Ten Must-Take Items to Pack before Leaving the USA for Iberia

Relocating from the United States to the European Union? Especially Spain or Portugal?

Then consider the items listed below as invaluable traveling companions.

Much back-and-forth already has been written about whether to ship furniture, cars, appliances, artwork, keepsakes, and even clothing from one continent to the other. Ultimately, that’s a personal choice you’ll have to make yourself.

But, bear this in mind:

Once you decide to ship this piece of furniture or that collection of vinyl records, this set of family heirloom dinnerware or (only) all that artwork, their shipping cost can be less to rent an entire 8 X 8 X 20 container than to divvy your stuff, sharing someone else’s container. All things considered, it costs about five thousand dollars ($5,000) to ship that container from the USA to the EU. Prices do fluctuate, so it might cost a bit less … or a bit more.

Nonetheless, that’s not the purpose of my message here. If you want more information about international shipping, please read about our experiences in my post, “A Moving Experience.”

What I want to share with you, instead, are a list of ten little items that you may never have thought about or considered when planning what to pack for your bon voyage. Yet each can make a big difference to your lifestyle once you get here. Why bring them? Because, either they’re not available (i.e., readily accessible) here. Or, the price you’d pay for them is well beyond their prices in Yankeeville. So, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself asking people you know who are traveling this way, west to east, to bring back some of this and a little of that.

Ready to scribble some notes? Here’s my list.

(1) Eye drops like Visine, ClearEyes, “Artificial Tears” or similar store brands for red, dry, and/or tired eyes. Ask for them at a local pharmacy (items like eye drops and aspirin are only sold in pharmacies here) and you’ll, no doubt, be given the local version of “Restasis,” which is prescribed for dry eyes, although no prescription is needed here for it. A drop (or two) in each eye produces an oily-like feeling that brings discomfort, rather than relief. Return to the pharmacy with the last bottle you brought from home and you’ll likely be greeted with a shake of the head by the pharmacist. Such miracle medicinals for allergies, tired, or over-stressed eyes aren’t available in Spain or Portugal. So, be sure to bring a few with you!

(2) Low-dose aspirin. You know that 81 mg or so “baby aspirin” that your doctor will likely recommend you take daily If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke–or have a high risk of one (unless you have a serious allergy or history of bleeding)? A small container of 120 or more sells at most USA pharmacies for under two dollars. In Spain or Portugal, however, you’ll pay the same price and more for a 30-day supply.

(3) Crushed red pepper and/or Tabasco sauce. Some like it hot! I’m one of them. Yet no amount of Piri-Piri can compare with those red hot pepper flakes or that patented flavor that heats up your cooking (and works great in Bloody Marys, as well)!

(4) Duplicate of your state driver’s license. In Portugal and Spain, you’re required to turn in your state driver’s license when exchanging it for one in your new country of residence. In other words, you lose your USA driver’s license. But, what happens when (or if) you return to the states for a visit, vacation, or emergency? You’ll face quite a hassle, as your Spanish or Portuguese license isn’t recognized. Best bet is to contact your state’s motor vehicle department (DMV) well before departing and request a duplicate copy. Just say you lost yours. Or whatever. Then, when you turn over your state driver’s license for a new one in Iberia, you’ll still have a copy or your original one.

(5) Authorized copy of your birth certificate. Of all the legal, apostilled documents we made sure to bring with us (plus made plenty of paper and digitized copies), somehow we forgot to bring our birth certificates. After all, it was never asked for when we applied for our immigration visas … when we appeared at SEF for our residency docs … when we went to Finanças for our NIFs and NHRs … or when we spent the better part of a day at IMT transferring our driver licenses. Who would have thought that Social Security would require a birth certificate? When registering with this service — at least in Portugal — you’re asked to provide (and prove!) your parents’ names, whether living or deceased. A birth certificate (yours) is suggested. If you think there’s a lot of bureaucracy in Portugal and Spain, try requesting and obtaining an apostilled copy of your birth certificate from abroad!

