Home of the Chatterbox

In 1612 Franciscan monks established the Convento Sao Francisco de Mértola deep in the heart of Alentejo, the hottest and driest region of Portugal. With the help of the Roman well and the Islamic irrigation system abandoned by their predecessors, the monks created an oasis of cultivated fields and fruit trees. While the monastery was never a big one—just twelve monks and an abbot at its height—it prospered for over two hundred years. In 1834, in an attempt to break the power of the Catholic Church, Minister of Justice Joaquim António de Aguiar dissolved religious orders in Portugal. The monks stripped their monastery of all precious objects, including, reputedly, a purple fragment of Jesus’ robe and shards of the True Cross, and fled to a new home, much like their Moorish predecessors once had. While the Portuguese government had hoped to sell off the land there were no takers for the monastery; Alentejo, sandwiched between the regal capital of Lisbon and the sexy trendy coastal Algarve, was, and still is, very poor.

It wasn’t until 1980, just six years after the Carnation Revolution peacefully ended the Fascist, “Estado Novo” regime that the grounds and its ruined buildings found buyers: Kees and Geraldine Zwanikken, a Dutch couple with artistic predilections, as well as their two sons, Christiaan and Louis. On holiday the family had come across the old monastery and decided, without much trepidation, that they would make it their new home.

“Amsterdam had become too much,” Geraldine told me. “We wanted a quieter life.”

The family hoped to create a self-sufficient farm, using organic methods—no pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers—to raise as much of their own food as possible. Their goal wasn’t much different from that of the religious order that built the monastery, but instead of worshipping a Christian god, the Zwannikens would commune with nature and art.

It must have been a daunting task. The nearly one hundred acres of once fruitful gardens and orchards were completely overgrown, and only isolated sections of the Moorish irrigation channels remained. The monastery itself was in no state for human habitation. The original living spaces lost viability decades ago. There was no indoor plumbing, and of course no electricity. Before the family could repair the walls and floors and add new roofs, bushes, wild grasses and intrusive trees would have to be cleared, let alone 140 years of accumulated waste left behind by squatters, both human and small mammal. Kees was a photographer, Geraldine a professional dancer who once performed as part of the Dutch National Ballet Company. When they moved to Portugal they knew little of animal husbandry or farming or construction, let alone the language of their new home. They’d have to learn everything on the fly.

Luckily, the church and its side chapel remained relatively intact. This is where the family would camp out until the rest of the monastery, room by room, became a home. First, the resident barn owl had to be shooed out of the eaves and its scat scrapped from the stone floors. New doors and windows had to be custom-built. The church was relatively homey, but when the spring rains came, waiter sluiced through small gaps in the roof. Instead of using terracotta tiles to plug the holes, Geraldine opted for similarly shaped clear plastic. (The additional light let in would prove advantageous later, when she turned the side chapel into a yoga studio.)

The family soon realized, however, that the barn owl wasn’t the only flying resident of the church. By the end of March swarms of Lesser Kestrels, one of the smallest falcons, returned from Sub-Sahara Africa to breed, banging themselves senseless against the new glass windows. As spring progressed and the temperature climbed, Geraldine opened the doors and windows for circulation. Soon after, clouds of confused, chittering birds swooped and dove among the Zwanikkens.

“It was like that Hitchcock movie,” Geraldine said, laughing. “Birds everywhere!”

The Lesser Kestrel, or Falco Naumanni, was named for Johann Friedrich Naumann, the founder of European scientific ornithology. The Portuguese nicknamed it “Franchelo,” or “Chatterbox,” for the cacophony of sound a swarm of them will make while feeding on the “aerial plankton” above cultivated fields. Since the birds don’t build nests, the pitted walls of abandoned structures are perfect for raising young. It’s likely the birds thrived at the monastery for generations.

The Zwanikkens had no intention of stealing their home from them. In a compromise, they restored the outer wall of the church and opened nine holes, adding a perch to each one. For a couple years the birds continued to try to reenter the church, but eventually they found the new holes, or other convenient nooks and crannies in the old walls and outbuildings littering the property. In the first year, just one couple bred. On top of the chapel roof, storks built a nest. It was the modest start to a grand experiment.

