Using Portuguese healthcare

Portugal has a universal healthcare system which is available to foreigners who are legal residents. The system has is a network of clinics and pharmacies in towns and villages all over the country. Usually, these health centers, “Centro de Saude” are open just a few hours a week. Ideally, there is a doctor who is available during these times, but some centers only have a nurse. The Covid situation put the Portuguese health system under great strain.

Fortunately, I enjoy good health and have had little reason to use my local health clinic. The only times I have been are few and far between. When I first arrived one of my new neighbor’s little dogs bit me and I had to get a tetanus injection. This was actually a blessing in disguise, because it obliged me to go to the main health center for my “Concelho” or municipal area, to register in the system. I had to provide identification and my residency permit and was eventually given a “numero de utente” or user’s number. This is the number you must always show when seeking to use any of the services in the Portuguese healthcare system.

The other time was when I was having some digestive issues. I went to the clinic in my local village and the nurse told me to wait. I was able to see a doctor who spoke English. He ordered a battery of tests which included bloodwork, electrocardiogram, abdominal sonogram and an endoscopy. Because I am over 65, I didn’t have to pay for the doctor visit. (People under that age usually have to pay a few euros.) I was only charged for one of the tests, and staff apologetically explained that it would cost me 15 euros!

Impact of Covid

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic made it harder to access healthcare services during the past two years. Several hospitals had to temporarily close departments because of a lack of staff. The clinic in my local village did not have a doctor available for about a year. In order to see a doctor, you either had to go to the main municipal clinic on a Saturday morning, or go to the local hospital. Either option was about (16 kms) or 10 miles away.

Despite these drawbacks, Portugal had an efficient system for alerting people when they were eligible for a Covid vaccination or a flu shot. I received a text message on my mobile phone and sent a return text with my Utente number to confirm. I also received a letter in the mail giving me an appointment to get a mammogram at the mobile unit when it was visiting my area. No cost for the vaccinations or the mammogram!

Waiting game

I recently heard that a doctor would once more be visiting the Centro de Saude in my village. I stopped by one day when I saw the door open and a nurse told me I should come at nine o’clock on Friday morning to make an appointment. I duly turned up at the correct hour and found four people standing around outside the clinic, wearing masks. (There is something unnerving about wearing a mask, especially if you don’t speak the language fluently.) Luckily it was not raining that morning because I gathered from the conversations around me that the clinic was actually not scheduled to open until 10 a.m. We all stood outside in the chilly sunshine. More and more people showed up while we waited.

Finally, at about 9:45 the nurse arrived and we could go inside. Some of the people already had appointments. One of the other ladies told me I should go up to the window and ask the nurse. Fortunately my Portuguese language skills are improving and I was able to ask her if I could make a “marcação para uma consulta”. She scribbled out the time and date on a Post-It note. So, I have an appointment for next week. We’ll see how long I have to wait!

The hospital in Tomar, Central Portugal, which serves my area.

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Reliving old memories in England

The window of a traditional English sweet shop in the village of Steyning, Sussex. Buying sweets was a big treat when I was a school girl.

This week I’ve had the great joy to visit two friends whom I met at boarding school in England when I was ten years old. We have had so much fun laughing and sharing memories. We’ve talked about our schooldays in Berkshire and Oxfordshire, our various marriages, children and now grandchildren.

I hadn’t been back to England in many years even though I moved from the US to Portugal in 2019. Covid made travel almost impossible for two years. The silver lining in that awful cloud, was that my two friends, Julia, Janie and I, reconnected and we’ve been doing a weekly phone call via video technology every week for the past 2 1/2 years. It has meant a lot to us. We have given each other great support, knowing that we are just a phone call away when one of us needs help.

Quintessentially English country town. After so many years living in different countries around the world, it is a delight to me to see such places still exist.

For more than a year we talked about making a trip, all three of us, to our old school, St. Mary’s Wantage in Oxfordshire. The school closed in 2008 and merged with another school elsewhere, but we were curious what had happened to the buildings.

