Around the Margins: Property Contrasts in Portugal & Spain

In March 2017, Russ and I sold our modest home in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and walked away from the house and the USA with $135,000 in proceeds.

We invested the money in two Portuguese properties: one in a small village about 15 minutes outside of Castelo Branco … and the other – 18 months later – in a small village outside of Elvas in the Portalegre district, deliberately near the Spanish border at Badajoz.

(Almost fifteen years earlier, we had purchased a vacation bolt in one of the towns that dot inland Andalucía.)

While “privileged” in the absolute sense of the word, by no means were we rich, entitled, upper-class, or even upwardly mobile. One of us was about to retire on monthly Social Security payments of less than $2,000; the other earned about $1,000 per month as an independent contractor working remotely for a nonprofit organization. Yet, all three properties were purchased, renovated, updated and upgraded, then furnished (where needed) … with cash.

Takeaways from the above are that we believe in the value of real estate investments (at least here and now in Portugal and Spain); we prefer native villages, where learning to speak and understand other languages are de rigueur, rather than more “fashionable” and trendy places surrounded by other expats and immigrants whose language of choice is English; and that it’s definitely possible to purchase perfectly proper property in Portugal and Spain at remarkably low prices. Brilliant!

Each of our homes in Portugal is a study in contrasts, and quite different from our place in Spain.

With some 150m2 spread among three floors separated by a stairwell containing 37 steps, our first Portuguese purchase is in Lousa, a village of some 600 souls adjoined by its partnered “parish” (freguesía), within 20 kilometers of the big city: Castelo Branco. Sited on Rua Nossa Senhora Dos Altos Céus – the main street in town – it’s always amazing how vehicles large and small move in both directions, traversing such narrow confines, with cars and trucks parked on one side.

One of our first neighbors told me (in Portuguese) that people in the village wondered what would possess two American men to move to such a “nondescript” yet typical village in the central core of the country. I tried to explain to her that, perhaps it was the increasingly dark Americanisms devouring the USA that motivated us to move to a place with a slower pace, peaceful coexistence, and tangible tranquility.

Lousa has all the charm one could want in a homestead. Its cobblestone streets, standard blueprint church (igreja matriz) with bells that signal appointed times of our rotes and rituals exude an aura that is truly Portugal. Like every village, it reveres several saints, although paying homage to Nossa Senhora Dos Altos Céus during an annual, four-day festival.

Bespoken are the health care center, primary school, multi-sport playground, senior day care facility, “casa de cultura,” and meeting space for the “junta de freguesía.”

Not quite so obvious, however, are Lousa’s charm and character … a place where everyone knows who you are, if not your name. What the town is missing, however, are retail shops and eateries, whether snack bar or restaurant. With two, sometimes three, cafés and two facing mini-markets along the main street, all of the action passes by our house (which, earlier, had housed the village’s most popular café—where lottery tickets were sold).

Our third-floor bedroom has four large windows overlooking the street; so, everything from funeral processions to passing sheep and achingly old diesel engines crunching up the cobbled stones looms loud, up close and (a bit too) personal.

Remember those 37 steps mentioned at the top of this tale? With three dogs but without a backyard, they need to be four times every day (eight separate outings, as only two can be walked at a time). Going up and down that staircase certainly takes a physical toll!  

We do love the property, though.

The former café with its two separate restrooms (the men’s has a working urinal!) has been our gathering space, where we welcome friends and neighbors for food and drink. Behind it is a small patio, off of which is our kitchen and family room combination, where we cook, eat, and relax with our critters and Netflix. Above the kitchen, in that separate wing, is a secluded guest suite with private bathroom. Also on this first floor (as numbered in Portugal and Spain), albeit in the main part of the house, are our offices and an expansive living room. Up 18 steps from the landing is our own bedroom suite featuring an adjoining breakfast room and sleeping areas for the dogs, the master bedroom, walk-in closet, and another full bath. There’s quite a large, covered terrace comprising space for doing laundry, grilling, eating, and socializing. Atop the building is an attic with concrete floor under a new, insulated roof providing plenty of storage space.

