With the scope of this pandemic as a backdrop, my mind reels with ‘what ifs.’ ‘What if we had waited until Spring of this year to put our house on the market – which we initially discussed. What if we had delayed our move to Portugal by one month to make full use of the lease on our apartment in New Jersey after we sold our house – which we initially discussed. What would have happened if we had received our temporary residence visas and then not have been able to fly to Portugal? What if our car had been caught in customs during the pull back by the government? My mind reels with the potential scenarios that could have been.
Thankfully, the timing of all our prior actions were very good. Until now.
Our temporary residence visas were issued in late November 2019. This type of visa is only valid for 120 days, then a permanent residence visa must be obtained in order to stay in the country. When our temporary visas were issued by the government they also proactively scheduled our interviews with Serviço de Estrangeiros Fronteiras (SEF – Portuguese immigration) the entity that issues permanent residence visas. The date they selected was March 18, 2020, the last day our temporary visas would be valid. We have heard various reports that scheduling an appointment with SEF is a nightmare so we planned to keep it in order to complete the process.
Here’s the thing. The SEF office they selected was in Braga. Braga is north of Porto. We live just outside of Lisbon, four hours to the south. Knowing this didn’t phase us. We were kind of excited because it offered us a chance to see parts of the country we had always planned to see. We decided to make a little mini trip out of going. So, about a month ago, we made reservations at a 16th century B&B in the nearby town of Guimaraes that would allow us to bring Sweet Pea with us.
Enter COVID-19. As the date of our appointments approached, news reports were becoming increasingly alarming and we began to wonder what we should do. We watched local news reports and attempted to translate as much as we could to see if the government would close down SEF. We logged onto the SEF website (which is available in English), but there were no announcements about any planned closures. On March 16 we called SEF. They said they had not been told anything and to call the following night after 7PM to see if the appointments were still on the books. Unfortunately, due to the distance, the fact that we had Sweet Pea and no one to watch her, and the reservations we had made, we would need to drive up on that day. They told us that the President of Portugal was planning to move from a State of Alert to a State of Emergency on Wednesday, March 18. We reasoned that if he called a State of Emergency on Wednesday all government offices would be impacted beginning Thursday. We felt that if we missed the appointments it would be far worse for us, so we rolled the dice.
We packed, grabbed the pup, and jumped in the car. The day was beautiful. It was clear and warm. We took our time as we drove up. Portugal is really lovely so the drive was very pleasant. We arrived at Casa dos Pombais to learn we were the only guests (a blessing). The couple who owns the villa live on the upper floor. That meant we had the entire lower floor to ourselves. The villa was lovely. The gardens included lemon trees, orange trees, azaleas bushes, and camellia bushes so old they were basically trees, rose bushes, and many other flowering plants. It was obvious they were on the verge of blooming in just a few weeks. The grounds also included two ponds with a variety of birds including several species of ducks and 2 beautiful white swans! It looked like something out of a fairy tale.
So far so good. We settled in and then went out to explore the city. We were absolutely charmed by Guimaraes! It was settled in the 9th century and the city center became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Guimaraes is often referred to as the “birthplace of the Portuguese nationality” or “the cradle city” because it is widely believed that Portugal’s first King, Afonso Henriques, was born there. Even though nearly everything was closed, we spent some time wandering around. We explored the grounds of the 10th century castle, one of the best medieval examples in all of Europe, and the 15th century ducal palace next door that had a sign on the door saying they were closed due to the virus. We also found a statue of King Afonso Henriques.
Here are some pictures of the town. It wasn’t difficult to get them without people…it was eerily quiet.
We also stumbled upon the gorgeous Our Lady of Consolation church with the exquisite gardens leading up to it.
On Wednesday morning the 18th, we made the decision to head home after our meetings at SEF that afternoon even though we had reserved the villa for two nights. We informed our hosts and told them we would be happy to pay for both nights, but they were incredibly gracious and refused to accept our offer. We packed up and headed to Braga with the hope that we would be able to squeak by the impending State of Emergency announcement and secure our permanent residency visas.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. We found the SEF office with a note on the door saying they had closed the day before. Groan…we missed it by one day!! While we weren’t shocked, we were still disappointed. After the fact, we learned that the government had decreed that documents whose validity expired after March 9 would remain valid until June 30. So, I guess we are not illegal aliens for the time being.
While we didn’t secure our permanent residence visas as we had hoped, we did enjoy our brief trip to the north and will look forward to returning so we can really take in the sites these lovely cities have to offer. For now, we are back home and hunkered down like the rest of the world and doing our part to remain healthy and reduce risk. I know you are too. Please let me know what you are doing to keep busy.
From Portugal with love,