Life in Portugal: A One-Year Retrospective

Braga Fountain at Night

It’s been a year since we landed in Portugal, our new home in the Olde World.  I’ve been asked countless times why we decided to reside in Portugal and specifically, why we picked Braga. From friends, family and even the locals.

These are both are good questions and ones that I have answered cautiously over the last year so as not offend people or appear that our choice was neither whimsical nor without careful research. 

A year later, it’s time to revisit these questions and share insights that have become a lot clearer when viewed retrospectively through the lens of time.

Why Portugal?

Portugal wasn’t our first choice, in fact Portugal wasn’t even on our radar.

Living abroad had been our dream since 2003.  It fit well with our passion for travel, but as retirement grows closer, we began to realize that leaving the United States might be our only opportunity to afford our retirement years with financial peace. 

Our first choice was Italy.  We’d traveled there several times and loved everything about it.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be an expensive place to live with a very difficult visa process.  These same challenges held true for much of Western Europe.  We needed to cast a wider net. 

That’s when we discovered a magazine called International Living.  It provided an informative, synopsis of expat-life with a bit of rose-colored glasses. It also had a bias toward Central and South America, as well as Asia (mostly Thailand and the Philippines). 

Regardless of the country, most expats had the same retirement criteria:

  1. Excellent healthcare at an affordable price
  2. Low cost of living
  3. High standard of living

For many reasons, Asia was not an option for us. The language was too foreign, the climate was not to our liking, and the distance from the States would make trips back home cost prohibitive. Also, due to the time difference, communicating with our family would be difficult. 

We shifted our focus to Mexico and the countries of Central and South America.  Top ranking countries were: Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and Ecuador. 

From our research, Costa Rica and Panama were getting too expensive. And, from a climate perspective, the hot humid tropics were not appealing to us.

Parts of Mexico seemed nice, but despite what the magazine claimed, Mexico was still having issues with drug cartels and the political unrest is a constant factor. 

So, we headed for Ecuador to give it a look. We spent one week in Quito, the capital city, and another in Cuenca, which is an expat hub.  Both were appealing and, we were looking at both with a long-term vision.

We were having a late breakfast in a little café in Cuenca when a woman sitting at an adjacent table struck up a conversation.  A fellow American, she recognized our accents and asked if she could join us.  Over the next three hours, she shared her insights on Ecuador (having lived there for 18 months) and why she was moving to Portugal.  It wasn’t until the end of our trip and this chance encounter that Portugal (which consistently ranks in the top 10 expat choices of livable countries) entered our thoughts. 

When we got home, we shifted our focus back to Europe, and here’s why.

Diversity 

Obviously, each county’s culture is unique.  Although both Central and South America differ by climate, topography, culture and lifestyle, to a foreigner it would all seem very similar.  In contrast, it is only a short flight from Portugal to the UK, Morocco, Germany, France, etc., whose cultures are all very different and not as homogenous as Latin America.

Technology

Years ago, Portugal invest in its tech infrastructure with a countrywide fiber-optic network.  Today, Porto, the second largest city in Portugal is Europe’s third fastest-growing tech hub.[1]  We’d have access to high-speed internet, movies and “free” international communication.[2]

Job Market

Since we are not yet retiring, the availability of jobs is still important to us.  The job market, even for remote work was better on the other side of the Atlantic, especially in the Technology sector.  This is enhanced by the fact that neighboring countries in the EU have an ease of movement both physically and politically, though open borders.

Living Conditions

Plumbing:  For those of you unfamiliar with plumbing outside of the U.S., most of it is antiquated. Paper products and waste often clog the narrow pipes.  A wastebasket is kept beside the toilet for disposal of soiled paper products.  This is the case in Ecuador and most Latin American countries, and a cultural oddity that we were unwilling to embrace.  Portugal (for the most part) does not have this issue.

Drinking water:  Anyone who has traveled outside of the US (even some places inside the US) will tell you that, while it may be a cliché, it is also prudent to ask, “Can I drink the water?”  For most of Latin America, most of Ecuador included, the answer is a resounding, “No![3]”  In Portugal, while bottled water is very popular, it is not a requirement.

Roads:  Inside the major cities of Ecuador, things are fine but leave the metropolis, and you may find a different story.  The road from Quito to Cuenca, for example, is (supposedly) an 8-hour drive.  But after talking with a couple who drove it, I was glad we flew.  They said it was one of the most terrifying drives they had ever made.  Extremely narrow, mountain roads with cars and trucks squeezing past each other beside sheer drops.  We would be dependent on air travel to safely leave the cities!  Not something we wanted to live with for the rest of our lives.

Medical Access:  According to International Living Magazine, healthcare in Ecuador is quite good.  But we questioned access and quality outside the metropolitan cities. Sure, there were great hospitals in Quito and Cuenca, but what about the surrounding villages, and given the roads, how accessible were they?

