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Impressions of Spain and Portugal, Part 2

Exploring Portugal, the land of explorers

The Wadi Guadiana river forms the border between Spain and Portugal in the southwestern part of the Iberian peninsula. The names of many rivers in Spain and Portugal begin with wadi, which is the Arabic word for river and reflects the time of the Moorish presence. The name of Portugal’s southern region Al Garve is also Arabic and means “The West” [of the Arab Empire].

The first thing my guide said about Portugal is not to conflate it with Spain. Too often people tend to just sort of lob Portugal in there with Spain. Portugal is a distinct country with a separate language, traditions and history. In the big picture the Portuguese language carries its own weight as it is third most widely spoken European language throughout the world. In Lisbon I met up with friend from the foreign service, and he told me how Portugal is still an impact player on the world stage today in many good ways that don’t always make the front page of the news.

A visitor to Portugal is greeted by images and figurines of a rooster everywhere. The legend of the Barcelos Cock is engrained into the mind of every child in Portugal. Below is a postcard which narrates the story.

You might have noticed the postcard is made of cork. The second thing a visitor to Portugal notices is the prominence of cork trees and cork products. Here is a picture of one store display:

I was going to buy my dad a hat made of cork, but I was afraid he would wear it in public. I eventually broke down myself and bought a iPhone case made of cork.

This picture from Google Images shows what a cork tree looks like when it is harvested. Cork products can be expensive because the bark can only be sheared once every nine years.

The third thing a visitor to Portugal notices is the ubiquity of artistic tiles on many building facades. There is a backstory about how this came to be: Portuguese ships used to carry tiles as ballast weights on their way to Brazil. The sailors dumped the tiles in Brazil to make room for gold and other goods. The Portuguese colonists in Brazil didn’t know what to do with all these tiles laying around, so they started decorating the outside of their houses with them. They kept decorating their houses with tiles when they moved back to Portugal. The idea caught on and continues to this day. Many houses , churches, subway stations, and bridges in Portugal are decorated in tiles.

Albufeira, Algarve:
I had two wonderful days at this beach resort town on the southwestern tip of Portugal. British tourists from all walks of life invade the town. I saw sophisticated jet-setters sip martinis at the yacht club, and I witnessed soccer hooligans cavort about.

In Albufeira I had a chance to try a traditional Portuguese meal called catalaplana. It tastes similar to seafood gumbo in the United States. The meal included some good shrimp and octopus appetizers as well.

The name catalaplana reflects the name of the pan used to serve the food, and not the food itself.

The largest river on the Iberian peninsula is the Tagus, and Lisbon grew up where it spills out into the Atlantic Ocean. The history of Lisbon stretches back to the ancient Celts and Phoenicians, but the popular story is Odysseus founded the city during his wanderings. The Romans and Moors had their turns in Lisbon as well.

A visitor to Lisbon is likely to have two moments of confusion when he or she first enters Lisbon. For one moment the visitor will wonder if he or she is in San Francisco by mistake, and in the second moment the visitor will be transported to Rio de Janeiro. This is because the 25th of April bridge was built by the same company that built the Golden Gate bridge, and resembles its cousin. The bridge was built in 1966 and was renamed in 1974 to commemorate Portugal’s peaceful transition into democracy. A replica of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue stands on the hilltop near the bridge. Lisbon erected it in 1950 as a way to give thanks to God for keeping Portugal from getting sucked into WWII.

Portugal produced a string of famous explorers during the “Age of Discovery.” This did not happen by chance. The backstory on what really prompted the great feats of the Portuguese explorers is they were looking for a way to get to India by sea because Constantinople fell and the Ottoman empire decided to block the land trade of spices to Europe. Prince Henry the Navigator came onto the scene in the early 15th century. He invested heavily in nautical navigation R&D to give Portuguese traders a competitive advantage. He got the Catholic church to buy into the plan by selling it as an opportunity for missionaries to convert distant peoples. A “Discoveries Monument” along the river Tagus commemorates his foresight, and a high-school specializing in preparing future cargo ship captains lives on to this day in Lisbon.

A series of Portuguese explorers inched their way along and around the African coast during the 15th century until Vasco da Gama broke through to India in 1498. He is buried in the Monastery of Jeronimos.

All major Portuguese exploring expeditions started from the Tower of Belem. A nearby replica of a bi-plane commemorates the first airplane crossing of the South Atlantic from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1922 by two pilots from Portugal. The pilots were charged with delivering a bottle of port wine to the governor of Rio, but the pilots encountered “technical difficulties” along the way and the port never made it.

