Turning Left, A Walk In Palmela, Portugal

We walk out of the front gate and turn left; I think of Jean Ainslie.

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Penelope Wilton’s character, Jean Ainslie, bitterly laments not turning left. It’s a metaphor for the downwardly mobile position that, through no fault of her own, she has found herself in, one which no longer allows her to turn left into first class as she boards an aircraft.

Turning left out of the gate of the quinta

For months we’ve lived at the end of a dirt track, in this lovely quinta with its enormous iron gates, always turning right beyond them, back along the dusty, rutted track to reach the road. To the left of us the track ends at a narrow path that disappears into woodland, a sign on a small post at the start of the path unequivocally declaring privado. But a chance conversation with the quinta owner has lit an ember of hope that the privacy sign might only be intended for vehicles. Reassured that the path leads to the national road, we decide to see if we can forge a walking route from the front gate to the Sado Estuary.

Passing the privado sign and following the little path as it weaves its way through the woods, flanked either side by cork oaks, olive trees and stone pines which stand knee-deep in vivacious grasses laced with wild flowers, in just a few steps we’ve travelled from front gate to the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. I look back at our path and all signs of the quinta have disappeared, swallowed up in the dappled, scented woodland and I cannot believe that this simple path has eluded us for so long, hidden in full view.

From front gate to Fairyland in just a few steps

When the path seems to come to an end in a small turning circle alongside a barbed wire fence, we step over a gap in the wire onto a red earth track alongside dense pine woods on one side and sparse stone pines on the other. In the distance, shimmering in the gentle heat haze of a warm spring morning, Palmela castle sits atop its vanguard hillside, on a clear day visible from beyond the Tagus to the tip of the Setúbal peninsular. But my pleasure in the route has been diminished by the act of stepping over a barbed wire fence. Now unsure whether we’re on private property, I’m alert to every sound and to the very large dog prints that are freshly embedded in the soft, damp sand we’re walking on.

As we emerge from the cover of trees we spot several storks reeling in the sky ahead of us. We’ve heard the clatter of their beaks from our garden and have occasionally seen one or two flying high overhead but these are just a stone’s throw away, flying so low we can see individual feathers. A loud clacking draws our eyes and just beyond the circling birds, an entire colony of storks are nesting on the chimneys and telegraph poles of an abandoned farm on the other side of the field. Enormous, untidy nests sit on top of chimney stacks and tiles, parents standing guard on the rim, chicks clustered behind them, and a frenzy of sparrows fluttering beneath, their own nests buried within the unruly straw.

Storks on the nest
Storks nesting in an abandoned herdade

Turning away from the allure of the stork colony, we reach the road and cross over to follow a narrow passage alongside a row of cottages whose gardens are crammed with flowers and vegetables. Threading our way through small hamlets we pass orange groves where hens peck at the dust around fallen fruit, and allotments where gardeners pull at weeds between neat rows of vines, potatoes and sweet pea before we finally arrive at the Moinho de Mare da Mourisca.

Moinho de Mare da Mourisca
The mill on the Sado estuary

After a couple of hours wandering around the inlets photographing the myriad birds who annually stop here on their migratory routes, we enjoy a tosta mista (ham and cheese melt) at the pretty cafe before setting off to retrace our steps home. When we get to the other side of the national road we follow the small road through the abandoned farm of storks and then take a narrow path through the grassland and into the woods, rejoining our outward route at the gap in the barbed wire fence. Stepping over it into ‘our’ woods, we’re so busy chatting that we miss the path we took earlier in the day and suddenly find ourselves back at the quinta by a different path. Incredibly, not only have we found a delightful woodland walk, literally on our doorstep, but we’ve managed to make it a circular route. We’ve walked it many times since, and it never fails to delight.

And every time, I think of Jean and her conviction that happiness comes from turning left. Maybe she had something there…




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