(6) Plastic lids for cans. Granted, you can always use aluminum foil or plastic wrap. But they’re just not the same as those ubiquitous, multi-color plastic lids that “seal in the freshness” of food once you’ve opened the can. Good luck trying to find any in Spain or Portugal. Not even the all-purpose Chinese bazaars (Portugal) or Moroccan markets (Spain) carry them. Bring three or four with you.

(7) List of all the medicines and prescriptions you take. This is an item for your to-do list. Sit down with all of the medicines — prescribed and over-the-counter — that you take. Copy their “generic” (chemical) names, dosage, and instructions for taking them. Not only will your doctor(s) in Spain or Portugal want to know this information as part of your medical and health history, but pharmacists unfamiliar with what something is named or branded in the USA can determine what the appropriate equivalent is here.

(8) English language computer keyboard. Whether connected to a desktop or laptop computer, the keyboards sold in Portugal and Spain have different characters, along with the standard QWERTY keys we’re accustomed to. Sometimes, they’re located in diffeent places; other times, a single key is the source for producing three or more different characters, not just upper and lower case. Sure, you can configure the computer’s system so that the keyboard acts as an English language one; what you see on the keyboard, however, can vary dramatically from what you get on your screen. Regardless of the computer (or pad), it will respond effortlessly to an English language keyboard.

(9) Genuine “Sharpies.” The markers sold here just don’t compare for clarity and precision; few, if any, are “permanent.” If you’re labeling a freezer back with its contents identified and dated, for instance, only a Sharpie won’t smear. For those Sharpie afficionados out there, pick up a pack and pack it in your m/purse, laptop carrying case, or luggage.

(10) “Liquid Nails.” Wimpy facsimiles are available, but none work nearly as well. When fixing a broken ceramic pot, affixing a knob to a door, or holding something firmly for a long time, there’s nothing like this product for strength and durability. The real McCoy is extremely hard to find in Spain and Portugal–even online, where not even Amazon sells it.

Dividing our time between Portugal and Spain after living full-time for three years in Europe, these are the curiosities and, perhaps, oddities that we wish we’d have brought with us.

Maybe you have others … items we’ve overlooked? Please share your list with us!

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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Learning to Layer: Covering the Costs of Three Properties in Iberia

We own three houses in Europe – Portugal and Spain – for less than it cost us to buy one “entry-level” property in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin … Staunton, Virginia … or Jacksonville, Florida (three places we’ve lived over the past 10-12 years).

Mind you, we’re not talking about upscale, Architectural Digest places in features and accoutrements. Just nice, comfortable, pleasant, typically attached homes. Of course, if it’s a spectacular stand-alone home you want here in Spain or Portugal, plenty are available for $250K or more.

But we’re basically “homebodies” who like to be connected to our neighbors, along with the savings inherent to “row” houses. Our last USA house was in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. A great place for tourists, but lots of limitations for residents. We bought and sold our west side of town property – 3 BR, 2 BA, LR, DR, kitchen, two garages, fenced yard, and unfinished basement – within less than a year for the same price we paid for it: $135,000. Now, according to all reports, there aren’t any pleasant properties available in Sturgeon Bay for less than $150,000. Realtors and property agents tell us that, regardless of condition, any such property sells before it’s technically been listed!

In Charlottesville’s shadows of the Shenandoah Valley, lovely Staunton, Virginia, has plenty to offer in terms of culture and quality of life! Just ask our favorite Realtor, Jenny McGuire (who’s been successfully selling the area “yard by yard”). Go to Realtor.com and see what’s available: “$135,000?” ask the Realtors, incredulously. “Maybe two bedrooms, with one full bath. But, it will probably need work!”

Meanwhile, we follow the progress of Tony Caribaltes, our friendly Jacksonville, Florida, Realtor … along with a few others. Heck, we purchased our “historic” Springfield-zoned home – with five bedrooms, no basement, but three full bathrooms – during the housing “crisis” for almost $170,000. Between a new kitchen, new HVAC units, termite damage repairs and control, replacing the grass and the weeds with colorful pavers in its small-ish backyard, ultimately the place cost us $200,000. Two years later, with the “crisis” still going, we were ready to move on and sell, but settled for far less than we initially paid—after the house had been on the market (with three different real estate brokerage firms) for about a year and reduced in price. To be honest, had we held onto that property, today we probably could have fetched twice what we’d paid for it–or more!)