All things considered – purchase price; major repairs to walls and floors; a new roof; upgrading the electricity throughout; new appliances: water heaters, four inverter aircon units, washer, dryer, three refrigerators, electric range and oven; and new cabinetry built to spec in the upper and lower kitchens – we spent about US $70,000 (slightly more than €50,000 at the current exchange rate).  Furniture and furnishings (artwork!) were shipped over from the USA.

We had thought about selling this property, as walking the dogs during the incredibly hot and nasty rainy seasons is a royal pain, encumbered by all those stairs. But how could we leave a place that had adopted us, where we’re integral strands in the fabric of the gentry, surrounded by immigrant friends from nearby towns and villages? We couldn’t.

Until we had no choice.

Our other Portuguese property is located in what’s known as the “high” Alentejo: Vila Boim is a village of 1,200, five kilometers outside of Elvas – a UNESCO World Heritage site – which, in turn, is just about 10 kilometers from Badajoz, Spain. Around the corner and up the street are several snack bars, cafés, and an upscale restaurant, along with a bank, pharmacy, and mini-market. Our streets here are paved in asphalt, rather than cobble-stoned.

If our former place in Lousa is spacious and plentiful, this property is cute and cozy. The bungalow style, single-story structure has one large bedroom, one full bath, a spacious dining room, intimate living room, brand new galley-style kitchen, and an office … all under roof housed in a tidy 55m2. The bonus “room” is a small, bricked backyard (quintal), where our dogs can take care of their business, and a substantial storage shed. My own, special bonus is a dishwasher in the kitchen (although Russ prefers the side-by-side “American” style refrigerator and freezer). From soup to nuts, we purchased and primed this property for carefree, full-time living at an approximate cost of US $55,000 (€46,500).

Even as novice language learners, we’re aware of slight differences in Portuguese pronunciation and accents between the two villages separated by less than 200 kilometers. In both locations we have guardian angels who watch out for our welfare and help us to better understand the Portuguese people, their language and culture. Similarly, opening our front doors to knocks or the bell, we find neighbors bringing us food from their farms. In return, we take home-made meals to them: classic American cuisine: mac and cheese, franks and beans, meatloaf, cheesecakes, our own ”piri-piri” meatballs and spaghetti.

Unlike our house in Lousa, the layout and build of the Vila Boim bungalow place the bedroom squarely in the middle of the house—cutting down, substantially, on street noise. Exterior walls are at least a meter thick, providing natural insulation and keeping our heating and cooling bills to a minimum. Due to its size, it’s easier to clean, maintain, and use the premises in full than our Lousa lodging.

Besides being next-door to Badajoz, a busy and bustling metropolis, two hours were shaved off our trip each way back and forth to Spain by leaving from our Vila Boim property, rather than the one in Lousa.

(A separate post on deals with our operating costs, living expenses, and monthly budget for all three properties.)

If you’ve been adding up the numbers given here, you’ll notice that we spent $125,000 of the $135,000 received from the sale of our house in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. What did we do with the remaining $10,000? Half we put into savings. With the rest, we added a “fitted” kitchen and replaced our leaky, cast iron bathtub with a walk-in shower at our Olvera home.

But that is another story!

Bruce is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, a free digital quarterly that covers the country top to bottom, east to west, inside and out. Read our current issue and subscribe at now cost: Visit the magazine’s popular Facebook Page ( for dozens of daily posts and comments.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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Screeds and Other Confessionals

For the religious-oriented, a “creed” is, basically, a statement of faith. Partly rote and ritual, it serves as a public – not private – reminder and catechism of what we’re supposed to believe.

Among the earliest creeds is that of the Israelites. Known as the “Sh’ma,” it’s based on the words found in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear: O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone (is one).”