We also wondered what had happened to some of our favorite haunts; the fish and chip shop and King Alfred’s Kitchen which sold the most wonderful fudge! There was also another bakery which sold little chocolate and macaroon treats called “Jap Cakes”. And of course, there was the tea-time favorite “Lardy Cake”. It sounds terrible, but it was the most yummy sweet doughy concoction.

Sadly, time moves on. The buildings were recognizable but the places had changed purpose. King Alfred’s Kitchen is now a Chinese restaurant, the chip shop is a hairdresser’s salon, we couldn’t find the Jap Cake bakery and none of the modern coffee shops sold Lardy Cake.

The old school ain’t what it used to be

We did however find what used to be St. Mary’s. Located near the center of town, the school used to have extensive grounds with lawns and gardens. I imagine developers were rubbing their hands in glee when the school closed because most of the buildings: classrooms, dormitories, the gym and swimming pool, were all torn down and the lawns removed to make room for high density apartments. It was hard to recognize the old place.

Rosalie with the chapel of St. Mary’s School and some of the old dormitories in the background. Very few of the old school buildings are still standing. One of the few is the chapel, where we spent a lot of time. (The school was run by nuns.) The chapel has now become a dentist’s office. I guess you can pray while you get your fillings.

I should also explain, Wantage is known as the birthplace, in 849, of the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great. He was famous for defending England against invading Danish Vikings and burning some cakes. The legend is that he was taking refuge in a peasant woman’s home and she asked him to watch cakes she was baking by the fire. But the king, distracted by weighty matters of state, let the cakes burn and got a scolding from the peasant woman.

My longtime friend Julia standing in front of a statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage market square.

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Playing tourist in Porto, a must in Portugal

One of the traditional “rabelo” boats used for transporting port wine on the Douro river in the foreground, with the Dom Luis bridge in the background.

Porto is Portugal’s second largest city and a very popular place for tourists. I went there last week for the first time since shortly after moving to Portugal in 2019. Even in November, the city is thronged with visitors from all over Europe and the United States.

But the amount of tourists doesn’t detract from the city’s charm. It is built on the hillside above the Douro river. On the opposite side of the river is the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. Exploring the Porto side inevitably involves lots descents along narrow winding streets to the riverside, and then climbing stairs or narrow streets back up to the main part of the city. But that is all part of the charm.

Along the riverside on the Porto side, you will find many restaurants and bars, all of them catering to tourists with tourist-type prices. There are also many stands offering river tours. I did one in 2018 when I first visited the city and I can highly recommend it as a way to see the city by river and learn a little about the port wine trade.

On the south side of the river are the famous port houses; like Calem, Sandeman, Taylor, Kopke, Grahams etc. If you take one of the open-topped bus tours available in Porto, you can see the huge warehouses used for storing the famous port wines. Port wine as the fortified wine that we now know has a long history. Part of it is about the name of the city, which is often called “Oporto” which really means “the port” in Portuguese. The city is on the mouth of the Douro river, downstream from the numerous vineyards which produce the wines.

Touring port houses

One of the most touted tourist activities in Porto is to do a tour of the Port houses on the Gaia side of the river. This time I did a tour of the Ramos Pinto port house. It is one of the smaller houses, but the tour is fascinating. The company was founded in 1880 by Adriano Ramos Pinto (https://www.ramospinto.pt/en/verify/?next=/en/) who was initially a trader. He eventually got into his own port wine business and developed the first links with shipping port to Brazil.

Barrels of port wine in the cellars at the Ramos Pinto port house in Vila Nova de Gaia.

The tour includes a visit of the old company office which is full of the old advertising posters, Adriano was quite a character and the artwork features a lot of naked nymphs with tantalizing glasses of port.

A 3,000-liter vat of port aging. Some of the vats hold up to 15,000 liters.