Little by little, as the 80s passed, the family removed the debris from the rest of the main building of the monastery. They arranged to have a power line strung over the Guadiana River, tethering the monastery to Mértola’s Old Town. They installed modern plumbing, and once enough rooms were rehabilitated, they moved from the church, which is now the studio of Christiaan, a kinetic artist who creates multi-sensory sculptures under the watchful gaze of the centuries-old, frescoed saints still visible in the nave.

After Kees passed away, the grounds around the monastery became Louis’ domain. First, the ground had to be cleared and the irrigation channels installed by the Moors rebuilt. In order to efficiently draw water from the well dug by the Romans, the monks had developed a bucket system powered by a donkey walking in circles around the opening. Christiaan built a mechanical one, a robo-donkey, complete with tail and ears, to take its place. Once the water began to flow the gardens and orchards came back to life. Soon the family had a steady supply of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Oaks and eucalyptus provided shade for ducks, chickens and peacocks. (Louis assures me that no egg is tastier than a peacock’s.) Cypress trees grown from seeds originating in the Alhambra across the border in Granada form an impressive column for the entrance to the grounds. During a particularly trying period, before EU funds transformed Portugal’s economy, the family began offering free gardening plots to the land-strapped residents living in the cramped (albeit beautiful) old town of Mértola, charging only a nominal fee for water.

With the monastery blooming again, an explosion of green in stark contrast to the arid land of the Alentejo enfolding it, the Lesser Kestrels returned in ever greater numbers, as did White Storks, Bee Eaters, Kingfishers, Hoopoes, Spanish Sparrows, Azure Winged Magpies, Golden Orioles and Jackdaws. Eventually, the family had to find new ways to accommodate the number of falcons intent on nesting at the monastery. Geraldine set amphora-like clay jars on the roof of the church, whitewashing them to absorb the heat. The small opening of the jars kept Jackdaws and feral pigeons from taking over the sites. She also installed more jars in the stands of ancient walls on the monastery grounds, first plastering over and leveling out the bits between jar and ground; the smoother surface made it more difficult for snakes to find purchase.

Still more falcons arrived. Geraldine then was inspired to create the first Jorre de Falcão, or “Falcon’s Tower,” a structure that would serve as both artistic vision and home for the Lesser Kestrel: “A living sculpture,” as Geraldine refers to it. The first tower, built of stone and covered in whitewashed concrete, stands nearly twelve feet. It bows in the middle, to a width of about five feet. The nest holes, again the openings to jars sandwiched between the stones, rest above the bowed middle, making it very difficult for snakes to slither up and snack on the three to five eggs each female falcon will lay. The top of the tower is flat to accommodate a stork’s nest. In order to build the first Jorre de Falcão, Geraldine secured financial assistance from John Gooders, an English ornithologist and author of the wildly successful Where to Watch Birds. Now deceased, Gooders was instrumental in popularizing bird watching in Great Britain. His Birding Company tours attracted birdwatchers from all over the world. The monastery became a stop on his tours of the Iberian Peninsula, bringing even more attention to the Zwanikken’s endeavor.

Geraldine would build two more Falcon’s Towers. Eventually, at the height of the colony 65 pair of the Lesser Kestrel (as well as 22 pair of White Stork) would breed here, making the monastery grounds the largest colony on the Iberian Peninsula. For their efforts the Zwanikken’s have received recognition, and often funding from not only Birding Company, but also the LIFE Programme (the European Union’s “funding instrument for the environment and climate action”), Quercus (essentially the Portuguese Green Peace) and the Guadiana Natural Park, which begins on the other side of the river.

