The country with the oldest borders in Europe, the first to adopt its local tongue as its official language, has against the odds survived nine centuries of battles, wars, earthquakes, revolutions, the creation and loss of the world’s first global empire. The Portuguese resilience and adaptability makes certain that no matter what crisis the country goes through, there will always be a nation named Portugal, a bright city called Lisbon, the Tagus, the Douro, and the hills of Sintra…
With such an inviting coastline, Portugal has never been limited by its borders. Being the first Europeans in so much of Asia, Africa and the Americas allowed the Portuguese to transplant their culture in every corner of the globe. The result is that now Portugal has the broadest global spread of UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any country. There are Portuguese forts, churches and other monuments in the oddest, most unlikely of places – from China to Iran, Morocco, India, Malaysia, Kenya… And walk around Brazil and you’ll feel Portugal in a more tropical climate, including in Rio’s beaches, with their Lisbon-inspired wave-patterned pavements. Go to Thailand and the desserts you eat are of Portuguese influence. Learn Japanese and you’ll find that many words originate from Portuguese. Portugal is, more than any other, a global country.
Money can’t buy time and Portugal values time. Everything is discussed and decided over a long lunch or dinner where eating is less about being fed and more of a social ritual meant to be well savored. Portugal feels confident and mature enough to just sit back and relax, like a wiser old man who’s had a long fulfilling life and pauses to appreciate the views or a good cheese and bread, a fresh fish just out of the ocean, a glass of wine… Making time, being present and enjoying the now is what makes Portugal so seductive. Spend a few days in Alentejo or even in Lisbon and you begin to feel the clocks ticking slower, telling you to enjoy the moment. Time is Portugal’s wealth.
It’s Mediterranean but it’s on the Atlantic, it’s Iberian but it’s not Spanish, it’s European but focuses more on the ocean, it’s Latin but with a more reserved Nordic-like temperament. Portugal is difficult to define in familiar terms, a low-profile land with a feeling of apartness, in its own little world that’s more ocean than dry land, more an island than part of a peninsula. It’s a tiny oasis of peace that prevents it from showing up on the radar screen of world news, making it an inconspicuous, indefinable, often overlooked country in a world driven by flashes, categories and trends. It’s a soulful place with a rare individuality, with a consciousness of its unique character, and with little-known treasures that make it so enigmatic and magnetic.
Portugal was the pioneer of world exploration, giving “new worlds to the world” five centuries ago, but the country remains a land of discovery today. It probably has the most beautiful places you’ve never heard of and it’s very likely that it has the biggest variety of landscapes per square mile in the world — from the volcanic craters of the Azores to the subtropical world of Madeira, to the plains of Alentejo, the mountains of the Beiras, the verdant parks of Minho and Trás-os-Montes, to the ocher cliffs of Algarve. If the Gerês National Park or the medieval villages of Monsaraz or Marvão were in Italy, France or Spain they’d be filled with tourists at any time, but they’re usually deserted in Portugal. This is a country of constant surprises and unexpected, unsung wonders.
A small rectangle on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula which only takes two hours to cross from east to west really doesn’t have an interior. Portugal is therefore just one long coastline, a natural port that’s the entrance and exit point of Europe with an endless stretch of sand. Best of all are the mystical capes of Espichel, Sagres, Carvoeiro or Roca which still give you the feeling of being on the edge of the Earth as they did centuries ago before everyone knew the planet was round. It’s not surprising that the Age of Discovery and globalization started here by crossing the horizon as the West looked for the East.
Portugal is still energized by the ocean and the rivers that flow into it, getting from them much of what it eats and drinks – from the Atlantic, the Douro and the Tagus. Some of the country’s biggest icons also float on water – the rabelo boats, the old caravels and the colorful moliceiros of Aveiro.
You may paint the word “Portugal” blue. That’s the color that covers the country, and not just because of the Atlantic. It’s also the color of the skies (Algarve is the region with the most sunshine hours per year in Europe and Lisbon is the sunniest capital), the color of the Azores stunning lagoons, and above all the color of the tiles (“azulejos”) that decorate the country from north to south. They’re in almost every church interior (and exterior, as seen in Porto), in train stations, in palaces, and in ordinary homes around Lisbon. Blue also colors the edges of buildings in the many mostly-white villages such as Obidos and around Alentejo. Portugal is blue.
Portugal is also golden. That’s the color of Algarve’s cliffs, of the profusion of jewelry used in Minho’s folklore and traditional costumes, and of the filigree of the local handicrafts. But then there’s the extraordinary gilding in the churches and palaces, perhaps second only to the azulejos as Portugal’s national art. And gold and blue often go together around the country, presenting some of the most artistic and unique baroque art in Europe (in fact, the word “baroque” derives from Portuguese).
One of the most curious and fascinating aspects of Portugal is its abundant use of stone and how well preserved its pre-historic heritage is. From the world’s biggest outdoor Paleolithic art gallery in Foz Coa, to the numerous dolmens and stone circles in Alentejo, to the dinosaur fossils and footprints around the town of Lourinhã that is a real Jurassic Park. There are also the works of art in cobblestone that cover almost every city, the marble towns of Alentejo (Vila Viçosa, Estremoz), the well-preserved Roman mosaics of Conimbriga, or the Manueline architecture that stuns for its carvings. And the countless medieval castles or entire villages made of stone like Monsanto, Marialva, Sortelha, or Piodão… And every town of any importance has a “pelorinho,” stone columns or pillories, symbols of municipal authority transformed into works of art, usually richly decorated with Manueline motifs.
Using “Portugal” and “saudade” in the same sentence may now sound like a cliché but it’s true that one word defines the other. Saudade has no exact translation in other languages, and it’s much more than nostalgia or melancholy as it’s often explained. It’s an intense passion for life, an acceptance of the incomplete, an appreciation of achievements or generating strength from the good and the bad times. It’s being aware of the passage of time, knowing that you can’t always control the randomness of fate, an insatiable appetite for romance and romantic images; it’s closing your eyes for a moment as you enjoy the image of a fantasy that you don’t dare say out loud. It’s filling the heart with a good memory brought about by a smell or by a feeling caused by a sound. It’s enjoying the view, feeling the serenity of a moment of silence as you sit in the sun or gaze out to the sea and the horizon. It’s finding happiness in simplicity and in small pleasures. It’s living with passion in small steps and being at peace between reality and desire. All this is caused by Portugal, through its history, its geography, its Fado music, its traditions and its “gentle ways.” So to truly understand Portugal you have to be consumed by “saudade” and that only happens after spending some time in the country. Saudade is Portugal and Portugal is saudade.