Natural luxuries

Not good Wi-Fi, a nearby golf course or easy beach access, but clean air, clean water and clean soil were important to Robert (44) when he was looking for a new home. Together with his donkeys, the German travelled for more than 3000km before settling in the hills near Monchique. Enjoy the Algarve asks Robert about natural living in the south of Portugal.

The south area of the Picota, in the hills by Monchique, is an idyllic place. There’s a renovated old house that’s surrounded by trees, each of its cultivated terraces offering amazing views over the green valley. You hear bees zooming, birds twitching and water streams running, while in the distance, donkeys are grazing. The main thing that attracted Robert to this place, however, isn’t the gorgeous views all the way down to the sea, but the quality of the air. Around 15 years ago he left his native Germany, looking for the most natural life possible.

“I first moved to Spain, where I lived for a long time in a very beautiful area above Gibraltar, in the Serranía de Ronda. But unfortunately, the air pollution there became worse,” he explains. Finding a new home isn’t easy, especially not if you’ve got a herd of five donkeys. Searching for the perfect place to live, Robert and his donkeys walked more than 3000km through Spain – a tour that took them over three years and through many natural parks. Robert: “In some villages on the way people left their houses and the bars to look at us; they hadn’t seen a donkey in decades, as machines have taken over most of their work.”

Unfortunately, he found the air was too polluted nearly everywhere they went. People he met along the way recommended the western Algarve, so in 2015 Robert and his donkeys arrived in Monchique. “The air here isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than anywhere else in the south.” This is of utmost importance to Robert, who describes himself as a very sensitive person. “My senses work very well. Ever since I left Germany, I’ve been trying to avoid air pollution and as a result of being accustomed to clean air, I’m particularly sensitive to chemicals. Here, the air is enriched with oxygen from the trees, which also filter pollution.”

“Clean air, clean water and clean soil are essential ingredients for a healthy life,” states Robert. “Unfortunately, these surroundings have become a luxury nowadays. I’ve always tried my hardest to live in a good environment because I want to stay healthy, like 80 and 90-year-old people in Andalusia who still walk up mountains and jump over rivers.” In Germany, Robert claims, this kind of natural living is impossible. “Most of the German forests are only wood plantations. Sadly, that’s also more and more the case in Portugal, especially with eucalyptus. I regret the fact that oak forests, some of the last natural areas in the Algarve, are destructed to make place for the eucalyptus.”

What other people see as necessities, such as having a supermarket close by or a 4G internet connection, Robert doesn’t need. “In Andalusia, I lived 12km from the nearest village.” His food isn’t bought in supermarkets anyway, but in organic shops or home-grown. His permaculture garden includes peppers, aubergines, carrots, watermelons, pumpkins, radishes, sweet potatoes, ginger, turmeric, wild herbs, various fruit trees and around 200 tomato plants.

Another part of his healthy lifestyle is walking: “Many ancient philosophers recommend walking at least two hours a day in order to keep up a good health. I walk as much as possible, also barefoot, where reflexology therapy is already included because of the contact with the soil.”

Naturally, he takes his donkeys, one of them which looks exactly like Donkey in Shrek, along on these walks. Not just for company, but also to keep them occupied. “My donkeys are my family and they’re very spoiled. They’re used to roaming in an area of over 100 hectares and since they’re really intelligent animals, they get bored very quickly. Now they’ve only got 3 hectares, so going for walks makes them happy. I have to go out with them every other day. If not, they get stressed.”

So off he goes into the Serra de Monchique, steering his herd along by rustling with a sack of carob beans. It looks like a picture that was taken several decades ago. To raise money for his little sanctuary, Robert also takes clients on these walks, sharing his love for nature by explaining about plants and animals. “Donkeys are also used in therapy as they work very well against depression, autism and more. A lot of my customers are stressed people like managers, doctors, teachers, etc. With donkeys, everything goes slower because you can’t stress them. Usually, after 10 minutes the people are in sync with the donkeys’ energy levels.”

Robert’s goal is to make a sanctuary for the many Andalusian and Portuguese donkeys in need, as we find out while joining him on a walk. The donkeys don’t get scared as easily as horses do and are mighty interested in Gustave the Dog. Unfortunately this obsession is one-sided; poor Gustave doesn’t really feel comfortable surrounded by the huge big-eared creatures.

Despite the restless dog, the walk is a leisurely one, with donkeys eating at the side of the road and nibbling Robert’s shirt to beg for more carob beans. On the way back home, one of the donkeys runs crazy through the woods, looking more like a wild horse. Unaccustomed to seeing this kind of energy in a donkey, we’re flabbergasted. Aren’t these animals supposed to stand calmly in a field? Robert is right; there’s definitely something special in the air here.

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