welcome to emmas housethought


18 000 kms away, I’m woken up by a call from my sister to tell me a friend in Portugal says I should check on my house because it’s in the path of huge fires. It’s 10.30am on Sunday 18th June. I open my laptop and while downloading my emails I check the news: the forest around little Pedrogão Grande is ablaze and already 6 people have lost their lives. There are pictures of the N236 – which I immediately recognise, it’s so familiar – with discarded, burnt out cars. We’ve had fire scares before, but this time it looks very serious.

My mails download and there it is, a few lines from our tenant Eric, sent five hours earlier, 10pm Portuguese time.

“We are devastated.  Just made it out of Póvoa encircled by huge fires, the plot was burning and the annexe. We tried to fight it with a hose but was impossible, had to run with just our clothes. We couldn’t save anything. The lights went out and there was no way to see to pack. It was hell. We are so sorry, so much effort in the house, I have no words to describe our sorrow…”


view from my kitchen door – the fire’s approach

I send him a short message back, hoping that he and Adriana, Eric’s partner, are ok, and I’m sorry too.

And then I hear nothing more for 12 hours, because of the internet and mobile blackout.

The One came home from work and we spent the rest of the day on the net, on facebook and the news, tracking down neighbours and friends, and trying to track the course of the fire. It seemed like my village and the disaster at Pedrogão had happened almost at the same time, so to explain it, I made a rough map.


the distance is about 20kms

While we in Sydney fretted for bricks and mortar, my friend Isabel in Portugal reminded me that it’s people who are lost, not houses. We knew our tenants were ok, and that was a relief, but what of the other neighbours? My friend Emma had spent the night locating local friends and other expats scattered throughout the area and evacuating dogs from shelters and finding them temporary homes. There was an intense, urgent and grim atmosphere.

We waited, feeling useless. We argued. We sent more emails and texts and messages. Eventually we had dinner and went to bed. And then ‘bing!’ there was another email and then Eric and I talked on the phone. The house was miraculously saved.

So here’s a good news story, of the bravery and solidarity of a little village, and a fight against the worst forest fires ever recorded in Portugal.

fire 1 wide_Snapseed

The fire first approached the village from the east, roughly the direction of Pedrogão Grande. Adriana saw a huge flame rise from a cloud of smoke from beyond a nearby ridge. She watched in awe as it towered high and surged forward like a wave above her,  and above the whole house. She ran inside and and closed the windows and shutters. The fire descended so rapidly that by the time Eric arrived at the house from the garage 30 metres away, the grass at the house was already on fire.  Eric and Adriana knew they had to go – they were the most exposed, facing the bush and the fire. The olive grove on the eastern side was ablaze and now the front lawn on the south-west was also alight, while the main fire headed north, uphill to the ruin behind my house. Eric put the hose on the burning front lawn but it was futile, with fire raging behind the house and a hurricane of hot air all around: the flames were taller than the house itself.

The other neighbours were watching from a safer position across the valley of the village; they had time to fill water tanks and to consider leaving or staying to fight. For a moment Eric thought he might stay & fight too, thinking of the water tank not far away – but now from the front lawn he could see to the north, the fire past the neighbour’s house and cutting off their closest exit. And also now to the south, on the main road out, he watched as the beautiful oaks on the curve of the road were engulfed in flames. With fire all around, just a flimsy hose, the annexe now on fire, Eric thought the main house would be on fire any minute and the place would be a deadly trap.

The electricity was out and although it was only 8pm it was dark because of the heavy smoke everywhere. They wanted to collect documents, clothes, computers, bikes – anything – but couldn’t see and fled to the car with just the clothes they had on. Eric told my next door neighbour Sesinando it was time to go. A few of Sesinando’s large family were gathered around the largo, some panicking, some arguing about what to do. Eric collected Sesinando’s wife and daughter while Sesinando went for his elderly father, slow on his feet and reluctant to leave, the fire at his back door.

forest 2

Now in the car they were faced with the main road on the south end of the village. The fire had circled around and both sides of the road were in flames. They went up through the middle of the village, on a steep cobbled road in an oasis of green.

At the top, one neighbour was freaking out. Her daughter and baby had already left, she didn’t know what to do next. Eric told her the house was also certainly lost and they were about to be cut off. At that stage they had no idea of the magnitude of the fire. They didn’t know about Pedrogão – they had no electricity, no tv, not even water in the tap now. At that moment Eric thought they might be headed for Spain where his parents were. If they had, they would’ve almost certainly been trapped on the deadly Castanheira – Figueiró road.

As he looked across from the neighbour’s door and saw huge flames coming out of my annexe, the fruit trees on the front lawn and the garden of my neighbour below ablaze, he called to Adriana still in the car. But she said she couldn’t watch, such was the sorrow to see it all go up in flames.

