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12 Mar 2012

Porches - A whole world in one little village!

What it lacks in size, Porches recoups with rich experiences

One of the nicest things about the Algarve is the array of unassuming yet utterly charming places that you can find here. Take the village of Porches for example. While it’s vehicular namesake (more or less) is known worldwide, the same cannot be said of this small town. A few kilometers east of Carvoeiro, and overshadowed by the tourist hotspots of Albufeira and Praia da Rocha, Porches is that place you pass on the way to somewhere else.
Yet it is home to some of the very best pottery to be found in the Algarve, to a restaurant that holds 2 Michelin stars, and to one of the most romantic and picturesque chapels you will find anywhere, not to mention an award winning 5 star resort.
In the late 1960s the local artisan’s craft of pottery was dying out. Styles and tastes had changed, and skills were being lost. Until, that is, Irish artist Patrick Swift and his Portuguese counterpart Lima de Freitas decided to reverse the tide. They founded Porches Pottery in 1968 and set about reviving this centuries-old craft and turning it into a viable, international business, today run by Swift’s daughters.
A visit to the Porches Pottery workshop is fascinating – there is a real sense of history here, and the skill shown by the artisan’s hand painted pottery is amazing. Next door to Porches Pottery is Bar Bacchus – quaint and charming – which serves seriously good home-cooked food.
Part too of this area’s history is the wonderfully picturesque chapel at Nosso Senhora da Rocha. Perched atop cliffs that survey the vast Atlantic and southern skies, this tiny, whitewashed chapel, which dates from the XV century,  is evocative of a simpler life and simpler beliefs, and has been the romantic setting for many an Algarve wedding.
Portuguese history permeates the very walls at Porches Velho restaurant. Housed in what was once a wine cellar, the building is over 200 years old. The immensely thick white-washed walls and high ceilings add to the old-world charm, and when the Fado singers begin their mournful songs, accompanied by the traditional 12 string Portuguese guitar, it is easy to imagine yourself back in times gone by.
Porches does not always look to the past though. One of Portugal’s very best hotel resorts is Vila Vita Parc, a 5 star luxury haven offering every comfort that the modern traveler could possibly desire. Set on acres of land dotted with gorgeous umbrella palms, and sweeping towards red cliffs and tiny cove beaches, Vila Vita Parc is also home to the wonderful Ocean Restaurant – proud holder of 2 Michelin stars. With Chef Hans Neuner at the helm, this intimate restaurant won its first star in 2009, gaining the second coveted star in 2011.
Porches may be small but it is also cosmopolitan. You can enjoy authentic Italian cuisine and old world charm and hospitality at Ristorante Belmondo, as well as magnificent views across the cliffs to Senhora da Rocha. And if you fancy some Bavarian bonhomie, Porches has its very own Biergarten, serving Paulaner beer straight from Munich.
A whole world in one little village!
 by Fiona Butler, My Destination Algarve
March 2012

11 Mar 2012

Beware of Pine Processionary Caterpillars

(to be found also in Portugal)

General Nature
'Candyfloss' nest of Pine Processionary caterpillarsWhen in Spain many people may wonder about scorpions, spiders and venomous snakes and will not be aware that they are much more likely to endanger themselves and their pets by getting too close to an innocent looking line of caterpillars that can be found crossing a pavement, road or footpath during the first months of each year. Thepine processionary caterpillar (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) will, during late winter/early spring, be coming out of pine trees and forming conspicuous snakelike lines.

Pine Processionary caterpillars returning to nest

They will not be far from a pine tree, but that does not mean that you will only see them in large pine woods, they are just as likely to be found in villages and road side plantings in fact wherever pine trees are present. One of the first signs to be aware of is their white silken nests attached to a branch tip, these become most obvious around December to March. (These caterpillars are known as ‘procesionaria del pino’ in Spanish).

Pine needles eaten around a Thaumetopoea pityocampa nestAs a moth it has no means of causing us harm, it is only during its development as a caterpillar that you need to be cautious of this small creature. The moths seek out pine trees in the warm summer nights, lay clusters of eggs on the pine needles and so the process begins. There are 5 instars or growth stages to these caterpillars, where they gorge on pine needles, shed their skins and double in size. This growth occurs during the winter when they disperse through the tree at night to feed, thereby avoiding predation, and collect in communal nests by day to increase their warmth and ability to digest. Note that the white candyfloss like nests are cleverly positioned for maximum sunshine. By February these nests can be looking a bit dishevelled, this is because a nest may hold around 300 caterpillars and with no single entrance hole they push their way through the layers, the green bits collecting at the base and falling to the ground beneath are excrement.

The time for them to leave the nest in preparation for the next part of their lifecycle varies with temperature, spanning from January in warmer areas to April in the cool of the mountains, with a few even falling from the trees during windy weather. It is as they leave the trees that most people and pets come into contact with the caterpillars, sometimes with very painful consequences. They are the only caterpillar here to form a long chain, touching nose to tail. This snake-like procession is a real giveaway as to their identity. The line may stretch for a metre or two but if disturbed there could be several smaller groups and scattered individuals. (Each being around 3 to 4cm long). They have gone through a long feeding phase and will now search for a suitable place to burrow underground where they will undergo major changes, from caterpillar through to a moth - without nourishment. 

The danger that they pose to humans and animals is a very simple defence mechanism designed to stop them from becoming a meal themselves. Each caterpillar is covered with tiny barbed hairs, it is these which do us harm. They are constantly being dropped throughout its time as a caterpillar. They are too tiny to see, but cover the branches of the tree where the creatures have been feasting and of course the nests are loaded with them. They are even in the air around a heavily infested tree.

Direct contact with the Processionary Caterpillar colonies as they disperse can easily be avoided once you are aware of what to look out for. Inquisitive children, adults and pets must not get too close - it is even said that treading on them has lead to a reaction, as the hairs caught on your shoe can come into contact with your skin at a latter hour.

When humans come into contact with these hairs, they can cause reactions ranging from mild inflammation and irritation to severe anaphylactic shock. If the hairs contact your skin a rash soon forms which can be incredibly itchy, painful and lasts for as much as three weeks.
The worst problems occur if you make contact with the caterpillar directly and ingest the hairs. 
If you get any reaction from contact with these insects medical advice should be sought.

Veterinary services have many emergency calls at the time when the caterpillars are migrating to the ground as dogs can get too close to the intriguing procession and may pick up the hairs onto their paws, these irritate and so they lick them. Once the hairs are on the lips/tongue it will induce itching, swelling and possibly vomiting. Look out for the symptoms of : small white spots in the mouth and on the tongue, excessive drooling and chomping.  In some cases partial amputation of the tongue is the only course of action. 

These pests which eat only pine needles, are found in warmer parts of Southern Europe, North Africa and across to the Near East. Milder winters are allowing these insects to expand into new areas, both into more northern latitudes and higher elevations. Their favored food tree is Black pine (Pinus nigra) followed by Canary Island pine (Pinus canariensis), Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Maritime Pine (Pinus pinaster), Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis) and Stone Pine (Pinus pinea).

Left: individual pine processionary caterpillar Right: grouped on a tree

If you are aware of the presence of processionary caterpillars in your area then contact your local town hall and ask them what their policy is for control and eradication. In large forests this is a complicated problem to solve but in individual and small plantations on urbanisations or in towns there should be an eradication system in place. 

Under no circumstances should you try to handle the caterpillars or their nests.

For more detailed information on their lifecycle see the Wildside Holidays nature pagesand for personal encounters from people within Iberia see the Iberianature Forum topic on these insects.