Charting a couple's move from London to Portugal, tales, adventures and moving advice


Christmas in Portugal: Vila Real de Santo Antonio 10

Posted on December 09, 2014 by Ben Algarve

Christmas in Portugal was rather magical for our first couple of years here, helped by the beautiful lights in our local town of Tavira. I talked about them in this post, and it’s really hard to believe I wrote it five whole years ago!

Due to the financial crisis, things have been a little flat in many Algarve towns in recent years, with slashed budgets meaning that last year Tavira only really got a tree. Still, it did better than some towns that got nothing at all.

Christmas in Vila Real de Santo Antonio

Christmas in Vila Real de Santo Antonio

We’re hoping Tavira has the “old” decorations back this year, but we’ve not had a chance to visit after dark (and given that our six month old son screams during dark car journeys, that chance won’t come easy!)

Anyway, we wanted to go somewhere where Christmas cheer was guaranteed, so we headed to the border town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio, which always makes a big effort for Christmas.

The highlight, as ever, was the huge indoor nativity scene, featuring thousands of animated figurines, complete with impressive lighting and water features. This year, there was the addition of “flying” doves over the scene too. It was as enchanting as ever and the aforementioned six-month-old seemed suitably spellbound.

Vila Real Christmas Scene

Vila Real Christmas Scene

As well as the nativity scene, there’s ice skating (on a rather small scale), a Santa’s grotto, and a small craft and food market.

All the typical Portuguese “festival foods” were present and correct: farturas (akin to donuts), smoked octopus and (most importantly for Christmas) freshly roasted chestnuts. Mulled wine was the only thing absent, but we can’t expect to find British drinks on the border of Spain and Portugal!

Portugal Christmas: Chestnuts

Portugal Christmas: Chestnuts

In case you’re not familiar with the place, Vila Real also boasts some decent kitchen and textile shops, so is a good place to grab gifts. However, it’s worth noting that everything starts to wind down quite early for Portugal (8/9PM), which is surprising when summer markets often don’t get started until after that point.

Vila Real Christmas Craft Market

Vila Real Christmas Craft Market

If you’re in the Algarve during the holiday season, I highly recommend a trip to Vila Real de Santo Antonio. It may not quite match Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, but it’s cheaper, easier, and just as likely to spark that festive feeling.

If you’d like to read more about our five years in Portugal, please check out our book.

Moving to Portugal: How a young couple started a new life in the sun – and how you could do the same

Or find it here on Amazon.COM, for US readers:

Moving to Portugal: How a young couple started a new life in the sun – and how you could do the same

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Christmas Already? 2

Posted on November 28, 2012 by Ben Algarve

“Christmas already?” goes the well-used cliché. Many years ago, I worked in a supermarket, and I’d hear it at least a hundred times on the day we began to load the seasonal stock onto the shelves.

For many expats, Christmas has to start early. For starters, getting hold of many of the things that make up our non-negotiable traditions takes time and effort, especially if we are to get them at sensible prices. I’m talking about things like mincemeat, marzipan and Christmas crackers.

Christmas is coming

Christmas is coming

Then there are the presents. When you have to send gifts a couple of thousand miles, you can’t be doing all the Christmas shopping in a fun but frantic rush on Christmas eve.

Luckily (and as you will know if you’ve read the blog for a while), my wife and I love Christmas. In fact, we’ve already watched a few Christmas films this year and my wife’s “Christmas music embargo” was lifted a few days ago. We’ve even already made the chutney.

In a couple of weeks, we set off to London for our annual mad dash around family and friends. It’s fun, tiring and slightly thankless all at once, as there never seems to be enough time to go round. It’s perhaps a little known fact of expat life that you end up using most of your holiday time visiting people and having people visit you – it’s hard to end up with any real time off for yourself.

Snow and traffic on our last Christmas trip back to the UK

Snow and traffic on our last Christmas trip back to the UK

This December visit will be even more hectic than usual, as I have a couple of big work projects in progress. It’s quite depressing to know that we’ll be in England with insufficient time to get around to all of the people we’d like to see.

Anyway, I’m only having a little moan; working is part and parcel of a trip to London for us. There’s always next year, and if people want to visit us instead, they know where we are.

Speaking of which, people have already booked to come out and see us next year, and next week we have a friend coming over for a repeat visit. We’re looking forward to showing her the winter version of the Algarve. Tavira, our local town, is really rather enchanting at Christmas. I hope the town hall budget permits similar decorations to these this year:

Tavira Christmas Lights 2010

Tavira Christmas Lights 2010

So, I’ll end today’s post with an apology that my updates may be a little sporadic over the coming weeks, as we attempt to spread some seasonal cheer in the UK and earn enough to pay for the festive season. I’m already looking forward to a glass of pink fizz on Christmas morning. In this age of austerity, it will be Portuguese sparkling wine, not the posh stuff! Until next time.