They got out of the village and onto the N347, passing flames 10 metres high on either side of the road. Once safe up on the road (between Castanheira and Penela) Eric sent the passengers to walk down to Castanheira, only a km or so away, calls his dad, and sends me an email.


Minutes passed as they considered what to do. Do they head for Spain, it didn’t feel right, do they go back to the village, how dangerous is it? They worried and vacillated. Together they decided just to get a bit closer to see what was happening when they saw my old neighbour and friend Felipe. He has just driven from Pedrogão using the backroads, through hamlets like Moita which would be destroyed later in the night. He had come to evacuate Sesinando (his dad) and his grandfather.

Felipe insisted they had to try to get back to the village. He had been talking to his dad on the mobile and they were both still ok in the village; this was very reassuring and emboldened them not to give up.

They all waited while the flames seemed to subside at that spot, having consumed all the dry material in its path. Felipe suggests they try walking to the village as the cars might be too dangerous. For a few minutes they leave Adriana and Felipe’s girlfriend with the cars, ready to drive away if the fire turned back on them. But they changed their minds and went back again. Driving was hell, they could only see a couple of metres of white lines ahead through the dense smoke. Eric lost Felipe ahead in the smoke. The heat burned their faces through the closed windows. Fiery sparks showered down on them, Eric using the windscreen wipers as if it were rain. In those brief minutes, driving only a few hundred meters, no one came the other way, thank god. Stopping would have been fatal, as it was for so many others that day. They had no idea at the time how very dangerous this last half hour had been.

The fire and smoke cleared as they approached the turn off to the village. They drove down to the village entrance, passing another neighbour & his wife with their car packed ready to go. She had just taken the video below (the very bright light at the end is probably my annexe). As they carefully descended the cobbled slope, Eric was amazed to see everything was the same as before. The front grass almost consumed, the whole scene lit by the flames of the annexe and large ruin above – but no flames on the house. The fire was raging uphill, behind my neighbour’s and all the way up the hill.


They stopped the car at the largo da fonte: the lowest part of the village, with a large reservoir. Simon (The One)’s old car is there, Eric expecting it to have burned but it’s ok. He throws a bucket of water over it and his own car (both are loved 1980’s Mercedes Benz: Simon gave his car to Eric when he left).

There was no one around now. Sesinando and Felipe must have been working on the fire behind their house. At our house, the front grass was burned out and only the olive trees and the annexe were on fire, plus a few patches of grass, a water pump & pipe, and pieces of wood here and there. They felt encouraged that the house was ok and the massive 10 metre flames had moved on. Most of the undergrowth was burnt away leaving just tree trunks to burn. On the kitchen side and front of the house the fire had come to the very doorstep, but had nothing left to burn. They took a hose from the untouched lower ruin of the house and to their surprise there was water from the tap. They started on the annexe and the neighbour’s olive trees next to it. But it was impossible! They’d put it out and it’d reignite.

After 30 minutes, Felipe showed up and said that the fire was heading towards the horta velha (communal vegetable garden). It’s situated on a dirt track that circles the northern rim of the village linking the upper village and lower part, where I am. If it crosses that dirt road it would descend down the valley, destroy the gardens and engulfing the village. Help was needed. So Eric left Adriana on her own with the hose to protect the back of the house and contain the remaining fire on the annexe.


front view of my house – the lower part of the olive grove

Eric met Aurindo (a neighbour whose house is on the ring road) down at the fonte where he had loaded a 1000l water tank onto his truck and was filling it with the irrigation petrol pump from the fonte. They headed up the main road, where the flames had died down since their last exit. However at the top entrance to the village it was very scary. Lionel and his son Alipio (upper village neighbours) were fighting a losing battle, with the blazing fire on the outer rim starting to cross the road to the village side. So they used the first tank there, on the steep road it was easy keeping the truck at a higher level so they could siphon out the water through a hose. Shortly Felipe arrived. He’d been checking on the whole village on his quad bike. He’d come to report that the ring road fire was headed towards Aurindo’s house. They went to refill the tank.

At the horta velha, Felipe and his father Sesinando were with tree branches, smacking the flames when it crossed over the road. It was little use against huge flames, but they were lucky, the wind had mysteriously calmed, so everything burned quietly, vertically. That same luck had saved my house – before the flames had been blowing hard against them. The very first huge flames that Adriana had seen were like a tornado, while now it calmed and without the spur of the wind it took its natural course, uphill and away from them. Even so, the narrow ring road presented frightening conditions, with less room to manoeuvre and the fire threatening to cross the road every second.

Aurindo’s wife Lucia and their daughter Ana had been guarding the house with barrels and buckets of water at the ready. But it wasn’t enough. The men brought up the water tank but gravity was no longer on their side this time. Eric then suggests another plan, to fill up and bring the pump from the fonte with them, which worked fine, like a small fire engine.  All this while the fire continues to burn around them. 

