Creating a paradise in Portugal – 4 insights

by Apr 21, 2019Communities, Europe, Off the grid, Reflections, Stories

On this journey we take the roads less travelled to find an answer to the question: How do we want to live our life? Is a life closer to nature and to people something for us? A great reason to stay a little longer at places where people do so. In Portugal we meet Miguel and Shobha who left their Bristol city-life to create a small paradise in a hidden valley, offering beautiful workshop spaces and charming tipi accommodation. How did they make this happen? Read their inspiring story.


Unexpected ways

“I always wanted to realize a place for conscious transformation. A place to find harmony – within yourself and with nature”, Miguel states. For over 20 years he had a clear idea on how and where to realize the place. “I had the idea that it should be in the French Pyrenees or another more exotic place”, he remembers. But in the end Miguel and Shobha found their home in an unexpected way. Shobha her mother is Portuguese and lives in Portugal. She reminded them of an abandoned family property. Miguel: “She knew that we were looking for a place to realize our vision, and encouraged us to start experimenting with our dream.” The first time they saw this hidden valley in Central Portugal will always stay in their minds. “The moment I drove over the hill and had the first view on the valley was so powerful: I could see it very clearly and I had the feeling as if it was looking right back at me – the same feeling as falling in love with a woman”, Miguel says while his eyes are glowing.

Making the leap

From that moment on Miguel and Shobha went to the valley every summer. “Together with friends we build a tipi, played music and enjoyed the magical place. We didn’t have much money, but bit by bit we started working on the abandoned ruin: we restored the roof, the windows”, Miguel says. During the rest of the year they worked in Bristol: Miguel as a successful organic architect and Shobha as a manager of a holistic healing center. “After 10 years I had done what I wanted to do in my field of work and it was time to reinvent myself, to take the next step”, Miguel says. The moment was there just after their son Saul was born in 2010. They sold their cottage in Bristol and left the vibrant city life for the serenity of the Portuguese inland to start the place they had been dreaming of for years.

With their own hands

When they arrived there was a lot of work to do on the six hectares of land. “The few buildings that were there looked like ruins and the black berries were three meters high and made it impossible to cross the land”, Miguel remembers. They started clearing and building up the place step by step. “Miguel was putting all his effort in building up the place. I facilitated it and took care of our son. That is how we were able to build this place with a young child around”, Shobha says. It took them about five years to get the place ready to host yoga and meditation retreats. “Last year was supposed to be the first year that we were fully up and running. We were completely booked for the whole season”, says Shobha. But in June of that year a terrible thing happened: a great fire hit the valley and the surroundings. The family and the participants of a yoga retreat left through thick black smoke and were just in time to make it to safe ground. A few days later they were able to return and found out that a lot of damage was done to their terrain and the surrounding areas, but luckily the house was still intact. Instead that the disaster let them down, they got even a greater ambition to continue and expand their work. “Our desire to inspire people to live in harmony with the planet is only getting stronger. Maybe this crisis was needed to make people aware of the risks of environmental damage and monoculture”, Miguel says stressing the positive side of the fires.

A fluid community

At the moment Gravito is buzzing with life. Although the fires only happened a little more than one year ago, a lot of effort was made to restore the green and peaceful place. And Miguel and Shobha didn’t do that alone. Miguel: “We don’t advertise, but volunteers are coming to add with their talents to develop the place, people that want to organize a retreat know to find us. And interested people come to visit and get inspired by what we are doing. We feel like a fluid community with likeminded people coming and going. Everybody contributes in his own way”, Miguel says with a warm smile. “And the interesting thing is: when we moved from Bristol to Portugal I was most afraid to be all alone in this remote place and to lose my social contacts. But the opposite is true: we are more in contact with people than ever before!”

Lessons for life

That evening we join Miguel, Shobha and their kids in the daily communal dinner with the volunteers. A great moment to share life stories and experiences with people from different walks of life, but sharing the same values and ambitions. We really like this working and building together aspect of the project and could see ourselves doing something like this. While talking about this, Miguel gives us one last advise: “When you start a project, you first want to tick al the boxes; make sure that everything is under control and prepared. But in fact: you are never ready! One thing is for sure: it will not go as planned. It is like getting a child: you can build a bedroom, but apart from that you have no control. One time you have to make the leap. When you feel it is pulling you: just jump!”

We learned a lot from our short visit to Gravito and our talks with Miguel and Shobha. These are the four insights we think are very helpful for people that are starting a project like this:

  • To start a project like this, you need money. After buying a place, make sure you also have enough money to renovate and re-build the place if needed. And don’t forget about the time that it will take to get money coming in from the project. In the beginning, many people struggle with making money with their project. In Portugal it is hard to find a job as a foreigner. Alternatively: search for other sources of income during the initial phase, like for example temporary (freelance) work in your home country.
  • Be creative to find a solution to make your project fit in the legal system, without compromising on what you want to be. Developing and setting up a project goes step-by-step: it grows and changes over time. Are you creating a campsite, a workshop space where people can stay as well, are you providing food, will you be selling products? Almost nothing is set in stone as you develop your place. That makes it difficult to start the legalization from the beginning on. Inform yourself about the necessary permits and think about creative solutions to make things work in the meantime. Connect with other projects that went through the same thing or find a lawyer who can help you find a way to fit in the system.
  • Your life will not be less busy. When you start a big project like this, it will be your life. That probably means that you are almost always working on it. And especially when you cater to guests, it might be difficult to find time for yourself. What really helps Miguel and Shobha is that the work is seasonal: April to October is the time for the retreats and that is when they have a lot of people around. But in the winter there are no guests and they have time for their family, to develop their business and go inwards.
  • Welcome volunteers to add with their experience and skills to the project. It is incredible how many people there are that like to help you out with building your place. You can find them on websites like HelpX, WWOOF or WorkAway. Be clear about your expectations (hours a day, minimum weeks of stay) and what you can provide them in return (food, accommodation, learning new skills). And remember: sometimes you give, sometimes you get. One time the volunteer just graduated high school and you are like a father to them. The other time it is an experienced person that knows a lot about construction and he is like a teacher to you.