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For once we are actually writing about where we are right now! We've split this blog into two sections: an update on us, and why we chose Portugal and the Alentejo as our new home. Let's get started...
Our last Moving to Portugal update was in May, and a lot has changed in the last five months, both personally and globally. Personally, we’ve found the region of Portugal where we want to put down roots (the Alto Alentejo, that is, the north side of the Alentejo region) and just recently purchased a home here! Globally, covid cases have risen from six million to 46+ million and now that schools have reopened and colder weather has arrived, cases are spiking and lockdowns are resuming around the world.
As many more than several people have asked, I’ll be devoting part of this post to why we chose Portugal in the first place. If you are thinking of moving here, feel free to reach out with questions! But first, what’s happened in the last few months?
At the start of June we left the seaside of Peniche and headed inland, nearly to the Spanish border. We had found a gorgeous Airbnb in Redondo, a little town whose name translated to ‘Rounded’ thanks either to its round rock or its well-rounded wines; the tourist sign in the plaza is unsure. Redondo is a sweet Alentejo town with ancient architecture, comforting vistas and excellent frango asado (roast chicken). It is also famous for its ceramics and wooden chairs, and every other shop seems to sell these Redondense pieces.
Although we had put a deposit down on a truck in May, due to Covid the dealership was overwhelmed with preparing its used cars for resale and delayed delivery of our truck to July. By way of apology, they lent us a brand new 2020 pickup truck with 18 km on the clock – ours until our actual truck was ready. No complaints here! We spent June scratching that truck, exploring as much of the Alentejo as possible, viewing farms and buildings for sale and tracking our journeys with a Sharpie on our paper Michelin maps. We have now criss-crossed the Alentejo quite satisfactorily, with the brand new truck now having 3000 km (2000 miles) on the clock.
While visiting potential quintinhas (small farms) we begin thinking more concretely about what we were looking for. We found two ‘Almost!!’ farms that didn't work out despite our eagerness – one stupidly enormous (and-yet-cheap-due-to-being-an-abandoned) stables-hotel, and the other up a far more reasonable size but ended up hiding horrors in national park planning law (meaning even new wooden sheds would not be allowed!). The latter was in fact one we found when we first decided to move to Portugal, during our couple of months in Cambodia one year ago.
July and August in the Alentejo were hot, with the thin desert heat that makes it possible for shade to be a relief. The thermometer regularly crossed 40C (104F), however, the mornings were pleasant and the nights like warm velvet. The low humidity here meant that wearing jeans was only a little uncomfortable, rather than agonising like in the 80%+ humidity of our time India or Thailand, and having a fan on at night was enough to sleep deeply. Lying on the rooftop patio at 11pm, staring at the shimmering stars, unable to tell where the air ended and our skin began…we knew we made the right choice.
The pattern of the days had a metronomic certainty: the light shifting and therefore me needing to move our new planters of seedlings from one patch of shade to the next, knowing that a few minutes in the sun would actually burn the leaves (the ghosts of the mint and chard seedlings still haunt me). The heavy stillness of mid-afternoon, when no one moves and the little street dog who guards the nearby convenience store can’t even be asked to wag his tail. The start of evening, when a light breeze springs up, suddenly becoming a steady, uncompromising wind of warmth from the vineyards and olive groves, before turning cool as the sun sinks away. Or, joyously, the calls of thousands (no hyperbole) of swallows who leave their drop-shaped mud nests at twilight and join flocks that fill the sky, before all descending on a few laboured trees in the nearby park.
We found ourselves packing evening picnics so we could eat by one of the local barragems (reservoirs) and take an evening swim, with herons for company. The water levels dropped and dropped until by September, we were sunbathing 30 metres in from July’s shoreline.
Accomplishment-wise, July and August saw us:
Apply for residency
Complete the purchase of our truck and take delivery
Drive all the way to Toledo in central Spain to see our friends who had so kindly stored our worldly belongings for the past 4 years, and load up said belongings and take them home to Portugal
Discover the market+castle town of Estremoz, where our eyes lit up with dreams of a life here
Open a Portuguese bank account
Make an offer on a property and have it accepted!