Povoa de campelo fires 2017

the dirt ring road toward horta velha

Meanwhile Lionel had gone to put out a fire in a shed near his own house, but he eventually joined them again at the ring road. Lionel and Aurindo, despite their age-old feud, talked and collaborated. He reported that the fire at the top of the village was heading down their way, to the other side of Aurindo’s house.

They got another water tank onto Lionel’s truck, but it was difficult with only one pump. Filling up at the fonte, the pump wore out and broke, again and again, with pieces flying off into the darkness and lost. They returned to Aurindo to find him in tears, he having thought they’d left him alone to fight the flames only a few metres from his house.

They had two very nasty fronts now, and it was about 2am. Aurindo was saying he did not give a damn about olives or trees anymore, just save the house, all his life’s work. Eric’s back was broken, they’d had no food, only driven by adrenalin. Sesinando could barely stand. Eric looked down the hill and saw mostly darkness and smoke, which meant at least that Adriana was managing and there were no big flames.


adriana’s saved horta in front of the house

When Aurindo’s son suddenly arrived at 3am, Eric thought it was like in a film where help arrives at the very last moment. He’d driven up from Lisbon via a major detour to the north because the roads were all closed. But he was fresh and grabbed the hose and fought the flames on the eastern front while the others tackled the west. At that moment they also found a critical part of the pump that had been lost hours before.

Finally it seemed that the worst was over. There were small fires everywhere, lonely trees in flames in all directions, like a starry sky, but it didn’t seem threatening compared to the hell of before. Eric went back home, where Adriana had been all on her own. Luckily there had been water from the tap all night. Adriana had saved the house, and their vegetable garden.

The annexe had been difficult to control. Inside there had been furniture, plastics, paint, building materials and car parts which burned along with the roof timbers all night. It was contained by the walls so Adriana was less worried than she was by the fire on the upper village. She had a pretty good view of the fire approaching Aurindo’s, she saw the big flames and people around. She watched the fire develope and was afraid it would continue down the slope and towards the front of our house. She had expected Aurindo’s house to be lost, judging from the big trees besides it in flames.

She recognised Felipe’s moves by the sound of the bike and the activity down at the largo da fonte by the sound of the water pump, and had a rough idea of the others’ movements, often doubting whether they were winning or not. Occasionally Adriana went into the house and checked the time, so she did not have the complete time blackout that Eric had.


Dawn came with a few minutes of rest. Eric imagined it the saddest dawn in his life, anticipating all the devastation to be unveiled, but there was only a big cloud of smoke. They tried to go to bed, unable to sleep, still in shock.

As he wrote this to me, they were still in shock, and the news started to filter in about what had happened between Pedrogão and Póvoa.

“We realised how really lucky we were because we turned back to the village instead of trying to flee any further – we would have been trapped along the 236, the death road. We were lucky because the wind spared us, because the house resisted against all odds, because the centre of Póvoa was miraculously spared, because we happened to have a water reservoir at hand. Because there is some life left around here while the surrounding areas are obliterated. Serrada and Fontão Fundeiro were also spared, but all the forest around is gone. The fire approached Poesia, a magical place certainly, and the magic worked, the fire stopped near the village, now abandoned. Everything from there to Póvoa and Campelo is gone. What is apparent is that eucalyptus are deadly. They all burned along with the pines. But the cork, the oaks and other trees survived. The villages were spared because there are no eucalyptus among the houses.

“Now we have to digest this. It’s harder now that the fear and adrenaline are gone, and you reflect about how close we were to a horrible death. There is really no heroism to speak of, you just do it on automatic mode without thinking, without making decisions. The others had their livelihoods and property to fight for, with desperation and fear. If I did anything beyond was was expected, maybe I was just cornered into it, I thought I could do it with them out of pure solidarity. No heroes, just lucky to save our arses.”


our german neighbour Gaby’s house. isolated from the main village, also miraculously saved.

the wookie

I always wanted a chihuahua that I could call chewy, as in chewbacca. A big name for a small dog. But when my neighbours turned up on my doorstep one morning carrying a hairy little two-toned brown puppy I knew that he was my dog. My wookie.


He was far too young to be taken from his mother at that stage. I sent him back to his ugly white hairy sausage-like mother and multiple wiry siblings while I waited for him to grow up. But then the funniest thing started happening.

This pea-sized pup would take it upon himself to navigate all the way down the hill and all the way up the hill again to my house each day. It’s about 500 metres from my house to the neighbours’, along a steep and winding cobbled path, but we can see each other, and call out across the valley. I’d be standing in the garden and hear a 10 yr old’s cry of “vais! vais!” and watch while this tiny little blob galloped his way over hill and down dale. And then he’d spend the day stuffed in my jumper because he done enough running around for one day. Some days I’d deliver him home again, to be snapped at and rebuked by his mother and other days he’d take himself home all by himself.


