Conjure up a vision of pearly light, sunsets over the Atlantic, palm trees and bougainvillea, affordable restaurants, great wine, romantic ruins and sandy beaches galore, all less than three hours from the UK. But also of erratic driving, dogs barking all night (and most of the day), and a bureaucracy fit to make a grown man cry.
Be prepared that much affecting your life will take longer than you might like: the flipside of the calmer lifestyle that may be enjoyed here. This begins with house-hunting. There are plenty of houses and apartments to rent in Cascais and the surrounding villages, the most popular location for expats (and well-off Portuguese). For the breadwinner(s) in the family, that means a daily commute to Lisbon. The drive takes 20 minutes when the roads are clear, but in the rush hour can last well over an hour, especially if there has been an accident (a daily occurrence, sadly, but more of that later).
The prdoperty industry is under-regulated and there are dozens of agencies. Several are owned by English speakers (such as the well-established Rose and the Lisbon arm of the leading English agency Savills), or employ English-speaking agents (frequently South Africans). Be very clear about how many bedrooms you want, whether you prefer furnished (frequently dark, gothic pieces in carved wood) or unfurnished, and the area you are most interested in. This will help you to avoid being led on an exhausting tour of all the properties in an agent's portfolio.
Some of the newer apartments and houses have lifts, central heating (big plus – most houses have no insulation and get miserably chilly in winter without working radiators), air conditioning (we've managed without for nearly 20 years) and double glazing. A fireplace is another asset. Kids will love a pool of course, but brisk summer winds blow in the more north-westerly parts of the Cascais area: swims and alfresco dining will be a pleasure only if your garden is well-protected. Do listen out for excessive traffic noise – go back at night if you can.
And try to see that you are not too near one of the shanty towns or areas of council housing (eg Bairro do Rosário, Cobre). Cascais is an area of affluency next to poverty, and there are some who try to redress the balance by burgling the homes of the nearby well-off. On the whole, crime rates are low; violent incidents are particularly rare, whether in the home or outside it. Burglar alarms have yet to catch on, though many Portuguese homes have a dog as a deterrent – a job the dogs are liable to take as a licence to bark at all hours.
Nevertheless, gated communities are increasingly popular. The most mature of these is the Quinta da Marinha, on the western border of Cascais, with its own stables, gym, golf courses, etc and quiet, leafy lanes of (pricey) villas. New ones are sprouting up all over the place: to the west outside Malveira da Serra and to the north at Beloura I and II, Quinta da Patino and Penha Longa (note at the latter the proximity of the car race track…). Most offer attractive landscaping, shared or private pools and, of course, security.
However, more charming are the heart of old Cascais or the 1920s villas of Estoril, with bags of style and quirky details. Do all the expats live in Cascais? Well, they may seem to, but the truth is that they don't. Both Cascais and Estoril offer a resort-type lifestyle. You'll find lots of info about them on the web as they are popular holiday destinations. There are great beaches, sports facitilies including golf and gyms, parks and playgrounds, good shopping, restaurants and nightlife, and a fairly extensive public transport network.
Note that you may have to put up with drafts, quirky wiring and old-fashioned kitchens. Almost any property over 15 years old, but under 80, will share the above downsides, without the charm. Think excessive tiling, aluminium-framed windows and humid rooms. In their favour, they were built at a time when land prices were lower and are more likely to have a decent sized garden than today's handkerchief lawns. All houses have shutters or blinds – closed during most of the day to keep out the glare of the sun.
There are some great houses and flats for rent - well decorated and furnished, bright and sunny, warm in winter as well as cool in summer, and surrounded by shady gardens complete with pool. And lots of reasonable ones - in safe neighbourhoods, with utilities that function well. Estate agents and landlords are used to dealing with foreigners, and are almost always welcoming and helpful. Because so many expat families do live here, despite the commute to school and work, weekend play dates and birthday parties are likely to be nearby - not to mention the coffee mornings and other social activities organised by and for mothers during school hours.
