An A-Z of Portugal
(except for X & Z)
A is For
When I think of Portugal now, I think blue. Vast blue seas and skies and azulejos, those traditionally azure, glazed tiles which are in evidence everywhere and have been adorning interior and exterior walls of buildings since the early 1500’s. Azulejos recount stories as rich and varied as the history of transport in the Sao Bento train station in Porto or the apparition of the virgin and mule in the small chapel of Ermida da Memoria on the remote cliffs of Cabo Espichel.
B is For
Savour the mouth melting, Pastel de Nata egg tarts, created by monks in 1837 and made according to the original recipe in the famous Pastéis de Belém, where a secret ingredient is known only to a handful of staff and 23,000 pastries are made daily.
Across the road is the Torre de Belém, a mini castle that has stood watch over the mouth of the River Tagus since the 16th century.
C is For
The medieval capital of Portugal for over a hundred years, Coimbra is a multicoloured collage of buildings spanning nearly a millennium but its crowning glory is the Universidade de Coimbra sitting on the highest point of the hill, Portugal’s greatest university for 500 years and one of the oldest in the world.
D is For
Dinosaur remains discovered in Portugal date back 150 million years. Some of the best preserved footprints are located on the jagged cliffs of the Cabo Espichel coastline where there are two sets, Pedra da Mua and Lagosteiros, 500 metres apart, spanning a time of almost 50 million years. The prints of Pedra da Mua which date from the late Jurassic period, have been traditionally associated with a 14th century apparition by two local fishermen of the Virgin Mary riding a giant mule out of the sea and up the cliffs. The remote location became an important pilgrimage destination and the beautiful Santuario de Nossa Senhora was constructed in the 13th century to accommodate the passing pilgrims. Wells, fountains, ponds and even an opera house formed part of the complex which is eerily derelict today.
E is for
Our first stop after crossing the Spanish border near Caceres, was the 17th century fortification of Elvas in the Altenjo region. When viewed from the air the town walls form a unique star shape, behind which is hidden a town that exudes Portuguese charm.
F is For
Fado is characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a characteristic sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. Its birthplace is believed to be the Alfama district of Lisbon although Coimbra is home to a particular style of Fado that originating in the university. We experienced both but it was an impromptu performance outside a tiny restaurant/bar in Alfama that touched the soul.
G is For
This sweet cherry liqueur is another Portuguese rite of passage. It’s created by letting cherries ferment in brandy and then adding sugar, water and cinnamon. Sweet, inexpensive and not time or meal specific, the drink is typically served with a cherry at the bottom and in a chocolate shot glass, and used to be given to children as a cure for minor illnesses. Thanks to our intrepid guide, we sampled it in the famed A Ginjinh do Largo de Sao Domingo, the first bar in Lisbon (1840) to serve the beverage.
H is for
The Portuguese take time with tourists and seem to genuinely care that you like them and like their country. Everywhere we went, even without the language, the warmth and helpfulness was evident. The picture below is at the Fado session in the Alfama where the welcome was as warm as it was genuine.
I is for
Love stories don’t come more macabre than the crowning of Inês de Castro as queen of Portugal in 1360 after she had been dead five years. Inês was lady in waiting to Costanza of Castille, wife of Prince Pedro when she and the prince fell madly in love, embarked on an affair and had children together. Legend has it that such was the anger of Pedro’s father, King Alfonso 1V that he banished her to a monastery and ordered that she be decapitated in front of her children. Following his father’s death, Pedro announced that he and Inês had in fact been married, making their children legitimate heirs. He had her wheeled from her grave for his coronation, dressed in the finest robes and propped up on a throne, forcing the court to kiss her dead hand as part of the ceremony. She was later installed in a lavish tomb in the magnificent 12th century monastery of Alcobaça where her remains lie today next to those of her love.
J is for
Guerra Junqueiro (1850–1923)
An influential author and poet, his writing helped set the tone for the Portuguese Revolution in 1910, which abolished the monarchy. “The most perfect Homeland will be the most local, for the love of the land, and the most universal, for the love of the world.” His estate in the medieval quarter of Porto was donated to the city and became a museum in his honour.
K is For
The República dos Kágados is the oldest Republic of Coimbra, located at the Rua dos Correios (now Rua Joaquim António de Aguiar), in the “Sé Velha”. The first Republics of Coimbra emerged in the 14th century to lodge the students of the University, with rent payment. These mythical spaces of academic life are characterised by defending democracy, freedom and community life. Not just for study, the Republics teach “how to live, to do and to say”, using bohemian life to discuss various topics. In the Republics, the new residents are called “plebeus”. When they are accepted, they become “repúblicos”.
L is for
If you can, you should experience a city with someone who has made their home there. It took less than 24 hours for us to be utterly charmed by Lisbon, thanks to Mollie, our dynamic personal guide, who led us on a whirlwind tour bypassing the typical tourist traps to secret viewing points, tascas serving sumptious local fare, impromptu Fado on the narrow streets of Alfama, subtle but magnificent architectural treasures like the Alentejo House and creative street art that seemed to capture the city’s elusive spirit. The taxi driver who returned us to the campground where we stayed on the outskirts of the city was convinced that it’s the quality of the light that makes Lisbon such a unique place to live. Yes, it’s the light but also the people who are drawn to it.
