Fun, hard work at the grape harvest

Volunteers turn out each year for the annual “vindima” or grape harvest, near my village in central Portugal.

This year the weather gods were in a good mood for the annual grape harvest, or “vindima” near my village in central Portugal. Typically, a couple of dozen volunteers show up and spend the morning snipping bunches of grapes then enjoy a wonderful meal provided by Manuel and Erminda, the couple who host the harvest.

Word went round that the event would be held on September 18. So, my neighbor and I showed up at the couple’s country store at 8 a.m. and followed a truck along a winding country road to the first vineyard. There, our host handed us each a pair of secateurs, or clippers, and a bucket and we headed off to join the others among the grape vines.

Snip, snip, snip and the bunches fall into the bucket. When the bucket is full one of us takes and empties it into a large plastic container, or “caneca”, which is about 2.5 feet high and around the same in diameter. Every now and then, a big burly guy would hoist the caneca onto his shoulder and march off to empty it into the back of one of the waiting trucks.

As we worked, the sun gradually became hotter, our hands became sticky with the sweet-tasting grape juice and my ears became attuned to all sorts of new expressions in Portuguese.

By around 1 p.m. we had finished the first two vineyards and we headed back to the home of Manuel and Erminda where they had set out tables in their basement, the “adega” where they make the wine. A wonderful meal of hearty soup, bread, olives, their own strong red wine, and a main course of fried fish and salad, had us all in a jolly mood. After the meal, the 15-year-old son of one of the helpers serenaded us with Portuguese folk tunes on his accordion. What more wonderful way to spend a Saturday!

Harvesting grapes in central Portugal – one of my favorite things to do.

Tomar, my local town, draws praise

My latest freelance article for the online lifestyle magazine Portugal Living, focuses on the town of Tomar in central Portugal which has begun attracting a lot of expatriates from the US. They are attracted by its historic charm and convenient location.

Tomar, a town of about 20,000 in central Portugal, is drawing a lot of interest from Americans who are thinking about moving to Portugal. Those who have visited, are charmed by its quaint historic district, it’s medieval Templar castle and the delightful Rio Nabão that flows through it.

They like the size of the town, its location and the essential shopping amenities it offers. Tomar is in central Portugal, about 90 minutes by road or train from Lisbon and an hour from the coast. You can also reach Porto, the country’s second largest city, in about two hours, or the third largest city, Coimbra, in about an hour by road. Coimbra is the site of Portugal’s oldest university.

I have traveled extensively in Portugal and I still think Tomar is the nicest town of its size in the country.

I first visited Tomar three years ago, shortly after I retired from my job as a journalist with the Albuquerque Journal, in New Mexico. I spent two months traveling the country, researching whether I could realize my dream to move to Portugal. As luck would have it, I found a beautifully restored old stone cottage in a village near the town and I have been happily living here since July 2019.

Earlier this year, I began freelancing for the new online magazine Portugal Living. My feature article on Tomar appears on page 26 of the Fall issue.

So, if you have an interest in moving to Portugal, check out my article. The magazine also has many articles which provide valuable information on subjects such as finances for expats, buying property and – of course – Portuguese wines!

Coimbra, city of singing students

Coimbra University, Paço das Escolas.
Paço das Escolas at Coimbra University, with the Biblioteca Joanina (Joanine Library) on the left, a statue of King João III in the center and part of the Royal Palace of Aláçova on the right. The university was founded in 1290, but alternated between Coimbra and Lisbon until moving permanently to Coimbra in 1537 during the reign of King João III.

The university of Coimbra is the oldest in Portugal and one of the oldest in Europe. Among the many traditions it is known for are the groups of students who sing a special kind of Fado.

Fado is a style of song typical of Portugal. In Lisbon it is associated with mournful lyrics featuring themes of the sea and “saudade”. Loosely translated from the Portuguese, it means longing.

In Coimbra, the fado sung by students (fado de estudante) is more about poetry and unrequited love. It grew from the serenades given by students at ceremonies marking the beginning and end of the academic year. It is accompanied by a tear-drop shaped guitar called, the “guitarra de Coimbra.

Students in Coimbra can often be seen around town in long black capes. EV Legters, an American writer who has lived in the city for four years said that prior to Covid lockdowns, they were a highly visible presence.

Coimbra student wearing black cape.

“There were students in robes everywhere, playing and singing. They sound so sincere,” she said. “They can bring tears to their eyes about the nostalgia, their love of the university and its culture.”

Coimbra university is also known for its multi-day parties. The Festa das Latas, or Latada, in October, marks the initiation of new students to the university. Traditionally new students dragged tin cans tied to their legs, “lata” means can in Portuguese. The Latada starts with student groups singing a serenade in front of the Sé Nova, the“new” cathedral. The term new is relative. It was a former Jesuit church founded in 1598.