On special days the whole family would come to visit. I think the mother wanted to check out his pre-school teacher. I’d be making breakfast and be surprised by a calamity of excited puplings dancing around the loungeroom. Altogether there was Wookie, Babywookie, Uglywookie and the Otherwookie.


big and Babywookie

After a while, Wookie would stay later and later in the day and then overnight. He was soon joined by his little brother Babywookie who decided he’d quite like to be adopted too thanks very much.

Like all pups they got up to serious mischief. Shoes, of course, were randomly distributed around the village. That’s to be expected. The circulation of my undies, however, was more problematic. When I first saw something familiar swinging on their clotheslines,  I innocently thought the neighbours and I were wearing the same brands. But then there were undies under the lemon tree, draped over the water meter, or swinging on the heads of cabbages. Once the postman had to step over a lacy pair on front steps. The neighbours would invite me in for a glass of wine and offer me a nice pair of bonds polka dotted bikinis to take back with me.


I’d take Wookie wherever I went, like a little mascot. Initially this lead to regretful consequences like the day wookie vomited eyes but mostly he was buckets of fun. He got somewhat well-socialised, what with making doggy friends and patiently waiting while kids conquered their fears to pat and cuddle him. Other people recognized in him what I saw – a very charming and affectionate, uniquely goofy creature. Occasionally in his enthusiasm for town life he would get away from me and I’d lose him for an hour only to discover he’d found his own way to the café and been waiting for me the whole time. The force is strong in this one, yes.

Some of the neighbours and I clashed over the dog. They insisted that he should be tied up. They were convinced that he was going to kill their goats, and he would torment me by escaping and barking at them or trying to round them up.



The whole issue of dogs in Portugal is a polarizing one. Around here, the sight of dogs tied up for the duration of their lives is something you have to get used to, somehow. And these neighbours were those kinds of people. The only dogs they have known are chained up dogs: miserable, unpredictable, desperate and mostly insane. Wookie’s freedom became a protest against cruelty and an example to show them what a good dog is like. And anyway I couldn’t stomach the sad eyes and whining that comes with confinement… oh god, the guilt. The guilt!

It was nice and noble in theory. It was a nightmare in practice. First Babywookie went missing. Other village dogs got abruptly relocated to the wild or there was a genuine dog thief about; to this day I don’t know, but it was traumatic for the village kids and me. Then big Wookie got run over by the neighbour’s son and they asked me to pay for the damage – as is the custom, I was to learn. Never mind my injured dog, his speeding, the vet bills. I paid up. I kept him inside more, I worked on his training, but apparently Wookie didn’t really appreciate my political agenda.


For a year or two he really tested me. We’d be out and about exercising his human rights and given the slightest chance he’d get off the lead and terrorise random free ranging chickens wherever he could find them. I was forever handing over compensation to enraged strangers in obscure villages after Wookie would ruffle the feathers and scare the shit out of their chooks. Once, when houseminding near Tomar, Wookie chased a bunch of sheep into a forest during a severe thunderstorm. Two farmers and I somehow managed to locate them again, even having to drag a young one from a river. Now, I certainly could see the other point of view; nonetheless chaining him up wasn’t the solution. Instead I re-trained myself and decided I’d listen to sensible advice to be more strict with him.


The One had a calming effect on everyone. He was far more practical than me and we took Wookie out less and less. We went to live over the mountains, in a village where the livestock had fences. I think he forgot his cattle-dog urges, and used up all his energy playing harmlessly with his new village dog friends. He grew up a lot during that period and by the time we got back to Cú de Judas the dynamic had changed and the Wookie and the neighbours had mellowed out.

I’d like to do a shout out to all the other dogs who came to live with us over the last 7 years. Stray dogs know which houses to pick, and Wookie was so friendly and happy to welcome in new mates. First there was Curious who was a chunky Rottweiler sook with a question mark on his forehead. Then there was Dingo, who stayed for about a year and vanished in the great dog disappearances of 2009. Then there was Ringo who would follow us on foot 10kms up the road and back again, so determined was he to belong to us. And there were many more, as well as a string of cats, some who just came for a day or two, grateful for a feed and a pat, mostly lonely and ashamed of having been abandoned. This too, is a sad fact of life that you get used to here in the mountains.



For the last couple of years it’s become entirely normal to find Wookie minding a little woolly herd in our garden. The neighbours trust him now. Many nights he hasn’t come home because apparently he is welcome in one of the village girl’s beds (!). The neighbour who once carried a stick to throw at him can now be found ruffling his ears and calling him by his nickname wookieziiiito. Their dogs are still chained up, but at least their poor lives are brief.