Custard pastries were also invented near the Belem tower by monks who didn’t know what do to with left over egg yolks from a starch-making process. Cinnamon was a key ingredient of the spice trade and the custard cakes.

Pictures of the Lisbon Skyline:

My guide said the people of Lisbon are big on pastel colors.

Here is a picture of the bullfighting stadium in Lisbon. Note the Indian influence in the architecture. The Portuguese spice trade with the Orient influenced Lisbon architecture in many ways. For example, the tombs of royals depict elephants instead of the lions which were customary symbols for other European royals. Bullfighting in Portugal is different than in Spain. The bullfighters wrestle the bull to the ground and pull the tail. The bull gets to live. They get the bull to leave the stadium by enticing it with cows.

On my first night in Lisbon I tasted a traditional pork stew dish.

Around Lisbon:
I signed up for an excursion tour of some towns around Lisbon. This casino is the original Casino Royale from Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. A new owner changed the name some time ago.

The beachside town of Cascais is a playground for the rich and famous, and attracts a few celebrities.

Cabo de Roca is the western most point of continental Europe. For centuries many medieval people believed if you sailed too far west from this point you would sail straight into hell.

Many rich people built nice villas in the town of Sintra, nestled in the mountains near Lisbon. A unique microclimate creates lush vegetation and cool temperatures in summer. A few of these villas are shown below, and the ramparts from an old Moorish remain at the top of the hill.

Sintra’s city hall.

Residents of Lisbon enjoy escaping to Sintra for the pastries alone. On the left is a cheese tartlet known as a quexaes. The pastry with an apple filling on the left is known as a traviszero, which somehow translates to “body pillow.”

Many Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to three villagers in the Portuguese town of Fatima in 1907. The town has become a major pilgrimage destination since then. The church can hold 10,000 people at once.

The main city on Portugal’s north coast is Porto. This is the birthplace of port wine. Like Champagne and Coca-Cola, the invention of port wine was sort of an accident. The story starts with the English increasing their imports of Portuguese wine because they didn’t want to buy French wine from Napoleon. A shipment of wine went bad and some Portuguese merchants put brandy into it to try to salvage the load. The English loved the taste and port wine as we know it was born. A good port is aged in these caskets for at least ten years.

A river cruise on the Douro is a good way to soak in the sights of the old city while soaking in some port.

I had a great meal at the restaurant Chez Lapin. They start by setting a chorizo appetizer aflame and setting it in front of the customer.

I had a good rabbit stew here. Rabbit is a favorite dish for Portuguese and Spaniards. My guide said rabbits are great because they season themselves with all the herbs they eat.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling authored the first book of the series while teaching English in Porto. The staircase from this Porto bookstore made its way into her second book and its movie.

As our tour bus left Portugal and crossed back into Spain my tour guide played the song April in Portugal as sung by Louis Armstrong.

I found my April dream in Portugal with you
When we discovered romance, like we never knew.
My head was in the clouds, My heart went crazy too,
And madly I said: "I love you."

Too soon I heard you say:
"This dream is for a day"
That's Porugal and love in April!
And when the showers fell,
Those tears I know so well,
They told me it was spring fooling me.


I found my April dream in Portugal with you
When we discovered romance, like I never knew.
Then morning brought the rain,
And now my dream is through
But still my heart says "I love you."

This sad reality, To know it couldn't be,
That's Portugal and love in April!
The music and the wine convinced me you were mine,
But it was just the spring fooling me.


I found my April dream in Portugal with you
When we discovered romance, like I never knew.
Then morning brought the rain,
And now my dream is through
But still my heart says "I love you."

Posted by clarkmw78 11:37 Archived in Portugal

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Thanks a lot for perfect pics.
Enjoy your time

by Wolfgang

Hi Matt - These are beautiful photos and Portugal is fascinating. I hope to visit and enjoy the cuisine as you are! Thanks for interesting history of each place you visit.

by Shannon

Looks like a great time! We have a summer full of youth Basketball and days at the pool, not near as glamorous, but keeping us running. Your pictures are beautiful. Thanks for sharing your experiences and explaining each stop in detail. Enjoy yourself!

by Melanie

You should make a stopover in Macau on the Asia leg of your trip to sample the egg custard tarts in a former Portuguese colony. In the name of science, of course.

by Mike C

thanks for reminding me how much I liked Portugal. On your drives through both countries did you see all the wind farms?

by Renee

speaking of drives through countries - Spain has awesome autogrills with outdoor cafes serving wonderful lamb!

by shannon

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