Today, the Convento Sao Francisco de Mértola remains a magnificent place. Geraldine maintains the gardens and monitors the falcon colony. While she no longer dances professionally, she acknowledges the artistry of the Lesser Kestrel in her self-published Dances with Falcons:

When the Falco Naummanni, in the later afternoon, group together in the warm air above the convent, they seem to be dancing a choreography written in the sky. They stand still in the shimmering air, however briefly then move in a wide sweeping loop only to stop and hover again, each and every bird facing the same direction. Facing upward the wind, with the earth, the water and the fire of the sun creating this choreography.

Geraldine’s husband might have passed on but the sons—both unmarried—remain. Louis writes poetry and cares for the horses and other livestock. The grounds are open to tourists on Sundays; he serves as the guide. When Christiaan isn’t tinkering with his latest creation in the church, or shuttling back to Amsterdam to oversee an installation, he manages the Artists-in-Residence program. The family converted the horse stables built by the monks into apartments, complete with bathroom and kitchen, that are perfect for writers like me.

A couple years ago I spent two weeks at the monastery, writing and reading. After a morning writing session, I lunched in the center of Mértola. I never tired of the walk there. Strutting peacocks and pecking chickens pass on the dirt road between the monastery and front gate. Orange and persimmon trees offer cover from the afternoon sun. Ducks occasionally clucked away from my footsteps. To the right blazing wildflowers slope with the land down to the river. (Just out of sight sits a smaller building converted for writers; a talkative, boisterous French anthropologist researching Moorish water systems occupied it during my stay.) Here and there, among the wild orchids and asparagus, stand piles of stones arranged by Geraldine to mimic the Arctic sculptures of the Inuit. Bee Eaters zip by in flashes of green. Storks carrying twigs circle and lope. Horses neigh. Around a bend rises a line of cypress trees, like the Falcon’s Towers looking bowed in the middle. The new stables are on the other side. When I approached the fence one friendly chestnut mare always trotted over to greet me. Between stables and gate, waving townspeople tended their spring lettuce and tomatoes.

When I reached the gate I always paused. The sight of Mértola’s Old Town demanded it. Like most settlements in southern Portugal (and Spain) the majority of houses and shops and cafes are whitewashed but crowned with red terracotta roofs. Medieval walls encase the buildings of Mértola, which rise up and up, riding the hill all the way to the Moorish castle at its zenith. From the monastery’s gate the town looks like a great white ship cresting a tall wave.

In town, many of the shops shutter for the afternoon siesta. Down the hill, away from the castle there is a family-run restaurant in a converted house. I returned there again and again. The owner/father/host would guide me by the elbow and seat me next to townspeople I recognized from shops. There was the man who sold me cheese. There the woman who sold me a coffee maker. The daughter/waitress served me what the mother/cook prepared in back: thick soups, hearty stews, grilled fish, custards topped with meringue, honeyed cakes, syrupy sweet coffee. After just a few days I referred to it as “my restaurant.”

Later, I would return to my desk at the monastery. When I needed a break, I took short walks through the gardens, or up to the Falcon’s Towers, or down to the river docks via the brick paths laid down by the monks centuries ago. I sat on old stone benches, taking in the birdsong, greedily sucking in the air infused with flower and leaf, letting my mind wander.

I felt at home there.

It was temporary, of course. Two weeks isn’t that long. I have my own home, with my wife and dogs in rural Illinois. But even that home is a temporary one. I’ve had others, from Alaska to Louisiana, New York to Kansas, as well as two other countries. Eventually Katie and I will leave Illinois and make a home somewhere else, in this world or the next.

We like to think of home as a place of permanence, but it really isn’t. Not for humans, at least. Even the Zwannikkens will one day move on from the Convento Sao Francisco de Mértola, like the monks, the Moors and the Romans before them. But for the Lesser Kestrel? Instinct will keep calling them back from the depths of Africa to raise their young at this magical monastery. I hope someone will open the windows for them.

Mark Lewandowski is the author of the story collection, Halibut Rodeo. His essays and stories have also appeared in many journals and anthologies, and have been listed as “Notable” in The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Non-required Reading and The Best American Essays. He’s also received numerous Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations. He is a Professor of English at Indiana State University.

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