Spanish Towns, Portuguese Villages:

Some (Not So) Subtle Differences

After owning a vacation home in southern Spain for 15 years and two properties in Portugal for five, we’ve started to notice and track a variety of not so subtle lifestyle differences between the two countries.

When or if comparing your experiences with ours, please bear in mind that we live in towns and villages – not coastal cities – where our neighbors are natives, and many don’t speak English. We’re comparing typical suburban standing, not urban ubiquities, between the two countries.

For example, shopping centers and supermarkets are closed on Sundays (and holidays) in Spain; they’re open in Portugal. For the most part.

With every purchase made in Portugal, merchants are required by law to ask for your fiscal number (NIF in Portugal, NIE in Spain). It’s your choice whether to give it. But if you do provide the number, merchants report the transaction – and the taxes you paid – to Finanças and you’re automatically credited for these tax payments against your annual income taxes. For whatever reason, we’ve never been asked for a fiscal number in Spain. Perhaps, Portugal’s central accounting system is more sophisticated than Spain’s … or maybe Spain simply doesn’t tabulate taxes paid on purchases to offset one’s annual income tax liability.

Trash in most Spanish towns is picked up daily – seven days per week, including holidays – by garbage trucks with door-to-door service. Residents hang their bags of trash on nearby railings or set them out against convenient spaces nearby. A recycling center is centrally located, although there may be a few bins scattered throughout the area for the purpose. In Portugal, however, people take their garbage to trash and recycling bins conveniently grouped together and located every few blocks. Large items – furniture, major appliances, etc. – are collected in both countries by calling and scheduling the pickup.

IVA is 21% in Spain and 23% in Portugal.

The Spanish might assume that all Portuguese women — except for children — are married, as there are no “señoritas” in Portugal. Just senhoras.

Speaking of which, there’s no such thing as gender neutrality in Portuguese or Spanish. Everything that’s named must either be masculine or feminine. Except, sometimes, the two countries and their respective languages can’t agree on the gender. Take “Christmas,” for example. The Spanish call it female (la Navidad), while the Portuguese think of it as male (o Natal).

Houses are comparable in cost in both countries.

Nevertheless, property purchase costs (taxes, stamps, legal and notary services, other fees) are far lower in Portugal—especially on a primary residence costing less than €100,000. Depending on location, figure between 10-14% on top of the purchase price in Spain v. perhaps 1% in Portugal. That’s because the transfer tax in Spain on such properties varies between 6% and 13%, while the same tax in Portugal is a meager 0.1%.

Drying laundry is another matter. In Portugal, all sorts of rack contraptions are used to hang drying clothes from windows, terraces, and balconies. It remains a mystery to me where the Spaniards hang theirs.

Spain, even in rural areas, is much louder, longer … and later. Portuguese people tend to hold their peace and tranquility much longer.

The spirit of Spain is expressed in its flamenco; the soul of Portugal in its fado.

Parking your money in traditional, brick-and-mortar banks – even those with online banking – is a losing proposition in both countries. Portugal charges between four and six euros each month (Montepio and Millenium) per account, while Spain charges many accountholders €45 per quarter (€180 per year). All for the privilege of using our money to invest in the bank’s profitability.

Petrol (gasoline, diesel, LPG) has historically been cheaper in Spain than Portugal. Not so anymore. Portugal is giving Spain a run for its money at the fuel pump, although canisters of propane and butane continue to cost far less in Spain.

Electrodomésticos – especially large screen “smart” TVs – are far more expensive in Spain than Portugal. Take, for example, this 43-inch, 2022 LG Smart TV: It’s advertised at a “promotional price” of €449 at “Electrochollo,” a chain of discount appliance stores throughout Spain. The same unit and model at Worten throughout Portugal, however, costs just €299.99. Even the ads are the same. The same holds true for many other major appliances—washing machines, cookers and hobs, frost-free refrigerators and freezers, even computers and peripherals. I guess it has something to do with the market: Spaniards typically earn more than the Portuguese; Portuguese are poorer than Spaniards.

Maybe it’s the electricity—which also is somewhat higher in Spain?

Curiously, despite Portugal’s pharmaceutical subsidies, Spain is far cheaper when it comes to over-the-counter drugs (not prescriptions). “Baby” aspirin (90 or 100 mgs) for the heart, anti-fungal cream, and pills to fight the allergies in the air everywhere here, cost less than ten euros combined in Spain vs. 25 in Portugal.

For those who savor haute cuisine, for the most part Spanish food is better than Portuguese. I know, I know: all those articles raving about how delicious the food – especially fish and other concoctions – are in Portugal. Perhaps that’s true if you don’t know what you’re eating or see pictures of it in supermarket flyers.

