones I have mentioned here, and I glimpsed and filmed a sizeable wild boar a few years ago, before the centre was built.

The café has a plate-glass observation window running its width, through which the nearest of the ponds can be observed with the telescope provided, though I prefer my  Polaris Optics binoculars (highly recommended). The cake today is orange and cinnamon flavour, home-made, sweet, and soggy in the middle. The lady who serves me is quick to forestall comment by pointing out that it is a cake that is intended to be moist. Moist is moist and soggy is soggy, I think, but I say nothing and eat most of it.  At the reception desk I ask about a tourist bus I had seen in the distance an hour or two ago, heading north towards the main gate. Sure enough, there had been a visit from a large group. I have mixed feelings about that, as I do in my grudging way every time a favourite place is discovered and developed.

I ask if there are many visits and if they pay for the maintenance of the centre. There aren’t, and they don’t, but my attention flags as the receptionist explains how the place is subsidised, and I am soon wishing I hadn’t asked. In a little while I head back to the N10.

A Spot of Rain



Another delayed post.

11th October 2017

It’s about five-thirty, a hot and humid late afternoon. The sun is quite low, sloping in at 45 degrees or so, but its heat is still weirdly strong as I step out into the garden.  I potter for a while, bending, straightening, dead-heading, snipping.

Then, out of nothing, a quick patter and rustle around me, and spots of coolness on the back of my white work-shirt. I straighten up.

After three months, it is raining.

The sun continues to beam hotly from the south-west as the rain intensifies. I crane my neck to see a rare sight, a grey cloud directly above, slowly heading north.

‘It’s raining, it’s raining!’ I enthuse, but the dog has headed indoors.

I hurry to turn over the cushions on the garden chairs, and fuss about in wonderment for a while. But it’s over quickly – before the dots and spots on the tiles of the terrace have had a chance to join together, the rain has stopped.

Very interesting, what an afternoon you had, but at the top there, are you sure ‘weirdly’ works? You just mean that it was unseasonably hot, yes?

When I get right down to it, you mean? No actually, I  don’t ‘mean’ that, whatever ‘mean’ means.

Fine, just trying to help.

And it makes no sense anyway.

Don’t start, of course it makes sense.

It has no meaning.

Everyone knows what it means. It’s even in the dictionary.

But unseasonably hot means that the heat was unseasonable, doesn’t it?


Well, also obviously, when something is called unseasonable, that means, and only means, that it cannot be seasoned. ‘Unseasonably hot’ thus means that the afternoon was so hot that it couldn’t be seasoned. And since an afternoon is not something that can be seasoned in the first place, the expression is meaningless.

You’ve lost me a while ago there. Listen, it’s clear to me and everyone else what it means, and it would have made things a lot clearer if you’d just used it in the first place.

Thanks for your views. I’ll give them some thought.



TFSOM is on the Sofa this Week



This post is running a bit late.

6th September

We had eaten in a quiet restaurant in Rebelva, near Carcavelos, arriving early so as to get dinner out of the way by mid-evening. It is one of those little restaurants which are packed with quietly grazing elderly couples at lunchtime but are quieter in the evening. The food is simple, tasty and cheap, in the Portuguese way. I’d had some excellent braised pig’s liver with proper hand-cut chips, my wife had the sardines, and I’d had the lion’s share of a half-litre jug of wine.

On the way home we stopped in Carcavelos to drop off one of those light recliner-rocker chair things for babies, the sort of thing you strap a one-year-old into to watch cartoons until they doze off. My wife’s son and daughter-in-law have a new baby.

We parked and walked towards the flat along a quiet street. I was carrying the chair. In a two-and-a-half-glasses-of-red-wine sort of way, I thought it would be jolly to demonstrate an amusing thing I’d once done when carrying an empty Moses-basket across the school lawn (someone needed one, and I had one to lend).  It was lunchtime, and noting a number of chatting teachers observing me idly, I made a show of clucking and grinning into the empty basket as I approached, before simulating a trip which sent it somersaulting into the air, drawing gasps and shouts and screams of alarm in the split-second before everyone realised it was empty. I told you it was amusing.

Unfortunately, this time I was walking on an uneven pavement of those sharp-edged little Portuguese cobblestones, and in theatrically pretending to trip I actually did trip, falling forward  heavily and hard onto my right knee. It was a second or two before I was able to collect myself and inspect it. The impact had opened a jagged three-cornered gash in the kneecap, the shallow flesh split open in the manner of a burst sausage. Blood had splattered around it and on the ground. I gripped the kneecap tightly in my right hand to stem the bleeding.

Is there much more of this?

Quite a bit, but I can hurry it up.

If you wouldn’t mind. That’s probably enough detail on the knee, for instance.


Veronica, that’s my wife, went on to the flat to get help. After some time an ambulance arrived, and I was taken to Cascais General Hospital, emerging an hour and a half later in a wheel-chair with nine stitches in my knee-cap. Since then I have been twice to the local Health Centre, for follow-up and to have the dressing changed. I was well-treated by the emergency services and have been well-treated at the Health Centre.

Main Characters

Very drunk man

Kept me company (ie wouldn’t go away) when I was alone sitting on the pavement. Kept trying to make me stand up by reaching under my arms, while I waved him off ineffectually. Every time he wandered off, he came wandering back.


Called from the police station round the corner by the very drunk man. Young, calm, courteous and helpful. Seemed intelligent and well-educated. Called the ambulance.

The ambulance team.

The young woman who saw to the first aid was capable, courteous, articulate and friendly. In Portugal, the ambulance service is mostly provided by the Bombeiros Voluntários. This is the volunteer fire brigade (men and women), who are paid either nothing or virtually nothing. 90% of firefighters are volunteers. Anything up to a dozen are killed each year (in 2005, it was 16). This friendly and efficient young woman told me she was a trained  socorrista, which is translated not very helpfully in my dictionary as ‘lifeguard’. Her dream was to complete her nursing qualification.

The doctor who stitched up my knee.

Young, capable, overworked. She’d been on all day. Asking advice from a slightly older colleague, she asked how long he’d been on. ‘Since yesterday’ he replied.

Can I see the wound? Have you got a photo?

Ah. I thought you’d never ask.

Well. I’ve seen worse.

I was expecting you to say that.

So, about the chips.


They’d be called ‘hand-crafted’ in England of course. And they’d be ‘heritage potatoes’. Ridiculous, the menus these days. I read an article in the Mail the other week which summed it up for me …

OK can we come back to that? My point is how efficiently and politely I was treated by the emergency services, in a country suffering badly from economic austerity.

And what does that even mean, anyway?

‘Difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure’.

Is that from a dictionary?

And what it’s meaning is that huge numbers of young, well-trained Portuguese doctors and nurses can’t get a job in their own country, and are now working in places like Britain.

Lucky Britain

Lucky Britain unless they get kicked out because of Brexit

So the article was about a menu at some big dinner, and a piece of cod ‘delicately balanced on a sumptuous organic pearl barley risotto, hand in hand with an English courgette flower beignet.’

Was it tasty?

I didn’t eat it, I read about it. I told you, in the Daily Mail. You don’t listen.

Was it ‘line-caught’? You do see that on menus.

I’m not discussing fine dining with someone who eats braised pig’s liver when they go out to eat.

Suit yourself, but it was very tender and tasty. I’ll take your wishes for a prompt recovery as read, shall I?