The Backyard of Portugal

The real treasure of Portugal is sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee, or a beer, or eating an ice cream. I was lucky enough to spend some weeks in Portugal, touring not the big cities but the tiniest ones in the country side, complete with crazy bus drivers navigating tiny yet extremely twisty and windy country roads, and luckily for me I was accompanied by a fantastic group of Portuguese-speaking yet English-speaking Portuguese-American immigrants, which probably made touring the poorer, friendliest villages a bit easier than for the average traveller. But this is where the life is…the small towns of hard-working, honest people who take care of even the unusual wandering foreigner passing by. I was there in the summer, and it was forbiddingly hot in the afternoons, but those are excellent times for napping if you’re not on a tight schedule…and believe me, nobody in Portugal is anyway. We planned to go somewhere as a group at 5 and the bus arrives at 7:30… what happens between 5 and 7:30, you ask? Why, you sit in a cafe and drink coffee. Or a beer. And maybe have a chocolate. Obviously, life isn’t like this everyday for any of us, here or there, but it’s also not that common for a foreign traveler to kick back and enjoy that either. Try something new… instead of filling your itinerary with endless museums, monuments, and even cute restaurants and views, (and I know all those things are great too!), try to have a very loose schedule – taking chances – meeting people – finding out not everybody hates you if you can hardly speak in their language – bargaining with gypsies in a marketplace – watching the news or a football (soccer) game in the local bar and trying to figure out what is going on there. Any number of less-walked tours through the less-understood aspects of a culture. Sitting in a cafe and drinking beer — think you can do that at home? You can’t. You can’t drink in the air, the smell of that different culture, another people, and an altogether deeper history than what you are used to. I guess you can try to have this experience in any foreign place, but for me it was in Portugal. I recommend finding your way deep into what I call the “backyard” of the country … out in the long rolling greens, in the small villages of tightly-packed aged houses and shops, in a fantastically ornate ancient church, in the tiniest cafe you have ever seen.

If you’re lucky in the countryside you’ll happen upon the festival of a saint. That is something to see. Music from a local (or neighboring) march-style band, announces the celebration in a parade with the townspeople and perhaps a mock-up of the celebrated saint. But the most important part is probably the food. So much food…tables filled with fish (REAL sardines cooked whole… make sure someone teaches you the art of dissecting them for the best tasting experience), pork (perhaps from a whole pig roast, perhaps not) and hopefully some flavorful local sausage. Nobody is being conservative about filling themselves, and nobody is charging an admission fee. With that comes the wine…my favorite is the red wine from the countryside with special hard round breads cooked on a stone. After that, if you are even luckier there will be a band with some traditional music and you’ll have the chance to dance wildly with someone who doesn’t know a word of the language you speak. My favorite experience out of the feasts I attended was watching a four-person band with three accordians and one drum. The sound was unbelievable and seeing how captivated I was, a little old man who through signs explained that he would prefer to dance with me if his old legs weren’t so weak, invited me for a beer instead (also with hand motions). Something else to try are the salty beans which they put in brine and you eat with beer like peanuts – these appear at festivals like candy at the bars but also sometimes in cafes.

Like everywhere in Europe, the country is filled with history, and even small villages have revered historic churches and other buildings. More personal elements of history, like a statue that people have hugged for centuries in order to bring them luck in love, ancient laundry basins built around natural springs, and an old blacksmith’s shop catch my attention because I am not looking for famous landmarks these days.

Another interesting thing to see are the markets… in the village where I stayed they had one each sunday, full of delicious food cooked outdoors, fresh fruits and vegetables (and chickens or ducks!), and thousands of items of clothing, shoes, and other household items, new and used, for the bargaining. Granted, bargaining is tough when you don’t know the language and they know you are foreign, but give it a try anyway… even at top price you won’t pay nearly as much for things there as you would here, and they are certainly “cooler” since they are european and carry the sweet memory of buying in a foreign, almost magical place, perhaps even from the gypsies that move from market to market.

But it’s museums, landmarks, and cathedrals you want, or even glitzy European shopping, they’ve got it too. Even the countryside is covered with such attractions. One famous city is Fatima. It’s a religious place, but interesting for anyone to see, whether or not you are religious. There is an enormous church, and the tourism of the whole town centers around the story that Mary performed a miracle there… three shepherd children supposedly saw Mary there over a period of several months. For Catholics this place should be very sacred, but for me, it was just very interesting to see the story and the effects that it has in history. In general, though, cathedrals abound in Portugal (like much of the rest of Europe), and if you’re not just interested in churches but want to “see the sights”, in the bigger cities in the countryside you find thousands of shops, including sellers in the streets, and glitzier cafes. Late in the evening these are the places to find european style nightclubs and the crazier scene. You can be there till morning as many of the clubs are open all night.

Another famous city is Coimbra, home of the oldest university in country. This ancient yet still perfectly functioning university is incredible if you like to see old places of learning, full of history. This the Cambridge of Portugal. Try to get inside the library for a tour if you can … the oldest rooms are no longer in common use but are breathtaking to see. And you will hear about the very old procedure for evaluating and graduating degree candidates that still takes place in the same intimidating meeting room as it has for centuries. My favorite part of the university in Coimbra was a tile on the wall with a portrait of a fox that the students all touch before taking their exams in the year’s end. It is worn by the many hands that have touched it briefly over hundreds of years.

Last, don’t forget to sample the all-important selection of wines and port wines while you are in the country they are named after! If you are in the countryside like I suggest, you have the perfect opportunity to see the beautiful orchards and vineyards, tour wineries, and taste some of the best wines in the world! Plus, you can buy bottles to take home of fantastic wines for astonishingly low prices. I bought a bottle of the best wine they have had in the last decade (corresponding to the best grape crop) for about ten euros (that’s less than fifteen dollars). And if you’re lucky, accompanying your wine tasting you will find some of the delicious appetizers that are typical in a formal Portuguese meal, for example bits of sausage and other meats, olives (I can’t say enough about how fantastic the olives are), fried pieces of cod, and excellent home-baked bread.

Now let’s face it, even if your aim is the countryside, when you show up (and leave) Portugal, it’s going to be through the airport in Lisbon (Lisboa!), so you might as well have a look at the big city. One plus is that lots of people speak english there, so especially if you are shopping or buying professional services, or staying in a hotel, you probably won’t be stranded without being able to communicate. Of course, being stranded and unable to communicate is my personal idea of adventure. But, this may be a good time to get adjusted to hearing a foreign language all the time with a little bit of safety net. Lisbon is beautiful, though. Try to get someplace high (this is not very difficult – well, it’s difficult if you have to walk up the steep hills, but you certainly don’t have to go very far) and get a good view of the city, then the river. If you want to cheat, take one of the old-fashioned trolley car (running on cables that adorn most of the streets!) up the hill instead of putting up your own effort. If you have a couple of hours free, go to the Castilho (an old castle/fort which you should be able to find by looking up and around you in the center of the city, but ask any fellow, better-prepared tourist and they’ll know where it is) because it offers nice garden scenery, real castle walls and a fantastic view of the river and bridge. My only other suggestion is to get to a cafe and enjoy watching the people stroll by as you have an espresso, then a “fino” (draft beer).

As I keep saying, I strongly suggest that after a day or two in the city you take a wilder tour through the countryside, and if you get lonely (though you shouldn’t, if you make any effort to interact with the locals, and the breathtaking landscape should be company enough), take a crazy bus ride to a nearby city to soak in the “civilization”, feed the pigeons, and spend the night dancing. I hope you enjoy your time in this friendliest country that I have visited.

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