Apart from the above, the areas most popular with expats are Birre, its pastel-coloured, older villas anchored oddly by a McDonalds, popular because of its quiet roads and generous plot sizes; and neighbouring Areia, just steps away from the Atlantic. The best apartments are along the Avenida 25 Abril in town, at Costa da Guia, and in the nearby seaside resort of Monte Estoril. For a more rustic feel, try the villages running north along the cliffs from Charneca to Azoia (and further if drive times are not an issue) for great sea views on one side and rugged hills on the other.
Expect to pay upwards of 2,000 euros per month for the more sought after properties. It is worth trying to bargain, though landlords can be surprisingly stubborn about waiting for the price they want. Once you sign the contract (prepared by the agent), you will be asked for three months rent in advance – the first month, the last and one month's deposit. Most landlords will also require a fiador, a local guarantor in case a tenant falls behind with rent payments, though this shouldn’t be an issue if you're here with a big corporation.
But the towns closer to Lisbon are a viable alternative, particularly if you don't want to live in an expat "ghetto". Towns like Carcavelos, Oeiras and Paço de Arcos have expanded rapidly in the last decade or so. The newer neighbourhoods (eg those round St Dominic's School and the new IPS) are often dormitories for Lisbon commuters, but each has its bustling original centre as well.
With a bit of luck you will find a good flat or house at considerably less than Cascais prices, there will be a hole in wall shop down the road selling everything from salt cod to clothes pegs, and you'll be able to walk the children to school in the morning, or catch public transport. And after all, the train or the A5 motorway will take you quickly and easily to Cascais - or indeed to Lisbon. In fact, many foreigners live in the capital itself and love the combination of sophistication and slightly down-at-heel charm.
There are lots of properties for sale too, and mortgages for foreigners, if you are willing to brave the red tape. More of a worry is the fact that the market is currently over-supplied and the house may not hold its value.
The important thing is to "try before you buy" if you possibly can.Come and see the different neighbourhoods for yourself to catch their flavour and see what would suit you and your family best. There are also a number of online forums dedicated to helping (prospective) new-comers.For example, see www.portugalexpat.com.
In order to open a bank account you will first need a numero contribuente (fiscal number) from your local branch of the Finanças (Inland Revenue) – not as intimidating as it sounds, just be prepared to queue. The bank will also want proof of address (utility bill in your name, which may be tricky, or bring along your rental contract), or you will need a guarantor. Tellers sit at counters or desks, not behind bullet-proof glass, which is rather nice. Whether you are served with a smile entirely depends on the person, here as in the shops and at the utility companies and government bodies.
At most shops etc, payments are accepted by Multibanco (debit) or credit card and you can also use your Multibanco card to pay utility bills, charge your mobile phone, even buy train tickets, all free of surcharges. Some places will also accept cheques, though going overdrawn or bouncing cheques will get you blacklisted. If this happens you will be required to sort out the situation with the person or entity to whom you wrote the cheque and the Bank of Portugal will be informed.
Utilities, phone, internet
Water is metered – it's a precious commodity as it barely rains from May to October. It and other utilities are among the dearest in Europe. Houses will have a landline telephone service, but do apply for ADSL (broadband) for the internet – or use the cable that is installed by TVcabo for about 40 channels and pay-per-view. Satellite receivers are available at a price to receive the BBC and Sky. For mobile phones, there are four suppliers, all keen to lure customers with the latest handsets at subsidised prices. Shop around to find a deal to suit you (prepaid minutes are more expensive than contracts, but offer more flexibility).
Home repair, domestic staff
Once you've moved in, you'll probably be wanting someone to do a few odd jobs, add a lick of paint perhaps. (Though landlords are technically responsible for any work required on the outside, they can be surprisingly stubborn about this too. If you did not manage to persuade him to do it before you moved in, get it done yourself and try to deduct the amount off the rent.)
The best way to find repairmen, maids and gardeners is by word of mouth. Since the EU expansion, these men and women are as likely to be Romanian or Ukranian (or from the former colony of Brazil) as Portuguese. People looking for this kind of work also paste up their phone numbers at the entrance of the supermarkets most popular with expats (Sacolinha, VIP). Do get a reference.