Disculpa, Portugal, but Spanish food looks and tastes better. A lot of credit for that goes to its small plated “tapas” served with bread, plastic packages of crackers, and olives (or, sometimes, peanuts) … all included for €2.50-€3.50 per dish. Add another euro for a large pour of tinto and two people can share a variety of food – croquetas, chicken, meat, fish – for less than fifteen euros, including salad and crisps (fries) that come with the “meal.”

But the bread …

Spanish bread cannot compete with its Portuguese cousins. Dry, tasteless, starchy, and bland, the best that can be said about it is “blah.” For its part, Portuguese bread tends to be hard crusted but moist and flavorful inside, luscious when served warm. The same holds true for pastries and desserts: The sheer variety of sweets in Portugal is mind-blowing, loaded with creams, and succulent—a delicious and delightful way to end a meal. Except for its flan, perhaps, the best to be said about pasties in Spanish towns and villages is “blah” … they’re just not finger-licking good.

I’ve often told friends (so it’s no longer funny) that when my time comes, I don’t want funebre faces or empathetic eulogies. Instead, rent a Portuguese pastelaria and enjoy remembering me for my sweet tooth.

Rather than end this epistle on a morbid note, I share this curious beginning of the most commonplace greetings in Spanish towns and Portuguese villages: Why is it that the Portuguese greet us in the singular: bom dia … boa tarde … boa noite, while the Spanish express such pleasantries in the plural: buenos días, buenas tardes, buenas noches?

Is there something they know that we don’t?

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the award-winning thoughtful magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds. He and his partner divide their time between homes in Spanish towns and Portuguese villages—and vice-versa. Read the current issue of Portugal Living Magazine online and subscribe – FREE! – at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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Street Sounds in Spain

For 15 years now, we’ve had a vacation bolt in Andalucía–southern Spain. Our pied a terre is in a town named Olvera, which is found precisely at the point where the provinces of Málaga, Sevilla, and Cadiz intersect and collide. Except for its majestic appearance from the roadway, Olvera is a typical Spanish town, albeit one with a good share of expats and immigrants–mainly from the UK, but increasing numbers from elsewhere.

Olvera view

Since moving to Portugal in 2017, we’ve made the four-hour trek from our Portuguese home (in Elvas) at the Spanish border by Badajoz two or three times each year. And with each trip, we’re reminded of my good doctor’s prescription for old age (mine) and assorted aches and pains, including a broken leg and ankle from 20+ years ago: “Stop climbing up and down all those steps.¨(At the time, we lived in a house with 37 steps between the three floors.) The doctor went on to warn me how dangerous it was to be pulled down the village’s cobble stone streets — especially when wet and slippery — by our three Miniature Schnauzers.

“You need a single story home, a bungalow, with a small, enclosed backyard for the dogs,” she stressed. “You will feel much better and enjoy life that much more.”

The doctor was right.

Except for Olvera.

We loved our three-story 55m2 house that had “Challenging!” written all over it. It was challenging to decorate according to our taste when the small space dictated absolute minimalism. It was challenging to go up and down all those steps, which twisted and turned and had less surface area to support us. It was challenging to walk the dogs up the steepening street, avoiding poopstacles along the way.

Heck, it was challenging even to get to the place!

A tiny alley way sliced through the retail shops on Calle Llana, the main street in town. Blink and you’ll miss it. Try to make a 90 degree right turn from Calle Llana onto Calle Cantillos (yes, the alley has a name!) and you’d better pull in both of the car’s side mirrors. And pray.

It’s there that you first become aware of it …

The noise.

In abandoned, decrepit, former manor homes now falling apart, you’ll hear the constant coo-coo-coo-ing of pigeons. Whether love calls or sirens crying for times past, the pigeons are loud. They’re also dirty, their droppings plastering the street.

Continuing about 20 meters, the road widens somewhat … enough for cars to park, clinging to houses on one side of the street. Normal size cars can pass through … with about half a meter to spare. A harrowing experience driving down the street, it’s no wonder that every car exhibits what is affectionately known around town as “Olvera kisses.”

Not far down the street is a “park” which resulted from tearing down the former post office building and erecting a site to sit on facing concrete benches atop a cement slab injected with three precisely placed trees and two trash baskets on stands. Approaching this oasis set in the midst of too much crammed tightly together, one becomes aware of clucking sounds, somewhat like a brood of hens. Especially around dusk. It’s a group of about 10 senior citizens, men facing women on opposite sides, gathering to socialize.

