“Let’s escape to Portugal for a few months,” hubby Steve suggested one fall day recently as we anticipated the inevitable long, cold, grey winter ahead of us in Toronto.
I did not need any convincing. We are two retirees who have always loved to travel. Needless to say, COVID-19 put an end to those halcyon carefree travel days, but as vaccination rates rose in 2021 and international borders started to open up again, the possibility of satisfying one’s wanderlust has become real once again (we are trying to ignore Omicron scares atm).
We have heard a lot about the beauty, warmth, and affordability of Portugal so it seemed like a great place to hang out in for a while. It also ranks as the third country in the world for percentage of population vaccinated against COVID at 89% (Canada stands at #10 with 82%). Portugal is known to have a very good public healthcare system so we feel very safe travelling there.
We set January 8, 2022, as our departure date, beginning our trip in the warmest part of Portugal and working our way north as the weather warms up.
Madeira Island is a small Portuguese island in the Atlantic ocean, just adjacent to Morocco. It is renowned for striking mountain vistas, epic hikes and Madeira wine. It has been called “The Hawaii of Europe” with an average January temperature of 18C/64F. This seems like an ideal spot to stay for our first month!
Then we will head mainland to “the Algarve”, the name given to the area on the southern coast of Portugal. The Algarve is filled with beaches, golf courses, seafood and quaint fishing villages. The biking is reputed to be phenomenal. The average temperature in February is 17C/63F. We chose the old town of Tavira to stay for the second month, because it looks gorgeous and it is a 30 minute drive to the Spanish border for day trips.
For our third and last month in Portugal we will head north to Lisbon which will enable us to take side trips to the beautiful coastal towns of Cascais and Porto, and to the vineyards of the Douro Valley. The average temperature in Lisbon in March is 18C/65F.
Here is our itinerary with links to our accommodations.
While doing research for this trip I learned that tourists are not allowed to stay in the Schengen zone of Europe for longer than 90 days because of the 1985 Schengen Agreement (click here for a list of these countries). Tourists who overstay the 90 days are subject to large fines, deportation and being banned from re-entering the Schengen area. Since Portugal and France are in the Schengen area we had some logistics to sort out to stay for 6 months. Tourists are allowed to leave the Schengen zone and return after 90 days, however, that did not suit us because we wanted to stay in Portugal and France.
(NOTE: An additional complication for some travellers is that some countries require a special Schengen visa to visit the Schengen zone countries. Thankfully, Canada and the US are not on this list.)
I discovered that it is relatively easy to get a ‘Visitor’ Long-Stay Visa (visa de long séjour visiteur or VLS-TS Visiteur) – scroll down to “Moving or Retiring to France Without Working”. This visa will enable us to extend our trip in France for up to a year. Other countries offer similar long-stay visas but they are more difficult to obtain. (More info on how to apply for a French long-stay visa can be found at the bottom of this blogpost.)*
Here is our itinerary for France with links to our accommodations:
We chose Montpellier because it is on the Mediterranean with beautiful beaches, great cycling, and a lively cultural and dining scene. The average temperature in April in Montpellier is 18C/65F.
Gordes is a medieval town that sits on a hilltop and is considered the one of most beautiful towns in Provence. It is situated in a rural area close to many other villages which are easily accessible by bike. The average temperature in May in Gordes is 23C/73F.
Bordeaux is on the west coast of France, surrounded by world famous vineyards and an hour’s drive to the Bay of Arcachon where you can stroll along some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and feast on oysters. The average temperature in June in Bordeaux is 24C/75F.
With our six month travel itinerary complete, we decided to try to rent out our downtown Toronto condo while we are gallivanting around Europe. We reached out to our phenomenal real estate agent, Danielle Desjardins who put together an MLS listing for us and within two days of the listing going live we found some wonderful tenants. Happily, the rental income will cover our accommodation costs for our trip to Europe. Everything is falling into place!
I hope you will follow us on our Portugal/France adventure which I will blog about here as often as I can. You can also follow us on Instagram at @SylSteveEurope. If you have any travel tips or favourite places in Portugal or France, please add them in the comments below!
XXOO Sylvia (and Steve)
*If you are planning a trip to Europe, please read below for more info about the Schengen zone, visas and visiting Portugal
- I had to do a ton of research to understand how the Schengen agreement and visas worked. In short, (from what I understand), your passport will be time-stamped upon your arrival in your first Schengen zone country. After that, your passport will not be examined again by border officials until you leave the Schengen zone by plane or enter a non-Schengen zone country (However, if you are flying within Europe you might have to show your passport before boarding a flight). The Schengen agreement makes it much easier to travel across Europe because it means that no border officials are required at borders separating Schengen zone countries.
- Note that you must apply for the visa while you are still in your home country and that you cannot apply for it more than three months before your arrival in France. This made the timing tricky because we had planned on being in Portugal for three months before our arrival in France. So on our visa application we said that we will be arriving in France three months before the actual date of our arrival in France (ie. We said we were going to arrive in France December 24, 2021 although we will not actually arrive in France until Mar. 31, 2022. Thus, the visa we received starts Dec. 24, 2021 and ends Dec. 24, 2022.).
- VFSglobal.com is a legitimate business that has been contracted by the governments of several countries to manage visa requests. Click here for VFS offices in Canada. Click here for VFS offices in the U.S. Click here for an agency in the U.K. that does similar work. Click here to find out how to apply for a French visa in other countries.
- I had a positive experience with VFS and we were successful at getting our visas 10 days after applying for them, but not all online reviews of VFS are positive.
