High Tech Homesteading in Central Portugal
Updated: 2 days ago
When the internet began, during those heady early days of Geocities and Angelfire, it was widely projected that unfettered communication among the people of the world (or, at least, among the people of the world who could afford a computer and dial-up) would result in a greater understanding of each other and bring us all together with a new appreciation of our differing perspectives and fundamental similarities. Today, when most of the internet appears to be actively on fire with hatred, other-ing, and willful toxicity, it's very refreshing to find a corner that manages to live up with some success to that original promise.
In Central Portugal generally but in the district of Castelo Branco particularly (see my deep dive article about C.B. here) there exists a growing community of ex-pats who have moved there in pursuit of a simpler life and who record their experiences via GoPro, drone, trail cam, and other means, making them available on YouTube. What form that simple life takes varies depending on the people involved, from creating an off-grid homestead from scratch to renovating what was once a fully functioning farm and running it in a traditional manner. Every style and approach brings its own challenges and rewards, but all of them are shaped and coloured by the character of rural Portugal. What's really delightful to me is that there is a developing crossover between and among these channels, a trend I will look at near the end of this article after taking a look at some of the major players in this community.
The Indie Projects
Theo and Bee of The Indie Projects (and cats Ginjey and Fernando) are the quintessential van-life digital nomads, having spent six years traveling the world in vans prior to moving on to their Portuguese land. They have perfected the self-supporting model of product endorsements, YouTube ad revenue, and Patreon subscriptions that allows them to live and travel an alternative/touring/off-grid lifestyle. Last summer, they needed somewhere to settle down during the Pandemic, deciding to move onto their five acre plot in Castelo Branco and transform an abandoned stone barn there into a tiny home.
These guys are indefatigable, learning and applying skills as they go, documenting it all in twice-weekly, slickly-edited episodes. I've been following along for over a year now, and for a long time I suspected their relentlessly upbeat approach to life involved the usual amount of influencer impression management. Now, I suspect that's just how they are, and that relentless energy allows them to get shit done. The first video linked to above gives a good condensed version of the work they have put in on their barn. All very impressive and industrious, and all the more so given that they have been finishing the barn without builders (who quit) for the past six months. That includes such tasks as finishing the roof, making a stone patio floor, building a mezzanine, pouring an interior concrete floor, and now surfacing the interior walls with rendered lime plaster. So much work! Please send some positive thoughts their way in support of their workhorse 1980s truck that is in dire straits at the moment. It's a great truck, very Portuguese in character. Finally, fun fact - they were contestants in the BBC reality show, "Win the Wilderness: Alaska," which was actually pretty good. As I recall, they didn't make it very far, but they acquitted themselves very well.
Eco & Beyond
With Kylie and Guy of Eco & Beyond (and their cats - cats are a motif with many of these families), we have an example of a couple taking advantage of the fact that one of them (Guy) has a job in software that allows him to work remotely. They had a couple of renovation projects in England under their belts, and decided to make their next, biggest, and likely final project in the Sertã region of Castelo Branco. They bought a modest piece of neglected land in a small village with a two-storey farmhouse in need of a ton of work and are setting about fixing it up.
Like Theo and Bee, these guys are very industrious and serious about the work they are putting in. They are also quite tech savvy, and so their videos are well edited and pleasant to watch. Unlike The Indie Projects, though, they are producing their channel just for the fun of it and have no history of using YouTube as an income stream (as far as I know). As a consequence, they have an easy, natural and unscripted quality that is very appealing. Also, good news for them, their chemistry and pleasure with each other's company is strong and obvious, resulting in some good, spirited banter.
Kylie has most of the skills training for the job (plumbing, electrical), does a lot of their research, and usually takes the lead in planning their construction (and destruction) work. Guy more than holds up his side of the bargain, though, adding his own geeky flair with items like a wireless weather station. They both readily admit they have plenty to learn, and they have no qualms sharing both their successes and failures. There is often an investigative quality to their efforts, too, as they figure out how the farm was originally set up and how they can adapt that (usually decrepit) infrastructure to their plans. They are off-grid and committed to eco-friendly practices, while also trying to conform with traditional building practices. It's all good stuff, both entertaining and informative.
