Last week, considering a subject too vast and complex to cover in one column, I recalled saying the words “Wow, we could live here!”, as we rolled into the Silver Coast town of São Martinho do Porto back in 2017, in my efforts to help anyone now choosing their favoured dream home location in Portugal.
Those words continued to trip off our tongues as we rolled into other Portuguese places and spaces, giving rise to what I officially call ‘São Martinho do Porto Syndrome’ – where each new and beautiful village, town or city you arrive in turns your head and steals your heart.
My first suggestions, prescription if you like, for this pleasant but itchy condition included taking time to define and own the term ‘best’ when it comes to your choice of backdrop, as it’s you that’ll be living there, and not the influencer or real estate agent who first aroused your interest.
Remember to focus on those ‘immutables’ too, the things you can’t change, including the climatic consideration: do you want to spend your time keeping warm or cooling down?
City or country? is a clear distinction too that can rule in, or out, many a setting, along with choosing a lifestyle that is predominantly international, close to other foreigners and expats in your mix, or a more rural setting with a truly Portuguese flavour, the ‘cultural deep end’, as it were.
Some will go gung-ho for Portuguese immersion and might later miss the familiarity and comfort a bit of English or native language conversation can bring. Others are adamant that they will not find themselves facing the terror of being unable to communicate or converse, and head for popular expat destinations from the get-go. As with everything, a bit of balance is advised here.
Coastal or interior? can be a further distinguishing proposition, made somewhat easier by Portugal’s abundant and well-appointed river beaches. Those torn by the ‘call of the coast’ can take comfort from the arguably safer and warmer praias fluviais that are another of Portugal’s well-kept and abundant secret pleasures that the Portuguese nonchalantly take for granted. Bear in mind, too, that whilst a coastal breeze can bring some blessed relief from Portugal’s plentiful sunshine, it can also be the harbinger of damp doom in the winter months.
These broad brushes, this process of elimination, though not conclusive, will certainly narrow down your scope and lessen the awkward symptoms of the syndrome that bears the name of the town where we as a family finally ended up. It turns out that our first impressions, instinct and intuition were ultimately vindicated, but not until we’d ‘kissed a few frogs’. And this, too, is an important consideration. Trust your guts as well as the dry data.
Nowhere is perfect, but some places are more perfect than others, something more easily sensed than scientifically proven.
I know now-friends who bought Portuguese homes online, whilst sitting out the Covid travel restrictions, and have made a bed they will now lie in, come what may. These tend to be the data-oriented people who can make a decision based on rigorous checklisting and tick-boxing. Personally, I like to get the ‘feel’ of a place and prefer to scout in person, checking out the vibes of an area and its people. I’ve met others, like me in this regard, who just knew a place was ‘right’, and that was that.
Whatever your style, you might find another couple of pointers comforting. The first, that sagely observation that life is more about the journey and not so much the destination. Whilst frog-kissing, the Munsons have always enjoyed the adventure, and wherever we were, Portugal itself was always our dream destination. Wherever we’ve been, that ubiquitous Portuguese soul or spirit that I have often mentioned here was evident like the letters in a stick of rock, albeit expressed in a unique and local way.
More help can come from one of my favourite expressions, almost a way of life for me, which would be: “don’t let the excellent spoil the good”. Of universal value, this little aphorism can have its place in the search for your own ‘São Martinho’ too. Good enough can be just that. Good enough. And allowing perfectionism to delay or distract you from just getting on with living a perfectly agreeable life in this perfectly agreeable country can waste unnecessary time and effort, overthinking things, rather than just enjoying life.
No look at where to live in Portugal would be complete without some geographical insight to accompany and complement the qualitative analysis and well-meaning advice. Over the last few years, five principal regions seem to have distilled themselves into the foreigners’ awareness, led by professionals and consultants who have tried to make a happy landing and new life easier. These, attempting to list them in order of popularity from my experience, are: the Algarve, Lisbon and surrounding area, Porto and surrounding area, the Silver Coast and Central Portugal.
Each offers a distinct and discernible slant on the national offer and has made decision-making easier from afar with ever-more information becoming available about these hotspots online. Immigration, interestingly to me, has a pattern to it, where pioneers in an area will have fellow foreigners join them in subsequent waves, leading to popularity and saturation of places that are ‘good enough’ and whose repute grows as a result of expat concentration. This, of course, keeps the spotlight off other undiscovered and delightful gems that await the attention of the more adventurous migrant, in which category we might include the Alentejo, the far and deep North, the Iberian borderlands, and the Green Coast.
Some might add the autonomous regions, the Portuguese islands, or archipelagos, of Madeira and the Azores, to the ‘B-list’, but to me these are effectively other countries, which deserve separate articles to do them justice, and are apples to the oranges of mainland locations you may already be considering.
If you’d like me to be more specific with off-the-beaten-track recommendations, where, of course, I run the risk of stimulating more ‘São Martinho do Porto Syndrome’, I will (and those of an already confused disposition might like to look away now!).
Overlooked and visit-worthy locations, from my point of view and lived or travelled experience (and, of course, depending on your personal preferences) are: Alcácer do Sal, Lourinhã, Palmela, Penela and Viseu, listed here alphabetically so as not to infer any undue favouritism. New residents in these locations may not thank me for giving the game away, but I can commend them all to you, if you need some serving suggestions, have the stomach for more discovery-based delight, and the ensuing bewilderment that could occur.
As for my forever home, this family’s dream destination, I’d be happy to live here in São Martinho do Porto for the rest of my days. That said, who knows what’s around the corner? Like that corner we turned in the Autumn of 2017 to see the view, pictured.
Boa sorte to you as you search Portugal for your ‘des res’, which, of course, brings me full circle to the matter of enjoying the journey, as glib and as unhelpful it might sound as advice.
As you make your way around this country, pause if you can whilst smelling its coffee, delighting in its vernacular pastries, and immersing luxuriously in its community-based culture. Take it in, deeply. Imagine yourself in each location, generously. And, if you can, savour each calçada-blessed step, feeling ‘at home’, whilst finding ‘your home’.
Check out Carl’s new website and homage to the town that gave the world São Martinho do Porto Syndrome at www.lovesmdp.com