Stuck for Christmas gift ideas? It would be awfully seasonal of you to buy someone our book!

Moving to Portugal: How a young couple started a new life in the sun – and how you could do the same

US readers can find it here.


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Portugal 2011 into 2012 0

Posted on January 03, 2012 by Ben Algarve

Bom Dia and Bom Ano Novo (Good morning, and happy new year)!

Apologies for my absence over the Christmas period. I took a bit of a blogging break, but am now back refreshed and reinspired.

After a week or so working in London and delivering presents to friends and relatives, we had a fantastic, if slightly hectic, Christmas back in the Algarve. The festive season was full of wonderful moments, so I have decided to list a few of the highlights:

1. Taking my mother and mother-in-law to Praia de Tres Castelos beach on the 22nd December, where our car’s thermometer read the temperature as 23 degrees Celsius. The weather was beautiful enough for us to eat lunch at a beach café, paddle in the sea whilst watching some amazing light bounce of the water (see photo), and even for us to get slightly sunburned! Returning home to make mince pies and wrap gifts after a day like this was surreal, to say the least.

Sparking Water at Praia de Tres Castelos

Sparking Water at Praia de Tres Castelos

2. Meeting our new, seven week old great-niece while we were back in England. I must, however, admit that the term “great uncle” makes me feel very old indeed.

3. Having time to cook so many things at a relaxed pace, including some foodie gifts for relatives such as spiced nuts, gingerbread and Christmas dressing. Sadly, even slow-paced Portuguese life manages to frequently leave us short of time during a working week so having plenty of kitchen time was a real pleasure. Our Christmas cooking included bright pink beetroot hummus, a sinful banoffee pie, and the pictured garlic flatbreads!

Homemade Garlic Flatbreads

Homemade Garlic Flatbreads

4. Our neighbours coming round just before Christmas with smiles and Christmas gifts for us. This was an extremely kind and touching gesture that we will never forget—it made us feel so welcome in our new country.

5. Having two barbecues during the course of the Christmas period. There’s something wonderfully decadent about BBQing in December.

Finally, though it’s not a Christmas highlight, as such, I feel I have to point out that whilst driving near Maragota the other day we drove past something you don’t see every day in the Eastern Algarve – a camel!

Algarve Christmas Camel!

Algarve Christmas Camel!

Now the festive season is out the way, it’s time to look to 2012, a year that everyone is telling us is going to be a tough one.

Algarve 2012 Weather

Algarve 2012 Weather

There are already some visible signs of the truth of this, and a good example is the Gran Plaza shopping centre in Tavira. Stores both large and small have been dropping like flies in the past month. The shopping centre will be half empty if retail businesses continue to fail at this pace. On the bright side, the smaller stores in our area seem to be hanging in there and we have seen several new businesses start up recently. As I am a “glass-half-full” kind of person most of the time I am going to try to focus on this fact instead.

My wife and I don’t “do” New Year’s resolutions. Grand undertakings in times where it’s depressing to be back at work and the apartment is still full of leftover booze and chocolate can only be doomed to failure. Regardless, we are conscious that times are hard, so intend to buckle down to a year focused on working hard, spending minimally, and enjoying all the inexpensive outdoor pursuits the Algarve has to offer. Given that the next fortnight promises relentless sun and temperatures around 20C, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Happy New Year!


Continuing the theme of keeping old posts alive, at this time in 2010, things weren’t going quite so well! We were in the middle of the Algarve’s wettest winter since 1870 and feeling rather unsettled. Read the post here!

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Flying Home for Christmas 3

Posted on December 14, 2010 by Ben Algarve

What a difference a 2.5 hour flight makes. This time last week I was shivering my way around a -3C London and now I’m back in Portugal it’s 19C outside and bright enough to give me a migraine!

Our trip back to England was the usual mix of good, bad and ugly. The good = Christmas meals and drinks with family and friends. The bad = coping with city crowds and being sneezed over by those with colds and bugs. The ugly = negotiating weather delays and engineering works on public transport.

After a fantastic start to our UK trip, when we visited family in the country, our first 24 hours in London provoked in us the kind of strong feelings of anger and frustration that we

A Snowy Arrival in England

A Snowy Arrival in England

moved to Portugal to get away from. In retrospect I’m glad that I resisted the temptation to post on the blog to relieve my annoyance last Sunday evening, as I fear I may have offended everyone I know who lives in England’s capital!