But, that’s not the point here … or maybe it is:

For a lot less than that, we now own three conjugal properties: two in Portugal and one in Spain.“Yeah, that sounds great,” mockers will say. “But what about all the costs to upkeep, maintain, and run those three properties?”

Spending less than $14,000 per year on comprehensive property insurance, taxes, heating and air conditioning, furnishings, water, twice monthly cleaning, trash pick-up, and all other living expenses, we’re maintaining all three houses on my meager Social Security payments.

The take-aways?

We don’t live in the most expensive areas: Lisbon, Madrid, Porto, Barcelona. We don’t have brand new properties with all the expected amenities. We live with the locals, driving to the “big city” about 20 minutes away for major shopping, be it groceries at a variety of supermarkets, clothing, our whatever else tickles our fancy in shopping centers and malls. Ditto for cultural pursuits: live theater, museums, movies, concerts. (Not that it matters right now, with all the social distancing and Covid restrictions.) Our two, 50-year-old row houses were created from concrete and plaster, with no insulation … except for their new, double-pane windows. So, it can be hotter inside than out during the summers and colder when it’s winter. But we compensate with inverter aircon (and heating) units and a marvelous pellet stove that we use only when occupying specific rooms.

Furniture has been moved time and again among the three properties, as artwork and furnishings are rotated for new perspectives

And we’ve learned how to layer.

Electricity is relatively expensive in Portugal and Spain. But the emphasis is on that word “relative.” Becoming accustomed to Portuguese prices for everything from health care to property insurance and taxes, we freaked when we received our first electric bill (before turning down the heat from the inverters and buying that pellet stove): about $450 for those first two months. But, after our melt-down, we remembered paying about $500 per month for electricity in Florida and $350 or so for gas and electric in Wisconsin. It’s all in one’s frame of reference …

Meanwhile, without any rental income, we’re maintaining three separate residences.

Lousa Living Room

Our primary property is in a village outside the city of Castelo Branco, Portugal, in the country’s interior. It’s a sprawling, three-level townhome comprising some 1,600-square-feet with two separate entrances, two “master” bedroom suites (one for us, the other for guests), two full and two half baths, two kitchens, a “family” room and formal living room, two smaller dens for office use and storage, and outdoor areas including a large, covered terrace, a “courtyard” outside our kitchen, and a balcony off the living room. We live on the main street in town, with our bedroom facing the street … so it can be noisy, especially during all those festas and ferias Portuguese people enjoy (while we’re trying to sleep). Our annual property taxes total $150 (dollars not euros) and insurance costs us about the same. High-speed telecommunications (Internet, cable TV, a landline and a mobile phone) run $60 per month. Purchase price of this property with all fix-ups, add-ons, and improvements: US $65,000.

Olvera Multi-Purpose Room

Home-away-from-home is also in the interior … of Spain, in an Andalucian town of about 9,000 (Olvera), where the provinces of Málaga, Sevilla, and Cádiz intersect. We’ve owned this little pied-a-terre off and on for fifteen years now: We bought the three-level pad – an “all-purpose” room on the street level, a bedroom one flight up, and the upper floor divided between a bathroom and terrace with remarkable views – at the height of the market … sold it at a major loss when housing prices crashed around the world … and then bought it back from the buyer for half the price we’d originally paid. Here, our taxes are about $60 per year (including daily trash pick-up!); we pay $200 annually for comprehensive homeowner’s insurance; and our lightning-fast Internet connection is $22 billed to our bank account monthly. We paid $26,000 (not including Spain’s 8% property transfer tax—it’s only 0.1% in Portugal!) and spent another $9,000 on home improvements (new windows, doors, appliances, cabinetry, handrails, kitchen cabinets, bathroom, etc.) Total: $35,000.