Immediately thereafter, the road lurches left, into another alley-like connection. That’s where our house is located–directly opposite a so-called “street” branching off to the left. Though it has a name (C/Arcos), only two-wheel vehicles — bicycles, scooters, and motos — can pass through, as there’s a low-hanging archway just a few meters ahead.

In effect, we live in the middle of a man-made echo chamber exaggerating simple sounds into raucous roars.

Maybe it’s me who’s exaggerating?

Here’s what we hear:

• Despite the “no parking” sign and curb painted yellow on this leg of C/Arcos, someone parks there late at night and leaves early in the morning. Maybe s/he thinks that nobody will need to pass that way or be inconvenienced at such times. Nor would the possibility of police patrolling and ticketing the car be that great. We know that the car is old and its engine is diesel. From the series of 30-second motor cranking to the belching and burping of the engine engaged, there’s no mistaking those sounds at six in the morning.

• Not much later, a tractor shakes, rattles, and rolls, trudging its way into the vacated spot, creeping its way up the incline until it can go no farther. Stopping beside what’s left of a row house, the man driving yells something to a colleague and the demolition continues. Bang! Boom! Snap, Crackle, and Pop!

It’s just before 7:00 am.

• One by one, up and down the street, “persianas” — those built-in blinds comprising wood and other weather-resistant materials — are cranked up to let in a new day. At the same hour that evening, they will be cranked down again.

• Next door, our neighbor is having repairs and renovations done. Industrial-size bags of concrete (cement?) are parked in front of her house. Promptly each morning at 8h,the men come to begin work. There’s the steady banging of a hand-held hammer. The high-pitched whine of electric drills. And the ear-jarring rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat of a jack-hammer jamming. The men stop their work when the lady of the house begins arguing with whoever is in charge. I don’t know what the problem is, but their voices are raised and, despite bickering for 15 minutes, she is determined to have the last word. Their voices rising to crescendo, a door is slammed and we become aware of the infrequent sounds of silence on our street.

• The same next door neighbor and two others get together in front of our house — which, for whatever reason is convenient — mid-morning and mid-evening to chat. Their pitch is that of loud, overpowering shrillness that scares the sh*t out of our dogs. I wish! Instead, they are petrified, tail between their legs, refusing to eat or do their business, fearing they’ll come across what they perceive as perils.

(Fifty or so years ago, while I was attending the University of Madrid, my very proper Spanish grandmother would wag her finger at me, stating unequivocally, “No te quedes en la calle.” In other words, don’t hang out on the street. Streets had their purpose, she believed — to take you somewhere and bring you back — but were not the place for respectable people to spend time gossiping.)

• Motorcycles scream by, going the wrong way on our one direction (only) street. You can tell their manufacturers, makes, and models by the whine and howl of their motors as those driving demons rev, rev, rev their motors to make a point as they pass. Evidently, since the pandemic lockdowns, more people have discovered the convenience of restaurant food delivered to their doors, thereby increasing the number of motos (and noise) on the street.

It’s now nine in the morning.

• Rather than beeping politely, the bread truck bullies its way down the street, driver leaning heavily on his horn every 10-meters for what seems like eternities. The bread truck is followed by the gas truck, delivering full canisters of propane and fetching the empty ones. It, too, follows the same ear-piercing etiquette. Every so often, the fish monger comes along, making a trio of the cacophony.

• Meanwhile, the masters and mistresses of dogs on our street have opened their doors to let the canines out to do their business in the street. From the soprano voices of the women to the gravely, baritone tones of the men — and, sometimes, whistling in between — it can take 15 minutes for the dogs to return home from their jaunts around the neighborhood.

• Later, cats who’ve taken residence in the ruina facing us howl and screech in nighttime hissy fits. Either they’re fighting for mastery or having great sex.

Any one of these matters — two, three, or even four — could be accepted and adapted to, considering the friendships and food we enjoy here in Olvera. But put all of them together, continuously, day after day, and it’s a lifestyle … regardless of how we describe it.

Of course, there are other nondescript sounds that get muffled by all the racket: people walking and talking to each other in sotto voices or listening to their mobiles. Cars passing carefully at a sensible pace. Children playing in the street. Ladies back from their grocery shopping, dragging the carts behind them. Elderly gentlemen gingerly tapping their canes. Birds chirping. Flies buzzing. Bicycle riders gliding silently down the street. Emergency vehicle sirens off in the distance.

Maybe it’s only our street where expats and immigrants must learn to fish or cut bait. Perhaps people in other towns and villages across Iberia are comfortable living where such happenstance is routine and acceptable behavior.

Then, too, others are probably more tolerant than we.

