(Note: This piece was rewritten on September 22nd, 2006. Also, you can see more of my Portugal photos here.)
A New Country
Visiting my Dad and his wife Rachel’s home in Portugal was something I’d been intent on doing for quite a long time, having had many invitations over the years, but always having been put off by the price and distance from my home in Japan. The images I had of it were basically of rural bliss living on in what was something like a developing country, whose empire had long since collapsed, lowering prices and forcing its inhabitants into simpler modes of being.
To some extent, at least in the area near their house, this turned out to be true. But certainly not at Porto airport, where we arrived in the middle of the night, which is ultra-modern and the kind of thing I’d expect of an art museum in Barcelona rather than a Portuguese airport. I got a mixture of suspicious and friendly looks from the other villagers, which I was told was simply because they don’t yet know me. Since the first suspicious one was from a stocky little peasant returning home with a scythe on his back almost as big as him, it wasn’t too comfortable to receive, but as always I could see that there was a more powerful sense of curiosity behind it and he didn’t interrupt my evening’s picture-taking.
We could still go to swim in isolated beaches, by the man-made lake that a dam had long ago created. To get there one walks past rows of eucalyptus trees- a cash-crop that is found throughout the region, and past the occasional abandoned, ruined house. In was a wonderful experience to have the sun beating down and the clear water around you, something like going back in time. I could imagine hearing 60’s music reverberating around the scene, from those first voyagers who made it to such places in the beginning of our current passion for simplicity. Yet other places were developing quickly- in the nearby town was a huge supermarket with all kinds of delicacies. Yet being so new and so fresh made it seem like an optimistic sign to me- there was nothing ugly about it and there actually seemed to be a revival of the local stone architecture in the area, a good balance between tradition and modernity rather than one smothering the other.
The food I had was always very fresh- whether tomato salad made freshly from the garden or cheeses and vegetables. I also liked the restaurants penchant for barbequing things, which always tastes good to me and had some very good fish made this way. I was also happy to enjoy the chips, which are not usually as good as the ones here. Plentiful, crunchy and tasting like fresh potatoes rather than like something that’s been in the freezer for far too long. One thing I didn’t get around to trying was the Bacalhau recipe using dried salted cod, which apparently dates back to when that fish was first fished off the coast of Newfoundland. There are apparently at least 365 variations on the recipe, one for each day of the year. I’m sure it made a lot of practical sense in the days before refrigerators and also that done properly it tastes very good- I’ve just never been all that keen on any kind of dried fish and would rather have the newly caught variety when available! Perhaps when I am there for longer, with more ‘meals to spare’.
A day in Lisbon was full of both interesting and in some ways depressing sights. The Tile Museum in a former monetary that I visited was beautiful; and I enjoyed very much their exhibit on painting of Aesop’s Fables, which I am very keen on. Standing on the battlements, trying to stay in the shade from the searing heat, I could imagine Christian Knights and the Islamic Moors battling for supremacy on the place, similarly looking out to sea and cityscape for other forces. It fired my imagination, and also of course I was glad to have missed that period of Portuguese history, along with so many others I saw in the museums.
Yet what was a little sad about was that, unlike so many other cities in Western Europe, Lisbon is generally run-down and devoid of prestigious sights- I saw no tours, no beautifully-restored buildings (though the interiors were nice) and not even any department stores or expensive-looking restaurants. Of course, on the whole I can live without any of that and it was nice to have the city to myself, as it were (though it wasn’t so easy to find my way around with the general scarcity of signs in English). Yet it is a bit of a shame for Portugal, that their main city, home of their legends, should be so very much ‘half-alive’. Yet as Europe gets closer and travel easier, and as the kind of development I could see in Porto makes it way there, things could change, just as they have in Santa Comba Dao.
Yet, towards the end, the natural beauty I was seeing was contrasted by the forest fires snaking through the Dao region, whose flames and suddenly desolated houses produced weeping survivors, who had lost all they have. These started to replace those of the Middle-East on the TV screens (where the tragic war in Lebanon was taking place), so much so in fact that, along with the language barrier, it was sometimes hard to know exactly what I was looking at! Fire-fighting vehicles, manned by volunteers called up especially for the task of being a bombeiro, were parked all around the local town of Santa Comba Dao, creating an air of urgency. From the roof of my dad’s house, you could see three small fires in the distance, throwing plumes of acrid smoke into the air, their dark clouds rendering the sunset more intense. We just hoped they wouldn’t get any nearer.
Apparently, the main cause of these fires is a combination of the dry ‘cash-crop’ eucalyptus trees grown throughout the region, (because they can be harvested more regularly than the sturdy, fire-resistant oaks that they replaced), and the increasingly hot, dry, European summers. Believe it or not, a lot of the fires are actually intentionally started, in the hope of claiming insurance on an otherwise redundant property. There being a lot of stone houses in the way, it is unlikely that the fires would ever actually make it to my father’s house (touch wood, sorry, stone!), but they have a friend who lives in a lovely place, right in the middle of some woods, who face a lot more potential danger and even has fire-fighting equipment to draw water from a nearby lake, just in case. Ironically, he moved there from the more popular Al Garve as he was scared of the water supply running out there- only to be living somewhere which seems far more dangerous. So I just hope and pray that the fires can be kept under control. Fortunately, I believe my Dad and Rachel’s house is in a safe place.
Portugal‘s Hidden Charm
If you want to experience the charm of a somewhat forgotten culture, a half-buried history that still occasionally stands shell-shocked in ruins as life makes its way past them, with its ever-conquering wild grasses, try and experience Portugal sooner, rather than later.