The tour costs 15 euros and at the end visitors can taste three ports; a white, a ruby and a tawny port. Our guide told us that the white ports go darker with age while the red ports become lighter. Some of the vintage ports, which must receive that name through a special process, can be aged for decades. Once opened a bottle of decades old port must be consumed quickly. Less special type of ports can be opened and kept with a specific type of cork top.

White, ruby and tawny port wines at a tasting after the tour of the Ramos Pinto port house in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal.

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Enjoying the writing life in Portugal

Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto is frequently called the “most beautiful bookstore in the world.” Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling lived and taught English in Porto in the early 1990s and was a customer of the bookstore. It is rumored that Lello was the inspiration for Flourish and Blott’s bookstore in the Harry Potter series.

Portugal is a book lovers paradise. Everywhere you go, you see independent books stores. There are books for sale in the post offices, books for sale at one of the main train stations in Lisbon. I’ve even seen a library on the beach!

So, what is it like to be a writer in Portugal? Well, I retired and moved to Portugal in 2019 shortly after I finished writing “The Power of Rain” my first novel. I had spent the last twenty years in the USA as a journalist and since I moved to this country I have continued writing. In addition to this blog, I mostly write freelance articles for Portugal Living, an online lifestyle magazine.

That is the fun part. The hard work has been getting my book published and trying to market it. It’s a mystery set in New Mexico where I used to live. So the target market is in the US, but I am in Portugal. Add to that, I am new at this and finding your way around the publishing industry is a steep learning curve.

The good news is that I have met wonderful people who are helping me on this journey. In Albuquerque, I was part of a writing group for a couple of years. The group was what motivated me to keep writing and to finish the book. We met twice a month and shared what we had written and gave each other critiques and suggestions. Having other people read your work is invaluable. They can see what works and what doesn’t work, what is confusing and what could be improved.

Friends who read the manuscript of “The Power of Rain” said they wanted to know what happened to the main characters: intrepid reporter Digger Doyle and her girlfriend, the artist and activist, Maria Ortiz. I wanted to know what happened to them as well. So, I started working on my next novel. It’s called “Sunshine Dreams.” I won’t reveal anything about the plot here, but I will say that I am about two-thirds into the writing.

Writing group support

Mindful of my experience in the US, I decided I would put feelers out to start a writing group where I now live. I was hoping that it would provide the same kind of support and valuable feedback. Thank goodness for Facebook groups. I put a post on the local FB group, I Love Tomar asking if anyone would be interested in forming a writing group. I had a great response! Beginning in July, four of us have met fairly regularly in the lovely atmospheric Cafe Paraiso, in Tomar, to talk about our work and give each other moral support.

It’s an interesting mix of writers. Englishman Bob, writes “urban fantasy” and has self-published several books in that genre. Alex is a novice writer working on a historical fantasy, Ana is a highly successful romance writer who has had around twenty books published and has a couple more releases in the next few weeks! She has been a fount of knowledge on all aspects of marketing.

Now, I am working with a couple of local cafes in Tomar to hold a book signing event. One of the hurdles however, is getting copies of my book. I self-published through IngramSpark which makes my book available in paperback and Kindle format to retail stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. As the author, I can order books at a much lower price than retail. However, IngramSpark’s European distributor is in the UK. Since Brexit, items sent from the UK into Portugal are subject to customs duties which can add up to 50 percent to the original cost! As I said, it’s all a steep learning curve! All I really want to do is to keep writing and have people enjoy reading my books.

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My novel, a mystery set in New Mexico, USA

Retiring in Portugal: myths and reality

A rainbow lands on a home in rural central Portugal. Sometimes moving to a different country is like chasing a rainbow.

Portugal has gained a lot of attention in recent years as a desirable spot to retire. It’s popular image is of a sunny land with lots of beaches, a laid-back lifestyle, low cost of living and friendly people. Portugal is all of those things. One popular misconception though, is that it is a Mediterranean country. Sorry to disappoint, but a look at a world map will quickly show you that Portugal’s western and southern coastlines are all on the Atlantic Ocean. The Mediterranean Sea essentially ends at the Straits of Gibraltar.

