Dream house for sale: a glimpse in the real estate of returnees in Northern Portugal

This winter, I received a beautiful book entitled Dream Houses, by Roselyne de Villanova, Carolina Leite & Isabel Raposo (1994).

This was a great preview before I decided to spend a long week-end doing fieldwork in the north. I felt ready to identify the houses built by returnees from the 1980s on, houses that seemed to have upset many. In fact, built based on a French-style construction at the outskirts of the villages, these houses were accused of ruining the landscape. 

With this in mind, on a Friday morning beginning of February, I drove out of Lisbon towards Tras-os-Montes. After Mirandela, I left the highway in direction of Vinhais. I passed a beautiful countryside, green and pampered. However, throughout the villages, I was amazed by the amount of houses, including the immigrants’ houses, which looked unfinished, closed or abandoned… some had a sign VENDE hanging. For instance, Mouca looked like a beautiful place, but on Wikipedia, you could read that residents dropped from 800 to 260 residents in the last sixty years. And many houses were closed.

I finally arrived in Vinhais. There, the town was packed by visitors to the Feira do Fumeiro, a festival organised every year for 39 years to promote locally-made Cinzento pork cold cuts. Below are pictures of the stands, of a real estate agency promoting Vinhais (buy a house and make your own fumeiro!)… Wandering around, I met with the owner of the Maria Gins winery. When asked where the name was from, she explained that the name is a tribute to the village where her and her mother were born, which is today completely abandoned!

Later on, I drove through the Montesinho Park to the village where I had booked a room. The first village I crossed while in the park, Espinhosela, was absolutely empty. It was quite spooky to cross a place without lights on, cars parked or any perceived movements. The second one, Terroso, had a bit more life. I could see lights, and cars. Finally, where we booked a room, the two rural lodgings in the centre of the village constituted the main activity! After chatting with the host, I learnt that right down the lodging were three inhabited houses… by returnees who came back from France after they retired.

The village, which hosted 300 residents in the 1960s, counts around 60 now. One of the returnees, whom I met the day after I arrived, says that many come during the week-end  after their week work in Bragança (or they come for the holidays for the ones in France). In general, it seems that returnees from France and Germany are the ones sustaining the village.

There is no café or market here. If I want to have breakfast or dinner, I have to go to the next village.

On Saturday, I go to Vinhais. I walk through the old part of town, where there are abandoned houses, some already rehabilitated, a little chapel, the museum of the biological park, the walls… and in general, a lot of VENDE signs hanging outside windows. Commerces in the town include several bakeries and snacks, a post, several shops (including a Chinese bazar), a family-owned supermarket and some stores selling clothes or equipment.

On Sunday, I go east of Bragança, towards Parada, Coelhoso and Vinhas. A local leader I met thinks that the main problem is the fact that the youth leave, particularly medical professionals, to the rest of Europe. He forecasts that Portugal will lose a million more in the next decade. However, he agrees that the presence of returnees permits that some villages won’t be completely abandoned.

I leave Tras-os-Montes this Sunday evening, crossing some more villages before encountering the highway that brings me back to Lisbon. Some minutes before the highway, I see Café Paris in the small village of Vinhas! It is all very quiet and it seems that most of these areas will stay rather empty… at least until the summer comes.


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