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  • Writer's pictureSteve Haywood

Visit to Portugal

It was pitch black out of the aeroplane window when gradually a pale white fog of light became visible. I didn’t have long to wonder what this strange illumination was before we broke through the glowing white clouds and night-time Lisbon lay glittering below us. I was not the only one to gasp in awe and my six year old daughter next to me – not one to be easily impressed – kept saying wow…wow…wow! It was a bejewelled city on the edge of the Atlantic, the myriad yellow lights beckoning, the twisting, curling, intersecting roads busy with cars flashing by. I recognised the coastline, the deep black of the Atlantic Ocean flowing in to the Tagus river which meandered through the city. I made out many landmarks, from the great suspension bridge across the river which was modelled on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, to the imposing edifice of the Castelo Sao Jorge on the hill overlooking the city. It had only been a few short seconds and I knew this was a place I was already falling for.

The alphabetically inclined among you may notice that I’m skipping ahead in my virtual tour of the European Union. I’ve posted Austria, Belgium and Bulgaria so far, with others in various stages of completion, but Portugal is going to be a bit different as it is likely to be the only country I’ll have visited while writing my virtual tour. Other countries are based on research from afar, albeit a few I have visited in the past, hence the ‘virtual’ nature of my tour. I am intending to keep to a fairly similar approach with Portugal but it will be infused with my own actually experiences and impressions. It may also be a bit longer, because there’s a lot to say…

Out of all the European Countries, I found Portugal to be one of the most surprising and unexpected. Why is this, you may well ask? Well I think it is a country that relatively little is known about. It played no major part in wider events of the 20th century, and rarely gets much of a mention in history lessons at school, other than perhaps a little coverage of its role in the Age of Exploration, as a sort of prelude to the more well known Spanish and English adventures. Portugal also has no handy badge to apply to it – it’s not a Scandinavian Country, it’s not one of the cluster of French and Germanic countries in central Europe, or part of the old Soviet Eastern Bloc. If it’s known for anything abroad, it is usually for the pristine beaches and holiday resorts along the Algarve coast, or as the place where Madelaine McCann disappeared. Which tells us nothing. So let’s find out a bit about the place shall we?

History of Portugal

The start of Portugal’s story is all too familiar because it is the same as so many other European countries. There have been indigenous tribes around for thousands of years, than a bunch of Celtic tribes turned up, mingling with the natives. Then the Romans invaded and took over the place, Romanizing it. So far, so familiar. After Rome fell, there were various Roman tribes that invaded – the Vandals, the Suebi, the Visigoths. Things changed in 711 when the Visigoth King Roderic was killed by the invading Umayyad Muslims. Most of modern day Portugal, along with much of Spain, was ruled by the Muslim’s Umayyad Caliphate for almost the next 500 years. Skipping over lots of fighting and changing territory, the Battle of Ourique in 1139 is generally seen as the start of the independent Kingdom of Portugal, and by 1249 the last of the Moors were expelled and Portugal took its present day shape.

Let us pause the history lesson for a short while to actually look at a map, and see where Portugal actually is, because it is important for the next part of the story. Portugal is on the Iberian Peninsula, and is as far west as you can go in mainland Europe. Standing on the coast of Portugal if you could see far enough – and ignoring for now such pesky inconveniences as the curvature of the Earth – you could gaze all the way across the Atlantic to the Eastern seaboard of the USA. With its long coastline and uninterrupted access to the Atlantic Ocean, it is no wonder that Portugal saw its destiny on the high seas. As long as its coastline was though, its land border with neighbouring Spain was just as long, and it would have to deal with its Eastern neighbour before it could dedicate itself to the sea. Fortunately it did just that, in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, when King Joao gave Portugal a resounding victory against the Spanish, and formed an alliance with England that helped curtail future Spanish interests in Portugal.


Portuguese Flag flying over Castelo Sao Jorge, Lisbon

King Joao had many children, one of whom was Henry the Navigator, who played a pivotal role in kickstarting Portugal’s Golden Age. Despite being called ‘Navigator’ he didn’t travel far himself, however he was instrumental in developing Portugal’s knowledge and experience of shipbuilding, cartography and other technologies vital for exploration. He also organised and financed many expeditions, and under his direction Portuguese colonies were founded in Madeira, the Azores and the West African coast, and paved the way for the founding of Brazil and Portuguese territories all over the world.

Unfortunately, in the late 1500s Portugal struggled to maintain its overseas Empire, and went into a long and gradual decline. Various reasons have been put forward for this, including 60 years of Spanish rule from 1580, and a failure to invest the vast wealth it obtained, but instead squandered it. In 1822 Brazil declared its independence and Portugal lost the jewel in the crown of its global empire.

