Life in Portugal–Buying my Portuguese Dream House (Part 1)

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Editor’s Note:  The dream of buying an old house in the countryside for cheap and then remodeling it captured our man in Europe, Kurt Stewart, in 2020 just when Covid hit. He’d been living in a downtown apartment in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, and the lockdown had just been imposed. It seemed the right time for him and his wife to get out of Dodge, so they looked for and found an old fixer-upper and began their adventure in a little hamlet in the middle of Portugal’s central Dão wine region. Their goal was to establish a B&B in the heart of Portugal. This is part 1 of his two-part story.



      Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s epic 1982 film, tells the story of a would-be rubber baron, Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald, who is obsessed with the idea of building an opera house in a small Peruvian town near the Amazon basin in the early part of the 20th century. He dreams of bringing Enrico Caruso, the greatest opera singer of his time, to perform there for its christening. In order to realize his vision, Fitzgerald decides he must first make a fortune in the rubber trade. He eventually secures a parcel of land in an out-of-the-way corner of the jungle which is set between two rivers. One of these rivers is unnavigable due to its severe rapids, while the other would serve as the waterway for transporting his rubber to a warehouse downstream.

Poster from 1982 film Fitzcarraldo

He buys an enormous, 320-ton steamship for this purpose, which he names the Molly Aida, but in order to get the ship to the river where his rubber plantation is located, he has to face the Herculean task of bringing it overland, through the jungle and over a 40-degree mountain. The endeavor is so insane that the ship’s crew abandon Fitzgerald, but with the help of local natives, and using a primitive system of pulleys, he eventually manages to get the steamship to the river. To his horror, however, Fitzgerald watches the ship get carried away by the rapids after the chief of the tribe cuts the boat from its moorings as a sacrifice to the river gods.

I am Fitzgerald, and this 230-year old house is my Molly Aida. There is no opera house or Caruso at the end of my story, just a lot of jungle to get through and mountains to climb. My story, like so many others that tell of the beautiful madness that is the dream of owning an old, European stone house in the countryside, is one of Fitzcarraldo-ian obsession, of holding onto a dream.

I am part of a trend that started back in 2015 in Italy with the loudly announced selling off of houses and villas in the Italian countryside for one euro (about 1.13 USD). The so-called, “Casa 1 Euro” was an initiative by local city halls in towns across Italy to revitalize economies by bringing in people to take over abandoned properties and re-populate the towns.

Many of the homes that went on sale were bare-bones, dilapidated structures in need of a complete overhaul. But Americans and people all over the world jumped at the chance of owning a home in the picturesque Italian countryside. Their trials and tribulations after launching into this adventure have been well-documented in the New York Times and other publications, but the trend of owning a home such as these, accelerated by Covid and its constrictions, is now firmly established here in Europe.

Who wouldn’t want to own a European, centuries old house in the middle of a gorgeous wine region like I was pondering? Away from the cities, the congestion and during Covid, the constrictions, people have been scrambling to find alternatives in rural settings and are willing to forgo many of the comforts and commodities that living in urban centers afford.

Back to the jungle and that steamship. It is 2020, and my wife and I have just bought a very old, very stone house in the Portuguese countryside. We chose the province of Viseu in north-central Portugal for lots of reasons: the famous Douro and Dão wine regions are nearby, there are many hiking trails and national parks in the vicinity, the local cuisine is excellent, and the region is developing the potential for sustainable tourism that we wanted to be involved with.

 I wish I could say we got it for one euro – in fact we paid a little under the going price here in Portugal for a three-story, granite-block house with just over 1,000 square meters (about 10,700 square feet) of land and garden area. Although considerably more than one euro, the house, we felt, was a good buy.

And it had one major advantage: it was ready to live in from day one. Built on a foundation of granite stones, it had been standing in that location since 1793. There was no doubting its solidity. Subsequent owners had made alterations and additions over the centuries, but this place, we could see, had withstood the test of time.

 The previous owner had left in a hurry, it seemed, because there was all manner of furniture, from chests of drawers, mirrors, kitchen equipment, antique wooden settees, and 50’s era armchairs, to various garden tools left behind. Like many a new homeowner, we were a little nervous after the fact, with a few pangs of buyer’s remorse, but excited by all of the possibilities it gave for remaking the place in our image. We walked in on that first day, keys to our new home in hand, and uttered those four fatal words that would come back to haunt us: “It has great potential”.

End of part 1


Kurt Stewart is a writer, educator and entrepreneur who has been telling stories about the places he has lived and worked for more than 35 years.  

After leaving his native San Francisco in 1981, he began his writing career in Paris where he wrote feature articles for Paris Passion magazine and USA Today. He later moved to Portugal where he taught in the School of Film and Television at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Porto. He spent several years in Malaysia working with the Ministry of Education training teachers in the public schools. While there, he wrote travel stories for the Hawaii Reporter. His latest venture involves country living in the heart of Portugal’s still undiscovered central region.





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