The other main celebration is the Queima das Fitas, or burning of the ribbons. This is held early in May. It too kicks off with a serenade. This one is in front of the Sé Velha, the old cathedral, a massive Romanesque structure which dates from 1162. Students wear ribbons of different colors representing their faculties; yellow for medicine, red for law, and so on.

Both ceremonies are also an excuse for parades through the streets of the city and many nights of parties that go on to the wee hours of the morning.

Entrance to the Joanine Library, Coimbra University.
Entrance to the Biblioteca Joanina. The library houses around 60,000 books published between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Politics Portuguese-style is peaceful, so refreshing!

Bruno Gomes, SP mayoral candidate for Ferreira do Zezere
Flyer mailed to residents in the Ferreira do Zezere municipality shows Socialist Party mayoral candidate Bruno Gomes against a peaceful green back ground with the message “It’s time for change” and “New generation, New vision.”

Portugal is gently gearing up for local elections which will be held on Sept. 26. I say gently, because I have been used to the increasingly savage cut and thrust of US-style election campaigns where character assassination is pretty much the name of the game.

Here in my part of Central Portugal, campaign billboard signs began appearing a few months ago. Most of those I’ve seen are a restful shade of green, rather like the color of a hearty pea soup.

A week ago, a flyer arrived in my mailbox from Bruno Gomes, the Socialist Party candidate. Portugal has multiple political parties. The Socialist Party (Partido Socialist) is a major party, whose leader is António Costa, the current prime minister. Gomes is campaigning to become president of the municipal chamber – essentially the mayor – of Ferreira do Zezere.

Portugal has 308 municipalities which are centered in a town and have jurisdiction over the villages in the rural area around them. As local government units, they consist of the Municipal Chamber (câmara municipal ) of elected members who have executive power, and an elected legislative body called a Municipal Assembly (Assembleia Municipal ) whose members meet five times a year. At a lower level, villages have their own governing unit called a junta de freguesia.

The flyer I received from Gomes, was inviting potential voters to a meeting on 4th of July. Portugal allows EU citizens resident in the country to vote in local elections. Since I am a dual passport holder, my second one being Irish which is an EU country, I could theoretically register.

What struck me as so refreshing about this flyer, was the calm, measured tone of the candidate’s platform. Under the heading “A Time for Change”, he lists nine proposals. They include things like support for families to cover the cost of childcare, simplifying the processes to approve new businesses and those needed to issue building permits. They are, essentially, sensible ideas that could really benefit people. What a concept!

I am glad to be living in a country where candidates can talk about the issues rather than smearing their opponents. So, although the I probably won’t attend the meeting on 4th of July, I will think of it as a different way to celebrate.

Learning fun new skills in Portugal

Pumping up an inflatable kayak.
Friends loaned me an inflatable kayak for a few weeks so here I am inflating it prior to trying it out on the lake created by the Barragem de Castelo de Bode, near where I live in Central Portugal.

It’s been two years since I left New Mexico and moved to Portugal. During this time I have learned some interesting new skills – standup paddle boarding, kayaking, vegetable gardening and using a chainsaw!

These are things that weren’t so easy to do in my previous life. New Mexico is such a dry state. The high desert has a few lakes – like Cochiti and Elephant Butte – but those were relatively far from where I lived. By contrast, Portugal has abundant rainfall which makes for plentiful rivers, lakes and greenery. Things grow so much more easily here than in sandy desert soil.

Last September, a friend let me try out her standup paddle board and I enjoyed the experience so much I thought about buying one. While I was still thinking about that, some other friends offered to loan me an inflatable kayak and an inflatable SUP board. So, I am now busy trying them out. It is such a joy to be able to access water so close by, especially when it gets hot.

Veggie Garden Delight

Gardening has been another hobby I have stumbled my way into here. When the Covid19 lockdown hit last March, some people thought there might even be food shortages. Since the guests I was expecting had to cancel, and I couldn’t do the trips I had planned, I decided to try my hand at growing my own vegetables.

Last summer I had great crops of beans, potatoes, tomatoes, courgettes (zucchini) and a few huge cabbages. Building on that triumph, I turned over the soil again this spring – aided by the generous contributions of my neighbor’s well-rotted horse manure. Unfortunately, I had an unwelcome visitor one night in the form of a wild boar – “javeli” in Portuguese. This vandal wreaked minor havoc among my plants. However, their incursion revealed that I already had a good crop of potatoes. So, I decided to harvest them.

Potatoes from my small garden plot. Tomatoes will soon be ripening and I’m already enjoying courgettes and green beans.

