Best of Both Worlds, Living Part-Time in Spain
By Glynna Prentice
Living part-time in Europe can be the best of both worlds: You can experience life there like a local…but without the responsibilities (like getting residence visas) of full-time life. And Spain offers some of the best part-time living in Europe…
Spain is one of Europeans’ favorite “beach destinations.” If you go in summer you’ll find most of the coast heaving with tourists. One solution: Head to the coast off season.
Spring is shoulder season, so rates haven’t yet spiked to their summer levels. And on the southern Spanish coast, daytime temperatures in spring can be sunny and in the 70s F—still chilly for swimming, but pleasant for strolling and sitting at sidewalk cafés. April/May is also good for avoiding beach crowds. In fact, these months provide some of the best weather throughout the country.
Cool northern provinces like Navarre, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, and the Basque country offer forests, mountains, friendly locals, and food to die for. My favorites include little Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the Basque country, and Pamplona, in Navarre (although avoid the San Fermín festival, with its famous running of the bulls, in early July).
Travel by rail in Spain is fast and efficient to large and medium-sized cities. Cost can depend on the time of day, so check Renfe.com for schedules and prices. Look out for special fares…and if you’re aged 60 or older, get yourself a Tarjeta Dorada. This train discount card can save you up to 40% off train fares. The card costs €6 (about $7.38) and even tourists qualify for it.
Many regional bus companies also offer fare discounts to seniors, so be sure to ask about them before you buy your ticket. You usually must just show a passport or other official ID.
Car rentals and gas tend to be expensive in Spain. So if you want a car (useful for exploring the countryside), book the rental while still “back home.” And plan your trip carefully to minimize the amount of time you’ll need it.
Following Spanish eating habits will also keep costs down. Lunch is the big meal of the day, and the lunch special, or menú del día, is a great bargain. For anywhere from €9 to €16 (about $11 to $20), you’ll get two to three courses, plus a beverage (which can often be beer or wine). Make that your big meal out (or prepare it in your rental), and follow it with a light dinner or tapas.
If the idea of green, northern Spain appeals, consider basing yourself in Vitoria-Gasteiz. This little city (population about 250,000) has a lovely, walled Old Town whose narrow streets invite exploration.
Museums, bars, restaurants, cathedrals, and enticing shops are at every turn. (Try the local Rioja wine—the Rioja Alavesa—and some scrumptious tapas after a day exploring. The Basques are known for their fine cooking, and you can’t go wrong with Bar Tolono, right in the Old Town.) On the city outskirts are wineries and Neolithic and Iron Age ruins to explore, as well, so there’s plenty to do.
Vitoria consistently ranks as one of Spain’s top cities for quality of life, and it was the European Green Capital of 2012 (thanks to all its green space), so you’ll enjoy fresh mountain air, even in the heart of town. And with a little negotiating, for much of the year you can rent a vacation apartment from about $800 a month. (Check out sample listings on Airbnb.com and TripAdvisor.com.)
For day trips, check out Bilbao and Pamplona—each is about an hour away from Vitoria by car, or less than two by bus. Or better yet, stay for a weekend—both cities are worth it.
Portugal: Beach, Big City, or Even Both
By Tricia Pimental
Mention Portugal and you may think of the Age of Discovery, or an endless coastline of craggy Atlantic beaches. Most people think, “Romantic, but probably beyond my budget.” Not so. Start in Lisbon to begin your love affair with Portugal—because that’s exactly what it will be.
On arrival, you’ll find convenient ground transportation. Taxis line up at the airport and charge an initial start rate of about $4. The 25-minute, 6.5-mile drive to town runs about $15.
“We walk everywhere,” Lisbon expat Molly Ashby says. “All we need for daily living is within easy reach. On these everyday strolls, we’re treated to the aesthetic pleasure of viewing charming historic architecture and experiencing the culinary delights of fresh-baked pastries and sweet, strong coffee at cafés on every corner.”
Alabama native and expat Annette Ford Rio is the founder of the expat organization Americans Living in Portugal. She loves other options for seeing the city. “The trains, trams, and ferries…the public transportation system is great.” Purchase a Lisboa Card and you’ll not only be able to ride Lisbon’s transport network everywhere, but also gain free access to museums, palaces, and other sites of interest.
The dining-out spectrum in Lisbon is wide. You can spend up to $60 a person for dinner for two at Tasca da Esquina, a tapas-style restaurant with creative offerings, where if you’re feeling adventurous, you can sample an octopus, sweet potato, and peppermint platter ($13). See: Tascadaesquina.com.
But why not head to the Campo de Ourique market, where the locals shop? Pick up fresh fish and meats, vegetables, fruit, and baked goods, then prepare simple meals in your rental. Or enjoy a full meal at the market, with wine, for about $12. See: Mercadodecampodeourique.pt.
Consider basing yourself in Almada. It’s 30 minutes by bus to Cais do Sodré train station in Lisbon. Or if you’ve rented a car, it’s just eight miles across the 25 de Abril Bridge to the popular Belém district. Belém is home to the Tower of the same name, the Maritime Museum, and the medieval Jerónimos Monastery, among other attractions.
Although day trips are easy, Almada has its own low-key charms. One is the Sanctuary of Christ the King monument at the 25 de Abril Bridge. Inspired by the Christ the Redeemer monument in Rio de Janeiro, it offers arguably the finest view of the city of Lisbon. Pay $6 to take the elevator up, snap your photos, sip a beverage in the café, and visit the chapel for free.
Then head to Parque da Paz. Here you can picnic under the trees and relax by the lake, watching the ducks and geese, or stay in shape on the fitness track and hiking trails. There’s also a fine kiosk serving up cold caipirinhas, the classic Brazilian cocktail.
For seafaring sorts, the Fragata Dom Fernando II e Gloria, Portugal’s last sail-powered ship, is in nearby Cacilhas; it’s conveniently situated next to the tram, bus, and ferry terminal.
Adults pay $5 (those over 65, half price) to climb aboard and dream of life on the high seas.
If a vacation just isn’t complete without shopping, check out Almada Forum. Browse in H&M and Zara, pick up groceries at Hipermercado Jumbo, or choose from the food court selections for takeout. There’s even a beauty salon and a cineplex showing movies in English with Portuguese subtitles. Booking well in advance, you can find apartment rentals from about $900 a month. See: Idealista.pt/en/arrendar-casas/almada or take the option of a double room in a shared apartment for $810. See: Airbnb.com.
Editor’s Note: Discover more of what Europe has to offer this fall by joining us on our first-ever Portugal and Spain tour. On this 10-day trip, as well as visiting Portugal and Spain’s expat hotspots, you’ll also meet with our local experts and other expats on the ground who will be on hand to share their experiences and recommendations for the best ways to retire comfortably for less in Portugal and in Spain. We’re putting the final touches on this program but if you’re interested in exploring firsthand the best-value places to live and retire in Western Europe, put your name on this special list and as soon as we have the full details, including how and where to register for this trip, we’ll email them to you.