Spain and Portugal Pas de Deux
We just returned from a two-week vacation at the property we’ve owned in southern Spain (Olvera) for nearly 15 years. Since leaving the USA in 2018, our primary residence has been in Portugal, divided between two properties –one in the central area (Castelo Branco) and the other near the Badajoz border of Portugal and Spain (Elvas). We’ve been legal/fiscal residents of Portugal for nearly five years–since the inauguration of Donald Trump. The pied a terre in Spain continues to be our vacation home.
When we were tourists traveling once or twice a year from the USA to Spain, we considered our “vacation bolt” the be-all-and-end-all of places we wanted to be. Now, because of our exposure to Portugal, we’re having second thoughts.
People often ask, “Why do you have property in both Spain and Portugal?” “Which country do you like better?” “What are some of the differences between the two?” “Which one is more or less expensive, all things considered?” “Why Portugal, not Spain?” (and vice-versa).
You can type any of those questions into Google and come up with a host of objective, credible answers. But I doubt that you’ll find much about the subtle differences between living in Spain and/or Portugal online. After all this time, we’ve only recently been able to pinpoint some of the subtle differences that impact and affect us.
Based on our observations and experiences in two comparable, interior towns — Olvera in the Spanish province of Cádiz and Alcains in the Castelo Branco district of Portugal — here are some of our impressions about one country and the other …
Spain caters to our spirit, Portugal to the soul. The first conjures up the Spanish word salido (outgoing, extroverted, uninhibited), while the latter is better described by its sorrowful saudade (longing, yearning, loss).
Think about how Spanish flamenco and Portuguese fado make you feel. Therein lie the differences — emotional, at least — between the two Iberian countries.
Too metaphorical and transcendental a description? Consider these for more specifics:
• Portugal may have bad drivers, but Spain has poor roads–not just in their physical condition, but in their safety zones. Highways and major roadways in both countries feature signage indicating that a single car distance between you and another signals danger, and that greater safety is achieved by maintaining two. But Portugal is very careful about the areas where you’re permitted to pass other vehicles … especially from the lane of oncoming traffic. Not so in Spain. It’s sheer terror trying to pass another vehicle in those short lengths of roadway before a curve or an incline blocks your vision of what’s coming at you ahead.
• While both countries are Roman Catholic, in name if not in practice, nearly all stores — including supermarkets and shopping malls — are closed Sundays in Spain, while remaining open in Portugal.
• Maybe you’re too young to remember John’s Bargain stores (which morphed into Big Lots), where closeouts and budget prices lured penny-pinching shoppers. Now we have Walmart and “warehouse” operations like Costco. Due to its major investments in Portugal, China is favored with many tax-exempt businesses. Every city and town in Portugal sports hole-in-the-wall and mega Chinese shops which are beginning to take root in Spain, as well. But in southern Spain, Andalucía especially, it’s the Moorish markets that lead in the whatever-you-need, something-for-everyone business. And while it’s an eye-opener to see just how many products we import from China, the truth is that few bargains are to be found in either the Chinese or Moorish markets.
• Along with supermarkets, shops, and weekly markets, both countries also allow vehicles to deliver bread, fish, and assorted sundries to homes. Although each typically follows the same routes, stops, and times, you can hear them coming by a series of short “toot-toots” in Portugal, whereas wheeled merchants in Spain can deafen you with their loud, long, insistent horns blaring. Honking is more habitual in Spain than in Portugal, where stopping to unload groceries, neglecting to move the instant a traffic light turns green, letting someone out, or having a word with a pedestrian is more allowable and less the cause of impatience and maddening disruptions requiring immediate retorts by holding down on the horn.
• The languages of both countries have quirky differences. In Spain, it’s the lisp and in Portugal it’s kind of like a shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh or, sometimes, a gargling sound. Ultimately, Spanish is easier to understand than Portuguese, whose pronunciation is much more difficult. Nonetheless, Spanish grammar and verb conjugation require far more expertise (and experience) than Portuguese.