Why Braga

Braga offered a nice mix of elements we liked.  It’s smaller and less touristy than Porto, Lisbon or the southern part of Portugal called the Algarve, but still large enough to be interesting. 

With a history that predates the Romans, the town itself if a never-ending curiosity of ancient buildings, cobblestone streets, and lush gardens.  Braga is a vibrant city, with year-round activities in music, art, and local culture.  There are ongoing projects to restore old building their former glory.  The city hosts a major Portuguese university that keeps it vibrant, progressive and forward thinking.  Braga has a thriving tech culture that attracts small businesses from all around Europe, keeping it relevant, vibrant and youthful, in this ancient city.

A Year Later

So, here we are in Portugal.  The dust has settled, the boxes are unpacked, the decorations are on the walls and the trees are turning (again) as we enter our second autumn.  One could ask, what have you learned?  What were the pitfalls?  Was it all that you dreamed of?  And of course, would you do it again?  Good questions… with sobering answers.  Let’s begin with “things that we did not realize before leaving the United States”.

Learning Portuguese

Portuguese is a very difficult language to learn.  The locals themselves will tell you this.  Some say it’s similar to Spanish, others say it’s a blend of Spanish and French, while many say it sounds Russian.  In the end, it’s just unique.  There are different dialects.  Brazilian Portuguese differs from European Portuguese which differs from the Portuguese spoken in the Azores, Mozambique, etc.  There are even differences from northern to southern Portugal!  Efforts to learn the language are further complicated by the fact that nearly all the learning materials teach Brazilian Portuguese. In fact, Google Translate is Brazilian Portuguese.  This should not dissuade an expat from trying to learn the language.  The people of Portugal appreciate any efforts to speak their language. Depending on where you live in Portugal, secondary languages such as English, Spanish or French may not help you converse with the natives. It’s just something to keep in mind.

Renting Property

Hot Market:  When we were looking for a rental in mid-2018, the market was blazing hot.  As soon as property went up for rent, it was gone with-in hours, perhaps minutes.  We participated in a blind bid over an apartment in Porto.  Obviously we did not win the bid, but learned that the successful bidders were not the ones that offered the most money, they had the best profile that appealed to the owners  The chosen tenants were American doctors with no children, no pets, etc.  The crazy market and the fiador (will explain next) were our strongest motivators to purchase instead of rent.

Fiador: Many apartment rentals require a Portuguese guarantor. A fiador. Similar to a co-signer, they assume financial responsibility for the renter. There’s no way around this.  Landlords require a fiador regardless of your age, nationality, references, or number of times that you have rented. For this reason, a fiador is almost always a family member.

So, what do you do, when you just moved to Portugal, you have no family members here or established credit with a bank or history with the Central Credit Register database? There are companies that offer fiador service, or you can higher an attorney But for most, the fiador is cash.

For a cash fiador, it is not uncommon for a landlord to require several months or even a year’s worth of rent in advance.  Usually, you are essentially prepaying your rent, but not always.  This is in addition to a security deposit. 

Heat/AC:  Newer apartments & houses may be equipped with wall mounted heater/AC units, but they are not the norm.  Houses may have a fireplace, but again, not the norm.  One possible reason for this is the cost.  Electricity is (by Portuguese standards) expensive[4].  When looking at places to live, look for a heating source.

Window Screens:  The type and quantity of flying bugs vary based on location.  We live in Braga, which is in northern Portugal and approximately 23 miles (38 km) from the Atlantic coast, and summers are pretty dry so there are not a lot of mosquitoes. We do, however, have flies (fortunately not a lot of them).  Still, it would be nice to have window screens.  You can purchase the materials from the local home store (Leroy Merlin), but they are not a given.

Water Heaters, Lights, Appliances, Cabinets:  If you thought the thing about no heater/AC was odd, this is really going to drop your jaw.  When we took possession of our apartment (which we bought), we discovered that the previous owners had taken many items that one would have expected to be a part of the structure.  Specifically, they took the water heater and the light fixtures (leaving only wires dangling from the ceiling)!  The kitchen was left intact, but only because we knew to include this in the purchase agreement.  Otherwise, all the appliances and the CABINETS would be removed.  As shocking as this is to Americans, this is actually quite normal in Europe and not only for purchases; but often renters must equip the rental with appliances, cabinets and lights. The advertisement should indicate if the furnishings and appliances are included.  Ask in advance.

Bureaucracy

No country is without its governmental bottlenecks, the US is famous for them.  But at least you knew that the information given on an official web site is accurate.  Not only accurate but applicable to everyone.  Not here.  The visa process alone is a moving target.  Embassy A says one thing, while Embassy B says another.  Information could be one thing on one day and different on another.  I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  This is where the internet and social media come in handy.  Gather all the documents requested and suggested from all the sources that you can find and take everything with you.  It may be nerve-wracking, but at least you will have everything, whether you need it or not.  If your situation is unique, find a local company to assist you. We used Prisco Business Group based in Braga.