Luke and Sarah's Off-Grid Life
A personal favourite of mine is Luke and Sarah's Off-Grid Life. I have so many positive things to say about this channel that it's difficult to know where to start. To begin with, Luke and Sarah are both just hilarious, genuine people who love their animals, their land, and their lifestyle with a raw intensity that is invigorating. Three years ago they bought 42 acres (!) of rural property in the barrocal of Castelo Branco; "barrocal" means a hilly, bouldered, well-watered and, to me at least, intrinsically interesting landscape for them to live, work, and play in. An equal participant in almost all their videos is their much beloved dog, Molly, who grew up on the land and is having, I suspect, the best dog life ever. There are also cameos from their cat Timmy, their chickens and goats (Luke's dream of shepherding goats being fulfilled, very nice), and some slightly troublesome guinea fowl.
These guys work very hard on their content, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. They make delicious food, demonstrate cheese-making, build a cob oven and a rocket oven, prepare for goats, clear their land, discover old stone walls and infrastructure under masses of brambles, visit their stretch of river, manage their garden, show how to register your land for a controlled burn, and Luke specializes in using his chainsaw to produce amazing rustic furniture and building materials. I enjoy their efforts so much, I have done a bunch of graphic design work for them, with more in the future. They were my very first clients and so will always have a special place in my heart. Of all the YouTube channels reviewed here, theirs is perhaps the roughest around the edges, but I think that gives them a raw, unfiltered quality that is very endearing. I will say, too, that the quality of their videos from a technical standpoint has much improved with all of their very prolific practice.
Farmer For Fun
Also very high on my list of faves is Joseph Marsh and his family with their new channel, Farmer For Fun. The Marshes bought an established cherry farm in Fundão about five years ago that had been laying fallow for a while, fixed it up, and have transformed it into a beautiful hobby farm that conveniently grows enough cherries to sustain the farm all year. This is a very nice set up indeed with all the necessary infrastructure to raise chickens, sheep, geese, ducks, quail, bees, and soon a couple of pigs. There are enough olive trees to make their own oil and enough grape vines to make their own wine. Fundão is located in the Beira Baixa, often referred to as the fruit bowl of Portugal, and is about as Shire-like as you can get - 10/10 on the Hobbit scale. Here's a screen cap from the most recent episode:
Joseph is a lovely man with a strong romantic streak that is readily apparent in his writings on his Instagram account. That love of the place he has landed in and the animals they raise definitely comes across in his videos, too. He's also a bit of a foody, sharing recipes made from cultivated and especially wild ingredients; one of my favourite episodes portrays fishing at a secret spot on the local river and then cooking up a trout beside the water. Check it out here. Videos also take us into the town of Fundão on various errands, including the large market there, giving Joseph a chance to show off his Portuguese. There are big changes coming, too, because Joseph and his partner, Mariana, have a child on the way. The cuteness factor is about to go through the roof! When their subscriber base hits 5,000, Joseph is going start thinking about merch, which I will hopefully be helping him with. So go smash that Subscribe button. This guy needs t-shirts!
Our Portuguese Homestead
Speaking of babies, no review of vloggers in Central Portugal would be complete without acknowledging the work of Our Portuguese Homestead. Lea and Maarten moved from the Netherlands to the area in 2018, establishing an off-grid homestead from scratch on a long-neglected property, and starting their YouTube channels almost immediately. That kind of thing is always a challenge, but even more so considering that they were accompanied by their three month-old baby girl, Puck, who we have been able to watch grow into the toddler she is today. Not to mention also the very recent arrival of the newest member of the family, Bo. Lea is very good in front of the camera as she documents not only their chores and activities, but also her thoughts in general. Throw in some very pragmatic discussions of budget and project planning, and the result is a very robust view of the challenges, lessons and successes of this kind of life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the person I relate to the most here is Maarten, an unassuming, bespectacled guy with a lot of white in his hair and beard (as do I), who clearly has a ton of common sense and hands-on skills (me, less so). They bought this little digger about a year ago, and here we see Maarten doing some water management by building a stone-lined culvert under their road. As the saying goes - "I love hard work, I could watch it all day." Along with watching Puck grow, we have also seen Maarten grow as a presenter, from wishing he was anywhere else besides being on camera, to his now much more relaxed contributions. Thumbs up, man!
