Portugal: It’s not Spain

Irish people should be well aware that we’re not the same as our near neighbours across the water. No were not British. Yes, we speak English. No, we don’t have pounds. Yes, we do follow English football teams. No, we don’t all speak cockney.

So, Portugal and Spain are kind of the same. Ear neighbours with lots in common but a lot really different. Yet most people probably know the bigger neighbour and would lump all people living the Iberian Peninsula together. Big mistake.

So, what do you think of when I say Portugal?

Holidays in the Algarve. Jose Mourinho. Cristiano Ronaldo. Eusebio. Lisbon. Economic crisis. Sardines. Brazil. Lots of people called Rui or Vítor. Fatima. Vasco do Gama.

Yet we think of Portugal as just another part of Spain, just with a different flag, language and time zone. We’ll I’ve only been there 4 times versus over 30 times in Spain, but I really do like Portugal. Here are my reasons why.

  1. Food
  2. History
  3. People
  4. Public transport
  5. Language


Grilled sardines, all sorts of cod, fresh fish & vegetables, tender steaks, amazing patisseries with all sorts of “dolces” – pastels do nata being the most famous. Small bars and cafes serve food, beer, wine and some sweet treats. Most restaurants are small but have great value and usually good quality food. Everything is cooked fresh – so for EUR5 you can get a “prato do dia” of soup, cod with potatoes, veg, wine and coffee. Expect to pay EUR5-EUR12 for this.

In Spain, you wouldn’t get it for such low prices. I also like that in Portugal they don’t really do tapas but when you do order, the portion sizes are really big. Lots of meals are for “2 pessoas” so you share – you can feed 4 with it! A bottle of beer (Sagres or SuperBock) usually costs EUR1. A coffee about EUR0.70.


Visit Lisbon or Porto and immediate you get a sense of power and wealth of the Portuguese empire. Remember school history class learning about the medieval explorers who ventured south, “discovering” lots of the African coat (places like Angola, Cape Verde were Portuguese colonies)? Then explorers like Vasco do Gama made it around the Cape of Good Hope to discover Mozambique and left their mark on places like Goa in India or Macau in China. Even East Timor was Portuguese. And not to mention Brazil.

Anyway, as you wander around the old towns of Lisbon and Porto you appreciate this rich imperial heritage. Christopher Columbus discovered America, but Lisbon was the port he first returned to.

You’ll also find amazing pre-historic/Palaeolithic history – with “castro” ruins in the north. There are amazing Roman remains, including lots of the towns on the Camino Portugues. Churches are also stunning, from the cathedrals with decorative altars and stain glass windows, to the tiny “igrexas” you find every 500m it seems. You’ll also see “azulejos” everywhere – painted ceramic tiles, usually blue. They are beautiful and unique to Portugal.

Recent history is also of interest – they lived under a dictatorship until very recently – 1974. 42 years ago, there was revolution with many people killed. A young democracy if you think Ireland has already celebrated 100 years since the 1916 Rebellion.


Portuguese people are nice. Boisterous conversations amongst old people in café are common, just like in Spain. The people are casual, it’s not as fancy or trendy as other places. It feels more traditional and Catholic in the way people dress, the fact shops close on Sunday, the types of jobs people do, the un(der)employment. People are not overtly friendly to tourists, but will try help a little. English is spoken by younger people – more than Spanish I found.

Public transport

It’s cheap and gets you places. the cities have good metros. They also have trams and funiculars to get you up those hilly climbs. Urban buses are cheap but what I liked most was the train on the northern coast. We used it a few times on short trips – the single line that goes from Vigo to Porto. Little towns like Caminha are connected with my next stop of Vila Praia do Ancora in 8 minutes. Only EUR1.55. Next day we took a 15-min journey south to Viana do Castelo – again easy to use and a train every 1-2 hours. The tracks go through the middle of these towns, so really handy.


My Portuguese is limited but I get by with Spanish. If I speak, they understand as the words are usually very similar. It’s just the pronunciation or emphasis that differs. I’m learning words and grammar every day. “Eu” instead of “yo”. The pronouns are o, a, os, as. The days of the week are funny – Monday is “segunda-feira”, Tuesday is “tercera-feira.” That takes a while to figure out.

I can read the paper fine. Understanding is harder – the accent is quite strong. In Spanish, it’s easier as you say what you see – pronouncing phonetically. But Portuguese has more sounds and emphasis. I’d like to learn the basic verbs and conjugations as I think I could pretty quickly pick up basic conversation, which would be handy. A winter project perhaps.

Here are some examples:

  • Bom dia = buenas dias
  • Obrigada = gracias
  • Muito bem/bo = muy bien/Bueno
  • Sim/Nao = si/no
  • A Cozinha = la cocina
  • Cerveja = cerveza
  • Bacahlau = bacalao
  • Pao = Pan
  • Café com leite = café con leche
  • Estacao = estacion
  • Prato do dia = plato del dia

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