10 things to love about life in Portugal

Portuguese spring flowers
Abundant rains brought a dazzling display of spring flowers.

I first visited this wonderful country in 2011, exploring in and around Lisbon, with a short excursion to the Algarve village of Salema. I was so struck by the welcoming attitude of the Portuguese people I met, the charm of Lisbon and the laid-back atmosphere, that I began dreaming of retiring here. After a lot of hard work and planning, that dream became a reality for me in 2019. It hasn’t disappointed. Here are some of the things I love that have, and continue, to brighten my daily life.

1. Portuguese People

 I have found so much kindness and such helpful attitudes. Like the MEO internet technician who spent an hour helping me set up my computer and re-wiring my power strip even though he knew that the MEO service the sales people proposed wouldn’t work for me and I wasn’t going to buy it. Another time, a Millennium bank manager phoned me in the US, before I moved, to tell me how I could set up a savings account to AVOID paying bank fees. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.

2. Coffee

I have become accustomed to the rich bitter taste of a “Bica” – what they call an espresso in Lisbon. A tiny thimbleful of dark high-octane coffee is just right mid-morning.

3. Natas

Of course you can’t have a coffee without a pastel de nata (plural pasteis de nata), the flaky pastry custard cream cakes that are synonymous in my mind with a Portuguese cafe.

4. Living in the country

 I love walking out the door of my home in Portugal each morning with my dog. I have so many choices.  So many places I can go without having to drive somewhere or pay for parking. I can walk past olive groves and vineyards and happily hail those I see with a “Bom Dia.”

5. Harvests

I’ve been so delighted to help neighbors with their grape harvest “Vendima” and to assist in picking “Azeitonas” (olives.) This is such a key part of rural life.  I am glad to join in and learn new skills.

6. Festas

Before the Corona virus changed all our lives, there were so many fun country festivals. Every weekend during the summer a different village would hold a festival with food, music and general jolliness.

7. Markets

I love going to the weekly markets in my area of Central Portugal. Whether it’s the small Sunday market in the local village or the larger Monday or Friday markets in the towns of Tomar, Ferreira de Zezere or Freixanda. You wander around, shopping bag in hand, browsing the vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, olives, meat, fish, baked goods, clothing, tools, household goods and gardening supplies. I love listening to the shouts of the vendors and breathing in the scent of grilling chicken at the “Frango” stand.

8. Country stores

I love shopping at the little shops 3 kilometers from my house. The Amenhecer grocery has all the daily supplies I need. The hardware shop and gas/diesel station next door completes the list. And even though the stores are out in the country, the prices they charge are the same as the bigger supermarkets.

9. Poppies

Although I am not a big fan of rainy days, the old saying about April showers is true. The wet spring we had this year brought an explosion of wild flowers in myriad colors. Every morning was a visual feast.

10. Stars

Living out in the country there is little light pollution. On the many clear nights, I can look out my bedroom window and see a sky filled with stars infinitely brighter than I ever saw when I lived in the city.

magenta colored flowers
Flowers brighten each day for me in Portugal.

The best coffee in Portugal and how to order it

Meia de leite coffee
A “meia de leite”, or coffee with milk, and a pastel de nata.

Ordering coffee in Portugal is a language all its own. That’s because coffee drinking is a way of life, as Portuguese as red wine and sardines. In fact, you’ll find cafés in almost every tiny village and people enjoying the experience at any time of day.

What you won’t find is the high pressure, drive-through service that delivers a giant paper cup of coffee with a laundry list of add-ons. No, the Portuguese don’t have the double-macchiato with soy milk blah-blah-blah. What they do have is really good coffee.

Which of the many variations is the best coffee in Portugal depends on individual taste. But since Portuguese cafes rarely have a menu board showing the types of coffee on offer, it’s hard to know what is the right cuppa for your taste. So, here’s a brief guide to help you out.

Your basic cup of Joe

Order a café in Portugal and you’ll get a thimble full of espresso in a demitasse. In Lisbon it’s called “uma Bica”, pronounced bee-ka. If you’re in Porto, it’s called “um Cimbalhinho” (simbal-een-yo.) If you want a quick hit of caffeine in the morning, or any time of day, this is a sure-fire way to go. You can add sugar for an extra pick-me-up.

If you’d like a little more than a thimblefull of coffee. Ask for a café cheio (shay-oh), which means the tiny cup is filled with more water. Want a drop of milk? Then ask for a “pingado.”

Can I get a latté?

Want a lot more milk in your coffee? Then a “Meia de Leite” (may-a-de-light) might be just the thing. It’s half milk and half espresso strength coffee in a larger cup with a handle. It typically comes with frothy milk on top, similar to a latté. Sometimes it even has a pretty pattern in the froth.

