This US couple bought a rundown farmhouse in Portugal. Here’s what happened next

They were originally looking for a vacation home, but Alan Andrew, originally from Pennsylvania, and his Belgian husband Vincent Proost found themselves relocating to Portugal full time after purchasing an abandoned farmhouse in the region of Alentejo.

The couple, who met on a blind date in London in 2006, had been living in the UK together for around two decades when they began searching for a new home in Europe.

While neither had spent much time in Portugal previously, Proost, an interior designer, felt it might be the right place for them and suggested that they spend some time exploring the country together.

After traveling around the country for a few months, they fell in love with Alentejo, which is situated in southern Portugal, around 190 kilometers (118 miles) from capital Lisbon, and decided to look for a house there.

Adventurous project

“Every direction has a beautiful view,” adds Andrew, who works as an educational psychologist. “For me, it’s like a blend of the African Savanna and Tuscany.”

They had viewed around 80 properties in the area, before they came across a crumbling farmhouse located in the rural village of Figueira e Barros.

But it soon became clear that it would be impossible to salvage the house, and this was about to become a much bigger project than they’d intended.

“It had been sort of left for about 50 years,” explains Andrew. “So the roof was completely gone.

“It was just crumbling. We knew it was going to have to be a build from the ground up.”

They realized that they’d have to move to Portugal permanently in order to immerse themselves in the build, and fully commit to running a farm.

“It suddenly became a project,” says Proost. “And I was like, ‘Okay, let’s move.’ And then we did.

“We built the house from scratch just before the pandemic, which was quite an adventure.”

After purchasing the property in the summer of 2019, they officially relocated to Portugal, renting a house nearby while finalizing the sale and going through the process of obtaining residency.

The pair also started meeting with architects and builders to put together plans for their new home before beginning the build.

They decided to first renovate the barn on the property into a “pool house” so that they could live there while work was taking place.

New beginnings

But just as things began to get underway, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Countless countries around the world, including Portugal, went into lockdown, and the couple, who had been asked to move out of their rented home, found themselves with nowhere to go.

“All the hotels were closed,” explains Proost. “So we had to sleep in a tent for two weeks.”

They were eventually able to stay in the barn, albeit without electricity initially, while waiting for the renovation work to commence.

Thankfully, the barn was completed within a few months and they continued to live there while work on the main house took place. The original farmhouse was knocked down in September 2020.

“For a long time, we really couldn’t leave our village area,” says Andrew. “And we had just moved here, so we didn’t know anyone.

“It was pretty much the two of us 24/7 on the farm. In some ways it was great, because we had a lot of work to do in the fields.”

The couple’s land encompasses 175 acres and includes around 1,500 olive trees, which needed to be pruned. They also had animals to attend to.

“It’s such a big outdoor space,” says Andrew. “It’s always socially-distanced here.”

Construction work on their house slowed down significantly due to the Covid restrictions, and the couple were forced to adjust their expectations.

“The build was supposed to last a year,” says Proost. “We just finished, which is almost three years. So it was a bit longer than originally planned.”

Modern farmhouse

The house, which they’ve named Casa Baio, has a solar water heating system and is also fitted with solar electricity panels.

“It’s very well insulated,” adds Andrew. “In the old traditional houses, the windows are tiny because of the weather and now because of technology, we’re able to put in bigger windows.”

They had to adhere to various regulations and liaise with local authorities to ensure that the house met the specified requirements, particularly with regards to height and building locations.

“We couldn’t build more than two floors,” explains Proost.

Although they describe Casa Baio as a “modern farmhouse,” they say they’ve tried to incorporate as many traditional local materials, including handmade terracotta tiles, along with floor tiles made from local marble, as possible.

The main house has five bedrooms and an outdoor swimming pool, while the pool house has a studio bedroom with a kitchenette.

They declined to disclose the amount they spent on the build.

Proost says his favorite thing about the house, which measures around 800 square meters, is the views.

“We bought the property for the views and the quietness and tranquility,” he says, adding that he particularly enjoys looking out at the sunsets from their huge windows.

“It’s one floor, so there’s no upstairs. Everything is quite flat. And it’s brown. It blends in with the lands. You don’t see it.”

The only part of the original house that could be saved was the gate.

Now happily settled in Portugal, the couple spend much of their spare time tending to their animals, including chickens and sheep, and working on their olive fields.