Most won't expect you to sign an official contract and pay social security: you'll be paying cash. About 7 euros per hour seems to be the going rate at the moment. Traditionally, workers in Portugal receive the equivalent of an extra month's wages at the beginning of August and at Christmas. Try to agree about this – and holidays – before the person starts to work for you.
If you find a good maid, she will form an invaluable part of the family, even if they usually don't speak English. Most are great with kids, willing to help in the kitchen and follow your instructions. And they'll be in to receive the gas man (usually delivered in cylinders, though natural gas network currently being installed), the plumber, the electrician, or the grocery delivery. (Continente, a Portuguese chain of hypermarkets, offers online orders, and most others will deliver to your door what you've put in the trolley yourself.)
Raw ingredients here are excellent: fruit and veg, fresh fish, aisles full of olive oil and cheese. Organic and ready-prepared items are still in their infancy, but imported items (chocolates, dairy produce, Marmite, etc) are fairly easy to find (try the GB Store for elusive items). Traditional farmers' markets are held weekly in most towns and sell produce and flowers, and sometimes also an eclectic mix of cheap clothing made locally for international lables (particularly good for kids' stuff), pirated DVDs, and live chickens and rabbits.
Butchers can be a little intimidating, with their unusual cuts of meat, but there's always chicken breast or minced beef. Bakeries often offer great coffee (the waiters have to memorise a dozen kinds, from bica (expresso) to galão (milky coffee)), as well as good bread (mostly white) and interesting pastries (try a pastel de nata, a sort of crème brulee tart). If you love tea with milk, best to have it at home, made with bags brought from the UK.
Eating Out, Going Out
Portuguese people love to eat out at lunch or dinnertime and there are lots of restaurants to choose from, specialising in seafood and fish, or piri piri chicken, or rustic regional food. You will also find Brazilian grills, Michelin-starred French, sushi, pizza, chop suey and chicken tikka. While restaurants don’t open before 7 and don’t fill up till 9, children are welcomed and are quite as likely to stay out until midnight as the adults.
Village bars tend to be men-only affairs complete with TV showing the footie (a national obsession- in this case the kind played with a round ball but towns and cities will offer something more sophisticated, as well as discos and multiplex cinemas (everything is subtitled at the latter, except for children's films which are dubbed).
In Lisbon there is world-class classical music, jazz and performances by international stars on tour. English-language tours of musicals also sometimes make it to the big cities. For a really Portuguese evening out, try Fado music, the age-old lament of sailors' sweethearts and mothers.
Shopping is easy. Malls have sprouted outside every town and are open from 10 am till 11 or 12 at night. High street shops are more likely to close for lunch from 1 to 3, but almost all will be open six or seven days a week. Malls are busiest at weekends, when out-of-towners bring the whole family to browse and have a coffee.
If you are looking to send presents back home, there is fun pottery made for the tourist market, but also fine linens, Atlantis crystal and Vista Alegre porcelain. El Corte Ingles, the only department store in Portugal, has the best selection of top quality items. And for furniture, if your taste is not for heavily carved wood, there is always Ikea.
For fashion check out Spanish chains Zara and Mango. People pride themselves on their appearance: blow dries, manicures and waxing never went out of fashion here and are surprisingly affordable. The ubiquitous cobble stones murder high heels, but women wear them regardless. Children are particularly well turned out; neatly scrubbed, coiffed and shod.
Don't be surprised to be tutted at if your child sports a chocolate beard after eating an ice cream in public. Conversely, a pretty child will be universally admired and cooed over. Note that a well brought up person of any age would never be seen to be eating on the street, besides that would be bad for the digestion (another national obsession it seems).
Which brings us to healthcare. Private medical insurance is recommended to help defray the cost of seeing a private doctor and ensure you get medical attention promptly if something more serious occurs. There are several English-speaking doctors, dentists and practioners of alternative medicine in the area (eg British doctors at Clinica Médica Internacional de Cascais).
