Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.
THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.
At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.
Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.
I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.
MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.
The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.
The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.
AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.
Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and 20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.
We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.
PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.
As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)
Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.
Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.
The European Union.
Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.
Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.
I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)