After the initial anger subsided, which was primarily caused by a public transport journey of epically crap proportions, we relaxed into London life for a few days, and, as always, had some good and memorable times with friends. We also destroyed the majority of the good work our Weightwatchers stint had achieved by tucking into vast quantities of fish and chips, cider and curry, along with a plethora of pastry-based products.

After a rather expensive check-in back at Gatwick airport, thanks to Easyjet’s kind decision to massively reduce the weight limit for our suitcase, we boarded our plane back to Faro, and spent a bumpy couple of hours being entertained / annoyed by a gaggle of hen party visitors, before arriving back in Portugal.

As we have to return to the UK at regular intervals, the moment we arrive back from one visit is always fantastic, as it means there’s plenty of time before we have to think about doing it all again, and our travel plans this time round meant we arrived back with a weekend ahead of us.

After a Saturday of unpacking and settling, my Outlook calendar bleeped and reminded me of a Christmas market in the beautiful hamlet of Cacela Velha taking place the next day—a reminder I had set a long time ago when I heard about it on one of the expat forums.

We gathered the family on Sunday morning and spent a wonderful morning browsing stalls of local handicrafts, cakes, jams, plants and wine. We left having indulged in artisan quiche and honey pastries, not to mention a couple of freebie glasses of local wine, and by then had a few carrier bags between us containing treats which may well appear on the Christmas table or in certain family Christmas stockings…..

After the market we took the family to show them the town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio, right on the Spanish border. We are fans of this very likeable town, which, unusually for the area, is built on a grid system, just like downtown Lisbon.

Christmas Model Village in Vila Real de Santo Antonio

Christmas Model Village in Vila Real de Santo Antonio

The town boasts a number of individual shops which are great for a browse, including kitchen stores, large linen emporiums, and even a large shop dedicated to Christmas decorations. We alternated wanders around the shops with sit-downs and rest stops at a couple of cafes – a fantastic way to spend a Sunday.

An extra treat was coming across a huge model village that had been constructed specially for Christmas. This free-to-enter exhibit was truly impressive with a breathtakingly intricate level of detail. I heartily recommend that anyone in the East Algarve area go and take a look.

Our relaxed weekend was the perfect antidote to the frenetic pace of our time in the UK, and served as a perfect reminder of why we moved to Portugal. Later that evening, as I sprinkled lemon thyme over our roasted vegetables, procured cheaply from the market that morning, I felt ever so happy. Home sweet home.

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A Portuguese Christmas – Christmas in Portugal 8

Posted on November 22, 2010 by Ben Algarve

Having just spent the weekend making mince pies and experimenting with Christmas recipes and home-made gifts, our excitement about our upcoming Portuguese Christmas has reached a rather high level. In fact waking up this morning to find it is still over a month away and that we both have a load of work to do was rather depressing.

This will be our second Christmas in Portugal and we now have a lot of family members either here or visiting—if fact it will probably be the biggest Christmas family gathering I have experienced.

I am very much looking forward to all the usual things – watching cheesy movies, eating far too much junk-food and playing board games, not to mention enjoying the one day of the year when drinking champagne first thing in the morning is a cause for celebration rather than concern!

This year, we would also like to try to incorporate some more Portuguese traditions into our Christmas in Portugal.

I’m not going to do the bacalhau (salted cod) on Christmas eve thing, but will be attempting to cook it between now and Christmas, having made a commitment to a reader of the blog to do so ;-)

A Portuguese Christmas - Lisbon at Christmas

A Portuguese Christmas - Lisbon at Christmas

I will also be attempting to cook a Bolo Rei (a Portuguese Christmas / New Year cake.) I understand from research that the tradition is to incorporate a medal or ring in the mixture as well as a dried broad bean. The person finding the medal is the lucky prize winner and the person finding the bean is responsible for paying for the cake the following year.

I have eaten bolo rei before and found it very tasty and full of seasonal spice flavour, but always somewhat dry, so I will see what I can do to make a slightly more moist version of this festive food.

Finally, we also have a small nativity scene ready to form part of our traditional Portuguese Christmas decorations. Nativity scenes are a seemingly essential part of any Portuguese Christmas.

So, those are our outline plans to make Christmas a little more Portuguese, but I would love to hear from readers in response to this post.

What are your Christmas traditions? If you live abroad have you started to incorporate local customs into your celebrations? And, most importantly, which Portuguese traditions should I learn about that I haven’t already?

I hope to hear some ideas. Now, I have to try to stop thinking about Christmas and get on with some work. Seasons greetings, and have a good week.

Photo credit: Ivo Emanuel Gonçalves

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