That just leaves the 20th century, and Portugal’s history of this time is markedly different to much of the rest of Europe, as it stayed largely neutral through the bloody world wars that scarred so much of the continent. It had its own problems though. In 1933, the country started as a right wing dictatorship, under the iron grip of Antonio Salazar. The country suffered under the dictatorship until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 (so named because almost no shots were fired, and in the victory celebrations carnations were put in the muzzle of muskets). The four decades of authoritarian rule left Portugal a relatively impoverished country by European standards, with poor education and infrastructure hampering the country’s development.

Portugal Today

So what is Portugal like today? It is a part of the European mainstream, having joined the European Community in 1986, and adopting the Euro. It has received large amounts of EU funding to aids its development, most visibly in the thousands of kilometres of motorways, and up to the end of the 20th century it grew strongly, but has struggled since then.

Portugal is a country of contrasts, from the touristy resorts of the Algarve, to the grand, beautiful metropolis Lisbon, and then to the vast stretches of countryside away from the coast, much of it empty, with dilapidated barns and overgrown olive groves. Travelling through isolated villages, you see the stone benches built into the front of houses, where locals sit outside and socialise with their neighbours. Villages all have their own fonts, where you regularly see locals filling up bottles with water, and pools where old women wash their clothes. Travelling through rural Portugal is like stepping back in time to a bygone era. Here, the modern world hasn’t yet arrived.

Monsanto, Portugal

As I have with other countries, it is time to choose a random place to ‘visit’. Except this time, I’m going to choose a place I have just visited. The place I’ve chosen is a small village called Monsanto, part of the municipality of Idanha-a-Nova in central Portugal not far from the Spanish border. It’s a village built into the top of a mountain, and when I say built into the mountain, I’m not kidding. Some of the buildings have huge boulders for the roof or the wall, rocks that haven’t moved in millennia. It is a small place, with a population of only 828, but has become known in recent decades as “the most Portuguese village in Portugal”. The village has been occupied since the 12th century, and in 1165 the Knights Templar were granted custody of the place, to help maintain the area for Christendom.

According to Trip Advisor there are zero ‘Things to Do’ in Monsanto, but with great respect to a usually wonderful online travel resource, I think it is completely missing the point. Monsanto doesn’t need things to do because it simply is something to do! Just take a walk round the steep little cobbled streets, marvel at the construction of houses out of boulders, and take in the breathtaking views across swathes of Portuguese countryside, and the Spanish mountains beyond. Then if you want a rest and a drink or bite to eat, then why not stop off at the Taverna Lusitana. It’s a great little spot, with lovely food (their toasties are to die for, and huge!) and amazing views from its rooftop terrace. Most reviewers on Trip Advisor agree with me, apart from one disgruntled person who left a 1 star review after not being allowed in when they called for lunch at 13pm. Now what sort of time is that for lunch?

Monsanto Portugal

Monsanto, Portugal

The Portuguese come across as very friendly and easy going, always willing to help you out. In some ways this might be surprising, as they’ve had to put up with a lot, but maybe that is what makes them so tolerant and amiable. Of all the things that they’ve had to put up with though is that they’ve effectively had their language stolen. Yes, stolen! It has one of Europe’s oldest languages, which it spread around the world during the Age of Discovery, and now after having lost all of its colonies it finds itself in the unenviable position of being vastly outnumbered in its own language. For every native Portuguese speaker from Portugal, there are 30 non-native Portuguese language speakers in the world, most of these in Brazil. The differences aren’t insignificant either with different words for the same thing, different meanings for the same words, and very varied punctuation. Rapariga means girl or woman in Portugal, but whore in Brazil. Best to get that one right! Not all of the differences are that stark, but you get the idea…

If you want to learn Portuguese using almost any foreign language resource online or in books, it will be Brazilian Portuguese you will be learning. There have been recent work done to consolidate the spelling of Portuguese so it is the same across the world, but as you can probably guess, far more of Portugal’s words got changed than Brazilian words. I can’t help feeling sorry for them, but then I’m sure many people would argue that it’s karma, payback for their colonial misdeeds. Nevertheless, Portuguese people seem delighted if you try and speak at all in their language, even just the occasional words. So here’s a couple that are worth remembering.

Ola – Hello

Bom Dia – Good Day

Obrigado / Obrigada – Thank you. The former if the speaker is male, or with an ‘a’ on the end if female.

More than any other language I’ve had the slightest attempt at learning, it’s amazing how many words you recognise, because of their similarity to English or another language like French. Learning a bit of Portuguese really gets you thinking about how languages are put together.

