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Simpler Living in Portugal: Our Dream to Make, Do, Grow and Enjoy More

Have you ever wanted to live a simpler lifestyle, take more enjoyment from the small things, but felt restricted by your circumstances? Without sufficient time, motivation or even patience, trying to slow down and consume less can actually make you feel guilty.

This is how I’ve felt for a long time – years even. I was battling (with myself) to find the time to dedicate to making changes but something else always got priority.

This year, 2020 of all years, was the year I decided to change that. 

We packed up our life and moved to Portugal. Of course that’s the short version and I’ll go into more detail below and in future posts. 

So, we sold our London flat, packed up our furniture, booked a flight for our two cats, and moved ourselves internationally – in the middle of a global pandemic. 

If you’d like to see where this story is headed, here’s a preview of the place we ended up buying.

Simpler Living

For a few years we’d been searching. We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for but knew we wanted to live simpler, more affordably (than London at least), and at a much slower pace of life. 

We were fed up of the UK weather and wanted to find somewhere warmer. Ideally we’d find a place that we could see ourselves living out the remainder of our lives and enjoying an active retirement. We’re in our mid 40s and 30s so retirement is a little way off yet, but you do have to plan these things.

We wanted a change in the pace of life, where we could spend more time enjoying the simple things and particularly reconnecting with nature and where our food comes from. For the last 20 or so years we’d been living (mostly) in London, consumed by corporate jobs, and had forgotten how to really live life and enjoy it.

I wanted to have the time to enjoy a sunset, be well rested enough to get up for a sunrise, and enjoy a Sunday stroll without worrying that I had a to-do list a mile long that I should be doing instead.

We love to cook so wanted to learn to grow our own food, learn more about canning and preserving, and have a go at making our own wine. We want to have the time, and energy, to experiment with organic farming and regenerative agriculture, even if it’s only on a small scale.

Simply put, we want to slow down and live a simpler life.

Our London Life Wasn’t Sustainable

London is an amazing place to live, and I feel immensely privileged to have been able to live there for a large portion of my life. There’s always something happening, everything you could ever possibly need or want is on your doorstep, and there’s some of the best career opportunities in the world.  

However, fast paced urban living was at odds with my sustainability values.

Surrounded by advertising and marketing it’s all too easy to be sucked into believing that you need to buy the latest thing, and this even applies to eco products. 

Before I’d even run out of something I was buying a replacement, and often a couple more ‘just in case’ I needed them.

plastic free deodorant hero
How many plastic-free deodorants does a girl need?

Life was becoming a little too consumption based for my liking and I wanted to push the stop button on excessive consumerism. 

I’d been taking small steps – making small, positive changes – for quite some time already. But no matter how many changes I’ve made it’s never really felt like enough. It feels like there’s always someone, somewhere, who’s doing more. Rationally, I know I’m doing something positive but I often feel that I’m not doing enough.

I wanted to make bigger changes, ones that would result in more significant results. Swapping a plastic tube of toothpaste for paste in a jar is great, but I wanted to have a bigger impact.  

How about hyper local food grown in my own garden? And abundant energy produced from solar panels on my own land? Perhaps I could start a community project or form a partnership with a local charity?

Not our array … but I aspire to have something like this

Maybe I could do these things and share my experiences with people around the world to inspire more people to make similar changes in their life? That’s the kind of impact I wanted to have.

It’s not for everyone, but I knew that to achieve this we’d need to leave London behind.

Why Portugal?

We considered returning to Australia, where I’m originally from, but that didn’t meet the affordability criteria. South East Asia was also on our list for a while, but achieving residency status there is not particularly easy.

The South of Spain, France and Italy – all common destinations for British expats – were all considerations but they didn’t really appeal to us too much.  

It was a trip to Lisbon in early 2019 that planted the idea that Portugal might be a good relocation destination. Lisbon is a stunning city! The weather is great, the people are friendly and relaxed, the food is amazing and the wine is very affordable.  But Lisbon is still a city, and has a little too much hustle and bustle for what we were looking for.

On our return from Lisbon we couldn’t stop talking about Portugal, and what a life there might be like. We watched a lot of YouTube videos about living in Portugal and researched how much it might cost to move and live there. 

Portugal … wonderful weather, beautiful architecture

We ultimately chose to move to Portugal for three reasons:

#1 – 300 Days of Sunshine

Portugal has great weather, a Mediterranean climate – long hot summers, warm spring and autumn, and a fairly mild (but wet) winter although there’s considerably less rain throughout the year compared to the UK.

#2 – Affordable Property Prices

We could buy a house with a reasonable amount of land in Central Portugal for less than £100k. This would allow us to grow our own food, raise animals and invest in some eco projects (like solar and grey water harvesting).

#3 – Relaxed Lifestyle

There’s definitely a slower pace of life in Portugal, exactly what we were looking for!

The Brexit Push

In early March 2020 we were sitting in our favourite wine bar in Tooting, south west London (shout out to the girls from Unwined in Tooting who we sorely miss!). As we sat there, sipping on a glass of vinho verde (green wine from Portugal) we made the decision to move to Portugal by the end of the year. 