“Neither of us had any clue about the farming aspect at all,” adds Andrew. “So we were lucky that we met a Portuguese oil farmer, who’s been a kind of a mentor to teach us how to do it.”

They also produce their own organic oil, which has won prizes in various competitions, including the London International Olive Oil Competitions.

Andrew and Proost say they try to use regenerative organic practices on the farm, which is certified organic.

“All that we had to learn on the spot,” says Andrew. “We had no clue. It’s been a great adventure in that way.

“Just kind of learning something completely new. You couldn’t get any different from London. It’s the direct opposite.”

Change of pace

Now their house is complete and they’ve gotten to know the area, the pair feel very much at home in Figueira e Barros, and have been welcomed with open arms by the locals.

“The Portuguese are extremely open,” says Andrew. “Two gay men living in a farm in rural Portugal – not a problem.

“They seem to really want people to come here. They appreciate people who are investing in the country and trying to take care of these old farms that are just kind of going to ruin.”

They’re currently running Casa Baio as a bed and breakfast, with four of their en suite bedrooms available to book for a two-night stay minimum.

They pair have become friends with many locals – Andrew is a member of the local running club – as well as other expats who’ve relocated to Portugal.

“As soon as we bought the place, all the neighbors invited us for dinner,” says Proost. “The people are just wonderful.”

However, they admit that it’s taken some time to adjust to the change of pace, explaining that things seem to move much slower in the Alentejo region.

“Everyone has time here,” says Andrew. “If you’re in the supermarket and you’re standing in line, it’s quite usual for the cashier to have a 10-minute conversation with the person in front of you – and no one minds – you just kind of wait in line. That’s just the way it is.”

The nearest city, Estremoz, is 30 minutes or so away by car.

Portugal has become a popular destination for US citizens looking for a new life in recent years.

According to government data, the number of Americans living in Portugal increased 45% in 2021 from the previous year.

Andrew and Proost say they’ve definitely noticed an increase in the amount of people from the US relocating to Portugal, particularly in Alentejo.

“It’s a region that’s not so discovered, but it’s becoming [more] discovered now,” says Andrew.

“There are a lot of Americans who are coming to this area from the west coast of California, because it’s a very similar climate to California.

He goes on to point out that there was very little development in the region for years, so “there are no overly developed areas.”

“It was probably the poorest region in Portugal for a long time, and because of that, there was no development happening,” he adds. “It’s just really authentic Portuguese villages.”

Andrew explains that Portugal’s “golden visa” system, a five-year residence by investment program aimed at non-EU nationals, has “attracted a lot of people.”

“A lot of them came initially to Porto or Lisbon, the big cities,” he explains. “But they’ve stopped the golden visa in those places, because it was getting too out of hand.

“So now, people are coming more towards the interior of the country.”

Aside from the climate, he believes that the relatively low crime rate in the country – Prime Minister Antonio Costa has described Portugal as “one of the safest countries in the world,” the “affordable” cost of living and the friendliness of the people, are its biggest selling points.

“The people really make the place,” says Andrew. “It’s a very welcoming place. And I think because the population of the country is declining, they’re really pro-immigration.

Big changes

“There are so many great things about Portugal. They [the Portuguese] don’t really sell it at all. They’re very humble.”

While the couple had hoped to remain living in their new home for the foreseeable future, they recently received some news that has forced them to rethink things completely.

Andrew has been diagnosed with ARVD/C, a rare heart disease that can increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest or death.

Due to the nature of his condition, he’s had to limit the level of physical activity he participates in, which rules him out for much of the manual work needed to keep their farm running.

“We’re going to put the house on the market,” Andrew explains. “Because it’s too much.

“I could hire someone to do the work, but I’m not the kind of person who wants to sit around telling people what to do. I want to actually be doing the work.

“It’s one of those things. I’ve never had any health issues. And then suddenly… It’s really changing everything.”

Although they’re undeniably disappointed at the prospect of having to sell up and abandon the life they’ve cultivated in Portugal, both say they have absolutely no regrets, and are looking forward to their next adventure.

The couple are constantly asked for advice from other travelers who are keen to start a new life in either Portugal, or another country, and say they always encourage people to take the leap.

“Go for it,” says Andrew. “Life is short, we don’t know what’s going to happen around the corner.

“But also have your eyes open. And when you go into a new place, don’t expect things to be the way they were in the US, or wherever you’re coming from.

“Be open to the differences. Try to find ways of adapting and not expecting things to adapt to you. Because why should they?”

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