When asked about the differences between Spain and Portugal or why we chose to live in the latter instead of the former, we tell them that there are many similarities between the two countries and cultures.

But we do believe that Spain is louder.

P.S. We cut short our “vacation” and returned to Portugal a week earlier than anticipated. We missed the relative peace and quiet of our new homeland.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the thoughtful magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds. Read current and past issues — and subscribe free of charge — at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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My Portugal Learning Curve

I dropped off my midterm election ballot at DHL in Castelo Branco, so it would arrive at the city clerk’s office in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin – still, technically, our legal residence … for voting purposes – in plenty of time to be counted.

The effort made me realize that it will soon be five years that we’ve lived and had our legal residencia in Portugal. We’ll be applying for permanent residency and citizenship here soon, too.

We’ve learned so much since arriving and departing the airport in a rental car, where an attendant warned us that it’s prohibido to allow dogs (and cats) to accompany us in the car unless they’re tethered to the rear seat belt sockets or confined to an acceptable carrier for traveling.

Shortly thereafter, our second, never-to-be-forgotten experience with Portugal initiated us to the country’s bureaucracy: registering for and buying a Via Verde pass for the country’s national toll roads. Who knew when entering Portugal on land for the first time that one had to go into a post office – anywhere in Portugal, assuming it’s open – to fill out the form, pay the fee, and be on our way … with the tolls conveniently deducted from our bank account?

The process of acculturating to Portugal took us from being expats to becoming immigrants.

How exciting it was to be able to decipher what the words on the highway’s digital signage were saying—and warning. Otherwise, bom dia, boa tarde, and obrigado were the extent of my Portuguese language. Though fluent in Spanish, I had no idea that my knowledge of a sister Iberian language would be a stumbling block, as much hindrance as help that would always complicate and confound my Portuguese. I could easily mispronounce my uttered words and/or say something entirely different than intended, as I guessed – based on Spanish – a sought after word … which would or wouldn’t be perfectly understood.

I’ve come to grips that, in the western part of Iberia, I will be speaking Portu/ñ/nhol.

There’s a lot I’ve gotten used to—whether by choice or by chance since moving to and living in Portugal.

Out of choice, for instance, I now drink Portuguese coffee – Sical is my favorite, #7 on the Strength Scale – while what I drank when we first arrived had neither number nor name but was laughed at and referred to as “dirty water.”

Similarly, I’ve become accustomed to shelved milk with shelf lives three or four months hence. It’s only to tone down the coffee’s bitterness, I tell myself. Besides, as soon as I get home and unpack the groceries, the milk will be properly placed in the refrigerator.

There have been other choices, too, which we initially made but later came to regret. Like our housing and accommodations.

To be issued a visa (let alone residence), Portugal requires that we document our housing—whether rented or purchased—for a minimum of 12 months. It’s hard enough to find suitable housing that’s both agreeable and affordable these days, even with feet on the ground … which could require multiple roundtrips between the USA and Portugal. That was the route we took … since we pictured precisely what and where we wanted to live.

We’ve never rented, always owned, and wanted to live in a quintessential fairy tale village with cobblestone streets and church bells tolling the time, rather than packing and unpacking more than once. And, as we thought we’d open a snack bar – Tacos Americanos – the street level of the property had to be approved for commercial purposes. Even back then, Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve were beyond our budget, so we looked to the interior and towns bordering Spain.

Searching the Internet daily from the USA, we found four properties that fit our criteria. That called for one round-trip visit to Portugal. Too bad that one of the four was under contract, another already sold, and two … just weren’t what they appeared to be online. We made a second trip to look at available properties in another area (Coimbra) and attend a Pure Portugal seminar on buying property. We thought we’d found an ideal place to live and, possibly, work … until the experts (especially architects and builders) explained why we shouldn’t buy a home built directly into the mountain on three sides without any vapor barriers.

Back to searching the Internet, we expanded our horizons and property portals.

At last, we found something that looked and felt like “us” (even) online. Spacious and interestingly configured with a separate wing for a guest suite, the faded sign on the storefront downstairs announced that it formerly was a café.

You got it: Another trip to and from Portugal. This time, however, we worked with a lawyer to negotiate the price, write a contract, open a bank account for us, pay a deposit, obtain our NIFs, and transfer the utilities to our names.

There was a lot of work to do before we moved in—lock, stock, and barrel.

