Folk have been coming to volunteer at Quinta do Vale for 9 years now and we’ve had many wonderful people stay here and many truly excellent times.
The catastrophic wildfires which swept through a vast area – almost 2,000 square kilometers – of Central and Northern Portugal in just 24 hours of October 15-16 2017 cut off these valleys and burnt everything in sight, including the quinta. In these valleys alone, 22 families and individuals lost their homes. Two people in the village of Cerdeira were among the 50 people who lost their lives.
We were lucky enough not to lose the main communal building (still being renovated) and yurt, but the wee house, geodome greenhouse and the volunteer/course participant accommodation and facilities were destroyed. It took nearly 18 months of gruelling paperwork to get help through the EU disaster relief funding provided to Portugal, but as of April 2019 it was confirmed that the wee house would be rebuilt. Works took place through the summer of 2019 and we hope to have the building fully restored and functional by the start of 2020.
Elsewhere we’re continuing to work flat out on getting the quinta into a suitable state for hosting courses to take our work here to the next level. For 2019, we completed the communal kitchen in the main building and created camping pitches for course participants and volunteers. A programme of 6 courses over a period of 6 weeks took place in June and July and was an amazing start to the quinta’s career as an educational centre. For 2020 we’re aiming to complete the main building and have additional toilet and washing facilities in place.
In 2018 and 2019, I threw volunteering opportunities wide open and we had many utterly amazing people come by to help us recover and rebuild after the fires. For 2020 we’ll be easing back into our pre-fire volunteer programme, although working here will continue to be focused on recovering the quinta from the fires for a long while yet.
Volunteer work details
Work is likely to involve any combination of digging, hauling, clearing land, pruning, weeding, watering, sowing, planting, harvesting, cooking, preserving, laundry, cleaning, emptying the compost toilets, caring for the poultry, planting trees, felling trees, cutting and chopping firewood, construction and building work in stone, wood, bamboo, clay, lime and other (mostly) natural materials, and helping out with the courses here.
There’s minimal use of machinery – it’s impossible to get anything seriously useful onto most of the land – so all earthworks are dug by hand and all building materials moved around the site by hand. Petrol strimmers/brushcutters, chippers and chainsaws are used and it’s an advantage if you’re an experienced user of any or all.
There’s no rigidly set working day. We work as weather, project progress, materials, machines, power availability, inspiration, flow and necessity dictate, and we frequently work on several projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as conditions suggest. Days can range from a full-on, intense, 12-hour stretch at one extreme to a what-the-hell-let’s-go-to-the-river-beach at the other.
While the days aren’t rigidly defined, getting an early start in the morning is essential in summer. It works best to get most of the day’s outdoor work done by lunch time, leaving the hot afternoons freer to slow the pace, work indoors or go cool off in the river.
Experience in any of the various areas of work on the quinta is not a requirement but it’s certainly an asset. More important though is enthusiasm and a willingness to jump in and learn. It’s so much more fun when everyone is enjoying themselves. ‘Work’ becomes play.
It takes about a week to settle into the current projects and the rhythms of the quinta, for teams to gel, to gain facility and familiarity with new skills, etc, so volunteers should be prepared to stay for a minimum of 2 weeks. (Pre-fire it was a month and we will likely move back to this for next year.) The only exception is for returning volunteers.
You need to be fit. I can’t emphasise this enough. Work on the land, especially in heat if you’re not used to it, is physically demanding and so is this steep terrain. As noted, we can also put in some very long days on occasion.
If you have any sort of chronic health problem, mental or physical, which is likely to affect your ability to do this work or put you or others at risk of harm, then I do not encourage you to apply. Note particularly if you have …
- Allergies/hayfever – it’s very hot, dry and dusty here in summer and it’s impossible to keep the dust out of the buildings. There’s a huge variety of plants around the place with no rain in summer to take the pollen out of the air and the schist bedrock reduces to a superfine powder which gets into everything. I also have a dog, several cats, poultry and bees.
- Respiratory, cardiac and/or musculoskeletal problems – this quinta is on the side of a mountain. Whilst the terraces are relatively level (nothing is flat), you will also be working on slopes of 30-45°. There’s an altitude difference of 60m between the top and bottom of the quinta and you’ll be constantly going up and down steps and slopes, often carrying stuff, as you move around the land. The nearest villages are either 100m below or 100m above us. Good lungs are an asset and good knees essential.
Life here goes with the flow, so an easy-going, flexible, humorous attitude will go a long way towards preserving everyone’s sanity, as will the ability to work independently if circumstances and other workload demands.
As of July 2018, I can once again offer accommodation. The one surviving 4-berth caravan has had all its melted windows replaced, electricity and water services to it are restored and the shade structure is repaired. We’ve also added a woodstove for heating. At the moment, this is the only accommodation we have. The rest is up to you to bring.
There are 2 camper van pitches. Electric hook-up to our solar supply and water are available on one. There is one other park-up without services.
There is level ground for camping which can accommodate small to medium-sized tents.
Fresh vegetables, eggs, and whatever fruit has survived will be available from the quinta. Depending on current resources, I may have to ask you to contribute towards food. We generally all eat together and share or take turns to cook.
There are composting toilets on the quinta, an off grid power supply, hot showers (water and sun/firewood supplies permitting), communal kitchen, laundry, refrigeration and wifi.
I don’t have facilities for young children, groups or companion animals. I may occasionally take volunteers in the winter, but it’s the exception rather than the rule and is dependent on prevailing weather conditions. Generally the volunteering season here is April to end-September/early October.
Many here in these valleys are still struggling to come to terms with their losses and all the rebuilding work necessary. Many people lost their homes and everything they had. It will be a long time yet before we are truly back on our feet. It’s a bit like a war zone here. The land is desertifying due to ecosystem degradation and the possibility of water shortages looms every summer.
Nevertheless, good things are happening. Lots of community self-help initiatives and people coming together to volunteer help and support for each other and the devastated environment. To volunteer here at this time is certainly not your usual type of volunteering, but you will have the opportunity to be part of something very special.
There’s a lively social scene in summer revolving around the river beach, craft cooperative and local cafés. There’s lots of music, local markets, events, workshops, parties and lots of opportunities to meet locals and other eco-immigrants.
The following photos provide a flavour of what volunteering at Quinta do Vale has been all about. As I said above, we’ve had some brilliant people stay here over the years. Some of them loved it so much they never left and now have their own places in the valleys, so be warned – this place can capture your heart and your imagination.
If you can’t come and visit but feel moved to help us get our facilities back together again, please see the Support us page.
Find us on HelpX
Benfeita village shop, which stocks a reasonable range of basics, is 500m away down the hill from the quinta. There’s also a post office (mornings only) and café, and a craftworkers’ cooperative with a workshop and shop. The butcher’s is open on Wednesdays. There’s a number of van deliveries: two daily bread vans, weekly fish and vegetables, and monthly frozen food, though catching any of them is mostly a matter of luck or ESP.
There are also two village shops/cafés in the village of Luadas, 100m above the quinta and around 2-3 times the walking distance.
Mobile phone signal here is good to reasonable, depending on your network. Portugal Telecom’s MEO network has the best coverage. Vodafone is patchy to poor. If your network doesn’t work here, you’ll get a signal in Luadas. Or you can use VoIP/messaging apps via the quinta wifi.
In summer, the outdoor café by the river beach in Benfeita has free wifi. The café/restaurant in Pardieiros, the next village along from Benfeita, has free wifi year round.
There were great walks to take in the surrounding hills and valleys. There will be again.