Elvas Living Room

Last, but certainly not least, is our “betwixt-and-between” home, which we recently purchased in UNESCO Heritage site Elvas (Portugal), on the border with big-city Badajoz (Spain). In some ways, this is already turning into our favored place … for a bunch of reasons: About three hours from both our house in Portugal and Spain, it’s an easy drive and great get-away. The property is about half the size of our primary residence, but twice as big as our place in Spain. With a well-proportioned living, dining, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms, it benefits from a big bonus: a compact, enclosed backyard with two fruit-laden trees—perfect for the dogs (as well as grilling outdoors).

Also quite comfortable is the layout and space configuration, with a good-sized bedroom in the middle of the house. Although the “Alentejo” area of Portugal, where it’s located, tends to be a bit hotter in the summer and colder during winter, the exterior walls of this house are built from boulders between two and three feet thick. That’s what we call “natural” insulation (although we’ve replaced the windows and added air conditioning). Purchase price for this newly-renovated and refurbished property including all fix-ups, add-ons, and improvements: $50,000 in US dollars or about 42,500 euros.

So there you have it: Three very different and separate properties with a combined purchase price – including all appliances, repairs, improvements, and upgrades – of $150,000.

Capital costs are one thing, monthly expenses yet another. I did say at the beginning of this narrative that two of us live together in these three properties … at a combined cost of about $1,725 per month—my Social Security payment. How do we do it?

Here’s our budget, based on euros:

• €250 Electricity*

• €50 Water

• €120 Petrol/Gasoline for the Car

• €30 Propane/Butane for Heating/Cooking**

• €75 High-Speed Internet/TV/Telephones

• €75 Property Taxes (for all three)

• €10 Vehicle Taxes (a 2018 Ford “mini-van”)

• €150 Comprehensive Health Insurance for Two (one 70, the other 56)

• €75 Other Insurance: Car (€30)/Properties x 3 (€45)

• €500 Food: Groceries & Restaurants

• €65 Cleaning & Upkeep: Properties + Laundry

• €100 Miscellaneous (Unbudgeted)

€1,500 Total Estimated Monthly Expenses

That’s less than $1,800 per month (based upon the current currency exchange rate).

Of course, others pinch pennies or pence much better than we do and are far more frugal.

But, hopefully, I have made my point: You can live comfortably and well on a modest budget, including health care and insurance, taxes and home ownership.

The caveat? In Portugal and Spain. Probably elsewhere, as well!

*Our primary residence is all-electric: HVAC + cooking. **Our two smaller houses use propane for cooking and water heating … electric for all else.

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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What €50,000 (U.S. $59,000) Can Buy You in Portugal … or Spain

Location, location, location.

Wherever you want to buy (or rent), the same general rule applies: Housing costs more in Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve, Silver Coast and their suburbs (Portugal) or Madrid, Barcelona, Ibiza, and Málaga (Spain) than comparable inland properties.

But, if you know what you want and are willing to reside away from the major tourist traps, you can get one heck of a deal in both Portugal and Spain.

Having already purchased townhomes in Spain and Portugal, we knew pretty much what we wanted in our “halfway house” between the two countries:


• We preferred a village or small town with quick and easy access to a large, metropolitan area;
• The property had to be a single story without staircases, but with a good layout and ample-sized “divisions”;
• We didn’t want to be on the main street or have our bedroom in front, facing the street
• It had to be in good condition both structurally and in terms of infrastructure;
• Required was a small backyard (quintal) for our three dogs;
• The property needed to be more-or-less “move-in ready” with a minimum of two good-sized bedrooms, kitchen, living room, dining room, and bath;
• We wanted to be in Portugal, somewhere that could cut our travel time between homes in Portugal and Spain substantially;
• Our total budget — all things included — was no more than €60,000.

Quite a list, huh?

But these were among the imperatives we had learned about our own personal preferences after living in Portugal for two years and having a vacation bolt in Spain for fifteen.