Later, as the early church was to become the official religion of the Roman empire, the powers that be insisted that the beliefs inherent to that religion be uniform, consistent, and universal. Following discussion, disputes, and compromise, the Council of Nicea (AD 325) reached consensus with its “Nicean Creed,” one of the most popular statements of faith still recited by those in many churches.

Variations on the theme include “The Apostles’ Creed,” “The Chalcedonian Creed,” the “Brief Statement of Faith,” etc.

The “Shahada” (witness) expresses the very heart of the Islamic creed: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

By their very nature, creeds tend to be exemplary, unifying, and didactic … intending to be all things to all (religious) people.

Personally, I have a difficult time mouthing the words to any such creed. Why? For one, I don’t necessarily accept and believe everything purported to be true in them. For another, I believe that so-called creeds should be more personal and edifying to each of us individually.

Over the years, I created my own personal “creed” comprising statements about the faith that I verily believe. Here are the words:

I believe there’s more than our limited, finite, human existence can grasp.

I believe in the Spirit, “God,” the Creator of all.

I believe each of us is a purposeful strand of the Divine DNA.

I believe we have been miraculously engendered with eternity and its memories in our hearts and our minds.

I believe in the wisdom and martyrdom of the man called Jesus, whom history has named the Messiah.

•  I believe in a peace that transcends understanding which results when people come together to care and share with others.

I believe in inclusion not exclusion, compassion not judgment.

I believe many paths can lead to communion with our Creator.

I believe in equality and equilibrium, in the ultimate balance.

I believe in infinite love which, indeed, can “conquer” all hurts and evils, bringing us together and closer to the perfect paradigm.

This creed of mine is a patchwork quilt which has come together over many years.

And it continues to evolve.

Whether “right” or “wrong” doesn’t matter … because it’s what I (personally) believe.

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Is Something Missing in Your Life?

Perhaps it’s a nagging void that needs to be filled with sense of purpose or promise. Maybe it’s the opportunity to share common, spiritual ground with others.Or, the greater good whose spirit calls us together.

Without a prescribed religious service or liturgy, we have no creeds, confessions, or collections … no pulpits, pews, or processionals … no altar calls, prosperity preaching, damnation-orientation, celestial choirs, books that we worship, or “holier-than-thou” critics.

Instead, we’re a home-based, nondenominational online congregation that’s spiritual rather than religious, organic over organizational, personal beyond institutional, here-and-now oriented … instead of hereafter.

We gather online to consider and celebrate the sacred journeys of our lives. All are welcomed, appreciated, and affirmed … no matter where in the world you are located!

Whether you’ve attended church (but feel alienated), or if you’d enjoy meeting other wayfarers seeking this type of progressive spiritual experience, please join us and other progressive people of faith.

Join us on Facebook at:

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Pissed Off!

We’re pissed off …

… because we are tired of stepping in dog poop on the cobble stones of our streets.

Today, one dog – wearing a collar but no leash attached to a person – followed us as I walked our dog around town. Ours had a collar, along with a leash held in my hand. In my pocket was a stash of poopy bags. Bending over to scoop up my dog’s “litter,” the other dog lifted his leg against the wall in front of us. Immediately, a window opened above and a woman began berating me to clean up after my dogs.

Waving the plastic poopy bag in her direction and explaining that only one of the dogs was mine, “I did!” I insisted. “It’s this other dog who is making the mess … following us and not leaving us alone.

”She slammed the window.

This is the time of year that families and friends visit our village as it swelters in heat and humidity. All those vacated houses shut up for much of the year are flung open again, filled with lives producing lots of litter.

Accompanying the adults are their children and pets.

Suddenly, it’s not just one or two stray dogs meandering and messing on our streets—at times it’s nearly a dozen. Because people open the front doors to let their dogs out and about town to dispense their “necessities.”