(Left) a Galão is served in a tall glass with a spoon. It’s about 3/4 milk to 1/4 coffee. (Right) a meia de leite, half milk and half coffee. Served with two Pasteis de Nata, custard cream cakes. Some people like to shake a little cinnamon on them.

Want even more milk? Then ask for a “Galão”, (gal-ow). This coffee variation comes in a tall glass with a spoon in it. The mix is usually 75-percent milk to 25 percent coffee. You can request a stronger alternative by saying “escuro”, which means dark, or “clarinho”, (clair-een-yo), light.

A tall black coffee, called an “abatinado” is similar to an Americano. You can ask for it with milk “com leite”, and sugar or sweetener “com adoçante” (ah-doh-sahnt).

Maybe with something stronger?

A lot of Portuguese enjoy coffee with a shot of alcohol in it. Ask for a café “com cheirinho” (share-een-yo) and you’ll get an espresso with a splash of brandy or aguardente, a highly alcoholic drink traditionally distilled from wine skins and stems used in wine making. 

Or something weaker

Maybe it’s too late in the day to fuel up on caffeine. In that case, try a “garoto”, which is half coffee, half milk served in an espresso cup. Garoto means young child. 

Another option is a “carioca”. This might sound like you have to sing for your cuppa, but it actually means coffee made from grounds that have already been used once. The result is a weaker drink. It’s also served in an espresso cup.

If you don’t want any caffeine – ask for a “descafeinado.”

And there you have it. With a little practice you’ll find your best coffee in Portugal. Go enjoy!

shows how they make the custard cream cakes called pastel de Nata.
Making the custard cream cakes known as “pastel de nata” at Manteigaria in Lisbon. The custard cream filling is poured into a flaky pastry shell.

Summer wildfires, a risk in Portugal

A wildfire burning near the town of Tomar in Central Portugal, Sept. 2, 2019. It was one of many fires in the area last year.

Planning to move to Portugal? Consider the risk of wildfires.Central and northern Portugal are more fire prone because of the amount of vegetation. You can check fire conditions daily to see high risk areas and active fire locations. The Fogos.pt website also shows details of the firefighting response by the “bombeiros.”

My first summer in Portugal I heard a lot about fires. I’d only been in my house a few days when I saw a huge plume of smoke billowing on the horizon. The fire, near Vila de Rei, was one of about eight wildfires I saw over the next two months.

Coming from New Mexico, I was only too familiar with wildfires. While I lived in Albuquerque, we’d had the devastating Cerro Grande fire in 2000 and the Las Conchas fire in 2011. Both were in forested mountain areas near Los Alamos. They burned for days and days. I remember the fiery glow in the sky and the ash that turned the Rio Grande black. At times the skies turned brown from huge fires in Arizona.

Fast response times

So, I was very impressed when each time I spotted a plume of smoke from my new Portuguese home, I quickly saw planes zooming toward the spot to dump water on the blaze. Within hours the smoke disappeared. Kudos to the Portuguese fire fighters, the bombeiros.

A fire near Ferreira de Zézere in Central Portugal, July 2020. Fire fighting planes were quickly in the air and the smoke disappeared within a few hours.

Unfortunately, Portugal has one of the highest incidences of wildfires of any country in Europe. The reasons are not hard to understand. Most of the countryside, particularly in the center and north of the country, is covered in heavy vegetation. Although there is usually abundant rainfall during autumn and winter months, summers are long and hot. Within a few weeks, the landscape is tinder dry. Add to that, large regions covered with eucalyptus trees which are high in combustible oils and burn rapidly.

In the devastating fire season of 2017, there were more than 500,000 hectares (about 1.2 million acres) burned, hundreds of homes were lost and more than a hundred people died. Following that, the Portuguese government enacted numerous laws to try to prevent a recurrence of such tragedies.

The Critical Fire Period is 1 July to 30 Sept. During that time it is illegal it is to have bonfires, barbecues, fireworks, and use machinery that may emit sparks such as chainsaws.

The Portuguese government also passed laws requiring that trees and brush must be cleared from roads to create a 10-meter buffer zone on either side. Landowners and homeowners are also required to clear potentially flammable vegetation from an area of 50 meters around their immediate property.

Where to get information

For information about cleaning your land and other protection related measures, call 808 200 520. Use this number for registering to burn debris. You can also contact your local Câmara or register online through www.icnf.pt. More information is available from the Safe Communities Portugal website (Civil Protection/Rural fires/Land Cleaning).

You can also receive fire danger alerts via text on your mobile phone. If you live in a high risk area, keep an emergency kit packed in case of an evacuation order.

Owning a dog in Portugal

Divina, the little Portuguese stray that showed up at my door and is now my companion.