Street Signs

Like much of the rest of Europe, Portugal has very few local street signs. This can make navigation difficult without your smartphone.  When there are signs, they are usually hidden on building corners.  Another good reason to never leave home without your phone, with your mapping app fully-functional.

Time & Appointments

Portuguese time is like island time.  Many businesses do not open until 9 or 10 AM.  They close from 1-3 for lunch and then remain open until approximately 8 PM.  Many businesses observe Sunday as a day of rest, so do not be surprised if they are closed and many restaurants are closed on Mondays.  The pace of life in Portugal is much, much slower.  There is always time for a cup of coffee, and a 1:00 appointment may start 15 to 20 minutes late.  This is just the way it is, and while this sounds wonderfully relaxing, if you need something done, it can be maddening!  All you can do is take a deep breath and go have a cup of coffee.

EZ Isn’t

Sometimes. accomplishing the simplest of tasks requires a Herculean effort.  Recently I needed to get another FBI report as part of my visa process.  Back in the States, this would be a very simple process taking less than an hour with a report in less than 24.  Here it takes a week if not more. 

Just hanging a picture on the wall requires extra effort.  All the walls are made of brick or concrete, so naturally, you cannot just dive in a nail.  You need a hammer drill!  Getting used to these frustrations is just a part of the experience, but it definitely requires an extra dose of patience (and a glass of wine)!

Climate

Depending on location and time of year, warm ocean breezes can turn to cold and wet.   Clothes don’t dry, and mold can be a problem.  If your house isn’t well-sealed, it can be drafty and noisy.  It just depends, but it’s something that you will want to research in advance.

Would We Do It Again?

The short answer is, yes.  But moving anywhere so foreign (pun intended) requires a lot of patience and vision.  True, some people arrive in a bubble.  They seem to step between the raindrops into a nirvana-like heaven-on-Earth.  But for most, that simply is not the case.

We dreamed of a quiet little house on a hill that was walking distance from an ancient village with cobblestone streets, little shops, and quaint restaurants.  We don’t have that…yet.  But we haven’t given up on our dream; we just need to work toward it.  There are still plenty of positives about our life as it is.

We own our apartment.   

After moving around the US for the last 22 years, we knew that we would never own a home in the States.  There would always be a mortgage.  But here in Portugal, we own our apartment free and clear.  We are fortunate to have no debt at all!  And the icing on the cake?  We’ve already made money on our place as its value continues to grow with the market.   

We don’t have a car. 

A scary thought, but we don’t need one.  We walk to the bakery for fresh bread.  We walk to the butcher for fresh meat.  We walk to the market for literally farm-fresh produce. 

Our dentist, the hairstylist, language school, and other necessities are all with-in a short walk from our apartment which is itself only 20 minutes from what is one of Europe’s oldest cities. 

Quality of Life

We have all the elements that we originally felt we needed to make this move. High quality medical, low cost of living, high quality of life. 

Healthcare is affordable for the citizens and residents of Portugal. Insurance is available if you really want it, but it not strictly necessary.  Crime here is nearly non-existent.  Gun ownership is very difficult, so only the police have them.  People can walk alone through deserted streets at night without fear.  Children do not afraid being shot at school.

Conclusion

Moving abroad is not for the faint of heart.  Oh, how those words continue to ring true!  But much like anything worthwhile, it is the effort, the struggle, that makes the end so sweet.  Not everyone will choose this life, this adventure.  That’s been true for Thene and me from our beginning.  But to paraphrase Robert Frost, the path we chose has made all the difference.


[1] https://portugalstartups.com/2018/12/porto-europe-fastest-growing-tech-hub-report/

[2] Our monthly phone + internet bill is €75.  We do not have HBO, etc.  Only internet and cell service.  International calls are via phone apps such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype.

[3] https://www.mappingmegan.com/travelers-guide-to-safe-tap-water-countries-with-unsafe-drinking-water-can-i-drink-the-water-in/

[4] Our apartment had no heat/AC unit, so we installed one.  Our apartment is approximately 1000 sf (100sm).  During the winter we kept it running at a very comfortable 73° (23°C) and during the summer we rarely needed the AC at all.  Our electric bill during the winter hovered around the high 80’s – low 90’s.  Once we turned off the heat, it dropped into the 30’s.

3 Replies to “Life in Portugal: A One-Year Retrospective”

  1. Hi Roger,

    Thank you for the describing everything in such detail. I found you via the Prisco blog and am glad I did. I was planning to move to Portugal and was really looking for some information.

    Thank you!
    P.S : How was your experience with Prisco?

    Like

    1. Sorry that I’ve not replied earlier. I just noticed your question. We had a great experience with the team at Prisco. We can chat further over email (roger_sheehy@yahoo.com)

      Like

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