We narrowed our choices to the Elvas (Portalegre) area, a UNESCO “World Heritage” site that abuts big city Badajoz and the border with Spain. Not only would this location cut two hours each way from our trips to and from Spain several times each year; it would also be relatively close to such special places in Portugal as Évora, Estremoz, and Vila Viçosa (among others) … and just a two-hour drive from our primary residence in Castelo Branco.

After looking at what was available in the historic section of Elvas, a number of locals — police, hotel personnel, even shop owners — advised us to buy in a nearby village instead, rather than in Elvas proper. Villages even five (5) kilometers outside of Elvas would be cheaper, calmer, and more in line with the lives we wanted.

We toured a number of properties in Santa Eulalia, Campo Maior, Boa Fe, and Sousel, but decided to buy in Vila Boim–the village closest to Elvas. With a population of about 1,200 (twice that of our Lousa hometown in Castelo Branco), there are restaurants, cafés, mini-markets, a pharmacy and bank with a Multibanco … even a “pedestrian” shopping street.

Listed for €39,500, the house we bought had been on the market for several years. It needed some work after being vacant … yet there was no smell of rot, mold, or mildew. The room sizes, spaces, and layout fit our needs perfectly. Negotiating back and forth with the property agents representing the seller(s), we ultimately agreed to purchase it for €34,000.

The following pictures depict the house and its condition when we purchased it.

Front Façade
Dining Room
Kitchen
Living Room
Bedroom
Office + Despensa (Pantry)
Bathroom
Quintal (backyard)

There was plenty of work to be done!

Initially, we invested €2,500 in “prep” work — repairs, fixes, replacements — before we could even begin to think about “what next?” or “when can we move in?”

The ceiling alone in the bathroom (and the strips of plaster hanging off the wall on the outside of the exterior wall) needed to be gutted, plastered, and repainted. The cabinets hanging precariously off the wall in the long, narrow kitchen had to be removed and replaced with new ones to make our long, narrow, “galley” style kitchen functional and attractive (€3,000). Appliances — a high-efficiency gas water heater (€750) and three separate inverter aircon units were purchased (€2,259) and installed: one 18,000 BTU unit to cool and heat the large dining and living room area, and two 12,000 BTU units: one for the bedroom and another for the office and kitchen. Several rooms needed to be repainted (€500). Lighting was paramount for the dining room bedroom, kitchen, and office (€500). New appliances — a stove and oven, washer and dryer, and dishwasher — added €1,500 to the tab.

Upgrades included three new, double-pane windows with fly screens (€500) and upping the electrical power from 3.45 > 6.9 kWh which, in turn, required us to have an electrician add new wiring throughout the house to carry the added load (€1,250). We learned that there was no roofing above our bathroom and adjoining bathroom — which had caused the ceilings inside to buckle — so a new rooftop was added above that part of the house (€750). Because rain water came in under the front and rear doors, we added awnings and replaced the doors (€1,500). Because the dining room was so dark without a window, the door we chose for up front had glass on the top and a metal protective casing behind it. Finally, we bricked in the small backyard with cobble stones (€750) so that the dogs wouldn’t track mud into the house every time we let them out back.

Furniture, furnishings, and artwork already were ours, just waiting for a new home.

Total cost?

Just about €50,000. That’s less than $59,000 USA greenbacks!

We’ve got great neighbors, a low-maintenance yet comfortable home, and easy access to big city shopping in both Portugal and Spain.

How much do you think all that building and buying would cost us in the USA?

Here is our home as it now looks:

Front Façade with Awning, New Door, and Inverter Aircon Unit
New Front Door with Triple Locks, Double Pane Glass, and Protective Top. Electric and Water Boxes behind panels.
Dining Room
Dining Room
Living Room
Living Room
Living Room
Bedroom
Bedroom
Kitchen
Kitchen
Office
Bathroom
Quintal
Quintal
Quintal – Laundry Area

P.S. Our vacation “bolt” home in Olvera (Andalucía), Spain, cost even less! But, that’s quite another story. You can read all about it here: https://pastorbrucesblog.com/2020/09/12/then-again-but-better

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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Travelogue

Spain is relatively familiar territory.