Quinta Fonte da Pipa - Portuguese Farm Life, is another example of an English family taking over a large (13 hectare) well-established farm that had been unused and untended for some years (in this case, over twenty). I'm still relatively new to this channel, having found out about them just a couple of months back when Luke and Sarah were gifted their billy goat from them. They have been restoring and upgrading their property for seven years, managing to turn it into what looks like a significant operation. They certainly have a lot of goats along with all that brings, such as milk and cheese, and many hundreds of olive trees and cork oaks. Part of that restoration has involved rebuilding after being hit by wildfire in 2019 and suffering quite a bit of damage, as well as the effects of Storm Elsa that same year.
I'm very impressed with Alex, one of those guys who is handy at all the skills needed to run a farm - in other words, just about everything. From repairing a 90 year-old Lister engine, to rendering old walls with fresh cement, to pruning and shaping the various types of trees, to faux finishing aluminum window frames to look like wood (that last one surprised me and is generally not required of a farmer), Alex does it all while providing matter-of-fact narration for the camera with the occasional wry smile and an obvious sense of satisfaction. The amount of work that has been done, is being done, and needs to be done is prodigious and never-ending. Alex is often assisted by his daughter, Molly, whose responsibilities also include milking the goats and making a wide variety of cheeses. I encourage you to take the time to watch the "Renovation Pt.3" video above, as the end of it contains a very touching unboxing when Alex and Molly reveal a subscriber's gift of many tools for working on a lathe - wood turning being Alex's main artistic pursuit. I'm hooked!
The vlog that started my interest in Central Portugal in general and Castelo Branco in particular is still going strong - OKportugal, hosted by Ken and his partner, Gina. Here is a short article I wrote about them in April, 2020. They are assisted by dogs DogDog and Mimosa, accompanied by cats Nanook and Mecho, and proud caretakers of various chickens and bees. Their 3.5 hectare farm lies on the flat, fertile plain near the Serra da Gardunha (a local mountain range) and close by a large dam-created lake, the Albufeira da Barragem de Santa Águeda (seen in the distance, above).
The property had not been sitting empty and idle for too long before they took it over in very late 2019, just in time for Storm Elsa. Their land features over 80 olive trees, a vineyard, and fields for growing hay. Their very helpful neighbour (I have unfortunately forgotten his name) makes frequent appearances with various large pieces of farming equipment and even his family to help accomplish what needs to be done when for the upkeep of a very traditional farm like this one.
Recently, Ken and Gina have started offering a new service, visiting properties that are for sale and making detailed walk-through and walk-around videos to clearly demonstrate what the place has to offer. These are at the request of viewers of the OKportugal channel who are interested in buying property in the area but can't be there to to do the walk-through themselves. It's a great chance to get a really close look at what some of the options are and at what price. Ken loves to fly a drone, and so these video reviews are well-supplemented with a bird's-eye view.
This is getting pretty long, and I still want to point out some of the crossover episodes, so I'll just mention quickly a few more channels that are worth a look at if, like me, you enjoy this kind of thing.
Project Kamp - This is another channel that I am quite new to. I have a lot of questions about the full picture, but as far as I can tell, this guy, Dave, from the Netherlands, along with other people (One Army) bought this piece of land between Coimbra and Viseau and want to establish a kind of eco-friendly, off-grid... commune? Proof of concept? I guess? They are clearly making it up as they go along, but it's interesting so far. The biggest problem they are dealing with at the moment is highway noise.
The Indigo Escape - Omar and Andrea recently bought a smallish plot and a big ruin in a village near Coimbra. Their experience is limited but their optimism is monumental. They are certainly fun to watch as they begin an undeniably epic journey. Proof positive that one can learn almost any practical skill (like pouring concrete post-footings, for example) from YouTube videos. Good luck, guys!