Winter learning curve

In Portugal, rain typically falls in winter and spring. The winters in the central part of the country are mild compared to what I was used to, and the summers are not as hot. But I live in a stone house which stays beautifully cool in summer and is downright chilly in winter. A woodturning stove is my primary source of heat. I’ve learned a few things about managing that too. You need LOTS of kindling! That means scouring the forests to gather pine cones and dry sticks. A neighbor loaned me her small battery operated chainsaw and showed me how to use it. I’ve had a couple of injuries from sharp objects so I had to overcome a lot of fear to try it out. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have now begun to lay in a good supply of sticks, cut to appropriate length for my stove. When the weather changes in November, I should be ready.

The battery operated chainsaw my neighbor loaned me, with the first small pile of kindling in front of my woodshed.

Reporters never give up: I file my first freelance article in Portugal

When I heard about Portugal Living, the new online lifestyle magazine being launched in Portugal, I got very excited. I’d been hoping to do some freelance writing after I settled here nearly two years ago, but to be honest, I hadn’t made much effort to find any opportunities.

Thank goodness for Facebook groups. I have joined many of the different groups aimed at expatriates living in Portugal, or people still planning to move here. They are valuable sources of information from people who have practical knowledge of the pros and cons of daily life here.

Bruce Joffe, the publisher of Portugal Living, who has been living in Portugal for several years, is a pastor and former director of communications at Printing United Alliance. He lives near Castelo Branco in Central Portugal. He decided that the existing online and print publications aimed at English-speaking expatriates were too focused on the Algarve region in Southern Portugal. His goal was to have news and features from other parts of the country, especially Central Portugal.

The first issue of Portugal Living appeared online this week and it will continue to come out each quarter. My article (on p. 16) is about a young businessman based in Castelo Branco who specializes in installing solar PV and solar water heating for domestic and commercial clients. So, it hearkens back to my first six years at the Albuquerque Journal where I was on the business desk covering energy and communications, focusing a lot on renewable energy. June 6 marks the three year anniversary of my retirement from the ABQ Journal. It has been such fun to get back into reporting again!

What’s to love about spring in Portugal: flowers, flowers, flowers

April is known in Portugal as the month of a thousand rains. This year was no exception. While we enjoyed bright sunny weather almost the whole month of March, April arrived with a downpour and the weather remained unstable for several weeks. But the best part of all that rainy weather – you got it, flowers! Red, white, magenta, yellow, purple, lavender and blue, in a profusion everywhere you look.

I usually walk several kilometers a days with my energetic young dog, Divina. The past few months I have been able to venture further afield to explore trails in areas around the small town of Alvaiázere. This little town has a whole series of trails that fan out around it.

Closer to home, there is a Shangri-la type valley which has a tiny hamlet called Quebrado do Meio. If you walk between the few, mostly abandoned, stone houses of Quebrado, there is a path that leads to a Roman bridge. It is still in good condition. You can walk over it and on the far side is the ruin of an old mill. Although much overgrown, you can still see the old millstones, the size of truck tires, and a huge wooden beam which must have served as a sort of spindle to hold the millstones.

Now we are well into May and the weather has gradually warmed up. Grasses are nearly chest high, people are out clearing land, tiny star-shaped olive blossoms drift under the trees looking like a dusting of snow. And there are flowers everywhere: scarlet poppies, tiny orchids, wild lavender and thyme that gives off its pungent scent as you tread forest paths.

So much to love about this place.

Portugal makes vaccination process easy to use

Covid Vaccination center in Tomar
Pavilhão Jácome Ratton, the Covid vaccination center in Tomar, is a spacious sports facility,

Portugal was slow to get its vaccination program going, but now the process is swift, efficient and user friendly – even for expats! (But you do have to be registered in the Portuguese system with a numero de Utente.)

Back in December, I received a text message from the Direção-Geral da Saúde; DGS, an office in the Portuguese health department which is handling the vaccination response to the Covid19 virus. It outlined a multi-phase approach. Some essential workers and people in their eighties would be receiving the shots first, followed by those in their 70s and 60s and so on.

Unfortunately, as many news organizations reported, the European Union’s approach to ordering supplies of vaccines left a lot to be desired. While the US and UK were able to go full steam ahead with vaccinating their populations, EU counties were short of the needed doses. In addition, there were concerns about the AstraZenica vaccine, the one being most commonly used in Europe, over a few cases of dangerous blood clots among the millions who had received the shot.

Online appointments

I filled in my personal information on the health department website, but by spring I was still waiting to hear when I could get a shot. I thought I would get a text or phone call from my local health clinic. But in late April, I learned that I could request an appointment.

I was able to request a vaccination appointment online. Within a day, I received a text on my mobile phone offering me a time slot. Once I texted back confirming I would attend, I was all set.