One of the big driving factors was getting there before the end of the Brexit transition period so we could secure residency without lots of extra paperwork, hoops to jump through and potentially expensive visas. 

Without knowing if the UK was going to have a deal with the EU (ie. a defined set of rules for how to live, work and trade together) we were uncertain what the residency criteria might be after the end of the transition period.

Decision made! Even after the evening of wine wore off we still thought it a good plan. Then it was time to get cracking with all the logistical tasks.

One week later and the UK went into full COVID-19 lockdown.

That first UK lockdown was pretty intense. Everyone was restricted to their homes (except for food and exercise) and the UK property market essentially shut down.  We couldn’t get an estate agent around to value our flat, so we couldn’t get our property listed … but potential buyers wouldn’t have been able to view the property anyway!

We waited patiently… 

The minute lockdown was eased for estate agents, we had three companies perform a socially distanced visit to value our flat.  A week later, now early June, the flat was on the market. And there was just 7 months left before the Brexit transition deadline. The clock was ticking.

However, three weeks later we accepted an offer and things really started ramping up! We were moving to Portugal… yippee!!

Moving to Portugal in a Pandemic

In a whirlwind of logistics, and a lot of last minute stress, I arranged to move our household to Portugal. We used a removals company to transport our furniture by road, a specialist pet company to fly our two cats, and I booked flights for Guy and myself. Fortunately, we were all booked on to the same flight and there were no cancellations.  

At the same time we were slowly progressing with the sale of our flat (COVID certainly slowed down all legal activities), and trying to adjust to new remote working conditions.

This definitely wasn’t a fun time. Our mental health suffered, wine consumption increased and Deliveroo was the answer to too many lethargic evenings on the sofa. 

Social media was awash with friends and family having similar experiences.  The summer of 2020 certainly won’t be forgotten in a hurry, though I suspect many of us would like to erase it from our memories!

During this lockdown and period of social distancing, I really craved more outdoor space.  Our small postage-stamp London garden was great to escape to, but the surrounding concrete jungle left a lot to be desired.  

We made it through these challenging months, dreaming of what our new life in Portugal would be like… and we couldn’t wait for the day when it would become a reality.

Our tiny London garden … not even enough space for grass!

We Bought A Small Farm

It was late August 2020 when we finally arrived in Portugal, right in the hottest part of the year!  

With daytime, and sometimes nighttime temperatures, in the mid 30’s (°C not °F) it took us a couple of weeks to acclimatise to the hot weather.  Thankfully there was air conditioning in our rental flat and a couple of stunning river beaches just a few kilometers away.

In the midst of the heat we did a lot of property hunting. We scoured the internet for properties that fit our simpler, more sustainable lifestyle. We visited a LOT of run down houses, barns and farm buildings in and around Central Portugal, and slowly narrowed in on what was important for our new life in the sun.

It was hot, tiring work. Some of the properties were in such poor condition that it often felt like a waste of time going to see them. But eventually we found a small farm that we thought we could renovate, restore and turn into the home of our dreams.

Take a look at what we started with:

Although the date on the gates says 1970, we’re told that the house and the farm date back to the turn of the 20th century. Not too dissimilar in age to the Victorian building we lived in back in London.  

However, this house hasn’t been lived in for over 20 years, evidenced by all the dated furniture left behind by the previous owners and all the cobwebs!  During this time the land had been left unattended which has unfortunately caused a significant decline in the health of many of the fruit trees.

We plan to restore the house to its former beauty and regenerate the land the best that we can.

Our Make.Do.Grow Plans

Old Portugueses houses like ours were traditionally built from stone, straight onto the earth, without any foundations or damp proofing. A visit to the ground floor of this building brings a quick reminder of the damp mouldy conditions that such buildings typically exhibit.

We’ll be using natural building methods and materials to convert the ground floor into habitable rooms while allowing the building to breathe. On the first floor we’ll replace and restore all the damaged period features while updating the rooms to modern standards. And finally we’ll be converting the loft area into a large, more habitable, living space.

I am a big fan of renewable energy and reduced water consumption. While we’re restoring the house we’ll also be converting the electricity to be generated from solar PV panels, installing a solar system for all our hot water needs, collecting all the rainwater from the roof, and designing and building a grey water filtration system to be used for irrigation.

We may not achieve off-grid status but I’d like to get as close as we can within our means.

On the farm we’ll be building our own compost system, planning and planting some no-dig vegetable beds so we can grow our own food, planting as many berry bushes and fruit trees as will fit, and eventually raising a bunch of animals. 

We’d also like to plant some vines so we can make our own wine, grow groundnuts so we can make homemade peanut butter, and harvest and press our own olive oil.

While total self sufficiency isn’t really the end goal, I’m hoping we can get pretty close. Our primary focus is to reconnect with food, restore our property and land, and move towards a simpler way of living.

Clearly this isn’t going to happen overnight, but we’ll be enjoying our lives, making, doing and growing until it does.

If you’re interested in seeing how we get on, or are on your own journey and want to be surrounded by other like minded people subscribe to the Make Do Grow YouTube channel.

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