From our vacation home in Olvera at the intersection of the Málaga, Sevilla, and Cadiz provinces, we’ve spent time visiting many of the charming “pueblos blancos” (white towns) of Andalucía: Ronda, Grazalema, Pruna, Villamartín, Algodonales, Morón de la Frontera, Antequera, and many others.

Olvera

We’ve flown into and out of Madrid, Málaga and Sevilla, passing through this big city on our treks to and from Portugal. We’ve taken day trips to Granada and Cádiz … the latter usually to shop at Ikea. Weekend getaways have found us in Martos, just outside Jaén, the provincial capital. Longer vacations were spent in Alicante, Ibiza, Barcelona, Sitges, and the Benedorm playground; Valencia was a port of call on a cruise.

“Casas Colgadas” (Hanging Houses) of Cuenca, Spain

Attending the University of Madrid for my undergraduate degree, I got to know this special city and notable nearby places: Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, La Granja, Salamanca, and the “casas colgadas” (hanging houses) of Cuenca. During the time of my studies, I traveled to Barcelona, bicycling around this most cosmopolitan city and marveling at Gaudi’s La Familia Sagrada. I visited Sitges–one of Spain’s first gay destinations during the Francisco Franco regime … and booked passage on a boat to Ibiza and the Palmas, Mallorca and Menorca.

Portugal is another matter entirely …

It’s been several years now since we’ve moved to our village of Lousa, 20 minutes outside of Castelo Branco. In addition seeing the sites of this often overlooked city – the Episcopal palace gardens, the white castle for which the city is named, its museums and cultural centers – we’ve wandered around places outside our own backyard: Alpedrinha, Castelo Nueva, Covilhã, Lardosa, Louriçal, Penamacor, Sertã, etc.

Episcopal Garden in Castelo Branco

We’ve have crossed over the awesome aqueducts in Segura on way to and from lunch in Spain … visited (several times) Monsanto, touted as the “Most Portuguese Town” … frequented the marvelous Monday market in Fundão, quite possibly one of the district’s best … feasted our eyes on the spectacular scenery and unparalleled topography of Vila Velha do Ródão and Foz do Cobrão, enjoying the food at one of the best restaurants around. Not unlike the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem, the Jewish sanctuary of Belmonte is a spiritual experience–regardless of one’s religion.

Now where?

Cutting short our catastrophic “vacation” at a TripAdvisor (aka FlipKey) beach property, we missed out on planned excursions to Porto, Espinho, Tomar, and Aveiro—the “Venice” of Portugal. We’ll go back, but we’ll do it differently, leaving the dogs at a highly-commended canine “hotel” near us (in Alcains), enabling us to stay at somewhat more comfortable and convenient places.

Also on our list of must-see places is Lisbon – where its expansive aquarium fulfills an exhilarating but exhaustive day – and heading north towards Santiago de Compostela, capital of northwest Spain’s Galicia region, for the “Camino” pilgrimage. Still, we did enjoy a birthday weekend in two very special suburbs: Cascais and Estoril.

But, for now, we wanted to devise a series of day trips … places within a 90-minute drive … so we could go, do some sightseeing, and be back in time to feed and walk the dogs. If we were hosting out-of-town guests for a few days, what would we want them to see?

Here are the places on our list:

Sortelha

Sortelha Somewhat along the lines of Monsanto, Sortelha is one of the oldest and most beautiful towns in Portugal. A visit to its streets and alleys enclosed in a defensive ring and watched over by a lofty 13th century castle takes us back to past centuries among medieval tombs, by the Manueline pillory, or in front of the Renaissance church. Home to the legendary Eternal Kiss—two boulders resting on the slope below the castle walls, just touching, it’s not difficult to imagine that they are kissing. Another odd looking granite formation in Sortelha is referred to as The Old Lady’s Head (A Cabeça da Velha). Neighboring town Sabugal provides a bonus castle and museum to visit.