On the appointed day, I drove to the vaccination center, a large sports facility in Tomar, my nearest town. Inside, numerous assistants were available to help with the paperwork. They were quick to offer help in English to anyone who appeared to be having trouble with the form written in Portuguese.

Next, we had to give the completed forms to one of the assistants seated at a row of socially distanced desks. Large dots on the floor kept everyone appropriately separated as we waited to hand in the paperwork. The assistants checked off our names against the list of appointments for the day.

A row of booths had been set up for the actual vaccinations. It took less than a minute. After the shot, we were directed to sit on a numbered chair while we waited 30 minutes to see if we had a reaction. Another assistant informed us when the half hour was up and we could leave.

The only downside is that authorities here have decided to space out the vaccinations by 12 weeks, so my next vaccination appointment isn’t until late July.

Looking good for the future

But, Portugal has emerged from the lockdown imposed in January in a good situation. Numbers of new infections and hospitalizations are well down. Portugal is now on the “green list” of countries that UK travelers can soon visit without having to quarantine upon their return. And, US tourists may soon be able to visit the country again, according to Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

Healthcare services great for expats in Portugal

Portugal has a good quality healthcare system.  In fact, the World Health Organization has ranked the publicly funded national health system, Serviço Nacional de Saude, as 12th best in the world. 

Expats moving to Portugal from another EU country can use the healthcare issued in their own country until they obtain a residency permit. For expats coming from the US it is a little more complicated. US citizens must obtain a D7 visa if they plan to move to Portugal. Having private health insurance coverage is one of the visa requirements. Among the companies that offer the necessary coverage are: Cigna Global Health and Allianz Care.

Services easily accessible to expatriates

There is a network of health clinics in towns and villages throughout the country where you can see a doctor or nurse. In small villages, clinics are usually only open a couple days a week. Hospitals are located in the larger towns. There are also numerous private doctors, clinics and hospitals.

Once you have a residency permit you can register with your local health center (Centro de Saude.) You can then book appointments (Marcação para consulta) by phone, in person or online. Many doctors speak excellent English, so you don’t have to worry about communicating.

Costs are low

Portugal’s health insurance system covers most costs. But you may have to pay a small charge for the consultation and tests. Services are free for those over 65 years old. It’s worth knowing that costs at private clinics are very affordable compared to the US. For example, a visit to a dermatologist to remove sun damage skin spots cost just 60 Euros, without insurance.

You typically need a doctor’s referral to visit a specialist. There are specialists at local hospitals and certain clinics. However, there can be long waiting times for some services. 

It’s usually easy to get appointments at labs for medical tests. Staff are quick, efficient and polite.

Private health insurance widely available 

Allianz and Cigna are some of the largest  health insurance companies operating in Portugal. Be aware that some health insurance companies do not insure people over 55. For other companies, the limit may be 65 years or 70 years old. In that case, an international health insurance plan is probably the best option. Banks in Portugal also offer health insurance.  

Some useful numbers

For an ambulance in case of a medical emergency, call 112. 

SNS (Serviço Nacional de Saude) hotline: 808 242 424 available 24/7 also in English

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Portugal’s great hiking, biking trails

Portugal has lots of cycling routes through the hilly countryside.
Portugal is a great place to cycle, even though the terrain can be challenging. The scenery is spectacular and there is little traffic on the country roads.

Portugal has a great system of bicycling trails that are part of the Eurovelo network. Whether you ride a mountain bike, a road bike or choose to do touring, there are plenty of cycling options.

The Eurovelo network extends throughout continental Europe. In Portugal, there is a well-marked trail going from North to South. Another goes through Spain and traverses the country. Or, you can ride along an Atlantic trail in the Algarve, on the southern coast.

Three major bike routes in Portugal.

Cycling is very popular in towns all over Portugal. Even on country roads where there are no shoulders, motorists are very considerate of cyclists. I used to be terrified riding on some back roads in New Mexico. Here in Portugal I haven’t had any problems. Drivers in the country are used to having to slow for tractors and animals. I also haven’t encountered the broken glass that was an unwelcome feature of roadsides all over New Mexico.

Small communities all over Portugal also have networks of way-marked trails that are suitable for walking or mountain biking.

There are also some great long-distance hiking trails in Portugal. One of the better known routes of the Camino de Santiago, starts in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, and extends northward to the Spanish border. Another popular long hiking trail is the Rota Vicentina from Sines to Sagres, in southwestern Portugal.

Hiking trail under a hill with wind turbines on top.
Hiking on a way-marked trail near Alvaiazere, in Central Portugal. The trail goes over two big hills and skirts a valley beneath a crest where several wind turbines turn gently in the breeze.

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