- The cost of the visa application is about $46 CAD which is paid to VFS for their service. (The cost is the same for a 6 month and a 12 month visa.)
- You must book an appointment online with VFS when handing in your application package. The VFS consultant will determine if you have all of the necessary documentation. If you don’t, you will have to rebook your appointment and return with the proper documents.
- VFS will send your application package to the French embassy in your country along with your passport (in Canada, the French embassy is in Ottawa). So do not plan any cross-border travelling while you are waiting to get your passport back!
- When you book your appointment on the VFS website you can opt for an additional courier cost which will expedite delivery of your passport right to your home address. I do recommend this service, however, I read that if you pre-purchase this service on the website and then find out at the VFS office that your application package is incomplete, you will lose this money. It might be better to wait until the consultant at the VFS office has approved your documents while you are there and then ask if you can pay for the courier service on the spot.
- You do not have to show proof of a purchased plane ticket to France when you apply for a visa but you do have to provide proof of your accommodation in France for the entire duration of the visa that you applied for (6 months or 12 months), even if you do not plan on staying in France for the entire duration of your visa. Keep in mind that many websites like Booking.com, VRBO and Airbnb allow you to cancel your reservations within 48 hours of booking them. So you can make a reservation, make a copy of the confirmation email for your visa application package, then cancel your reservation. Or, you can do some “creative editing” of the dates on your reservations (captured with a screenshot) using Photoshop, Pixlr.com, Google Slides, or other photo-editing tools. I’m pretty certain that the French officials at the embassy do not contact your accommodation hosts to confirm the dates of your stay (they didn’t for me).
- I discovered that on Airbnb, many hosts offer substantial discounts for a 1 month stay, often matching the same price as 3 weeks. If you don’t see such an offer, ask the host. Also, if you book for a whole month, Airbnb’s automatic cancellation policy is “Strict”: ie, you will lose all your money if you cancel. Apparently, hosts cannot override this on their settings for a one month stay. However, most hosts will waive this strict fee if they have “Flexible, Moderate or Firm” on their listing. If you want to book for a month or more, ask the host via Airbnb messages if they would consider allowing a less strict cancellation fee. If they agree to it and you book it but then have to cancel, Airbnb will have to honour the full refund since they will have a record of your conversation with the host proving that they agreed to that arrangement.
- Make sure that your full name and the full name(s) of anyone else travelling with you (who is applying for the visa) are indicated as guests on the accommodation confirmation invoices that you include in the application package.
- Use this checklist to make sure that you have all the documents necessary for your visa application package. Make sure to photocopy everything before you get to the VFS office. They do have a photocopier, but they will charge you $1 for every page that you need to photocopy.
- When you get your passport back you will find the visa glued onto a blank page in your passport if your application is approved.
- You must register your visa with the French Immigration and Citizenship Office (Office français de l’immigration et de l’intégration – OFII) within three months of arriving in France. This will cost an extra 200 euros which goes to the French government. Click here to validate your visa once you have arrived in France. Click here for more important info about the validation process.
- I do recommend that you book your return flight home before you land in Europe. Most border officials will ask to see this.
- To make your life easier, it might be best to start your trip in France, and then travel around Europe once you register your visa with OFII and have your appointment with them (see #13 above). This will give you a full 6 months to a year (depending on the duration of your visa) to travel around Europe, even outside of France (thanks to the Schengen zone and lack of border control). In theory, your visa is for travel within France but no one will know where and when you have travelled outside of France. As long as you return to France and leave before your visa runs out you should be fine.
- If you travel somewhere else before you arrive in France (like we will), it is critical that you get your passport time stamped by a customs official as soon as you arrive in France so that your 90 days don’t keep on accumulating from the first time you arrived in the Schengen zone (for us, in Portugal). This should be easy to do if you arrive in an airport in France. Otherwise you will have to go to the regional border police office to do this.
- As you can imagine, the complicated process of applying for a visa can make it very challenging for travellers who want to keep their travel plans fluid. Keep in mind that once you get your visa, you are free to cancel all your pre-set travel plans.
(A huge “Merci” to Zoe Smith from frenchentree.com for her patience with me and answering many questions about the Schengen zone and French Long-Stay Visitor’s visa. Search for “French visa” on her website for many relevant blogposts).
If travelling to Portugal and Madeira:
- Click here for important travel pre-requisites for travel to Portugal. Note that as of today’s date, you must have proof of a negative COVID-19 rapid antigen test taken within 48hrs of your flight departure to Portugal.
- Fill out this Passenger Locator Form 4 days or less before arriving in Portugal (once you know your seat number if flying). You will get a QR code as soon as you submit the form but at the airport you need to show the full pdf from your email that you will receive from “firstname.lastname@example.org” with “Passenger locator form” in the subject line. Take a screenshot of this pdf in case you can’t access your email at the airport. The code to access the pdf is your passport number.
- Fill out this form if you are going to Madeira after you get your negative Rapid Antigen test result. Take a screenshot of the QR code you get once you submit. You need to show this QR code when you arrive at the Funchal airport.
- Algarveaddicts.com is a website run by South African expat Nick Robinson who has made Portugal his permanent home. He has loads of great tips and advice about travelling and relocating to Portugal. Be sure to sign up for his email list and subscribe to his YouTube channel.
- Danish couple Amalie and Joen live in Madeira and have a wonderful series of vlogs about Portugal and Madeira, The Algarve and Lisbon.
- Hit The Road Madeira Vlog and Insta
- Journeyera.com: Lots of info on hiking in Madeira
- WalkMe Madeira app: $6 but worth it.
- Webcams to see weather in Madeira (good for planning hikes).