THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
“Which is better: Spain or Portugal?”
“Which do you prefer: Portugal or Spain?”
“How does Spain compare with Portugal?”
“Am I better off in Portugal or Spain?
People often direct questions like these to us.
Ten years ago, we purchased a small holiday home in one of the “pueblos blancos” of Andalucía in southern Spain … just about where the provinces of Malaga, Sevilla, and Cadiz intersect. “Vacation bolt” was a good term for it, as the words implied our pace and its purpose.
Once each year, we engaged caregivers and caretakers to pet-sit and oversee our house in the USA, while we rushed off for ten days (then two or three weeks, and finally a month) in Olvera, Spain.
In November 2016, we decided to move to the Iberian peninsula. Not just to our Spanish vacation bolt, but to Portugal as well.
Actually, as of 2018, Portugal became our primary residence, while our little getaway in Spain was now our home away from home. For a variety of reasons – all peripheral to this piece – we were grateful that we could retire and share our lives with two such special countries.
We’re now spending about three-fourths of our time in Portugal and one-fourth in Spain—the months of May and October, along with other times when we feel the urge to pick up and go.
Along with many similarities, we’ve noticed some differences, too, between the two countries, as well as the character of Portuguese people and Spanish.
To begin with, the language.
Spanish always has been my second language, but it’s a stumbling block in terms of Portuguese. The languages bear enough resemblance that I can understand about 75% of the words in Portuguese. When written. Spoken, however, all bets are off.
Language is a reflection of a people and their culture, and so it is with Spanish and Portuguese. In some ways, Spanish is an intricately more complex language to learn, while – despite its discrepancies between written letters and spoken sounds – fundamentally, Portuguese can be friendlier and simpler to master.
And the people?
To an outsider, the Spanish appear to be a bit more bon vivants and more “salidos” (extroverted) than their introspective Portuguese neighbors, who often display a melancholy soulfulness known as “saudade.”
Think of the Portuguese fado and the Spanish flamenco.
In these contrasts and comparisons, please remember that: (1) They’re based on our personal opinion(s) and observations; and (2) We’re referring to relatively small towns and villages in both countries, not the major municipalities like Lisbon or Madrid, Porto or Barcelona.
The land and the climate of both countries’ interiors are quite similar – blazing hot in summers, rainy and rather chilly in winters – though the ubiquitous churches found on their streets, squares, and plazas are different: Church buildings in Spanish towns and villages tend to differ (somewhat) one from another, while Portuguese churches look more alike, variations on the same theme and a standard blueprint.
Spain seems much louder, more boisterous and insistent. From the timber and pitch of people’s voices when talking, to the incessant hands on the horns of their vehicles, the decibel level is much higher in Spain.
People in Portugal will pause and wait patiently (to a point, at least), while cars and trucks load and unload, blocking their paths, or when drivers say their good-byes to passengers and stop to greet pedestrians passing by. Not so in Spain, where folks are in more of a hurry and you’d better keep moving or you’ll quickly suffer the blare of punishing horns. Worse are the vendors – breads, gas canisters, fruits and fish – who clamor for attention by blasting their shrill horns in steady staccato bleats while traversing the steep but narrow streets. With each and every stop, their wares are shouted for all to hear.
What about the cost of living?
Honestly, except for property and income taxes (Portugal’s are incomparably lower), it’s easier to make ends meet on a budget in Spain.
Much of that, undoubtedly, is due to the sales tax (IVA): 21% in Spain vs. 23% in Portugal.
A typical shopping cart at the supermarket – groceries, cleaning supplies, paper goods, cosmetics, etc. – runs about 10€ more in Portugal than Spain. Gasoline in Spain currently hovers around €1.30-1.37 per liter, while the best deals in Portugal are found at the industrial zone Jumbos for €1.48 per liter. Filling the tank quickly adds up. Similarly, propane canisters cost €15.50 in Spain vs. €25.50 in Portugal. Electricity, appliances, furniture, textiles, and lots of other goods are far cheaper in Spain than Portugal, too.
We found wonderfully thick and absorbent 100% cotton bath towels in a “bazaar” store on the main shopping street in our Spanish town, for half their price in Portugal. The irony is that an attached label proudly proclaimed, “Made in Portugal.”
How people deal with their disposables is another study in contrasts. While both Spain and Portugal provide readily accessible garbage bins for people to dispose of their trash, trash collection occurs daily – even on weekends … Sundays, included! – in Spain … instead, it’s picked up from the bins about three times each week in Portugal. One’s trash is treated more personally in Spain, too, where people hook and hang their bags like laundry on a line – on gates and grills, doors and windows – for pick up right by their houses.
Finally, the food:
In a nutshell, we find the food to be better with lots more for the money in Spain than in Portugal. That’s because of the tapas. There aren’t many places where one can enjoy enough epicurean delights to satisfy any hunger (usually including a basket of fresh bread and a plate of peanuts or olives) for just two to three euros. Add another euro for a glass of wine or a beer; they’re both cheaper than water or soft drinks in Portugal and Spain.
But Spain doesn’t come close to Portugal for delicacies and desserts. When I die, I hope heaven (or the alternative) turns out to be a Portuguese pastelaria!
Because of history and geopolitical reasons, some Portuguese have an attitude toward their neighbors in Spain.
Thankfully, we are Americans who appreciate the virtues and values of both countries!
Saludos e felicidades,
(Rev.) Bruce H. Joffe, Ph.D. is a pastor, a former PR guru, a retired professor (Mary Baldwin University, George Mason University, The American University, Carthage College and Kaplan College), a Moderator of American Expats & Friends in Portugal and Spain and a member of People of Faith in Portugal. His book, Expat: Leaving the USA For Good, is published by New Generation Publishing.