Hospital doctors and specialists are well-trained and almost all speak English, but state hospitals are under-funded and their services over-subscribed because the primary health care system does not work. Hospital emergency departments operate fairly well, particularly for pediatrics, but for routine treatments or scheduled operations, private medicine will probably serve you best.
As for getting around, public transport is reliable and cheap, but limited in range, and taxis are not as affordable as they once were: a car is recommended. If you are importing your car without the help of a relocation agent, contact the local automobile association, the ACP (www.acp.pt). They advise you on the bureaucracy involved and the documents required to drive here legally.
For a small fee they will inspect second-hand cars for soundness and reliability if you plan to buy; new cars are more expensive than in northern Europe because of high taxes. You wouldn’t know this from the amount of shiny new 4-by-4's hurtling round Cascais – cars are the number one status symbol after clothes, usually bought on credit – but in the countryside, venerable old Renaults and Opels rule.
Once on the road, knowledge of defensive driving, a satnav system [satellite navigation or GPS] and a pair of eyes in the back of your head will come in useful. The accident rate is one of the highest in Europe, thanks to speeding, reckless overtaking and poor signage. On the plus side, there is a network of modern motorways that will get you to from Lisbon to the Algarve in less than three hours (at legal speeds), and beyond to Seville in Spain in about five. Tolls are payable on most motorways: get a Via Verde box from toll operator Brisa in order to avoid queuing.
You can also use Via Verde to pay at Galp petrol stations and some carparks. Illegal parking is rife, despite intermittent car clamping/towing exercises by the police. If you get caught the fine is hefty (around 120 euros), as it is if you are caught speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or you do not have your papers.
Meeting People - Clubs, church, gyms
Though expat numbers are fairly low, meeting other foreigners is easy. Most international schools go out of their way to introduce parents to each other. Services in English are held at several churches and there are groups doing voluntary work. While there is no country club with club house as such, there are sporting associations, an English-language amateur theatre group, several choirs and golf galore (expect to pay anything from 50 to 150 euros for 18 holes).
There are several branches of Holmes Place gym, as well as more informal exercise and yoga classes aimed at expats. International Women in Portugal (www.iwponline.org) offers an invaluable range of activities, support and contacts. There is also an American Club and a British Chamber of Commerce which organise more business-orientated events.
Background, culture, travel
Portugal is very much a culture based on extended families, and meeting local people is easiest if it is connected with business or with your children's friends. Courtesy and personal contact are much appreciated. While most of the younger generation speaks good English, you will be thanked for trying a few words of Portuguese; there are language schools galore. (Not Spanish please, the language of its rather large neighbour.)
And remember to address anyone older than you as Senhor or Senhora – or Doctor and Doctora if they are professionals (everyone with a BA or higher degree is permitted to style themselves thus). Women will kiss once on both cheeks, men shake hands – and that counts for children too.
Prices for goods are high in Portugal and wages relatively low. This means men and women tend to work long hours (alleviated somewhat by umpteen bank holidays) in order to make ends meet. Meanwhile children are looked after by grand parents or at (play-)school from the age of four months when their mothers' maternity leave runs out.
After four o' clock there are homework clubs or activities (some, like reasonably priced horse-riding, tennis, ballet, are available in English too). Middle class children do not play in the street here. Not surprising given that drivers do not respect speed limits and stray dogs (usually harmless enough) trot about looking for scraps. And these are plentiful.
Rubbish dumping and fly tipping are endemic. You'll have to learn to look past the lixo (rubbish) to enjoy some of the country's most scenic spots. For such a small country (92,000 km2), it offers a variety of landscapes from fertile valleys between Lisbon and Oporto to mountains in the north east to the African-type plains of the Alentejo in the south.
There are churches, stately homes, Roman remains, cromlechs and dinosaur bones to explore – or send house guests to, if you need a break from friends and family making the most of cheap flights and your hospitality. And of course, the sandy beaches are wonderful. During the bathing season (May to the end of August) young and old come to swim, (wind- or kite-) surf or simply sunbathe and enjoy the cool breeze. Out of season, beaches tend to be near deserted – and make for great walking and sunset gazing.