I don’t doubt that they love them, but being responsible and respectful of others are other matters entirely … regardless of culture of local tradition.

“We are planning on spending this summer in Portugal and taking our dog,” someone recently remarked online. “He’s not very sociable and doesn’t tolerate other dogs. Everything’s fine if we walk on the street and the other dog is on a leash, too; but things get nasty if the other dog is roaming free with no leash–our dog takes it as a potential attack and goes crazy, barking and pulling unbelievably!”

So, it’s not just a matter of health and hygiene for dogs to be restrained on leashes, but the safety of others as well.

I know it is wrong for foreigners like us to move into another country, imposing our own sets of values and assessing appropriate behavior. But the laws of Portugal are being broken.

Recent legislation requires people to be responsible for their pets. According to current law, it is mandatory to put a leash on pets in public places—like our village streets.

Moreover, every cat and dog “walking” in public places must wear a collar or harness with the name, address, and/or telephone number of its owner clearly inscribed.

Dogs and cats that haven’t been neutered, but allowed to roam loosely on the streets will follow their natural instincts and biology. Which means that more unwanted puppies and kittens will either be abandoned to the streets or dealt with fatefully in a way that makes me cringe and breaks my heart … even though (some) people believe it’s more merciful than condemning them to a life on the street.

Street animals will always be with us. It’s just the way things are. My comments here aren’t about these destitute critters, but directed to people with pets: Not only are they part of your family, but you have responsibilities – legal obligations — to your dogs and cats, as well as to others who live in the community.

Noise is one of the biggest problems between dogs and the people living around them. You’re responsible for ensuring they don’t disturb your neighbors.

Anyone experiencing problems can contact the police (GNR or PSP) and request that they stop the source of the noise. If you don’t, they can alert the council … which will issue a minimum fine of 500 euros! (You’ll also be fined if driving with dogs or cats in the car that aren’t tethered to the seat belt clasps or in carrying crates or “containers.”)

In addition to walking with pets on leashes in public places (and, presumably, picking up after them), and keeping them from being noisy neighbors, Portuguese law requires that you register your pet and have it licensed at the town hall (Junta de Freguesia) where you and the dog (or cat) live.

You’ll need a health report for the animal (with an up-to-date rabies vaccination) and documentation that an electronic identification chip has been implanted by a veterinarian in the left lateral side of the neck. You then have 30 days to register and license your pets(s) … and the registration must be renewed annually.

(Leave it to Portugal to identify dogs and cats as belonging to specific categories: Category A – Pet dog; B – Dogs for your economic livelihood; C – Dogs for military purposes; D – Dogs for scientific research; E – Hunting dogs; F – Guide dogs; G – Potentially dangerous dogs; H – Dangerous dogs; and I – Cats.Category G includes: Rottweilers, Brazilian Fila Dogs, Argentine Dogo, Pitt Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and Tosa Inu.)

People, please respect the rights of others by overseeing your pets. And if you’re planning to move to Portugal (or Spain, which imposes similar requirements and restrictions on pets and their people), be aware of what will be expected of you … and your furry family.

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Disclaimer: I share these stories of our experiences not to complain or seek sympathy, but because we are North Americans acculturating to another country’s norms and expectations. Information in posts such as this aren’t found in tourist or relocation guides … nor asked about and answered in most Facebook groups. Hopefully, some will learn from my anecdotes and be better prepared for the grit and grist, the grain of living abroad. We love Portugal for what it is, not what it isn’t, and have no intention of returning to the USA.

Bruce is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read the current online issue and subscribe to the magazine at no cost whatsoever:

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“Come here for a second, Russ, you have to see this …”

En route from Racine, Wisconsin, to Jacksonville, Florida, where I had accepted the call to pastor an interdenominational church, we stopped to pick up some cat food for the kitty we’d rescued.

“What do you want to show me?” Russ asked, his hands holding catnip and toys for our three-day drive from the upper Midwest to the lower Southeast.