Today Wookie has a new home. We decided it wouldn’t be fair to bring him to the city, through a long quarantine, to the noise and traffic, to be fenced in. Almost unbelievably, he has found a home with another wookie! A girl-wookie! I’m so happy that he’s found a family who’ll love him like I have, for his ruffian looks and his gentleness, for his curiosity and quirkiness. For being a wookie.




nazaré: a day trip


I often get asked to rustle up an itinerary for bright people who have chosen Portugal as their holiday destination, as many expats do I’m sure. It’s like putting together a degustation of dishes, some standards well done, some wildcards. It requires boiling down the entire country into an essence of Portugal. You’ve got to get the balance right; something sour, something hot, something sweet…


and something salty, and this is Nazaré.

I’m somewhat fussy when it comes to beaches, and Europe’s offerings are frequently disappointing in their size, surf, beauty and temperature. Nazaré however has an impressive girth of pebbly-sand and proper surf. Actual record-breaking, mutant waves, about once a year.


Despite having serious surfing credentials, it hasn’t been taken over by the generic surf culture which can make the most exotic of locations feel like you never left Dee Why. Ericeira, down the coast, is a little bit like that. It’s not foreign enough for me. Far worse however are those completely artificial beach ‘resorts’ in the Algarve which would be practically uninhabited if the English left.  I don’t know what Vilamoura is all about but it doesn’t seem like any Portugal that I know.


Nazaré is a living breathing fishing village full of old people doing their usual thang. Like hanging out at the fish drying racks that cover a good chunk of the beach, suggesting there must be a heck of lot of fish soup going on behind closed doors.



Just as you’d be hoping there is a multitude of fishy restaurants, most of them mercifully typical and unfancy. If there’s anywhere in Portugal to have sardines, this is it, although I once spent a week in Nazaré ordering nothing but arroz de marisco, an equally idiosyncratic Portuguese dish. Nazaré has got the authentic seafood thing going on; try an omelet de camarão, big plates of pippies, grilled cuttlefish. And it all goes perfectly with the best Portuguese invention ever, vinho verde.

Nazaré does have a couple of classy hotels but they don’t interfere with the general atmosphere of unpretentiousness about the place. The waterfront is a jumbled bunch of crusty buildings that look like there might have been an attempt at seaside resort style early in the last century, but nothing dominates over the small and basic blue and white houses that perpetuate throughout Portugal.


One of the many delights of Nazaré are the apartments rented by a tough gang of Donas who will accost you on the street with a brazen display of competitiveness, somewhat unusual behaviour in Portugal. Their accommodation offerings range from the spartan with doilies to fake flowers with doilies, so all you have to do is grab the one with the panoramic ocean views for an extra €10 a night. Last time I was there it was still a world class bargain at about €80 for a three-bedder.

Beneath the surface, these Donas represent the matriarchal society that underlies Nazaré. A traditional fishing society, the men would go out to fish and the women would sell the catch, placing them at the head of familial financial affairs. The treacherous swells would tragically make many women widows, in such numbers to form strong bonds, command respect and endure, playing a much stronger role in business and governance than was usual in Portugal, as a result. The strength of the women has become an intrinsic characteristic of Nazaré, as natural as the powerful seas themselves.

The best area of Nazaré is Sitio, which you get to via funicular. My dog wookie has taken this ride but he didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Frankly I think that Portugal’s funiculars and elevadors are one of its major drawcards. Like the llamas in Peru.


Sitio has the views and therefore the best places to stay. And probably the best restaurants too. And the best miracles; as here on this spot in eleven hundred and ahem, a horse didn’t go off a cliff when Dom Ahemahem, the rider, prayed to The Virgin; therefore there is the cutsiest tiniest tiled little chapel and you have to go down the teeny staircase to look out the weeny window – and when that’s done then you’ve seen the most important of the touristy things on offer. Although there are also the unique multi-skirted ladies with carts of full of nut and bean delectables… which go well with beer… which you drink after the beach… so it all makes sense really.


If you are too sunburnt or already have skin cancer you might find yourself perusing the shops. There is a lot of crap and there is the typical portugalia that you can get anywhere, but what’s unique to Nazaré (and quite possibly unique to beach towns worldwide) is its wool. I know it’s a stretch to try and appreciate the soft cuddly feeling of naturally woolly goodness while wearing a bikini, but pick up some hand knitted socks or a jumper and you’ll be fondly reminiscing Nazaré when it’s cold and miserable.

I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know of any traditional pastries particular to Nazaré. I must have been already very satisfied, I guess.


where to live

How much you have to spend will be the main driver on this question, because naturally, the more you have the more choice there is. I’m certainly not saying that you want to live where the property is the most expensive – hell no – quite probably the area with the highest property values is really the least interesting. I just know I could’ve chosen better if I’d had more money.