Owning a dog in Portugal wasn’t part of my pipe dream. But a few days after I moved into my house last year, this little dog showed up at my doorstep. Long ago, I’d said “no more dogs” but she was awfully cute.

Here’s how it happened to me – and it can happen to you. My new neighbors, a British couple, dropped by to introduce themselves. They had with them their own dog and a delightful little tan stray. I told them I used to be a dog person but I had owned cats for the past 12 years and I’d become a convert to the feline species. I was devastated when I had to find an adoptive home for them before I left because I knew they couldn’t make the journey. But no more owning a dog for me.

Well, a couple of mornings later, I saw the little tan dog in the street outside my house and greeted her. She came running and was so happy and excited. I gave her some milk to drink. Next morning she was there again, same routine. I also gave her some of my breakfast bread roll. She hung around while I got ready to go do errands and followed my car as I drove out of tiny Cumes. Worried, I stopped at the edge of the village and pondered whether I should take her with me. However, she seemed more interested in investigating some interesting smells on the other side of the street.

I went on my way but when I returned, I didn’t see her. I kept thinking about the little tan dog and how joyful she was. In the evening, I walked around the village looking, but didn’t see her. Next morning, I went looking again, a little down-hearted thinking that I might never see her again.

Divina loves to hunt.

Lo and behold, when I got to the corner at the edge of the village where I’d last seen her, there she was. Long story short, that’s how I ended up owning a dog in Portugal and she’s now my constant companion.

I named her Divina, after a local bakery called “Pecado Divino”, or divine sin.  Since she seemed young and looked as though she had recently weaned puppies, I had her spayed. I was also able to get her vaccinated against rabies and distemper plus a microchip through a program that sends a veterinarian round the villages. The vet provided me with a “Boletim sanitario de caes e gatos”, or official health card for her. 

The health bulletin for dogs and cats

So now Divina had her own doggy passport in her name and she’s registered in the Portuguese doggy database. And I’m a bit poorer. Actually, not bad. The vaccination and microchip by the municipal vet cost 19 euros, spaying, 170 euros and paperwork 7.50 euros to register at my local Junta de Freguesia, or parish office.

A new law in 2019 required pet owners to register their animals with the Portuguese Sistema de Informacão de Animais de Companhisa (SIAC) The fee is 2.50 Euros.

If a dog doesn’t show up at your doorstep, there are lots of ways to adopt a pet in Portugal. There’s a lot of advantages to finding your new doggy companion.


Beja is a must see in the lower Alentejo region

The “keep” or Torre de Menagem of the 13th century Knights Templar castle in Beja, capital of the Lower Alentejo region of Portugal.

Alentejo, meaning beyond the Tejo river, is the largest of Portugal’s provinces. It stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Spanish border in the east, and from southeast of Lisbon in the north, to the Algarve, the country’s southernmost province. Beja is the capital of the Baixo, or lower, Alentejo.

As with so many Portuguese towns or cities, its long and varied history from pre-historic times through Roman and Moorish eras, is visible everywhere. Most obvious is the 13th Century castle dominated by a tower, or “keep” 40 meters (131 feet) high. In normal times, you can climb to the top and view the gently rolling croplands of the Alentejo and even see Spain in the distance. On my recent visit, the top portion of the tower was closed to visitors because of Covid 19 restrictions. Apparently access to the top involves traversing a narrow stairway, not conducive to social distancing.

No matter, the friendly folk in the office in the castle square gently suggested a tuk tuk tour, which cost 10 Euro per passenger for an hour-long tour. 

Tile work images from the Gospels, (center) is an image of St. Elizabeth visiting the Virgin Mary. The images were in the Capela do Rosário which adjoined the Igreja (church) of Santa Maria.

Tuk tuks, the motorized version of rickshaws commonly seen in Thailand and India, have become commonplace in Lisbon, Porto and other Portuguese cities as a way of showing tourists the sights. Our trip took us to churches, museums and around the town with an excellent recommendation for a lunch spot, “A Pipa” at Rua da Moeda 8, in the historic district. It serves a great selection of typical Alentejana food.

Mural depicting the Galo de Barcelos, the rooster of Barcelos, which is a common symbol of Portugal. It symbolizes honesty and integrity, based on an old folk tale.

One of our stops was to the Rua do Sembrano Museological Center, where you walk over a glass floor looking down at pre-Roman ruins excavated in the 1980s and 1990s. The center also has an extensive collection of artifacts such as pottery, jewelry, tools and weapons dating back to the Iron Age.

Ermida de Santo André. A church or chapel built in the Gothic-Mudejar style. Tradition has it that it was built by order of King Dom Sancho I to commemorate the taking of Beja from the Moors in 1162.
Beja is about two hours drive southeast of Lisbon, not far from the Spanish border.