Speaking to this last point: our original plan was to buy a farm, with land and outbuildings. This remains the medium-term plan, however Covid has made us choose a more conservative approach as we do not want to do anything to risk our ability to stay here (especially given Brexit). So, we decided to find a flat to purchase first, knowing that should happen faster. Being able to live here without the worry of intransigence-in-a-pandemic that staying in an AirBnb causes. A solid home base.
The other side of this decision was from our searching and farm visits, a learning and acceptance that finding the perfect ‘dream’ farm is not going to happen quickly. The list of questions we have learned we need to ask grows daily, and so many places were almost.
For example, important questions to ask when hunting for a farm or quinta in Portugal may include:
Where is it located? No, seriously, where? We have been told many times to just come view it first, without being given coordinates or a town. Getting the coordinates is essential! As we discover a huge amount on Google Maps like the quarry next door, or that the main house is split with a neighbour no matter what the agent claimed.
Are you allowed to live there? Not all buildings have Habitation Licences, and if it doesn’t have one getting one can be tricky.
Do all the buildings listed and described exist? Sometimes, they don’t!
Are all the buildings and structures legal? Sometime none are, sometimes only the main house is. If the buildings aren’t legal, a sale will be a major headache and may stop everything until the illegal buildings are torn down.
Is it already sold / under contract? A few places surprised us with that…
Is the land REN or RAN? REN is ecologically protected, and RAN is agriculturally protected. Both are incredibly strict classifications, with building a fence, putting up a shed or using the land for non-intended purposes all being banned. We found one farm we loved that had originally been used as a mill a hundred years prior, and if we had bought it its RAN classification meant we would have had to become millers…and not live in it.
Do you have the keys? Can we see inside all the buildings? A surprisingly common challenge even after we're on site with the agent!
And then the classic: does it have water? Light? Sewerage? Access? Many places are not connected, and getting a new electricity connection to the grid is hard we've heard. Same for municipal water, and drilling a borehole runs around 45€ per metre which, if you don’t know when you’ll hit water, can add up to many many thousands quickly.
Over September and October, we progressed our purchase of a building in Estremoz with one 3-bed flat, one 2-bed flat and one large garage, with fewer of the challenges that go with buying a farm. We completed the purchase at the start of October (a very good 10th anniversary present which was in fact the goal all along from the decision one year ago) and found the process of getting a mortgage here to be shockingly easy, quick and friendly. We also found the purchase fees to be eye-watering, and the entire signing took 2.5 hours as every contract and document had to be read out loud by the notary herself!
We are now in the process of making the 3-bed flat liveable. We just moved in at the start of November, and just yesterday saw us get hot water in the bathroom sink. Happy days! We will then renovate the 2-bed and move into that, before in turn doing up the 3-bed. The current plan is for one to be short-term accommodation and one to be long-term accommodation, so we have a place to live while we continue our farm hunt. But who knows, both short term, both long term, sell them after adding value, all options.
Our biggest challenge now is raising our potencia – the amount of electricity we are allowed to have according to EDP (Portugal’s electricity company). We have two challenges: 1) our wiring is old, ~1982, so we have been capped at 3.45 kVA at any given time. This is enough to run a heater, the TV and maybe some lights. Good luck turning on the kettle though. 2) Even if we had brand new wiring, we would be capped at 10.35 kW as it’s uncommon to go beyond that, although may be possible with special applications. This has thrown our heating plans out the window, and resulted in us choosing more gas appliances than we had planned on.
The potential issue might help explain why Portuguese houses are famous for black mould in the winter: people use gas heaters because electricity is expensive and sometimes limited by the age of your wiring. Burning gas creates water as a by-product, so lots of moisture gets pumped into the air, condensing on cold walls and…mould. Perhaps this is why Portugal is also a heartland for solar power users?
Covid may make the renovation more challenging, as the last three weeks have seen Portugal’s cases sky-rocketing far past any figures seen this spring, and therefore increasing measures to control the disease’s spread. This past Halloween weekend all travel outside of one’s own municipality was banned, for example, and masks are now legally required in any public space. Yesterday in fact marked the start of a new lockdown for our area, for at least two weeks. So we are happy to be handling a small renovation right now rather than a massive farm project. That can wait until 2021.
Part 2: Why did we choose Portugal? And why did we choose the Alentejo specifically?
