We arrive at “Paradise in Portugal” via the villages of “Indigestion” (Azia), “Purgatory” (Purgatório) and “It’s Fine” (Está Bem). The mood is set. This is going to be different - and the final corner, rounded after miles of wild country and four kilometres of dirt track, provides that “wow” moment. The point where you can’t quite believe what you are seeing...
...Welcome to Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, the absolutely-away-from-it-all country lodge run by Frank and Daniela McClintock beside the Barragem de Santa Clara, the largest dam in Portugal after Alqueva.
This picturesque family-run retreat is a veritable oasis where, even in a crisis, business is booming. A lesson on how niche-market tourism - a sector endlessly underdeveloped by the authorities - could be the way to take Portugal forward to better things.
When former biker/hellraiser Frank McClintock, 54, first arrived in the Alentejan backwater of Santa Clara from the UK in the late 80s, the area was miles from any petrol station, devoid of phone or power lines and locked in an almost medieval way of life. There were around five people per square kilometre - “not much different from some areas of the Sahara desert...” McClintock will tell you. And although he has been literally hacking a successful business out of wilderness for over 25 years, not a lot around him has changed. The fuel station is nearer, and there is a good telephone and Internet connection now, but the ‘Quinta’ is still nowhere near getting mains electricity, water, sewerage or even a proper road - and there are still roughly five people per square kilometre. Yet the place has brought at least 1.5 million euros to the area since it opened its doors in 1987, and the McClintocks regularly provide employment for around five local families.
“We’ve survived by becoming almost 90% self-sufficient,” explains Frank, taking us round the impressive barrage of generators and solar-powered paraphernalia that support the business that has won rave reviews on leading travel websites.
“The Alentejo deserves to be a great tourist attraction, but Portugal can’t seem to think beyond golf and the sea. And when people come along and try and do something different, the first reaction by the authorities is to tax them”.
Luckily, the couple share that “go-the-extra-mile” philosophy. In fact, it could be Frank’s middle name - and their energy and determination finds them this year with “more advance bookings than ever”.
While Daniela, 41, from Austria, holds the fort at the lodge - tied for endless hours to the kitchen - Frank is free to develop one of the jewels-in-the-crown of this couple’s winning formula: birdwatching tours.
These developed from a suggestion made by one of the Quinta’s early guests, a bird enthusiast, who “was amazed by the variety of birds in such a small area” and encouraged Frank to weave the bonus into his holiday attractions.
“I remembered then the advice of an old schoolmaster who had told us to make sure we knew ‘everything about something, and something about everything’”, smiles Frank - one of the driving forces behind the environmental campaign to save Lagoa dos Salgados from the hazards of further development. “So I got busy becoming an authority on birds...”
And over the seven years since Daniela has joined Frank in running the business, the Quinta’s birdwatching side has taken proverbial wings.
‘Birding’, as it is called by those in the know, was one of the reasons for our visit: an invitation to share one of these unique trips that set out before the dawn, cover up to 300 kilometres, and take in almost 70 species, including rare and marvellous sights like the Spanish Imperial Eagle and the Alentejo’s flagship species, the Great Bustard.
Thus, at 5.40am we were off into the darkness, leaving the still, calm, beguiling lake far behind. Destination: Castro Verde - another paradise, but this time on the Alentejan plains where birds and animals outnumber humans by several hundreds to one.
We arrive in McClintock’s mud-spattered jeep just as the sun rises in blazing magnificence over an endless expanse of dew-spattered landscape.
“Bird calls are wired into the human psyche,” he listens to what he tells us is a Great Spotted Cuckoo. “We’re soothed when we hear them, but if they stop, we go straight into “fight or flight” mode. Birds tell us when there is danger”.
Time, for birds, works very differently to the way it works for us, he adds. This explains why whenever you try sneaking up on a bird to catch a better look, it invariably flies off.
“They see things, and react massively quicker than we do”, says Frank. Thus none of his trips would be the same without a Rolls Royce brand of “bins” (binoculars), which he lends clients (like us) who haven’t brought their own.
And so the day was made. Brilliant bins and a manic bird boffin - only too delighted to show the wonders of the land he has come to call home.
We finally come upon a breathtaking drove of Great Bustards in the distance. These stunning creatures are the heaviest flying birds on the planet and if the Alentejo becomes any less populated, they could eventually stop flying altogether and simply walk majestically across the heartbreakingly wonderful plains.
It’s something McClintock concedes could eventually happen if the authorities don’t pull themselves together and start channelling good sense into the country’s interior.
“So much could work here, if only there was the will to help instead of hinder”, he stresses. “Rural tourism/ IT companies: they should all be encouraged to start up here. They should be given incentives - and with incentives, jobs would come and young people would stay”.
Ironically, this year “overnight” the Alentejo lost its ‘deprived area subsidy’, and the Quinta and any other businesses that have weathered the crisis this far, are now faced with a 100% increase in annual tax payments.
“Yet we still don’t have electricity, water or sewerage, and the nearest rubbish bins are four kilometres up a public dirt track that hasn’t been repaired for six years...” McClintock shakes his head.
But there is pride there, too. “I have a huge sense of achievement in having built this place and in having survived...”
And in having become such an expert on birds? “No way... I still have such a lot to learn! I’m learning every day!”
So what about the schoolmaster’s advice: to know everything about something? “Ah!” Daniella breaks into a conspiratorial grin. “Did Frank not tell you that he used to be known as World Bore One...?”
For more information on Quinta do Barranca da Estrada and its birdwatching tours and holidays, visit: http://www.birding-in-portugal.com/
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