Sabrugal

Belmonte Tradition has it that the name of this town in Castelo Branco region’s northernmost district came from its location (“beautiful hill”). Near a 13th century castle is Bet Eliahu synagogue and the Jewish zone, with its own special museum.

Belmonte

Idanha-a-Velha Reportedly invaded and looted throughout history, Idanha-a-Velha is one of the oldest towns in Portugal. Extensive Roman ruins and epigraphs refurbished as a modern museum, a restored 16th century church, and ancient oil press all make this place very special.

Idanha-a-Velha

Penha Garcia Situated on a hillside next to the road between Monsanto and the Spanish border, a walk leads up to the castle and a dam below. On the lowest point of the trail, beneath the castle, you can go for a swim in the cool mountain lake. But what makes Penha Garcia truly outstanding is its geology, with huge fossils plentiful.

Penha Garcia

Serra da Estrela Even from our lowly house in Lousa, we can see the snow-capped peaks of the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal, whose highest point – Torre, accessible by a paved road – is 1,993 meters (6,539 feet) above sea level. Three rivers have their headwaters in the Serra da Estela, the only place in Portugal during the cold weather to ski, go sledding, snowboarding, or ride a snowmobile. We moved here from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin … so, seeing the snow from a distance is quite enough for now.

Marvão Perched on a granite crag, Marvão is the highest village in Portugal. An old, walled town with gardens and a castle, it’s one of the few nearby places included in the New York Times #1 bestselling book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. Access to the village is through a narrow medieval archway, close to which stands a Moorish-looking building known as the Jerusalem chapel. People tell us that Marvão – deep inside Portugal’s hinterland, within a whisker of the Spanish border – is probably one of the prettiest places in the whole of southern Europe because of its views and lunar-like landscape.

Piedão What could be more romantic than a small town of homes hidden in the middle of the mountains? Astounding architecture attests to mankind’s ability to adapt harmoniously to the most inhospitable places, with blue schist and shale houses standing sentry along the sloping terraces between narrow, winding streets.

Guarda Built around a medieval castle on the northern cusp of the Serra da Estrela mountain range, the dominant 12th century Gothic cathedral is a star attraction and allows you to step onto its roof to survey the city, with a Jewish quarter where Hebrew inscriptions have lasted since the 1100s.

And there’s more: Almeida, a fortified village whose 16th-17th century castle with all the proper fortifications still remains in tip-top, textbook shape, along with its military museum … Manteigas, a glacial valley …Even its name, “Well of Hell,” makes Poço do Inferno tempting …Mira de Aire, with its largest caves in Portugal … Castelo de Vide ‘s red-roofed, whitewashed houses clinging to the side of lush mountain slopes and an old quarter described as one of Portugal’s best make this small town one of Portugal’s gems.

Abrantes Castle

After this bucket list of placeholders has been completed, we can take a train ride on the Beira Baxa line to Abrantes in the Portalegre province and visit the 14th century Almeiro do Tejo castle. Will I have the nerve to walk across the castle’s steep ramparts—which have no guard rails? Or the truly frightening new 1,692 foot long suspension bridge called 516 Arouca about an hour from Porto? Considered the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world, it’s situated 575 feet above the ground with a see-through bottom to the sheer drop below, connecting the Aguieiras Waterfall and Paiva Gorge. It’s not a place to visit if you’re afraid of heights. But, if you do go to this new bridge, remember: Don’t look down!

Not even a chance.

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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Driving Bureaucracy

I believe a bureaucrat at the Institute for Mobility and Transport (IMT) here – elsewhere known as the Department of Motor Vehicles – just did me a favor. An uber one, at that!

DMVs anywhere aren’t anyone’s favorite government agency, but the bureaucracies residents must deal with in Spain and Portugal – IMT (driver licenses and motor vehicles), Finanças (Taxes), SEF (Immigration), and EDP (the utility company), especially – have been attributed as being challenging > frustrating > irritating > next-to-impossible.