I’m assembling some considerations that I think you should give serious thought to. No matter what you think your needs and wants are today, you don’t want your life falling to pieces when problems come your way. I’m no pessimist, but with a little forward planning, if problems do arise they don’t ruin your life. Righto?

Also, this is just my opinion. There are many expats living perfectly happy lives (for all I know) in remote areas of Portugal and I say good for them. If you’re one of these people, please say something in the comments. I’m just saying if I was to do it all again I would pay more attention to the following factors. I’ve just been reading the forum at expatsportugal.com and there are very nice people out there in Fundão and Castelo Branco living sustainably with their chooks and cherry trees and I take my hat off to them. You are better men than I am, gunga din.


  1. The Weather

Don’t go underestimating the value of sunny days. Take a long hard look at the weather stats for your home country and that of four cities in Portugal: Faro, Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. Don’t just consider the extremes of temperature because they are the exception: look at average rainfall and average temperatures for each month, as well as the number of days with sunshine. Don’t live anywhere where the weather is worse than what you’re used to. If you don’t like the heat, then the northern half of the country could be for you. If you are passionate about summer however, I would strongly advise you to stick to the southern half.


  1. An hour from a city

Especially if you are from a city, you’ll find living too far from a major city a major pain. By city I mean Lisbon or Porto. More than one hour is too far. Portugal is, to be blunt, the least modern country of western Europe, which means country Portugal is not well equipped to deal with the 21st century. It took me a year to get a telephone connected. Our internet connection is slower than dial-up. You may be, like me, a refugee from the rat race, but trust me that from time to time you will need to get a computer fixed, to get something unportuguese to eat, or to browse a quality bookstore. You should get yourself a foreign culture fix sometimes – a little jazz, opera or an international act. Ikea? An embassy? A better choice of building materials and homewares? Access to more tradespeople and services. There are a million reasons why you need a city nearby.

If you’re thinking you can do without the modern life altogether, then being within an hour from Coimbra or Faro might be ok. Your minimum requirement is a Leroy Merlin (hardware, building materials, home wares), a FNAC (computers, tech accessories, music and books) and a big Continente (supermarket and homewares). Without these things at hand, life can get very inconvenient. Frankly I never should have lived too far from El Corte Ingles (more foodie supermarket/dept store). It took me 5 years and a few trips back home to realise just having more options was really important.


  1. Airport

This goes with the city requirement. Even if you think you’re done with traveling (?!?), your visitors aren’t. Love them or loath them, visitors are inevitable if you’re living in Portugal. OK, alright, perhaps you don’t want to be stuck doing airport runs all the time… then at least consider somewhere with a direct train line to Lisbon or Porto airports because you’re going to need it.

  1. Hospitals and health care

I was a strapping young fit and healthy 35 yr old when I arrived here and I didn’t think twice about hospitals. Little did I know how crap the local health centre was, or what bizarre afflictions would befall me. You are human, you break. No matter where in the world you are, you always need a decent doctor, so do your research about the availability and quality of health care in your area. On second thoughts, live within an hour of Lisbon or Porto. According to expatsportugal.com Algarvian expats are happy with the health care down there. Perhaps the demands of foreigners, and the location, attracts better doctors. Osteopaths along with other specialists, by the way, are rare in the country.


  1. The Sea

Unless you specifically hate the beach, you should at least aim to be within an hour of the sea. As with the weather, being near the sea is a cost-free pleasure if not a basic human right. The sea also comes with seafood, and the beach is an opportunity for exercise, and you need all the encouragement you can get to exercise in Portugal. However, really charming villages by the sea are in short supply on planet Earth. A lot of Portugal’s Atlantic coastline tends to be quite industrial and sparsely populated, dry, flat and surprisingly foggy.


  1. Extra Charm

You would do well to choose a locale that charms you, extra-specially. Not only will it continue to charm you every day but somewhere with at least a bit of a name will help when you move on. This is where it gets hard: getting the location right and a spot of great charm and beauty is a tall ask, which is why most of us buy where we do even though it’s totally impractical: because it’s got the magic. Outside of properly famous or touristy spots like Óbidos or Sintra, there are plenty of villages that are just a little cut above. Look for castles, for instance, or rivers and dams. The presence of a university should mean more youthful creativity and decent bars and music. Look at their festivals (not just the annual São João), culinary specialties and tourist attractions. If you have fallen for a place that’s super charming but more than an hour from a city I really recommend renting there for three to six months to get a proper sense of the place. It’s a wise move anywhere you choose.