Who knew back then that we’d have to upgrade the electricity throughout the house to handle the upgrades we wanted to install: inverter aircon units, a new fridge, range, hot water heater, and washer? Didn’t the sweet little old lady who owned the house and ran the café below (“the most popular one in the village because it was the only one to sell lottery tickets”) know that her commercial license on the café had expired and couldn’t be renewed? That, to get a new license and permit, we’d have to bring the place up to current code and standards—amounting to somewhere between €10,000-€15,000? Had I any inkling that, within three years, I’d no longer be able to go up and down the 37 steps dozens of times daily, especially to walk our three dogs … two together and the third by himself … around the cobblestone streets of the village—including in the rain, which we had back then? And that living on the main street of the village with your bedroom facing the street would subject you to noise, traffic overload, and processions for every occasion?

Following a series of examinations, procedures, and laboratory analyses, the doctor spelled it out load and clear: “You must move.” I couldn’t deal with all those steps anymore. The cobblestone streets are too slippery—especially when it’s raining, and I’m being pulled by the dogs chasing after a cat or street dog. “What I prescribe for you is a bungalow, and one-level house with a small, enclosed quintal (backyard) to plant and let the dogs out,” said Dra. Conceição.

And, so, we sold our imposing dwelling and purchased a hobbit house nearby.

Other choices have been far simpler.

I choose to read the Portugal News instead of the Portugal (aka Algarve) Resident. The former seems more forthright and honest; the latter is a tad too tabloid and sensationalist for my taste. I’m choosier, too, about my Facebook friends. Usually, I choose vinho tinto over branca. And I choose not to be surrounded by smokers.

I also elect to do my weekly grocery shopping at a variety of stores.

Why?

Because I prefer Lidl’s orange juice and bagged salads, along with its small pouches of chicken chunks. The aisles of non-food items are for browsing and buying stuff one wouldn’t expect to find in a grocery—at prices much lower than Aldi’s. Oh, but Aldi has a couple of great items in its bakery & bread department, like those mini quiches that make for delicious lunches. Continente is the only supermarket that carries the refrigerated grapefruit juice I mix with the orange for my cold breakfast beverage. In my opinion, Continente also has the best tasting bakery items, although Auchan’s is a close second. But Auchan only sells the branded (Bailey’s) Irish Cream – for 15 or 16 euros – while Continente has its own store brand which costs about six euros. While we do the bulk of our weekly shopping at Auchan, we run out at least once or twice a week to our town’s Intermarché for whatever we’ve run out of or forgotten.

I generally like seafood — shrimp, crabs, lobster — but I’ve never been particularly fond of fish. (I know: Living in Portugal and not liking fish?) Of course, I do like tuna and salmon and sometimes, depending on how it’s cooked and served, cod (bacalhau). But I’m completely turned off by ads for fresh fish–no matter how attractively their dead heads, fins, tails, and other pulpous parts are arranged and published by photographers and designers.

Other things, I have gotten used to—like Portuguese workers and government agencies moving at their own pace. And that there’s often disagreement between one and the other: One branch of SEF insists on a year’s worth of private health insurance, while others accept a six-month travel insurance policy without question. One electrician (from EDP) insists that we hard-wire our cooker directly to the electric; another (British) electrician says “rubbish,” that hooking the contraption up to the electric using a plug and socket will work the same.

I have nibbled a bit of saudade — that pervasive tension between yearning and resignation — knowing that massive fires are frequent and persistent, no matter where in Portugal you live. That persistent dust and predatory flies won’t stay outside. And that Portugal has its problems, too.

Slowly but surely my Spanish is receding. My immediate impulse now is to (try to) respond in Portuguese, especially when angry, although my accent and pronunciation will always sound foreign to the natives.

No longer the tourists, we’d trade a couple of those magnificent azure skies, day after day, for some rain—lots more of it. Because Portugal needs rain desperately.

There’s lots I’ve learned without realizing it over the past few years. I can deal — argue if necessary — with people who have tried to do us wrong. I can carry on rather lengthy conversations with neighbors and strangers … as long as they speak clearly and devagar. I understand what store clerks and delivery people are asking for and respond appropriately. I can even converse over the phone rather than online where I had the benefit of Google Translate. I now know quite a few ways to take leave and say goodbye, although I’m still not sure which to use when. And I can readily detect the difference between Brazilian and European Portuguese, along with a few expressions particular to given reasons.

Yet, one thing I’ll never learn is to pull when the sign on the door says “Puxe!”

It’s here that my Spanish (or Portu|nh/ñ|ol kicks in, wanting to know why the Portuguese don’t use the verb tirar, a word recognized and used (at times) by both languages.

Oy, vey. There’s still so much to learn!

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the “thoughtful magazine for people with Portugal on their minds.” You can read the current issue online and subscribe — FREE! — at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue. Prefer the feel of fingers flicking paper pages? High-quality, low-cost copies of Portugal Living Magazine are available through all Amazon sites.

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