So, why did we choose Portugal in the first place? It was due to a lengthy process of desirables and then elimination (yes, this is how our brains work):
Where can we eventually get citizenship without giving up our UK and US passports, for long term stability? Based on where we've physically visited ourselves, this crossed most SE Asian countries off the list, as they don't give citizenship by naturalisation at all. This also knocked out Spain, as you can get citizenship in 10 years but have to give up other passports. (We have many a friend who, should immigration policy change and their work or retirement visa not be renewable, they would have to leave their home of years or even decades and that is too risky for us)
What landscape and environment do we want? Answer: warm, dry, and sunny with big skies. Sunny more important than no rain, as is less humidity.
What's a new country for us? To be extra exciting
What are the residency rules? Can we leave for extended periods of time without invalidating our residency permits? Portugal is quite reasonable on this front. This has become more important to us as after 4 years of permanent travel, it’s hard to imagine the rest of our lives with only brief week expensive holidays rather than a few months of slow travel. It’s so much cheaper to travel for longer, and with our laptops work does not have to stop either meaning bills can be paid while away
How safe is the country? Portugal is one of the absolute safest in the world, like top 3
How friendly is the country? This knocked out many northern and central European countries for us based on personal experience and friends in those countries (both locals and immigrants), and brought Portugal to the top of the list (so friendly!). Sounds a bit broad-brush? Yes, but we have to reduce the options somehow!
Can we afford normal life there? Although utility bills are some of the highest in Europe , food and restaurant are very reasonable, as are municipal taxes
Can we afford property? Can foreigners get mortgages? Portugal property is very good value. Mortgages accessible to residents and non-residents
Where we can have horses and a lot of land?
Are horses popular? Is the weather good for riding? This again was a black mark against most Asian countries, where riding isn't as big a thing and so finding horsey friends, tack shops, large animal vets, farriers, etc. is harder. Also, riding in 80% humidity is exhausting!
How easy is it to get to the UK and US and vice versa? For family to-ing and fro-ing
What are travel options? Is it easy to visit surrounding countries? This knocked Australia and NZ off the list, for example where the expense is significant to most of the world
What costs are entailed with being self-employed? Spain, for example, charges a flat monthly fee for the right to be self-employed, even if you’re not earning anything at all (several hundred euros a month for the two of us). Portugal, thankfully, doesn’t, you simply pay tax at standard marginal rates
How easy is it to learn the language? Given we speak Spanish, choosing another Romance Language is the easiest option even though we would like to learn languages from further afield one day. For anyone interested: as a comparison, we’ve found Portuguese to be like codified Andalusian Spanish, minus a host of irregular verbs, a closer syntax to English, a bucket of French-derived words thrown in and spoken in a drunk Russian accent. We hope no Portuguese are reading this :-D
How stable is the political system? How progressive is it? This knocked several countries off the list as in any recession the populace of so many countries jump rightward, thinking immigrants are to blame….and here we’re the immigrants (not “Expats” by the way *eye-roll*). Portugal has a stable (Euro-)centrist government without the rabid divisiveness that currently characterises American, British and Spanish politics. Naturally every country has its spectrum but Portugal so far seems to have been an exception in the lurch towards being anti-immigrant in Europe over the last 10 years. Let's hope it stays that way.
Does the country have good, reliable internet? Portugal is in fact a testing ground for cutting-edge internet, so has superfast speeds even in less populated areas (like Redondo, where our internet is 100mbps, or Estremoz where we just signed up for 500mbps fibre!)
And so, after that massive elimination test, we ended up with Portugal!
The biggest downside about Portugal for us was the forest fires and climate change, as those are big threats here, but that is also true for a lot of other countries. Greece was also on the final list, but their citizenship rules were trickier, taxes were harder, and a few years ago with the crisis they simply took money out of individuals' accounts unilaterally to finance the country, which is profoundly scary. They are also struggling with how to handle the refugee crisis, which makes foreigners like us general less popular. Malaysia was also on the final list, but the endless humidity, and never being able to get citizenship (or difficulty with permanent residency for that matter) got it crossed off the list.