“Look!” I pointed at a small white puppy playing alone in a kennel crate, rolling over repeatedly and making the funniest faces.

“Cute,” Russ contributed.

“Can we ask to see him in one of the cubicles and play with him a bit? The dog is a Miniature Schnauzer. Have you ever seen a white one?”

“But we’ve got a three-day drive ahead of us,” Russ interjected. “Besides, it’s a male.”

We’d never had a male dog, always assuming females were friendlier, easier to train, more obedient and loyal.

(You know what’s said about ass-u-me!)

Discretion being the lesser part of valor when it comes to canines in our lives, within 30 minutes the puppy had become the newest member of our family … accompanied by bags filled with food, toys, and treats.

The little boy and I bonded during our drive to the sunshine state, me driving and he lounging comfortably on the rented Chevy Tahoe’s massive center console. Russ had the cat in his car, growling at him.

We named our new family member Jackson – Jax for short – in respect to our Florida destination. It was there that he’d have his first bath, his first grooming, his first set of rabies and distemper shots, his first taste of a poison (“Comfortis”) pill his sensitive system couldn’t quite handle to combat the ferocious fleas and ubiquitous bugs – flying, crawling, hiding, biting – inhabiting the same space that we did.

Walking him around our block in the Springfield area where we lived, I would sometimes encounter a gentleman walking his two dogs: a tiny Yorkshire and a larger black one that looked like another terrier.

“Is that a Scottie?” I asked.

“No. She’s a black Schnauzer.”

“I’ve never seen a black Schnauzer …”

“And I’ve never met a white one!” he said.

Jackson is the smartest, most sensitive, and affectionate dog we’d ever adopted. Yes, males can be quite loving. Still, when the cat had passed on, we decided to find Jax a female companion.

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The chance of finding any Schnauzers in the classified ads of our local back-home-in-Virginia newspaper was next to nil. Yet, there was the ad: “Miniature Schnauzers. Home-raised. Parents on premises …”

“Should we call?” I asked Russ.

No answer was needed.

“Hi, I’m calling about your newspaper ad for Miniature Schnauzers,” I began when the phone was answered. “We’re looking for something very specific: a sweet black female. I don’t suppose you have one?”

“Actually, we do. Two pups are left: a black bitch and a salt-and-pepper male, the runt of the litter. Want to see them?”

“We’ll be right there,” I informed the pets’ surrogate parents. Looking at Russ, I then matter-of-factly stated, “You know what this means.”

The black girl was exactly what we’d hoped for; but the little silver and gray boy was totally unexpected: a bundle of joy that jumped into our laps, licked our throats, and rolled over for his belly to be rubbed. Russ shot me a look that clearly declared, “We’re not leaving with one dog. Either both of them are coming home with us, or neither will.”

That’s how we came to have three dogs – the “children,” as we refer to them – who totally have changed our lives.

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If and when you decide to make a major move, to another country across the great pond, in addition to your own visa requirements, you need to ensure that all of your pets’ paperwork is properly presented. With pets originating in the European Union, you get official pet passports that enable them to cross borders. For pets coming into the EU from the USA, you work with your veterinarian and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to complete comparable documents, reasonable facsimiles.

Before all this happens, however, you must deal with the airlines if you won’t allow your pets to be transported in the plane’s cargo hold.

Because of disabilities, physicians qualified our dogs as Emotional Support Animals to fly with us in the cabins of three American Airlines’ flights—between Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Madrid, Spain. Upon landing in Madrid, authorities hardly glanced at all the details and data included on the 11-page document. They simply scanned the spots where each of the dogs had a microchip inserted and confirmed their numbers matched the papers.

The person handling our rental car warned us that, in Spain and Portugal, dogs and cats must be “restrained” in vehicles, either by keeping them in their carriers or affixing them to the seat belt locks through a simple device where one side connects to their collars, the other to the seat belt buckles. Amazon sells a set for about ten dollars.

