Journey to Lisbon and several other Portuguese cities


by Fariba Amini
To feel today what one felt yesterday isn't to feel - it's to remember today what was felt yesterday, to be today's living corpse of what yesterday was lived and lost. -- Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa, Portuguese greatest writer and poet


This is what Salazar prescribed for the Portuguese in order to keep them in line. But even he couldn’t do it; the people got tired of the dictator, staged in revolution, and a republic came into being.

I recently visited Lisbon and several other cities of Portugal [Photos]. The trip was not only fun but an adventure since Portugal is like no other country in Europe. There is a lot of history to be observed. Portugal has been a seafaring nation since the fourteenth century. Its very poverty drove many of its people out of the country in search of a better life, and thus turned the Portuguese into discoverers. They sailed everywhere, from Brazil to China and East Timor via Angola and Mozambique, from Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to Goa in India, in a quest for riches and intent on spreading the catholic faith. Portugal is the land of Henry the Navigator and Vasco de Gama, the first to sail to India via the Cape. Fado, the country’s traditional music reflects the melancholy of the many who left their country never to return, their homesickness and the longing of those they left behind. Is this also why the Portuguese, though friendly and helpful, are not exuberant like the Italians, why they rarely smile?

Portugal is the land of kings and queens among them Joao the V, Prince Carlos who was assassinated, and Queen Maria Pia who furnished one of her many palaces including the one in Ajuda with expensive artifacts and finally had to give up her throne when a Republic was pronounced in 1910. It is the land of Pedro I whose wife was murdered by his father because he wanted a woman of stature to marry his son. The son avenged the death of his wife, Ines de Castro, by hunting down the murderers. In a beautiful monastery, Pedro and Ines, the Romeo and Juliet of Portugal, lie facing each other to one day meet again in another life. It is the land of dictators like Salazar and Caetano whose combined 42 year rule ended in the Carnation Revolution. Finally, it is the country which has borne the great poet and novelist Fernando Pessoa and a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, José Saramago.

Lisbon or Lisboa, as it is written in Portuguese (it is pronounced Lizjboa), is a great city filled with old monuments, churches, monasteries and palaces. Some, like the fortress overlooking the old city, go back to the Middle Ages, some, such as the famous Geronimo monastery, were built in the time of the sixteenth-century King Manuel I, but most of Lisbon was rebuilt after a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed much of the city in 1755. Many of its nineteenth century buildings look dilapidated. The reason is that rent control has been in place since the days of Salazar, so that many landlords have had no incentive or the ability to renovate the buildings. Yet they add to the atmosphere of faded glory and quiet beauty, especially at night, when the yellow light of beautiful street lanterns turns the ochre and beige of their facades a magical light reflected in the city’s luminous cobble stones.

For art, the museum of Sarkis Calouste Gulbenkian is the place to visit. An Armenian Turk who made his fortune from oil, he enjoyed a reputation as Mr. 5 %. He was also a philanthropist who bought the most beautiful works of art from ancient Egyptian art to exclusive rugs from the Safavid period and faience from Kashan, to a statue of Victor Hugo by Renoir. They were kept in his apartment in Paris, and after his death moved to the newly constructed museum in his name. Gulbenkian also has its own publishing house; in the museum shop you can find great books on many different fields and various languages, at very reasonable prices. Adjacent to the museum is a beautiful garden where you can sit and watch the ducks and enjoy a calm relaxing moment or have coffee and lunch at its outdoor café.

Portugal is not an expensive place by European standards and still relatively untouched by globalization. Prices of food items are quite reasonable. You can have a glass of wine for 2 euros or buy a bottle for that price in the grocery store. Great coffee is less than a euro. Portugal feels like a relaxed country, and its inhabitants seem less rushed than people in other western countries. There are few policemen on the streets and they are not intimidating. One notices the cleanliness in almost every public place, even in remote villages. Football is an important part of everyday life in Portugal. Television shows a lot of soccer all the time.

I met a lot of students at the New University of Lisbon. A young man who had a T shirt with the map of Mozambique but looked more Indian told me proudly that he was from Mozambique. His grandparents had moved there from India. He spoke English well and told me he studied conflict resolution. He, like many others I spoke to, was interested in what was happening in the US elections but was unsure whether Obama would win. I assured him that he would win.

The Portuguese used to be fervently catholic, and though secularism has made irreversible inroads into life and society, the signs of a religious past are everywhere, with fabulous medieval monasteries and ornate Baroque churches strewn around the country. For a living religious experience, though, there is no better place to visit than Fatima, some 100 miles north from Lisbon, the site of the reported appearance of the Virgin Mary to three peasant girls in 1913 and a huge shrine hosting millions of pilgrims today. The truly devout ones approach the shrine walking on their knees to visit the shrine of Fatima.