M is for
These colourfully painted boats were originally created for the collection and transport of the moliço, a type of seaweed that was used as an agricultural fertiliser. Their brightly painted decorative panels depict traditional scenes around Aveiro, known as the Venice of of Portugal, because of its network of canals.
N is for
The fishing town of Costa Nova do Prado, near Aveiro, founded in the early 19th century is distinguishable by its striped houses which began as traditional haystack structures, which were used by fishermen to store their fishing materials. They evolved into beach houses through the years with their façades painted in cheerful, coloured stripes to welcome fishermen home from the sea.
O is for
Walking its vertiginous walls is the best way to avoid the throngs of tourists that converge on the mediaeval town of Óbidos, one of the most picturesque and well preserved in Portugal.
P is for
On the southern bank of the Duoro, at Ribeira, is the Porto suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia, the world’s port capital. Lining the waterfront are the barcos rabellos, the wooden sailing boats used in the 18th and 19th centuries to transport barrels of young wine from the upper Douro. It is said that Vila Nova de Gaia has the highest concentration of alcohol per square metre of anywhere in the world.
Q is for
Portugal produces about half the world ouput of commercial cork, harvested from the spongy bark of the Quercus Suber or cork oak tree. It’s also home to the Whistler Tree, the world’s largest, oldest cork tree located in the Alentejo. Planted in 1783 it stands more than 14 metres tall, and the diameter of its trunk is over 4 metres. The tree has been harvested more than twenty times in its lifetime, the greatest of which was in 1991, when more than 1200 kg of cork were stripped from its trunk and lower branches.
R is for
Cabo da Roca
The westernmost point of mainland Europe is at Cabo da Roca, located half way between Sintra and Cascais. “Here…where the land ends and the sea begins.” was how Camões described the Cabo da Roca in his famous book ‘Os Lusíadas’. Here a cross has been erected as a monument to celebrate the end of the European mainland, and the beginning of the Atlantic ocean and bears the words of the famous Portuguese poet, Luís Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), born in Lisbon:
Onde a terra termina e o mar começa…
Ponta mais ocidental do continente europeu’
“Here…where the land ends and the sea begins.”
S is for
After visiting Sintra in 1809, Lord Byron declared it a ‘glorious Eden’ containing ‘beauties of every description’
One such gem is Palacio da Pena, built in 1854 by the flamboyant Fernando II on the ruins of an old monastery as a romantic getaway and exuberantly embellished with golden onion domes and pink and yellow towers and turrets.
T is for
Whether it’s salty sheep cheese, pau (bread) fresh from the oven, or generous platters of seafood, dining in Portugal is a delectible and simple joy. Thanks again to Mollie, we skipped the tourist traps, breaking bread with the locals in tascas, or traditional neighbourhood style eateries in Lisbon, savouring the city’s finest barbecued chicken with chips and rice at Primavera on Morais Soares, and classic bacalhau with cabbage and potatoes in Zé da Mouraria 2, where dishes are typically served on sharing platters, unfussy, no frills and delicious! And all washed down with vinho verde, a light Portuguese wine, that dances on the tongue. Other culinary highlights included Arroz de Marisco in Sesimbra, cinnamon drenched churros from a food van at the lagoon of Foz do Arelho and the famed francesinha in Porto (pictured below).
U is for
From historic centres, to rock art, wine regions, monasteries and intangible culture, it’s small wonder that Portugal ranks 16th in the list of countries in the world with the most World Heritage sites. The cultural landscape of Sintra, the monastry of Alcobaca, the historic centres of Evora and Porto, Fado singing, the Duoro wine region are among the long list of places and cultural experiences that get special status. Also on the list is the extensively fortified town of Elvas dating from the 17th to 19th centuries. The site also contains the Amoreira aqueduct, pictured below, built to enable the stronghold to withstand lengthy sieges.
V is for
Whether it’s Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, the hills above Sesismbra and Porto, or the walls of Obidos, climbing is hard to avoid but the reward lies in the spectacular views that await.
W is for
I take pictures of washing lines everywhere I go! Lisbon was a treasure trove!
Y is for
Yarn Bombing and Street Art
From yarnbombed parasols to grafitti, sculpture and urban art, artistic expression delights around every corner!
(and in place of x and Z)
S is for Saudade
That unique Portuguese expression that translates as the presence of absence: a longing for someone or something that you remember fondly but know you can never experience again, is now a part of my emotional vocabulary.
O for Obrigado
As with Bonjour in French, it seems like Obrigada/Obrigado is pronounced slightly differently by everyone, so no matter how many times you try to imitate how you last heard it, your intonation is still off. But no-one notices or if they do, they don’t flinch and however badly you say it, it’s better than Gracias!
So Obrigada, Portugal! We’ll be back!