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Portugal – A Mix of Old-World Culture and Modern Charm

I have always been curious about two types of people – expats and nomads. Continuously moving from place to place sounds insane, but YOLO, go where your heart takes you to. After moving around so much, does their perspective about their home country change? I reached out to my virtual friend Gil Sousa, a Portuguese expat and travel blogger currently living in Ireland, to answer all my questions. Let’s visit Portugal.

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credit – gilsousa.eu

Why did you choose to live the life of an expat, and how did you prepare for it?

This is a long story; before 2007, I didn’t even think about living abroad. My English proficiency was terrible. I could understand it well, but I couldn’t express myself in English, and I even used to think, “Why to bother to learn English if I am living in Portugal?“. In 2006 I started considering pursuing the Erasmus program, an exchange student program in Europe. I applied and got accepted for a year at Technische Universität Dresden, Germany.

It was my first time living abroad, and my English level was quite basic. I didn’t know anyone there either. It was an experience that changed my life in so many ways, which infected me with the “travel bug.”

Once I returned to Portugal, I couldn’t wait to go abroad again. Soon after, I got accepted for an internship in Athens, Greece. It was only for 6 months, but it helped me open my mind even more. It was a whole different experience. This time I wasn’t a student. I had responsibilities, and the cultural shock was way more diverse than Germany.

After the internship, I had to return to Portugal. Leaving then wasn’t that easy. I took a job to pay my student loan and bills. Wages in Portugal were (or still are) below the European average, so there’s nothing left to save. I felt trapped and claustrophobic. I wanted another international experience, not because of money, but because I fell in love with the idea of living in and experiencing new cultures.

The opportunity to move to Ireland happened by chance. I didn’t prepare for it, I just saw an opportunity and tried my luck, and here I am 10 years later.

Never in a million years would I have imagined living in Ireland for a decade, but it happened.

I still dream about moving to another country and experience a new culture again. I am sure it will happen again.

What part of Portugal is your favourite?

As an emigrant, I must say that the more I travel, the more I love my country. Whenever I go back, I look at Portugal as a foreign place, and I appreciate it in a way that I never did while I was living in Portugal.

Even though Portugal is a small country, it has a lot of diversity. Each part has its own charm and characteristics.

I am from the center, not far from Lisbon, but the mountainous landscapes of the north amaze me the most. The islands are also on my top places in Portugal, either Azores or Madeira; both are amazing and incredible.

Is there any special memory from your travels to Portugal?

Actually, yes, this one is from Madeira island. I guess this happens with everyone. We often take our own country for granted and focus on travelling to foreign lands. The thought of visiting the Madeira islands never occurred to me. I was invited to a wedding there, and that was my motivation to visit the island. I decided to explore it for a week. I had no expectations, to be honest.

The island is gorgeous, a hiker’s dream!

Having no expectations whatsoever contributed significantly to be so amazed by what I saw. Suppose you are looking to relax on a beach. In that case, Madeira island isn’t the best idea (though Porto Santo, right next to it, would be perfect). If you enjoy hikes and mountains, then Madeira is a must-visit place!

 

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What advice would you give to someone who is travelling to Portugal for the first time?

If you are a woman, pack some flat shoes. Seriously, we have charming cobblestone roads everywhere, and that will destroy your feet and probably also the heels of your shoes.

Try our food, in my opinion eating local dishes the best way to “travel.” Each of our regions has its own traditional dishes. Some can be pretty unique, like in São Miguel island (Azores), where they have a stew cooked with volcanic heat, with the stewpot buried!

What’s that one thing every traveller should do while in Portugal? 

To avoid repeating the answer above, I would recommend driving the Douro River Valley. That’s where the Porto wine vineyards are, and the landscape is just stunning. The roads can be relatively narrow at points, and not for the faint-hearted, but impressive nonetheless. Or if you want a more chill option, you can do the same route but from another point of view, on a cruise up the river and return to Porto by train. This is a popular route, but for a perfect reason.

 

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 Are there any places that are popular but one can easily avoid?

Some places are popular, but I don’t find them amazing. But I wouldn’t suggest avoiding them. Pastéis de Belém, the most famous custard tarts in Lisbon – are good and special (secret recipe, hence so special) but overpriced and with usual long queues. There are countless places in Lisbon where you can get better custard tarts, at better prices and without queues. The difference? The recipe isn’t secret, and there is no hype around that.

You’re on a trip around the world; when you look back at Portugal, what do you think sets it apart from the countries you have explored till now?

This is a really good question… I had to rewrite my answer a few times. I thought about Lisbon, the people, the food, the weather. But none of that sets it apart from other places. There are cities in the world that are amazing. I am Portuguese, so of course, I think Portuguese people are “easy-going,” and as a Portuguese person, of course, I love the food. But what really sets it apart from everywhere else, for me, is where I am from.

It doesn’t matter if I live in Ireland for 10 years or lived in two other countries. Portugal is where I am from, and there isn’t anywhere in the world like that to me.

 

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What do international travellers miss out on when they are exploring Portugal?

The Summer festivities in small towns. I don’t mean music festivals. I really mean the very local Summer festivities. International travellers often don’t ever experience this, and I think it can’t get more local than that. Most likely, they will feel out of place, as most music is popular Portuguese music. The food is mostly street food, with some craft fairs as well. It is so local and so niche that most travellers are not even aware of it. Still, it would be without a doubt a memorable experience.

For a budget traveller, would it be possible to cover the region of Azores along with the mainland?

And don’t forget the Madeira region! I think yes, I believe it is possible. But “budget traveller” is quite a broad concept.

You can travel cheaply in Portugal, including Madeira and Azores.

Don’t forget about the flights. There are low-cost companies flying to Madeira island. And then, within the archipelagos, you can also find excellent deals. The Azores has three groups of islands; in the central group, all islands are relatively close to each other, and you can take ferries without the need for flights. For the other two groups, you would need to take flights.

What’s the one thing you have learned about life as an expat who’s always on the move?

I am constantly growing as a person. Before I moved to Germany, I had a narrow mindset that stopped me from learning any other language because I thought I wouldn’t leave Portugal. Then in Germany, I started looking at Portugal as a narrow-minded emigrant because it wasn’t up to German standards. When I moved to Greece, I saw it from another point of view. With my living and travelling experiences, I started looking at my country with another set of eyes. I honestly think I love it more than I used to when I was living there.

I feel that I am more open to learn and try to understand other cultures. I don’t have to agree, but I try to understand and respect. This helped me grow as a person as well, even when I am not travelling.

Travelling and living abroad can make you question everything. And that’s an excellent thing.

As an emigrant, I learned that even if you disagree with the country hosting you, you still should make an effort to respect it, and with time you will grow as a person. You don’t need to dismiss your opinions, but you will definitely enrich them.

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