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Holidaying in The Village
Slarek returns from a break in what may well be the quietest spot in Portugal | 13 June 2013

I need a holiday.

That's not a statement about the here and now, but a generalised comment on the annual cycle of my life. If I don't get away for at least one week a year I go just a little crazy, my bones become all twisted and my stress levels rise to the point where I could nakedly take on a tooled-up Jack the Ripper and still rip his face off and eat his liver. I cherish that week with a love that others reserve for their children or spouses and thus am rather hostile to anything that gets in the way of me taking it. I tend to go abroad because it better distances me from the things I am running away from and I hugely enjoy the experience of immersing myself in another culture (particularly their food and booze). For a number of years I have used the same travel company for three sound reasons: every holiday I've taken with them has been great (hotels, locations, the lot); they organise everything for you – which appeals to a scatterbrain who leaves everything to the last minute – but you're still free to sod off and do your own thing; and they fly from my local airport, eliminating a tiresome journey to London and back and the need to navigate the impersonal horrors of Gatwick or Heathrow.

This year I selected my hotel and destination based on that tried and tested criteria of it being the only pleasant-looking one with any rooms left at the time I wanted to go. Only after I'd handed over the deposit did I think to check out the hotel on TripAdvisor and the like. I appeared to have struck lucky. User reviews were raving about the food, the super-helpful staff and the peaceful location. For someone with my volatile stress levels, this sounded perfect. It even had free wifi, so in theory I could keep the site ticking over while there, but given that this is meant to be a complete break from the norm, I took the decision to leave my laptop at home and do the same as I did last year, just tweet a few news stories as they came in and trickle information about any upcoming reviews. I was taking my iPad anyway, loaded up with films for when I was too drunk to sit and read and not drunk enough to be mesmerised by the twinkly beauty of continental starlight.

Well it was peaceful all right, largely because the hotel in question is perched on the top of the highest high hill in the district and several miles from anything approaching a commercial business. Which is fine until you want to buy a bottle of spring water and not pay €2.50 sternly demanded by the hotel minibar. There were plenty of white-walled buildings at the foot of hill below, but to reach them meant descending a stone staircase longer than that one in A Matter of Life and Death, and when you reach the bottom there are even more steps followed by a steep downhill incline. I went down anyway and after an hour of breathless searching found no sign of a shop. By the time I had clambered ungainly back to the top, my heart and lungs were ready to leap out of my body and throw themselves down the hillside.

Once I'd settled in (and got my breath back) I figured I'd better send a couple of "I'm here!" emails to friends and relatives, and since my assistant editor had worked his nuts off preparing a review and two interviews to be posted before I departed but had just missed my self-imposed deadline (they landed in my inbox just before I fell wearily into bed, a mere six hours before I had to leave for the airport), I felt the need to send him a grovelling apology. I opened the flap that covers my iPad. No wifi signal. I flagged down one of the famously helpful staff, who revealed that the advertised free wifi was only available in the main lobby. Not a problem, I figured, as the lobby here is spacious and peppered with comfy sofas. Here the tablet quickly found the wifi but demanded a password. The manager was at the front desk so I asked him what it was. "I'm sorry," he told me sincerely, "but the Internet is down at the moment. So are the phones and the TV signal." Someone, he assured me, was coming to fix it soon.

Later that day a frown-faced Mr. Fixit had done his job and the Internet was back up and before nipping in to dinner I bashed out an email to Tim and checked the weather for the following day. Hot and sunny. After a winter that seems to have lasted longer than the one in Game of Thrones, this was more than welcome. Dinner itself was excellent and it turned out that the hotel served free wine with every meal, which in my case is a potentially dangerous option. Having slept badly the night before, woken up at 5am, suffered the horrors of takeoff and landing and been shuffled about on an overheated coach, I drank rather a lot, then crawled to my room and slept for nine hours.

When I woke up, Internet access was once again down. It was here that I began a daily dance with the hotel's eager-to-please front house staff. Their own cable Internet connection was clearly working but wasn't making it through to the domestic router they we using to beam it around the lobby. Various staff members tried the same three things: unplug the router and plug it back in; unplug the network cable and plug it back in; frown and disappear out back somewhere and remain hidden until I went away. My suggestion that they try replacing the cable that connected the router to the wall socket was never taken that seriously. Every day the same thing happened: I'd open the iPad in the lobby, see there was no Internet connection and within minutes a helpful staff member would appear magically in front of me and ask if it was working now. When I confirmed that it wasn't they'd try the same three things listed above. After four days of this they tended to go straight to step 3. As a way of completely isolating me from the outside world it was terribly effective and actually rather relaxing, but it did nobble any intentions to tweet site stories or info on my part. And reply to emails. And check what the weather would be doing tomorrow (the same as back home, as it turns out). And collect and respond to the info from work about a whole pile of jobs that are now at risk. Ah...