  1. Friends

If you’ve already got friends in Portugal it pays to live near them if you can. Not next door necessarily but not so that the distance is an obstacle to your friendship. Also, they’ve already trialed the area and can advise you. I regret that my friends are so scattered about the country and more than an hour away and I don’t see them as much as I want to.

So, when you take these factors into consideration, where should you be looking?

live in portugal map.jpg

The green patches on the map indicate an hour’s driving radius from Porto and Lisbon. Yellow indicates the other areas I mention below.

From north to south, wetter to drier:

Viana do Castelo, Braga, Guimarães & Porto. To the east past Amarante to Vila Real, around Espinho on the coast and then south to Aveiro.

Then from Aveiro to Coimbra to Leiria is a maybe (yellow) area. Coimbra is the third largest city and is a wonderful place, full of students and a small music and food scene. But it’s far from being an international city. I’m quite fond of Leiria too which is very pretty and has good shopping , but this is central Portugal and quite far from any airports. Still, around Coimbra and Leiria is preferable to further east in the Beiras, despite some spectacular mountain areas.


Around Nazaré and Alcobaça is also a maybe area, somewhere I’d really bend the rules for. Like Viana do Castelo, Nazaré is an especially nice place, a rare example of cute Portuguese village meets the sea. But it’s 1.5 hours from Lisbon. It does have Leiria and Caldas da Rainha within 30 minutes however, which are both fairly civilized: both have Bricomarché (a backup to Leroy Merlin) and Leiria has a Fnac. This whole area is dense with beauty and interest.

Things start getting very interesting at Caldas da Rainha, and this is where I would start a search. Caldas is a bit flat for my liking but it has the beach so close so I’d live with that. Draw a line across to Santarém, which is hillier and I’d look at everything within this triangle to the north of Lisbon, especially beachside. Go village stalking, although beware of getting too far from a freeway because this will add a lot of time to your run to Lisbon.


Anywhere from Lisbon to the west coast would probably bring a lot of happiness, but this is most likely the most expensive territory in the country (some places in the Algarve would cost the same). Évora and Sines and beyond the one hour boundary, but are certainly worth considering for beauty and interest (Évora) and seaside (Sines). Ditto the Alentejana coastline, which should in theory be all gorgeous but you have to be choosey with your villages and how far they are from the freeway.

Then there’s the Algarve, which is 2.5 hours to Lisbon, and although Faro has an airport and even an Apple store, it is not quite a substitute for a major city, but it might suffice. The Algarve has a different character to the rest of the country, with a lot of British expats and a lot more English spoken: To me it feels less foreign and unique and it’s therefore less desirable. Some parts of the Algarve are beautiful and some of it is a hideous hellhole, but at least the weather is better here than anywhere else. The most touristy part is from Albufeira east to Spain, with the far west being less populated. Portimão is a well equipped big town, an hour from Faro (with much the same resources) and Silves is a nice town within this area. A thorough search north of Faro up to Almodovar might produce quirky villages, Alcoutim is worth seeing for instance, but there’s not a lot else inland in that area. Mértola and Monchique would be worth checking out but they are both over an hour from Faro. The Algarve should be looked at in the summer, when you’ll get a proper idea of the size of the population at its most intense.correio.jpg

There are Fnacs in Faro and Albufeira and Leroy Merlin also in Albufeira. From many reports the health services here are better than in the rest of rural Portugal.

Regrettably, my considerations leave off many lovely charming places in the far north and east and south east of the country which are great to visit but, as a long term home, I think would become inconvenient to live in. I really love the Minho but it is cold and wet and very far from civilization, as is Trás os Montes. The mountainous areas of the Beiras, Serras dos Açor, Estrela and Lousã, host some of the most curious and picturesque villages in Portugal. To the east, Monsanto and Belmonte are charming and of another time, but seriously a very long way from the modern world. I still haven’t been to the marble towns of Vila Viçosa, Estremoz and Borba. These, and many other towns, are all great places for exploring and discovering once you’ve found a practical, well-connected, flexible and comfortable base camp to call home.

adventures may not always turn out the way you expect them to, but they are still adventures,

Kevin McCloud said, at the end of Man Made Home.

Inevitably this blog would have something to say on the subject of Kevin McCloud, Grand Designs and Man Made Homes.

I only vaguely recall Grand Designs being around before I bought my house in Portugal. Back then it was a show whose principal theme was failure: it invariably ridiculed people’s ambitious building projects which ran over budget, over schedule and failed to meet McCloud’s style expectations.

To be sure, reality TV is not documentary. Punters are deliberately exploited and their stories manipulated to suit the format. I should know, having both worked in TV and been a participant on one of these shows.

I’m not denying that real life ‘grand designs’ are without mistakes or drama. Of course not. The point is that big building projects are inherently problematic. The mistake you make is expecting things to go as planned.