The fire issue crosses off a lot of Central Portugal and the Algarve, really popular areas. Various IG friends who have moved to these regions have already seen or smelt smoke this summer, and we can see in their driving videos burned out fields here and there from the major fires in 2017. For us, we don't want to invest in a life and property somewhere which may go up in flames and be to honest we cannot quite understand why anyone would choose it despite with all models saying climate change will make this happen more frequently, more severely. Of course not all of Central Portugal or the Algarve is at the same highest level of fire risk but we'd rather be 100km away than 20 when it does go up.
Why did we move to the Alentejo specifically?
Once we chose Portugal, we then needed to choose a region. We did a LOT of research and made rudimentary GIS maps with the following criteria (not in order of priority):
Somewhere sunny and warm (we are not moving to Portugal to have Scottish weather!)
No forest fires (therefore no pine, eucalyptus, or steep slopes, but plenty of holm oak, cork and olives as they are less flammable).
No earthquakes/volcanoes/tsunamis, we're thinking long term!
No expat-dominated areas where we it's harder to learn Portuguese and make Portuguese friends. We are not moving to a new country to live in little Britain on the Spanish coast ;-) (making parts of the Algarve unlikely)
Within 2 hours of an airport
Within 30 minutes of a town with supermarkets
Good mobile signal
Good wifi (fibre ideally)
Beautiful countryside with easy access to hiking, trail-riding, rivers, etc. and we would be so so happy to live near lakes and reservoirs
Clean air (Vien did not suffer from hay-fever this last summer at all!)
Property we can afford
And thus, this map was born. In the above map, the red is fire risk. This summer saw a fair few fires, but thankfully no terrible ones like a few years ago and only small ones in our area that were put out within a few hours. Central Portugal, the coast by Grandola and the Algarve had larger fires though. The jagged coloured areas show areas 20 minutes drive from these medium sized towns, the larger purple and orange areas show 45 minutes from Evora or Badajoz respectively as the major cities in the area. So, for not being in a fire area, somewhat closer to big cities, 2 hours from Lisbon and Lisbon airport, and 20 minutes from our favourite most beautiful towns we've found = Yellow = Evora, Montemor-o-Novo, Estremoz, and Borba in the ideal yellow zone. Vila Vicosa, Alandroal, Elvas and Redondo are firm runners-up that we would be very happy to be near too.
If your Portuguese geography is a little rusty, Portugal is split into five regions, from north to south: The North, Central, Lisbon, the Alentejo and the Algarve. The Alentejo is about a third of Portugal's land area, but with less than a 10th the population. (Portugal has 10 million people, and the Alentejo only around 760,000 of them!) It is famous for wine, horses, marble, stargazing, olives and cork as far as the eye can see. It also has a vast amount of heavily fortified castles along the border of Spain. *Looks towards Spain suspiciously*
Now that we have driven a large amount of the Alentejo, as well as seen a decent slice of Central Portugal and the Silver Coast, we are even happier we chose this region. This seems to be the friendliest area of everywhere we’ve visited (and that’s saying something!) and also serious horse country. Plus, the accent is easier to understand than around the coast, as people in the Alentejo seem to speak a bit slower and draw out the vowels. Thank heavens! Our Portuguese is coming along, but we have a long way to go…
As for why we chose Estremoz in particular, it is the most vivacious and charming of all the towns we’ve visited. It has an enormous Saturday antiques and food market, an 800-year-old castle on the hill, vineyards and marble quarries sprawling in all directions, vast views out towards Lisbon to the west (photo below!), and Spain to the east, it is next to the main 3-lane motorway connecting Lisbon and Spain, it is famous for its restaurants and the prices of property are quite reasonable.
Here’s another way to put it:
If we’re not careful Susan Sarandon or Julia Roberts are going to show up in Estremoz and start filming a feel-good rom-com about discovering oneself in European wine country. It’s that pretty. And now, it’s our home!
~ Elizabeth & Vientiene
P.S. Interested in seeing other blogs? https://www.travellingfortea.com/blog
Or galleries? https://www.travellingfortea.com/photography
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Our IG of tea, travel and now renovation: https://instagram.com/travellingfortea/
Our IG travel photography feed: http://instagram.com/radiant_travel
And if you need tea while pondering Portugal, head to our very own tea shop for some delectable loose leaf (free US shipping no minimums so easy to give it a try):