After a couple of days of this, I did begin to wonder what was happening in the world beyond what I could see from the hotel's suicide-leap balcony, and it struck me how over-reliant I've become on the Internet as an information conduit. On the fourth day, when several of the guests had gone out on a trip and the weather was too cool for anyone but me to sit outside with a book, I really did start to feel as if I'd fallen into a conspiracy thriller of my own invention, one in which the world as I knew it had ceased to exist and I had been transported to this strangely remote hotel and subtly prevented from leaving for some unfathomable but doubtless diabolical reason. No, sir, there's no need to go out, everything you need is right here. Oh I'm sorry, the Internet is down again and the phones do not seem to be working either, but I'm sure they'll be back up and running soon. Walk into town sir? Oh no, that's miles away and there's no bus service. No, there's no mobile phone signal way out here...

My colourful paranoia was given a small leg-up when I decided to go on one of the travel company's pre-arranged trips, largely because it was my birthday and a visit to a winery and some wine tasting was promised. That they were also planning to stop at a small town that was once famous for making pastries in the shape of male genitalia is beside the point. The journey had only been under way fifteen minutes before the travel rep discovered that I wasn't on the official list of passengers. I booked late, you see, and their passenger lists are handed to them a day in advance. The presence of a couple of other late bookers was similarly questioned, and the process of clearing the mystery up and deciding not to eject us from the vehicle put the whole trip behind by a good half an hour. The rep apologised to everyone: it wasn't her fault she cheerily assured us. She then received a phone call and enthusiastically informed us that despite our earlier delays, we were the lucky coach as the other one had broken down and was stuck at a service station. Twenty minutes later we broke down too, but on a motorway hard shoulder in sweltering heat. Oh, I'm sorry sir, I know we promised you a trip to a winery but we'll have to take you back to the hotel, where you can stay with us and be happy for ever and ever...

Oddly enough, this sense of isolation quickly grew on me. I read almost three books, I went for long and refreshing walks (albeit the same route every day – there was nowhere else to go), I ate very well and I drank a fair volume of excellent wine and port. If you don't know what's happening beyond your immediate confines then you can't really worry about it, and there's something rather wonderful about being forcibly isolated for five days on the trot from the World Wide Web, affordable phone calls, and television broadcasts in a language that you can understand. As the week ambled blissfully by, I became increasingly convinced that if I could do without all those things for a month then I'd never go back to them. And despite the false start, that day trip out provided a glimpse of a lifestyle that made this easy to imagine, one on which we were invited to appreciate what it must be like to work at a Portuguese vineyard, surrounded by the beauty and sounds of nature, safely distanced from the grubby hassle of urban existence in a place where men still extract the juice from the grapes by marching up and down on them with their bare feet. Yeah, that works for me.

Two days before I was due to fly home this blissful disconnection from my torments was temporarily broken when the local techie showed up again and started fiddling with the router. Figuring it would make no difference, I returned my attention to typing out this blog piece, only to have a string of birthday messages pop up on the iPad's Messenger ap. Holy crap, the Internet is working! Having only been out for five days rather than the required month, I had not fully acclimatised to my new state of being and greedily opened every net-suckling application I could, checking the weather, looking something up on Google Maps and checking personal emails. Then I figured I'd better check my work emails. Big fucking mistake. Everything that five days had managed to keep at a soul-stroking distance came thundering back and within minutes I was pacing around, swearing angrily at the carpet and bemusing nearby Portuguese guests who I can only hope had a poor grasp of English. Despite being Saturday, I felt the need to bang out a carefully worded if ever so slightly indignant response to one particular email, which did at least allow me to think about the possibility of recapturing my earlier calm.

Two hours later the Internet was down again and I was pissed off at not being able to reply to the emails I actually gave a crap about, the ones from my friends and relations whose unhappiness and injury demand a far faster response than I was currently able to provide. Yet as I sit in the unearthly quiet of the hotel lobby twenty minutes on, I can't help but suspect that if I ask the chap at reception to reset the newly repaired router then it may well once again kick back into life. But I remain strangely fixed to the spot in which I am most comfortably sat, strangely content for one more day at least to stay happily disconnected from the wired world.