Food in Portugal

Okay, enough about that, I’m hungry, aren’t you? Time for some Portuguese food. As I am coming to realise, summarizing a country’s food preferences in a paragraph or two can be almost impossible. Inevitably, much will be missed out or glossed over, and Portugal is no exception. A good starting point however is to sum it up in two words: Sea and Spices. With easy access to the Atlantic, it is unsurprising that seafood plays a large part in the Portuguese diet. Portugal is the biggest per capita consumer of seafood in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world. A wide variety of fish are consumed, but probably cod and sardines are the most popular, and much of the fish is salted – the Portuguese fishing industry took off before the invention of refrigeration so they had to get used to other ways of preserving their fish supplies. Spices are the other major common factor in the Portuguese diet, and again this is hardly a surprise. During the 15th and 16th century Portugal dominated the spice trade, and many different spices made their way back from its far flung colonies and onto the home country’s dinner table. Combine the two together and you get dishes like Caldeirada, a mixed seafood stew with varied ingredients like clams and mussels, squid and octopus, as well both lean and oily fish, mixed in with herbs and spices.

Portugal likes its cakes and pastries too, and many of their specialities were first developed in the middle ages when nuns and monks sold them to supplement their income. These pastries had egg yolks as their main ingredients, and so the story goes this was because nuns used egg whites to stiffen their habits, and they needed something to do with the excess of egg yolks they had. It is also true though that egg whites used to be used as a white wine purifier, which would again have led to an excess of egg yolks. If you are going to try Portuguese pastry, you are best starting off with the Pastel de Nata, which is just about everywhere in Portugal. This is an egg custard pastry which varies in quality from quite nice to absolutely delicious.

Pastel de Nata is not the only foodstuff that appears to be everywhere in Portugal, out in the countryside, wherever you go you seem to bump into orange trees of all different varieties. In season, these taste delicious picked straight off the tree. In Europe we have Portugal to thank for our beloved oranges, as they were the first to introduce oranges onto the continent in the 15th century. For a long time Portugal was the main source of oranges for many countries, which is reflected in the name for oranges in some languages – portokal in Bulgarian, portokali in Greek, and portocala in Romanian to name but a few.

The Portuguese like their drink too, and the country even gives its name to a drink – Port. It is a fortified wine, made from grapes grown and processed in the Douro region of Portugal. Within the European Union, only fortified wine originating in Portugal can be called Port. There’s plenty of non-fortified wine produced in Portugal too, and while over there I had a green wine or ‘Vinho Verde’ which is a slightly sparkling young wine. This is something you don’t appear to get anywhere else, and I rather liked it.

So what do the Portuguese like to do with their spare time? Fado and Football. Excuse me, what, I hear you ask? Well football’s obvious, there are few countries so into their football. Go into any bar in the evening and the chances are there’ll be a football game on the television. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s star player, is one of the most recognisable and admired footballers in the world, and Portugal are always major contenders in international tournaments. You can be excused however for not knowing what Fado is, because a uniquely Portuguese thing. It is a musical genre which goes back at least to the 1820’s and quite possibly long before that. Songs can be about anything, but must follow a certain traditional structure. Often though, songs are known for their mournful lyrics, about the life of the poor, the sea, a sense of longing, loss and melancholy. Despite sounding very depressing they are beautiful to listen to, and can be heard in villages across Portugal, the bars and pubs of any Portuguese town and the streets of Lisbon.

Portugal in the European Union

Membership of the EU was a goal of Portugal ever since its revolution in 1974 until it was finally allowed in on 1 January 1986. Since then, significant European Regional Development Funds have been spent in developing Portugal and undoing the damage done under Salazar’s rule. As a result, a sizable chunk of the UK’s net contribution to EU development funds has gone to Portugal, however now the emphasis has shifted towards Eastern Europe.

With a population of 10.4m, Portugal accounts for just over 2% of the population of the European Union, and has 21 seats in the UK parliament. It also joined the Schengen passport free area in 1995, and adopted the Euro at its inauguration in 1999. In 2013, there were approximately 107,000 Portuguese people living in the UK.

Some Random Portuguese facts

Portugal is the world’s biggest exporter of wine bottle corks. Cork trees are abundant across much of Portugal, and every 9-12 years the top layer of spongy bark is peeled off and that makes up the bottle corks. Growers often paint the last digit of the year on the tree when the cork was harvested, so they know when they can harvest the cork again. Portugal has the oldest and biggest cork tree in the world, which every ten years or so produces enough cork for 100,000 bottles of wine!

Portuguese roads are quite empty, but traffic on the Portuguese island of Madeira is even lighter, with the capital Funchal only getting its first traffic lights in 1982.

Portugal was the first European nation to adopt its local tongue as its official language.

In Europe, only fortified wine from Portugal can call itself Port.

Vinho Verde, Portugal’s Green Wine, is mostly grown by small growers. Many of them grow the vines up fences, trees, even telegraph poles, so they can use the ground for edible crops for themselves.


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