Somewhat comforted to find great vets who speak English, you make an appointment and bring your pets in for exams – “consultations” – where you spend over an hour together and more than €200 … which not only includes thorough exams, but eight-month collars to guard against fleas, ticks, and the dreaded Leishmaniasis, more medicine to combat it and yet more medicine to guard against heart worms.

“You must realize,” the vet warns, “that dogs and cats from other countries (i.e., the USA) are more susceptible to disease, mosquito bites, and attacks.” In a plastic bag are the medicines, dosages and schedules they’re to be given, brochures, and other paraphernalia; you’re handed directly three official pet passports (included in the fees), enabling your dogs or cats to travel between EU countries.

In exchange, you hand over your Multibanco card and cringe when the ticket prints out a receipt for two hundred and eight euros, equal to about US $242.00. Then you remember how much time the vet has spent with you and your three pooches; all the medications, pills, and elixirs you’ve received to take home; the three, 3-in-1 combination vaccines protecting your cherished ones against Bordetella bacteria, Canine Parainfluenza virus, and Adenovirus Type 2. How much would all that have cost you in the USA? Undoubtedly, a heck of a lot more!

And when the vet hands you the itemized “factura” (invoice), you learn that professional health care for your pets is tax-deductible here.

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Pet passports in hand, you and your pets now need licenses from your local junta. “You will want to have them,” your veterinarian advises, since without licenses, the police can come and take away your pets if people make complaints.”

Each of our dogs gets a license. Just € 10 for the first year—for all three, less in following years. We leave with the distinguished documents, words offset by seals and stamps and signed by the junta’s president.

Just when we think there won’t be anything else the dogs need, the devil pays a house call: one, then the others, fall sick. We grieve their pain, discomfort, and suffering, even as we curse the ceaseless messes everywhere. So, we make another appointment with the vet.

This time we bring just Jax, as he’s the only one sick at the moment. Again, we’re impressed by the thoroughness of care and concern shown by our dog’s doctors: a physical exam … x-rays to ensure there’s no “foreign” matter in his intestines (or other internal parts) … nearly an hour’s worth of IV solution to replenish the liquids lost during his “accidents” and absence of appetite … antibiotics by injection … pills, antibiotics plus probiotics to help him heal at home … advice to boil a skinless breast of chicken and some rice, feeding him in small doses.

The veterinarian hands us two little bags of pills and her card with the practice’s 24-hour emergency line, then jots down her own personal phone number on it, too. “If Jax isn’t improving in 24 hours – or if he has any more problems – call and bring him back tomorrow,” she said.

Ninety-four euros. The bill for all that attention!

Jax began to improve almost immediately. But the two littles ones quickly came down with the same symptoms. We concluded the problem was food poisoning, not from something they’d picked up in the streets from well-meaning people who’d leave bones and gristle for the town’s homeless animals. No, the problem was with their food.

We’d purchased the best food available– dry and canned – in a shop similar to Fleet & Farm, since everything in the supermarkets has cereal as a primary ingredient and far too much fat for dogs who suffer from pancreatitis.

Forcing them to swallow their pills, followed by feeding them the boiled chicken and rice, all three quickly regained their health. Portuguese friends recommended a new pet supply shop that had just opened, where we purchased excellent low-fat and grain-free dry food: just two small bags (2-3 kgs), along with four cans of low-fat, “all-natural” food without any additives—turkey with raspberry, chicken with pineapple, chicken with apple, and chicken fillets.

With a new customer discount, our bill totaled € 33—almost US $40.

Whether standard, off-the-shelf supermarket brands heavy with fillers, or highly nutritious specialty foods found only in limited locations, pet foods are among those daily breads (or breeds) that can cost more here in Spain and Portugal than in the USA.

Even so, the money is well spent on health care for our families.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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