If you’re planning to retire in Portugal, it’s important to know that it can be chilly and damp in the winter. It’s not as cold as the UK or many parts of the US, but the dampness can sure leave you shivering. I’ve lived in central Portugal since July 2019 and each year the seasons have been slightly different. My first autumn and winter it rained almost every day from the beginning of November until just before Christmas, and most of the early spring. This year was quite the opposite. We had a relatively dry fall and no rain at all in January and February. The summer was hotter than the previous three summers. By August the country was in a severe drought situation and wildfires were breaking out everywhere.

A wildfire erupts in mid-August near the town of Tomar, central Portugal. There were numerous fires all over the country in July and August 2022 because of exceptionally dry weather.

Home prices

Along with Portugal’s rising popularity, some parts of the country have seen a steep increase in home prices. The Portugal News, an English language paper in Portugal, recently reported that Lisbon is the second most expensive city in southern Europe in which to buy a home. The article said Lisbon prices had overtaken those in Milan, Madrid and Barcelona.

However, housing prices in most of the country are substantially lower than the US and other western European countries as well as the UK and Ireland. A word of caution here; many homes in rural areas are in poor condition and need substantial investment to make them comfortable. Also, you need to be very careful when you buy that there are no additions to the home or outbuildings constructed without the proper planning permission. Illegal additions or outbuildings can cause costly paperwork headaches and delays when you sell the property.

Heating

Many houses in Portugal are built of stone, are poorly insulated and have no central heating system. A lot of people use a “Salamandra” for heating. This refers to a steel or iron wood burning stove, rather than a small reptile. Pellet burning stoves are also popular. In my experience, iron stoves are more expensive to buy, but provide much better warmth. Pellet burners are easier to use – no carrying logs, gathering kindling or messy cleanup. But the price of pellets has more than DOUBLED in recent months, from about 3.50 euros to about 8 euros for a 15 kg. bag (33 lb.)

Electric heaters are widely available, but electricity is relatively expensive in Portugal. Many people use heaters powered by butane which can be rolled from room to room. They are a quick source of heat but should not be left on overnight.

Dampness can mean mould and mildew. It’s important to ensure a flow of air. If it becomes too chilly to leave a window open, buy a dehumidifier. Your clothing will thank you. Putting on a shirt that smells of mildew is awful!

After all these comments, I have to say, I love living in Portugal. It is sunny, the cost of living is low and the people are SO nice!

Follow my blog to learn more about daily life in Portugal. And check out my novel, “The Power of Rain”, available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon.

The yellow and red lines follow Portugal’s coastline, all of it on the Atlantic Ocean, not the Mediterranean Sea.

Finding your future in Portugal

The red roofs in the center of Lisbon with the Castelo São Jorge on the hilltop above the city.

Portugal is getting a lot of attention as a desirable place to live, mostly for retirees but also a lot of people who can work remotely.

The headline of a Wall Street Journal article that ran in April this year claimed Americans were moving to Portugal “in droves.” According to the story, “Retirees are drawn by a low cost of living, healthcare, a sunny climate and tax incentives,”

The same month a New York Times travel story drew readers in with the headline “A Portugal of Pristine Beaches, Tiny Villages and Little Else.” The article sang the praises of beaches like Comporta in the Alentejo region a short distance south of Lisbon.

Early this year, Momondo‘s Work While Traveling Index ranked Portugal a top place for remote working, based on its climate, social life, relatively affordable cost of living and availability of visas for digital nomads, according to The Portugal News, an English language news source in Portugal. Momondo is a global travel search site that compares flights, hotels and car rental deals.

