Reflections on Portugal

We spent just under two month travelling the entire length of the Portuguese coast and it was entirely a pleasure and a privilege. It was not a country either of us knew nor one about which we had any preconceptions. From our first introductions to its architecture and history in Viana do Castelo to our last stop in the lazy fishing islands of the eastern Algarve we loved it all.

People

Perhaps it is their fondness of the British (and our time zone), eagerness to enter into conversation and impeccable English that made it very easy to like the Portuguese (or Portugeezers as Stefan now calls them!).

We did not cover ourselves in glory in our attempts to learn Portuguese. By the end of our two months we could just about order two coffees with milk, ask for the bill and say and thank you. On the other hand the Portuguese have a grasp of English excellent enough to enable us to get a mobile phone unlocked in Viana do Castelo and arrange for a fridge engineer to visit in Nazare.

Although there was ever present evidence of the impact of the country’s financial crisis, this did not appear to dampen the Portuguese spirit nor interfere with their love of a party. We witnessed spontaneous dancing in the streets of a fishing village on the Douro river, dressing up as pirates in Figueira da Foz, all generations rocking to Ritchie Campbell at the festival in Peniche and women celebrating life in the sea at Sines.

But perhaps unsurprisingly on our coastal hop it was the men and women of the fishing industry with whom we became best acquainted.

Fishing and its folk

We enjoyed something of a love/hate relationship with the ever present fishermen. Their pots and wash were a price worth paying to share their coast for a while.

We witnessed a variety of methods of fishing, from pots to nets and the farms of the shallow waters around Olhao.  We never quite worked out the economics of their industry but have nothing but respect for those who go out in all states of weather and swell to honour their tradition and provide for their families.

We saw too the role that women play in the industry – drying the fish, canning it and selling it at the market.

Even as a vegetarian it felt a privilege to share in their often noisy celebrations and we leave with a lot more love for them than hate.

….although if any Portuguese fishermen are reading this, just a little more effort with the identification devices on your fishing pots would be much appreciated.

Birdlife

Our RSPB bird book which promised coverage of Europe failed to help us identify the seabirds which kept us company along the Portuguese coast resulting in identifications such as “some sort of gannet type thing” or a “tern of some kind”.

Seagulls were a constant presence and sometime source of amusement.

Further south we had our introduction to storks and their indiscriminate and seemingly tolerated nests.

We also found swallows celebrated in decoration in the streets.

But our strangest and most unexpected bird encounter were the ostriches we cycled passed on our way to Porto Covo!

Geography

Perhaps obviously our experience of Portugal’s geography has been from the sea.It is a coastline often dominated by dramatic rocky cliffs like these at Nazare, Peniche and Setubal

and the golden rocks and caves of Praia da Rocha and Portimao.

There are also some very long, low stretches of sandy coastline as between Leixoes and Figuiera da Foz and the beautiful sand islands where we said goodbye to Portugal in Culatra.

Portugal certainly provided us with hills to climb, some pretty steep  – in Viana, in Sintra and inland the limestone crag  at Pena on our Roadtrip with the Munchingers.

Food

Although we had some brilliant food experiences in Portugal – tuna night in Leixoes, sardine afternoon in Peniche, an incredibly extravagant 10 or more course meal cooked for us by Davina in Lisbon – Portuguese cuisine itself was not a highlight. Dominated of course by fish, I resorted to salad and chips with the odd omelette when eating out.

Perhaps our favourite meal in Portugal had more to do with the place than the food and was in our first stop in Viana do Castelo. In a very local cafe we had two simple but excellent pizzas accompanied by two enormous glasses of wine – all for 8 Euros. We ate surrounded by local men, women and children, all sat facing into the restaurant (we were the only people sat opposite each other at our table) watching the football on the television at the back.

Watching football whilst eating in Portugal is not reserved just for small local cafes. Even when we had a meal with Richard on his last night with us in Lisbon, the quiet swish marina side restaurant was dominated on one wall by an enormous screen.  Portugal having just won the European Championship, we could forgive this near religious following of the game but suspect it would have been the same even if they hadn’t.

Of course we cannot eat out every night and meals on board are dominated by the ingredients we can get wherever we stop.

We enjoyed lots of fruit and vegetables from the markets along the coast. Stefan got very fed up with all the salad we found there! It was the ingredients that we couldn’t find for some of our favourite dishes that surprised us. Despite being the home of piri-piri sauce, we did not find fresh chilli peppers until we got to Lisbon and fresh mushrooms were incredibly scarce too. In Nazare we added several kilometres to our walk, scouring the streets for mushrooms to no avail.

In the Algarve we were even able to forage – pomegranates, figs and citrus trees abounded in the Serra do Caldeiroa.

Portuguese sweet things surrounded us everywhere. We had our first taste of pastel de nata in Porto and twice enjoyed them from their birthplace in Belem, once as a take away and once for breakfast. In Culatra we enjoyed the extreme sugar rush of their local delicacy.

Architecture

From our introduction to a Roman settlement in Viana do Castelo and a Moorish castle in Sintra to the modern buildings of Leixoes, Cascais and Lisbon, Portugal offered it all in terms of architecture.

The new cruise ship terminal in Leixoes was a brilliant white Walnut Whip like surprise as we made our way into the harbour. The Paula Rego museum in Cascais as interesting on the outside as the inside (and a lot less disturbing!). Gare de Oriente station in Lisbon easily takes on the new Kings Cross station in London for its spectacular roof.

Portugal’s geography means lots of opportunity to show off with bridges. Gustav Eiffel and his student had been busy in Viana and Porto. The Golden Gate style Ponte25 de Abril provides a spectacular (and noisy) welcome to Lisbon and the newer Vasco de Gama bridge further up the Tejo boasts being the longest in Europe.

We saw lots of fading but still beautiful buildings waiting to be brought back to life and slightly creepy door knockers.

But Portugal’s architecture is completely dominated by the azulejos. There are tiles everywhere – in palaces, in stations, in the fishermen’s quarter, some ancient, some modern, some decidedly 1970s.

Art and music

To our shame we did not hear any live fado although we could not avoid it piped into the streets of Coimbra, a variation of the typical lament this time mourning the leaving of university.

What live music we did see (and hear late into the night!) at the fesitival in Peniche cannot claim to be Portuguese in origin but certainly appeared to be incredibly popular and was very catchy – I can still find myself singing This is how we roll courtesy of our introduction to Ritchie Cambell.

But we found ourselves surrounded by art in its many forms.

Best setting for a museum goes to the Photography Museum in Porto in the old prison, complete with original gates and cells.

The Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon delivered beautiful glass, textiles, jewellery and sculpture (including my favourite Rodin).

In Cascais we were introduced to Paula Rego, “Portugal’s best known living artist” and long time UK resident, and her dark, dark, twisted fairytale scenes. Cameras weren’t permitted so we spare you the accompanying nightmares! But you can see more here if you dare.

As in Northern Spain we found plenty of beautiful public art

and lots of street art.

We found it hard to leave Portugal and could have lingered longer anchored off Culatra but Spain was calling.

Obrigrada/o Portugal!

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