It might only be a small country but Portugal manages to be both astonishingly beautiful and endlessly surprising. If, when you think of places to visit in Portugal, you imagine the sandy beaches of the Algarve or the idiosyncratic cities of Lisbon and Porto, then any journey into the real heart of Portugal promises to be a revelation. It’s not just the landscape that captivates, though there is a stunning variety of scenes – from the steep mountains and lush valleys of the centre and north to the arid plains and cove-speckled coastline of the south. But there’s also great charm in a country that preserves its medieval villages, walled towns and glorious monuments while at the same time embracing progress and modernity with a style all its own.
These qualities are best displayed in the capital, Lisbon, which has acquired a contemporary, boutique sheen without quite jettisoning its most endearing, rather old-fashioned, characteristics. On the Algarve and elsewhere, family-friendly resorts – the mainstay of European tourists for more than fifty years – also combine a gentle sophistication with enduring traditions. And other main towns all have their thriving festivals, restored historical quarters, sparkling new cultural centres and wi-fi zones. But head into the deep rural areas – the Alentejo, the mountainous Beiras or Trás-os-Montes – and a different, slower-paced Portugal emerges. Despite massive EU-funded road-building schemes, and a burgeoning interest in rural and ecotourism, central and northeastern Portugal particularly are still conspicuously underdeveloped. For anyone wanting to get off the beaten track, there are limitless opportunities here to experience small towns, hamlets and rural regions that still seem rooted in earlier centuries.
The country has a striking north-south divide that’s as much to do with history and politics as geography and climate. Above a roughly sketched line, more or less corresponding with the course of the Rio Tejo (River Tagus), the people are of predominantly Celtic and Germanic stock, living in a corn, cabbage and potatoes belt of often marginal land. It was here, in the north at Guimarães, that the Lusitanian nation was born (following the Christian Reconquest from the North African Moors), and here too that early industry was concentrated, with the city of Porto still considered an economic powerhouse. The Romans, and later the Moors, on the other hand, established themselves south of the Tagus, where vast agricultural estates could be developed, producing the classic Mediterranean crops of oranges, olives, figs and cork.
More recent events are also woven into the pattern. The 1974 Revolution, which brought to an end 48 years of dictatorship, came from the south, an area of rich landowners and a dependent workforce; while the later conservative backlash came from the north, with its powerful religious authorities and individual smallholders wary of change. But more profoundly even than the Revolution, it is emigration that has altered people’s attitudes. After Lisbon, the largest Portuguese community is in Paris, and there are migrant workers spread throughout Europe and North America. Returning, these emigrants have brought in modern ideas and challenged many traditional rural values. New cultural influences have arrived, too, through Portugal’s own immigrants from the old African colonies of Cape Verde, Mozambique and Angola, while the country’s close ties with Brazil are also conspicuous.
The greatest of all influences, however, is the sea. The Portuguese are very conscious of themselves as a seafaring race; mariners such as Vasco da Gama led the way in the exploration of Africa and the New World, and such links long ago brought influences to bear upon the country’s culture: in the distinctive music of fado, blues-like songs heard in Lisbon and Coimbra, for example, or the Moorish-influenced Manueline architecture that provides the country’s most distinctive monuments.
This “glorious” history has also led to the peculiar national characteristic of saudade: a slightly resigned, nostalgic air, and a feeling that the past will always overshadow the possibilities of the future. The years of isolation under the dictator Salazar, which yielded to democracy after the 1974 Revolution, reinforced such emotions, as the ruling elite spurned influences from the rest of Europe. Only now have things really begun to change and the Portuguese are becoming increasingly geared toward Lisbon, Porto and the main towns. For those who have stayed in the countryside, however, life remains traditional – often disarmingly so to outsiders – and social mores seem fixed in the past.Read More
The Golden Age
The Golden Age
For over a hundred years, in the period spanning the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, Portugal was one of the richest countries in the world, an economic powerhouse that controlled a trading empire spreading from Brazil in the west to Macau in the east. It was Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498 that kick-started the spice trade, shooting Portugal – already doing well from African gold and slavery – into the top league of wealthy nations. Its maritime empire reached a peak during the reign of Manuel I “The Fortunate” (1495–1521), the so-called Golden Age that also produced Luís de Camões and Gil Vicente, two of Portugal’s greatest writers, along with the new, exuberant Manueline architectural style. Portugal was to hit the jackpot again in the seventeenth century, when enormous gold reserves were discovered in Brazil, but changing markets and overindulgence soon reduced its financial clout, and after the Great Earthquake of 1755 the country sank into economic obscurity. Nevertheless, the physical legacy of Portugal’s empire remains in the surviving buildings and monuments of the Golden Age, such as Lisbon’s Torre de Belém and Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, while Portuguese itself is the world’s fifth most-spoken language.
Forest fires and the Bombeiros Voluntários
Forest fires and the Bombeiros Voluntários
Portugal’s famed green countryside is ravaged each year by forest fires, and the problem has worsened markedly in recent years – it’s estimated that ninety percent are caused by human activity, whether it’s arson or carelessness with cigarettes, bonfires and barbecues. Matters aren’t helped by the country’s timber industry, which has replaced native tree species with the highly flammable eucalyptus and pine. Peak fire season is mid-summer, but in drought years forest fires break out as early as January and as late as November. You don’t need to drive through central and northern Portugal for long before seeing the evidence of past fires – hillsides burned black and torched trees – or the telltale plumes of thick smoke from the latest conflagration. On the worst days, ash falls to the streets in distant towns and cities, and major train lines and motorways are closed.
Extraordinarily, the firefighting service that has the unenviable task of dealing with the problem is almost entirely voluntary. The country’s 20,000 or so Bombeiros Voluntários make up over ninety percent of Portugal’s firefighting forces, with the few (and far better equipped) professional corps (Bombeiros Sapadores) based in the cities or working privately for the country’s timber and paper-pulp concerns. You’ll see Bombeiros Voluntários vehicles in every region – helping out with ambulance duties too as part of their remit – and the volunteers are usually the first and only firefighters on the scene when a blaze breaks out. Equipment and vehicles are often wholly inadequate; in the past, urgent appeals to the EU have led to specialist aircraft and foreign crews arriving to help.
It is, of course, horribly dangerous work and firefighters lose their lives every year. For this reason – and for their astonishing success rate in saving local homes and properties – the Bombeiros Voluntários have an almost heroic status in Portugal. Rare is the town without a street or avenue named after them, while proud municipal statues and memorials to their deeds proliferate.