That wasn’t the case for us here in Castelo Branco. Staff at these offices have been considerate, cooperative, and pleasant. Anyway, here’s the story:

We’ve been very careful about observing all of Portugal’s requirements — particularly for non-EU nationals residing here – in terms of documentation and deadlines. Especially regarding the IMT. This is a country that only recently changed its rules about transferring one’s driver’s license from your country of origin to a Portuguese one … without adequately announcing the changes and spreading the word.

Formerly, new residents of specific non-EU nationalities had six months from the date they received official residency to trade in their existing licenses issued elsewhere for new ones from Portugal. The new law now limits that time to just 90 days, with serious consequences if you miss that deadline: driving school lessons followed by written and driving tests dealing with laws, practices, competencies, and the mechanics of how vehicles operate.

To exchange an American driver’s license for a Portuguese one, you must meet all of the “regular” requirements – a completed application form, proof of residency, your current driving license, passport, NIF, and a fee – along with an apostilled driving record from your last state of residence, plus a physician’s certificate that you are fit to drive.

We provided everything required by the Instituto da Mobilidade e dos Transportes (IMT) and, within two weeks, received our official license cards in the mail. In the interim, since our USA driver licenses had to be surrendered, we were given paper documentation to certify our legality to drive here.

All was well, we assumed … until I tried to rent a car.

“I am sorry,” the car rental agent apologized. “But I cannot rent you a car. You haven’t been driving long enough—only since last year.”

What? I’d obtained my driver’s license on my 17th birthday in New York and, by now, had now driven continuously for about 50 years … with licenses from New York, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Wisconsin!

“Please forgive me,” I responded. “But I don’t understand.”

The amiable chap pointed to a line on the rear side of my new driver license which indicated that my license was first issued last year.“How is that possible?” I asked.

He shrugged off the mistake and suggested I take it up with the IMT … someone, somewhere, at IMT had erred when copying the information I’d presented into the computer.

Fortunately, I had retained a copy of my official Wisconsin driving record in PDF format and peered at it on my computer screen before printing it out. There it was, in black and white: I began driving in Wisconsin on March 9, 2008. Maybe not 50 years of driving experience, but certainly at least ten!

I revisited IMT to point out the error and ask for my license to be corrected. And, while there, I also asked about renewing my driver license before March 9, the day before my 70th birthday, when Portugal required new evidence of my fitness to continue driving.

Older drivers in Portugal need to undergo medical and psychological examinations when renewing their driver licenses at ages 50, 60, 65, and 70 … drivers older than 70 are subject to a revalidation test. My doctor told me not to worry: there was no need for him to provide the medical certification until January, just two months before my 70th birthday. But I was concerned; I wanted IMT’s confirmation of that.

By law, one’s Portuguese driving license expires at 70 years of age; so, when you reach 70, you need to renew it if you want to continue driving. You then need to renew it every two years. Renewal can be done up to six months prior to the license expiring.

I took a Portuguese friend with me to speak on my behalf, as it was early into our residency in the country and I had a ways to go with my language proficiency. The lady who waited on us was flustered but friendly. While I feared the copy of my Wisconsin driving license showing the date I began driving there wouldn’t be accepted because it didn’t have an apostille (my only apostilled copy was turned in, along with my license, during my initial visit to the IMT), it wasn’t a problem.

The only problem was the printer, which refused to cooperate. Spending half an hour checking for paper jams, removing and shaking the laser cartridge a number of times, turning the machine off and on again, my IMT representative was getting impatient. The office manager was summoned. He, too, couldn’t get the printer to work; but, he called for a replacement … which arrived within half an hour.

Meanwhile, my Portuguese-speaking friend explained my concerns about renewing my license within the required time frame to the IMT lady. She looked at the expiration date and did some mental calculations: No problem, she said. We were within the six-month window and she could renew my license then and there, on the spot, without me having to return to IMT later. And, based on the documents I’d already supplied about four months earlier, she’d renew it for two more years without any new certifications—medical or otherwise.

Moral of the story: It’s easy to groan and bemoan the system.

Likewise, we need to give credit where, when, and to whom due.

So, thank you, my Portuguese guardian angels!

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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