Portugal and Spain, So What’s the Difference?

Portugal Postcard Map

Just recently, John* a blogging pal of mine asked me what is the difference between Portugal and Spain.  It reminded me that I once wrote a post on the very subject.  It was quite some while ago and I don’t believe anyone read it so I repeat it here again now.

On 13th February 1668 at the Treaty of Lisbon Spain finally recognised Portugal as a separate and independent state and since that time they have lived peacefully together as reluctant neighbours.

I have visited Portugal a number of times, in 1986 and 1994 to the Algarve, twice in 2008 to Viano de Castelo in the far north and twice again in 2009 to Porto.  I returned again in 2017.  Only on the final visit after a train journey through the centre did it really occur to me that although it shares the Iberian Peninsula with its larger neighbour, Portugal really isn’t Spain and on the flight home I was ashamed of my previous ignorance about the country.

I had always assumed that because of its geography that it must be a lot like Spain with perhaps a few minor differences, sherry and port for example, but I had come to understand that Portugal, its people and its culture and heritage is very, very different indeed.

So what are the differences then I hear you ask?  Observers point out that the Portuguese national character is more sentimental, ironic and mild and these characteristics are often held up as the total opposite of Castilian culture just as melancholic Fado music is in complete contrast to the high drama of the Flamenco.  As different as the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and the novels of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (header picture).

Fado or Flamenco

I have visited both Portugal and Spain several times and there are fundamental differences between the countries and the people that you perhaps wouldn’t expect between two such close neighbours but then again Spain itself is dramatically diverse with the people of Galicia for example having little in common with those from Andalusia or the people of the Basque Country sharing no characteristics with those from Extremadura.  In Portugal the people of the Algarve have little in common with the people of Porto.  Are we English anything like the Welsh?  Why then should Portugal be like Spain?

I feel the difference but cannot adequately explain it but I have found two pieces of work which might help.  These learned scholars have dealt with this question at length find both cultural and geographical factors at work.

Pierre Birot put it this way:

‘…thus, the typical characteristics that so gracefully distinguish the Portuguese soul from its peninsular neighbours, were able to ripen in the shelter of frontiers which are the oldest in Europe. On one side, a proud and exalted people (the Spaniards), ready for all kinds of sacrifice and for all the violent acts that inspire them to be concerned with their dignity; on the other hand a more melancholy and indecisive people (the Portuguese), more sensitive to the charm of women and children, possessing a real humanity in which one can recognize one of the most precious treasures of our old Europe.’ (Le Portugal; Etude de Geographie Regionale, 1950).

These two countries once ruled much of the World but their Empire building was in a different style, Portugal had Henry the Navigator a methodical explorer seeking out new trade routes with maps and charts and Spain had Conquistadors like Francisco Pizzaro swashbuckling their way through the New World with swords and gunpowder in search of gold.


Oliveira Martins, the Dean of Portuguese historians assessed the difference like this:

There is in the Portuguese genius something of the vague and fugitive that contrasts with the Castilian categorical affirmative; there is in the Lusitanian heroism, a nobility that differs from the fury of our neighbours; there is in our writing and our thought a profound or sentimental ironic or meek note…. Always tragic and ardent, Spanish history differs from the Portuguese which is more authentically epic and the differences of history are translated into difference in character.’ (Historia da Civilizacão Ibérica, 1897)

In Medieval times intense Spanish pressure and forced dynastic marriage compelled the Portuguese to follow the Spanish example of expelling the Jews in 1497, a step that deprived Portugal of many of its best merchants, diplomats, mathematicians, geographers, astronomers and cartographers. Feelings of resentment were aggravated by Spanish attempts to absorb Portugal, which temporarily succeeded from 1580-1640 (a period known as ‘The Spanish Captivity’). It was a political mistake that only encouraged a strong and proud reaction that cemented the identity of an independent Portuguese nation, a separate state and culture.

Portugal Tiles Postcard

One major thing that separates them is sherry and port.  Sherry is from Spain and Port is from Portugal as we discovered on a visit to a Port Lodge in 2008.

We learned that under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as Port and it is produced from grapes grown and processed in the Douro region. The wine produced is fortified with the addition of a Brandy in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting the alcohol content.

So what is the difference…

Simple!  Sherry is fortified after completion of the fermentation process as opposed to port wine which is fortified halfway through the fermentation process

All of these differences and traditional rivalry go some way to explain why there were gasps in the room when Spain and Portugal were drawn together in the same first round group for the 2018 Football world Cup Finals.

Portugal River Douro

* You might like to visit John, I think you might enjoy his blog…

Paol Soren


27 responses to “Portugal and Spain, So What’s the Difference?

  1. Thanks for posting this explanation. I enjoy learning from your travels. I’ve always been fascinated at how different regions in close proximity can develop such different and unique cultures. Regional accents are something else I enjoy hearing.


  2. We have “done” Spain lots of times, already decided on Malaga for Christmas! But your posts on Portugal have been quite a pull to visit that country more than the two separate days in Lisbon from cruise ships. Surprising in view of my wine hobby and collecting so we’ve put it on our 2018 hit list, Dr C’s health permitting. Just followed your mate John too, thanks for the connection.


  3. The differences in Spanish regions are stark as you say – geographical differences in the U.K. always amazes me too – Manchester & Liverpool are completely different yet only a few miles apart. As for Portugal & Spain, yes very different. Both hugely enjoyable experiences enriched by port & sherry!


  4. Is it true to say that all of Portugal seems happy to be Portuguese but at least two major regions of Spain don’t seem to want to be part of the country at all?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting historic info, thanks, Andrew


  6. Pingback: Some posts from other blogs I liked – Paol Soren

  7. Not easy to pinpoint the differences but this is a fair attempt.. 🙂 🙂 Whenever we go over the border Mick complains at the harshness of the Spanish language, and how much louder it is. He’s happy to eat icecream in either country though. And cake, of course 🙂


  8. I am always learning something new on your blog Andrew. Not being a sherry or port drinker, that’s my excuse anyway, I didn’t realize they were such close cousins. Just a change in the fermentation process and voila! On our one trip to Spain and Portugal we found a great difference in the people. Your inclusion of the quote ‘(the Portuguese), more sensitive to the charm of women and children, possessing a real humanity’ really fits with our experience. We found the Portuguese a warmer people and more willing to converse and assist we the tourists. now this is a very random sampling so completely anecdotal of course.


  9. I’ve never been able to tell the difference between accents when the language is foreign, yet I can tell the difference so well when it comes to English. I don’t speak any other languages other than English (I was hopeless at languages at school) and was wondering if those that spoke more than one language could tell the difference in accents when they hear them?
    Thanks for explaining the differences between these two wonderful countries, Andrew. I wonder if there will be a huge cheer when Spain takes the stage at The Eurovision Song Contest Final, in May, when it’s in Lisbon?


  10. Loved the recapping of historical differences, especially colonial mentalities!


  11. Irina Marques

    Hello Andrew, I live very much your post. And agree with most of all. But I have to disagree with one part “On 13th February 1668 at the Treaty of Lisbon Spain finally recognised Portugal as a separate and independent state and since that time they have lived peacefully together as reluctant neighbours.” Portugal have been proclaim a kingdom since 1143 by the king of Spain. And in 1179 a papal bull officially recognised Afonso I as king. 😉 Portugal is one of the oldest countrys in the world. (sorry for my bad english).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.