• Perhaps it’s where we go and travel, but to our ears, English is spoken more frequently by the Portuguese than the Spanish. Maybe that’s because it’s not considered a “foreign” language (i.e., Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, etc.) in Portugal, but rather an integral part of every student’s curriculum from elementary school upwards.
• Taxes tend to be lower in Spain (where the ubiquitous IVA or sales tax is 21% v. Portugal’s 23%), except when it comes to buying property: Spain just reduced (for a limited time?) its transfer tax from 8% to 7% of the sales price plus an additional 1% in stamp fees. In Portugal, however, if your principal residence costs less than €100,000, you’ll pay just 0.8% in transfer taxes plus 1% in stamp fees. Do the arithmetic: On a €50,000 home purchase, you’ll pay €4,000 in Spanish transfer taxes and stamp fees compared to Portugal, where you’ll be assessed €900. That’s quite a difference there! Nonetheless, in addition to IVA, Portugal imposes a road tax initially and in perpetuity on any vehicle that you buy.
• Spain is five times larger than Portugal with lots more coastline, yet Portugal has historic majesties and jaw-dropping topography, as well as its charm.
• The density of buildings – a bunch of two, three, and four-level houses set atop and/or encircling one or more others – gives a sense of claustrophobia, of living in a maze, in towns like ours in Spain. Are the streets really narrower there, or is it just how we’re made to feel? Portugal’s streets in towns like Alcains aren’t much wider (apparently), but there just doesn’t appear to be as many buildings or cars crammed into the space. Whether it’s a measure of driving skill or the impossibly steep streets for parking, almost every car — old and new — has dents, scratches, bangs, and fender-benders which the folks in Olvera affectionately refer to as “Olvera kisses.” Somehow, for whatever the reason, Portuguese cars are found to be in far better condition.
• People in both countries participate in the “café” culture, sipping and gossiping daily. Yet they’ll probably be drinking coffee in Portugal, whereas wine is the preferred choice in Spain. Both beverages cost about the same.
• By and large, Spain has its tapas, extremely low-cost, smaller portion dishes with fixings (bread, olives, pretzels, potato chips, cheese, etc.) to share with others or enjoy by yourself. Two people, each partaking two separate tapas plus two wines or beers, will pay around €15 for a satisfying meal. Add an appetizer (entrada) or dessert, and you’re looking at a 20€ tab. Water and soft drinks are more expensive than beer or wines in Spain and Portugal. Both countries offer their Platos/Pratos de(l)/do día. Maybe it’s the butchering, but we much prefer the taste and the chew of Spanish meats and sauces.
• In terms of bread and desserts, Portugal wins, hands down. Spanish breads and rolls are dry and tasteless, while they’re a many splendored thing in Portugal. Yes, Spain does have its churros (which many believe the Portuguese have improved upon), but Portugal’s pasteis de natas are a classic creamy custard tart that’s incomparable in its own right.
• Garbage collection and recycling is handled very differently in Olvera and Alcains. In our Spanish town, every sort of refuse – glass wine bottles, plastic water bottles, metal cans of tuna and shaving cream, along with the usual kitchen and bath waste – are often put into the same plastic bag and hung outside one’s house, where it’s picked up by the bin men (not women) every single day (including Sundays and holidays). Few recycling “centers” are conveniently located to where many of us live. In Portugal, recycling is encouraged with billboard signage and online memes … and good deals are available on sets of home-based recycling bins. Trash isn’t picked up at your property, but at clusters of red, yellow, and green recycling bins next to plain-old-garbage receptacles within walking distance, where we deposit them.
I began this narrative with a musical headline–from Phantom of the Opera. I close here with another musical allusion, this one from Mary Wells:
“Well, I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed … two lovers and I love them both the same.”
Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You are invited to read our current and past issues on this page of its website. For those who prefer the feel of paper pages, paperback editions of the magazine are available at all Amazon sites.