So, are lots of Americans really moving to Portugal. The answer is yes and no. According to SEF, the Portuguese Immigration and Border Service, the number of Americans who moved to Portugal in 2021 was up 45 percent over the previous year. But they are still a small percentage of the overall population of foreigners living in the country– at the end of 2021 there were about 7,000 Americans living in Portugal, according to a CNBC story about “Burned out millennials flocking to Portugal.” By comparison, SEF figures from June this year show there are nearly 700,000 Brazilians and nearly 42,000 British people living in Portugal, according to the blog site Portugal Resident.

Anecdotally, I am meeting a lot more Americans who have chosen to live in or around my nearby town of Tomar. It’s a charming small city of about 22,000 in the center of the country about 90 minutes by car from Lisbon. People I interviewed for an article in the online lifestyle magazine Portugal Living say they chose Tomar because of its size, its history – the town was a center for the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages – and the location relatively close to the coast, the university city of Coimbra and a direct rail link to Lisbon.

Me, I’ve been living here for a little more than three years and I moved here for all the above reasons, except to work remotely. I am just enjoying retirement and writing this blog!

Tomar castle and the associated Convento de Cristo, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Follow my blog to read more about daily life in Portugal. And don’t forget to order a copy of my book, “The Power of Rain”, available in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.

Want to move to Portugal, but don’t know where to go?

Colorful buildings line the Douro river in Porto and visitors can see the boats that traditionally carried port wine.

A lot of people are interested in moving to Portugal. At least that’s the way it looks when I scan the multiple Facebook groups I’ve joined because they are aimed at expats who are living in, or interested in, Portugal. There are more than a hundred such groups; catering to every possible taste. The question I see over and over, is “I’m planning to move to Portugal in XX many years, what’s the best place to go?”

This is the kind of question that drives those of us who have made the move, absolutely crazy. How can anyone else know where that person would like to live? It depends on so many things.

I have usually responded by advising the person that posted the question to look at their own lifestyle and ask themselves the following:

    Electric tram in Lisbon.
    1. Are you used to living in a city or the country? Which do you prefer?
    2. How much do you like to shop? Do you want to have a big choice of stores nearby or are you okay with small local stores and visiting shopping centers only now and again?
    3. Do you eat out a lot? How important is it for you to have restaurants nearby?
    4. Do you want to have a car? Or are you comfortable with using public transportation?
    5. How often do you want to travel? Is it important for you to be near an airport?

    These are just a few of the questions people who are “thinking” about moving to Portugal should ask themselves. Facebook groups such as Pure Portugal – Living the Good Life, Moving to Portugal, Expats in Portugal Q&A and many, many more, can provide much valuable information. People can pose questions and get answers from those who have already made the move and settled here. Internet research is invaluable, but a trip to the country is the best way to get a real feel for the place. You get to meet the people face-to-face, taste the food, see the landscape and the architecture.

    Portugal is still quite a poor country by comparison with others in western European. Outside the bigger cities, the countryside is depopulated and many villages have a lot of houses that have been sitting empty for years. You can buy them cheaply, but they also take a lot of time and effort to renovate. Still, life in a Portuguese village can be very fulfilling. People are welcoming and willing to help you. Lunch in a small family-run restaurant will cost you as little as 10 euros for a three-course meal with wine and coffee. Cars and gasoline/diesel are expensive, but if you live in the country you will almost certainly need to drive. Most Portuguese roads are narrow and winding, but luckily there is little traffic. The highways are superb but you usually have to pay tolls.

    Portuguese houses are usually made of stone. They keep out the heat in the summer but can be awfully cold and damp in the winter. The Alentejo and Algarve regions are the hottest in the summer and mildest in the winter. Areas in the far north and closer to the Spanish border are typically the coldest in the winter.

    These are just a few thoughts I decided to share about life in Portugal. I moved here more than three years ago after extensive research and a two-month trip during which I did volunteer work and traveled around the country.

    Follow my blog to learn more about life in Portugal! It’s almost olive-picking season!

