The path rises steeply behind the cottage, skirting an olive grove before disappearing invitingly into a thicket of small trees. One kid asked me where it went, and another said that it looked like a good place to find some snakes. It was time for a mini-adventure.
It takes only a short nature walk in a foreign country to appreciate the wonderful diversity of the world we inhabit. As we started to climb, Child #1 pointed out that Portugal is (much) closer to Africa than it is to our native Luxembourg, and this was immediately evident upon observing the flora and fauna around us. Far from being the lifeless arid desert it first appeared, the Portuguese countryside in high summer was brimming with signs of life. Ants swarmed underfoot, butterflies – delicate wisps of nothingness – floated by on the warm breeze, and bright red and black beetles foraged for snacks on dried flower heads.
In front of us, something invisible scuttled under a nearby bush (a snake?) whilst some vibrant blue-and-black feathers on the path were testament to an unseen struggle.
Overhead, two huge birds of prey circled ominously; the size of kites but without the distinctive forked tail. Child #1 declared confidently that they were some sort of overgrown Portuguese buzzard and we all stood there watching them until our necks hurt.
It was only then that it really sunk in: this was, truly, a foreign place for us. Or, rather, it was we who were foreign here. For example, I pride myself on being able to identify most of the common wild plants in Luxembourg, but here I could name only two with absolute certainty: the ubiquitous olive tree and the occasional fig bush (sadly not yet ripe). A pretty yellow flower that Child #3 wanted to pick for Mama was protected by thorns so sharp that the slightest brush could draw blood. Most beguiling of all were the delicate blue flowers blooming abundantly around the olive trees – chicory. Each of these little miracles bloom only once, and exclusively in the morning; when the burning Portuguese sun is high in the sky they protectively fold their petals into absolute obscurity, never to be seen again. The chicory plants guard their secret closely through the heat of the day, until cooler temperatures coax them into producing more of their transient wonders.
The kids never did see a snake, but they discovered a new world. Listening to them excitedly recount their adventures to Mama afterwards, I reflected – not for the first time – that kids don’t always need theme parks, organised activities or interactive visitor experiences to be happy travellers. Simple pleasures are often the most memorable.
Daisy the bus visited Pernes, Portugal in late July 2016
(c) 2016 Jonathan Orr