I very recently learned of Cindy Vine (an oversight on my part), an author and a traveler who is settling down on 2.5 hectares of land near Fundão in Castelo Branco. Like Theo and Bee, she is tackling a small ruined stone barn. Part of her YouTube content includes interviews with people like Luke and Sarah, as well as Alex and Molly from Quinta Fonte da Pipa and Lea from Our Portuguese Homestead. She also makes practical advice videos for things like getting your NIF, hunting licensing, the medical system, and more. Definitely a local resource that I look forward to learning more about. Her main website can be found here. ***Edit, June 18: Cindy is actually traveling across Europe at this very moment to Portugal and her land. Good luck, Cindy! All green lights.
Special mention here for Kirsty Henderson and her portugalfromscratch Instagram account, as well as her website. Kirsty has been working towards moving to Portugal for quite a while, and is now living and working on her half acre plot in Castelo Branco. She is a very talented and effortless writer, allowing her to document the entire process in much detail. Well worth the follow on IG.
It's clear that many people have a part of the brain that really responds when characters from different narratives meet and cross over into each other's frame. Witness the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which puts this effect on steroids. My own personal brain certainly works that way, offering some explanation for why I find these crossover episodes so satisfying. They help flesh out the CBCU (Castelo Branco Cinematic Universe).
Here are most of the crossover episodes up to the present. I'm sure there will be more to come.
Luke and Sarah go to Quinta Fonte da Pipa to generally be smitten with goats and with baby goats in particular. The Fonte da Pipa family gave them their billy, Billy - seen here at lunch.
Alex and Molly visit Luke and Sarah's land for a deworming demonstration. For the goats, I hasten to add.
Theo and Bee drive Ken and Gina to the hospital, they all have lunch in Castelo Branco, and Theo and Ken go fishing.
From the lake shore to the mountain top, Ken and Theo enjoy an outing.
The whole family from Our Portuguese Homestead dropped by for a visit to the Farmer For Fun spread. This episode contains Joseph's footage of the visit...
...and this video has some footage from the other side.
Strolling Around the District on a Thursday Morning While My Family Sleeps
Because I am sitting in front of a computer in Vancouver, the only way I can experience this lovely part of the world is vicariously through the aforementioned videos or, another very pleasurable activity for me, through Google Earth and, in particular, the Street View option. Photo Spheres are good, too, but there are only so many of them and you're locked into the perspective the photographer chose. With Street View there is obviously a lot more flexibility.
One might wonder why I'm so interested in this part of Portugal when I have never been there. It's a long story, and for those who might be curious that backstory is covered in quite a bit of detail in the article Too Much Information and, to some extent, The Plan and Design Developments. I visited Lisbon and Lagos for a couple of weeks when I was 18, and again for two weeks in 2005, that time with my wife, Lisa. She had never traveled before, and our time in Lisbon and Lagos was magical, only exceeded by a couple of day trips to Sintra. Peak experiences.
Spending some time in Castelo Branco and, perhaps, Santarém is high on the list, and one day when all the craziness subsides we will go for an extended visit.
Click on a screen grab to trigger the web-based version of Google Earth and be delivered to that location.
In conclusion, I find the efforts of these folks to be a happy mix of inspiration, entertainment, and information, and all of it in a setting that is gently exotic and very attractive. The fact that some of these threads are coming together to start weaving a kind of community tapestry is heart warming. I look forward every week to catching up with these people and finding out what new problems and solutions have transpired.
These viewings are usually on the couch with our 12 year-old Rowan, our youngest. As some of you will know, Rowan has Downs and light Autism, and such individuals often like routine and familiarity. Over a year seeing these videos with him by my side has made all the major characters well-known to him, to the point that he now watches with rapt attention as, for example, Bee feeds the chickens, or Luke makes a stool, or Ken mows his grass. Having a plethora of animals onscreen certainly doesn't hurt in that regard. Keep that content coming, guys - we love it!