    Olives are almost ripe for the harvest in my part of central Portugal.

    Camino adventure: the slow way is a better way

    Cathedral of Santa Maria y Real in Pamplona.

    After I walked the Camino in 2015 I said that if I ever did it again I would do it more slowly. This 10 days in Spain on the Camino has been just that, a time to observe and appreciate the places we rushed through seven years ago.

    I’ve walked shorter distances and explored the little villages and towns which I didn’t take time to do before. I’ve seen places like Cirauqui and Villamayor de Monjardin which were just morning coffee stops on my last Camino.

    My companions and I took two nights in the city of Logroño. During the time there, we saw the square where the Game of the Goose is painted on the paving stones. It is supposed to be connected to the Knights Templar and follow the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.

    I bade farewell to them this morning as they headed off to continue their journey. I took a bus back to Pamplona. In Pamplona on my last day, I toured the cathedral of Santa Maria y Real. It is filled with ornate carvings and paintings, much of it seems a bit too much for my taste. But I did see a beautiful picture of St Mary Magdalene.

    Painting of Mary Magdalene in the cathedral in Pamplona.

    And of course being in Pamplona there were references to Earnest Hemingway and the famous running of the bulls in the festival of San Fermin in July. All in all it has been a wonderful experience and I hope to return and walk another part if the way, perhaps next year.

    Since I live in Portugal, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump away!

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    Camino: the journey is the goal

    My pilgrim companions Andrea and Geraldine on the way from Viana to Logroño, Sept 27.

    My latest Camino experience is about to end. I must return home to Portugal in a couple of days. I didn’t plan to go the whole way to Santiago de Compostela this time, but I wanted to relive the very special camaraderie that I’ve felt before on this pilgrimage.

    So many people have written articles and books about the Camino that it has become trite to say it changes your life, but it does. It is a unique opportunity to step away from your regular routine and live very simply. It is an opportunity to be close to the natural world, observing the changes in the land, the crops, the architecture and the weather. You meet people from all over the world and share meals with them, share dormitory space with them, listen to their snoring and often forge lasting friendships.

    Mural at a chapel to the Virgen de las Cuevas near Viana. The weird figures made us think of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

    On my last day of walking we just covered about 10 kilometers, from Viana to Logroño into the Rioja region. The intention was to explore this historic town. We had some good meals, toured the museum of Rioja and attended mass at the cathedral.

    The cathedral in Logroño, Santa Maria de la Redonda.

    Tomorrow I will take a bus back to Pamplona and fly to Lisbon. But I will come back to the Camino and I look forward to exploring more of Spain.

    Me in my pilgrim outfit outside the town of Viana.

    Follow my blog to learn about moving to Portugal and daily life in a Portuguese village. And, check out my book, “The Power of Rain”, available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.

    Camino ups and downs: finding your rhythm

    Today’s 10k walk from Torres del Rio to Viana involved several steep ascents and descents.

    One of the pieces of advice I heard when I was preparing for my first Camino in 2015 is that the Camino you do is “your Camino”. Each individual has their own pace of walking and it can be uncomfortable over a long distance to match someone else’s stride if they are naturally faster or slower than you. The ability to compromise is a great virtue but it doesn’t always mean you have to sacrifice who you are.

    I’ve found that the best way to maintain genial feelings on the Camino is to agree to allow everyone to walk at their own speed and agree on meeting spots.

    This tree beside the Camino path between Torres del Rio and Viana has been festooned with mementos by passing pilgrims.

    Our journey today took us into the Rioja region which is famous for its wines. The hillsides and valleys are covered in vineyards and olive groves.

    We made it into Viana by early afternoon and got bunks in the municipal hostel of Andres Muñoz in the historic part of the city.

    Entrance to the now ruined church of San Pedro in Viana.

    Follow my blog to learn about moving to Portugal and daily life in a Portuguese village. And, check out my book, “The Power of Rain”, available in Kindle or paperback on Amazon.