It was 18 months ago that we were last in Portugal. Since then, we’ve had to learn to live with this strange new life of lockdowns, masks, vaccines and the dance of social distancing.
Which made the idea of getting on a plane to come back to Portugal both liberating and nerve-wracking.
But at the beginning of September we finally returned. And it is so, so, so good to be back.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s not the same. People have died. Businesses have closed. Some rules and restrictions are still in place. On the other hand…it’s still Portugal.
Back in 2020 (seems a lifetime ago), we’d been anticipating Pedal Portugal’s busiest year. Six tours were planned, all fully booked, with riders coming from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.
Then Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We finished the first tour just in time. The pandemic was on the radar but much of the world was still in denial. Within days of our tour finishing, though, the Portuguese government began bringing in a raft of restrictions. International travel began to shut down. Many of our riders had to abandon plans for further travel and hastily rebook flights home.
After cancelling our other spring tours, we brought our own flights forward and flew home. I still remember the Portuguese taxi driver apologising for wearing a mask and not being allowed to put our luggage in the car. And I remember the contrast with the taxi driver back in England, who thought it was a lot of fuss about nothing and took zero precautions.
As 2020 wore on and global infection rates began to rise, all our planned cycle tours had to be cancelled. Things started to look up again as 2021 approached. New tours were pencilled in. And cancelled. Hopes raised. Hopes dashed.
But although none of this year’s tours were happening, we still had flights booked to Portugal. Then, out of the blue, Carolyn got a message from the English school in Viseu where we’d worked many years earlier. A teacher was away on maternity leave and they needed someone to cover lessons from the start of term until mid-November.
It was a bizarre coincidence. There didn’t seem any good reason to say no. We were desperate to come to Portugal but, with no cycle tours to give us an income, travelling around for a couple of months might be hard to justify. So, we said yes and began – nervously – to plan.
Before we left, there was a lot to think about. The normal rigmarole of things like passports, boarding cards and insurance. We also had to factor in vaccination certificates, passenger locator forms and pre-flight Covid tests.
Plus, of course, the fear there’d be some travel requirement we’d overlooked. (We didn’t even want to think about the possibility of the Covid test coming back positive!)
In many ways, the preparations were the worst part. There’s a lot of information out there online about the rules and restrictions. But everything seems to be couched in caveats and warnings that things can change without warning.
But in the end it was all as straightforward as anything is in this ‘new’ world. We took our pre-flight Covid tests on a Friday morning and dropped them off as instructed. Saturday afternoon we both got confirmation of negative results. The following day we arrived at the airport way ahead of time, assuming everything would take far longer than normal.
We’d already filled in our Portuguese passenger locator forms online and other then having to show our negative test results at check-in there was no extra bureaucracy. Our RyanAir flight was at least half-empty and on arrival at Faro we were among the first passengers to get to passport control. (After a couple of hours in uncomfortable seats, we like to stretch our legs and march fast through airports.)
An immigration officer demanded to see our vaccination certificates with our passports but seemed to hardly glance at them. Seconds later we were through. And back in Portugal.
The first thing that struck us was that almost everyone was wearing masks, inside and outside. The rules on mask-wearing changed a week after we arrived. It’s no longer obligatory to wear a mask outside if you can keep your distance from other people. But interestingly the change in rules has made hardly any difference. Many people still wear masks in all kinds of outside situations, even when not close to others.
We’ve spent most of the last couple of weeks travelling around, prior to Carolyn’s teaching stint. Checking into hotels, we’ve had to show vaccination certificates, although smaller guesthouses either don’t have to or aren’t following the same rules.
Everyone wears masks in shops. At cafes and restaurants, customers only remove them when sat down and eating or drinking. Most restaurants in Portugal haven’t insisted on anything else but two have asked to see vaccination certificates – one said we can eat outside on the terrace if we don’t have one but had to show a certificate to eat inside.
So, despite our nerves, getting here was simpler than we’d expected. And now we’re here in Portugal, we feel safer. The country had a terrible spike at the start of 2020 when its hospitals were at breaking point but cases are now way down.
There’s very little ‘anti-vax’ sentiment and 81% of the population are fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the world.
To us, some of the mask wearing might seem excessive. On the other hand, Portugal’s currently recording a little over 1,000 new infections per day. Compare that to the UK with only 65% fully vaccinated and more than 32,000 new cases per day. Maybe more significant are the hospitalisations – around 600 per day in Portugal and nearly 8,300 in the UK.
I’m not a mathmetician, but it seems to me that Portugal is currently doing much better at dealing with Covid. Taking into account the difference in population size (10.3 million compared to almost 67 million), by my calculation new infections here are less than a quarter of those in the UK, while hospitalisations are about half.
So, Portugal: sunshine, people, scenery, wine, food, culture…less Covid. Yes, we’re very happy to be back!