As Grand Designs went on and McCloud’s star rose, it has become a better show. The emphasis has shifted towards more ecological and interesting house plans. Grand Designs today focuses less on the naivety and wasteful spending of the protagonists and more about their ingenuity and endurance. McCloud still makes they should have known better type remarks but almost always credits the builds for their sustainability, which apparently is McCloud’s own interest. Man Made Home demonstrated McCloud is not actually the condescending queeny bitch of the earlier Grand Designs, but someone passionately crafty and planet loving and not really that shallow at all.

I reckon McCloud and/or the producers started off not really understanding the owner-builder story, and only after several years they realised what sort of integrity the program’s concept had. All they had to do was stop looking down on the protagonists and embrace the essential theme of the human search for shelter. Building a house is not just about somewhere to live, or making money. Nor is building your own place just a technical exercise in engineering and project management or budgeting. Maybe there’s a bit of playing with toy-tools and making mud pies, I’ll admit that. Certainly it’s a type of artistic expression, it’s about creativity and craft and imagination. And it can be about our interaction with nature and finding a compatible place on the planet. But ultimately, building a house, your own house, is like a great voyage; you pack your bags with your itinerary in hand, and the rest is unpredictable, challenging, complex, marvellous and humbling. It can turn out to be something of a massive life experience.
It’s not only my story that turned out that way, but many of my friends building houses in Portugal have also had pretty monumental experiences: huge relationship challenges, incredible feats of architectural artistry, financial wins and losses, but above all the imagining and realisation of a home, a cave where we get warm and fed and loved.

So next time you’re wondering why Kevin’s waxing lyrical and getting a bit teary eyed over a piece of junk he’s converted into something useful… well that’s because he’s tapped into a primordial human need to make a space to call our own.


Meanwhile here’s what happened in my life where we left off.

I came back from Sydney, we went on a fab luxo tour of the Douro, and then we built a new bedroom where the hole in the wall was. Then we were planning to strip the floors again and put in the kitchen, as per the last post. My back wasn’t getting any better however. Any time spent in the car getting to the osteopath would kill me, and all that was there every day when I opened my eyes was masses of work to be done on the house. I finally realised that the house would quite literally, never be finished.

(As an aside, it’s got to be said one of the great misconceptions about retiring from city life and living a simple country idyll is that it is relaxing. The idea that I would go back to Portugal and my back would get better is ridiculous. Portugal has never been anything but brutally hard work. As my own boss I am meaner than any city employer I ever had. Whip cracking, cake-eating bitch is she.)
Anyway, we were going to run out of money again sooner or later. So I went back to Sydney again in December 2013. Once the adrenaline I was burning to keep going in Portugal wore off, the full catastrophe of having a fractured spine sunk in. I was in unbearable amounts of pain, going a bit nutty and all the qualified people were looking worriedly at me. My osteopath of 25 years flatly told me he’d never seen me look so bad in my life. Just his professional opinion; but it cut through *ahem* to the bone. I got rushed off to a surgeon who got out my life book, went to today’s page and tore up everything after.

Building a house in Portugal is over. We are moving to Australia for good.
In those first few months in Sydney, I was consumed with regret and failure. Yes, failure. That same illusion Grand Designs plays upon. I suppose it was some sort of grief, for Portugal, for my health and for the dream of building a house. It was all nice and hopeless in my dark hole until I read an article about Bryan Smith, a National Geographic adventurer who says “If you don’t fail every once in a while, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough to try different things.”  So there.

The idea of Portugal being just another adventure settled on me, and no, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but it has been an adventure nonetheless. Now I’m more resigned to put it in the box of many mad journeys I’ve been on. It was like a long safari in Egypt. A love affair with someone who doesn’t speak your language. It was like making a film. Like a cliff-edge taxi ride in Morocco. A great swim between the heads of Bondi at three in the morning. It was a test and it changed me.
Still, I’m not patting myself on the back every day about coming back “home”. As great as Sydney is, it still feels like a step backwards, away from what I wanted for so long. I’m sure that’s common amongst ex-expats. But shit hey, that’s life, and when I’m feeling like a loser someone usually comes along and says “I was just telling someone about you how threw it all away to become a Portuguese-speaking peasant”, and I feel so much better.

Então. One year later and I’m not so fatalistic about it all. It’s not like I’m never going back. The house, emma’s house, is just where I left it and is an ongoing concern for The One and our Wookie, Mao and Purdy. Their story is still to come as we embark on new battle with the dark forces of immigration – this time to import 85 kilos of Englishman into Australia.

Actually right now I’m organising some more work to be done on the house. At arm’s length. Across the oceans. I won’t be getting dirty this time. Quite excited.

And I’ve finally found some time to write again…. So stay tuned for Emma’s House, The Final Season…


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