The town of Sintra, located in the hills some 30 kilometers from Lisbon, is a wonderful place to visit as well. Like Cascais, a beach town, also not far from Lisbon, Sintra used to be the place where the rich from Lisbon had their summer retreats. Even today, both towns offer tranquility away from the big city, and many people from Lisbon as well as tourists come to visit. Sintra especially is beautiful with its fabulous gardens, its little alleys, sidewalk cafes, and its shops that sell home-made port, Portuguese pottery and cotton covers. It is also known for its castle, located high on the mountain overlooking the old town, and its palace, where the nobility beginning with João I, spent their summers. The décor of many of its many rooms includes old turquoise and blue tiles, French and Italian furniture, and many ceilings with awesome paintings.

While in Sintra, we came across an old bookstore owned by a Portuguese lady and her British husband; they had an enormous selection of books on Portugal and the world in many languages. They told me that they support a website for the preservation of Sintra. This city which like various places in Portugal has been designated a world heritage site, but to my horror I did see a Pizza Hut at its beautifully tiled old-style train station. I also noticed a few strip malls on the way back from Sintra, unmistakable signs of creeping globalization.

Evora, located near the Spanish border, is another great city to visit. Surrounded by old walls, it is filled with young University students who are nosiy at times especially during the first week of school. The ossuary ( here bones of monks) and the remains of a Roman temple are a must see. Its many shops and restaurants show a prosperous and busy town.

Traveling to the southern part of the country was another delight in both seeing beautiful and untouched nature of great variety, from rolling hills with olive trees to oak forests, to orchards with orange, quince and persimmon trees lining the country roads. Portugal provides half of the world’s corks for wine bottles. Unfortunately, it is a dying industry because more and more wine is sold with plastic corks or screw-tops. It’s a real shame since it is environmentally sound to use the trees for cork.

The Atlantic Ocean and the southern coast, the Algarve (al-Gharb in Arabic), were out of this world, with many historical towns and beautiful, clean beaches. This has become an area of mass tourism in the last three decades, but, happily, there are almost no high rises, and even the new developments blend in with the old architecture, white walls, red-tile roofs and, in many cases, little chimney turrets on top that look like Iranian badgirs. This, in addition to many impressive moorish castles and the beautiful oriental tile work, is part of the Arab legacy in Portugal.

The port city of Lagos, one of the major centers of the Algarve, had all the features of a beach town, including many foreign tourists, but here, too, history had been preserved, in the quite back streets, in its museum, and in its old slave market which is now an art gallery. Looking for accommodation, we met a delightful woman who ran a grocery shop and also rented rooms in a building around the corner. So we stayed in an apartment, with kitchen and a rooftop terrace with fantastic views over the old city.

The last night in Lagos, we had dinner at a restaurant, sitting next to a British couple (the Algarve is filled with British vacationers and semi-permanents residents). Following their meal, they ordered a bottle of the most expensive port of the house, and while they were drinking it I asked them how it was. They told me it was excellent. Not offered any, I ordered a less expensive brand and to my amusement, the restaurant owner offered it for free, adding that “Obama will pay for this one”! I responded by saying that the Portuguese seemed to be as generous as Iranians.

On the way back we went to “end of the world,” as it is called, the point beyond Sagres where the extreme southwestern Portugal (and Europe) ends at the Atlantic. The sight of the sheer cliffs dropping down hundreds of feet into the blue ocean beneath is awe-inspiring. Following the coastal road back to Lisbon, we drove through a quietly beautiful landscape, along roads lined with eucalyptus trees, and through towns and villages with their usual white houses, some with a Moorish castle on top of a hill. At one point we came across an incredible site, a wetland densely packed with ibises, thousands of them, looking more like white flowers rather than birds.

Portugal is an enchanting place where there is much to see and much to do. It is still relatively untouched by the “kindness” of capitalism. This part of Old Europe still exists, with all its wonderful features including its sober and pragmatic people who are not necessarily pouring their hearts out but are helpful and correct. Portugal may still be the poorest country in Western Europe, but it is an intriguing place with its own characteristics.

There is much more to say about Portugal but I will stop here and let the photos speak a thousand words...[Photos]


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Thank you!

by Marco Oliveira (not verified) on

I hope one day I may also visit Iran, and enjoy it as much as you enjoyed my country.