The pulse of Middle Portugal

From Fátima I headed east on a 30-km waymarked route to the town of Tomar, which is astride the pilgrims’ way from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela. The Fátima to Tomar spur, marked with yellow signs for Santiago, is called the “caminho nascente” (rising path), because you are walking in the direction of the rising sun. The route was mainly quiet country roads with some woodland tracks.

The prosperity of Fátima quickly gave way to the kind of Portuguese village I had seen so often, with stone houses falling down, deserted streets and a general air of abandonment. It wasn’t all desolation; there were occasional signs of life like a cafe or a well-tended garden. 

On one occasion I spotted a boy, aged perhaps nine or 10, helping with the olive harvest. It was the first time in rural Portugal that I had seen a child on a farm.

The glory of this route is the remarkable aqueduct of Pegões, just west of Tomar, and I didn’t want to miss that. I spent a night in a pilgrims’ hostel in the village of Fungalvaz so that I could walk past the aqueduct in broad daylight the next morning. The hostel, right next to the church, was well-equipped and even boasted a bottle of Scotch whisky in the kitchen.

The Pegões aqueduct was worth the wait. In the late morning it came into view on my left, an extraordinary six-kilometre long stone structure with two levels of arches, snaking through the countryside. It was built between 1593 and 1614 to take water to Tomar’s Convento de Cristo. 

I walked into Tomar in bright sunshine and children were skating on a small ice rink in the town’s main square. It all felt suitably festive in the run-up to Christmas.


I immediately took a liking to Tomar, a pretty town with swans and ducks gliding on the river Nabão and a rich history rooted in the traditions of the medieval Knights Templar who began as an order of poor monks and evolved into an elite fighting force in the Crusades. Having accumulated power, the Knights Templar came to a bad end in the early 14th century at the hands of a French king and in popular fiction they are sometimes portrayed as villains. But in Tomar they are highly revered. Tomar’s main square is dominated by a statue of Dom Gualdim Pais, the Templar Grand Master who founded the town in the 12th century. The Templar cross, narrow at the centre and broader at the periphery, adorns the pavements. The town’s newspaper, predictably enough, is O Templário.

In most of Europe the Knights Templar were annihilated in the early 14th century. But Portugal followed its own path. After the Templars were abolished by papal bull in 1312, in Portugal they rose again under the protection of King Dinis I, with the new name of the Order of Christ. They were very powerful in late medieval Portugal and helped to finance the epic sea voyages in the Age of Discoveries.

Above the town is the Convento de Cristo, the Templars’ former headquarters. This is one of the extraordinary buildings of western Europe, a very atmospheric complex of chapels and cloisters set within 12th century walls. The Charola, a 16-sided Templar church adorned with 16th century wall paintings, is the jewel in the crown. According to the Lonely Planet guide: “It’s said that the circular design enabled knights to attend Mass on horse-back.”

Tomar is pretty much in the heart of Portugal and after visiting the Convento de Cristo I decided to step back from the day-to-day sightseeing and take the pulse of the country. My own judgment is that Portugal is a relaxed, super-friendly country to travel through, but perhaps too relaxed for its own good. The slow death of so many inland villages looks to me like a sign of drift, of a country sleepwalking into difficulties. There are some voices in Portugal sounding an alarm. Parliamentary deputy Luis Leite Ramos has warned that two-thirds of the country could become depopulated.


To get some views on the state of Portugal I talked to Isabel Miliciano, director of O Templário and the weekly newspaper’s one full-time journalist. I quickly discovered that she had some firm views on Portugal, which she described as being in crisis.

“I see two serious problems in Portugal – the destruction of production and corruption. These are two very serious problems,” she said.

Much of our conversation in the small office of O Templário focused on these two themes.

She spoke of Portugal’s brush with bankruptcy after the financial crisis of 2008 and said that globalisation had led to the closure of many Portuguese factories. “We here in Tomar had many paper factories. We produced paper since the 19th century. Textiles, we had a textile factory that was one of the first in Europe, the Fiação factory which had 1,500 workers. Everything has closed. During the last 15 to 20 years they gradually closed. The last paper factory closed last year (2017). It was called Prado. Today we are importing paper from Spain and other countries.

“All this meant that the country went into an economic recession. Our politicians and high Portuguese financiers became corrupt. We had one prime minister taken prisoner. He is still to go on trial…”

Miliciano was referring to the former Socialist prime minister José Sócrates, who in October 2017 was indicted on graft and money laundering charges. The indictment said he had received millions of euros from a scheme involving the disgraced former bosses of the Espírito Santo banking empire and Portugal Telecom which have both ceased to exist. Sócrates has denied the charges. In all 19 individuals from the country’s elite were charged in the biggest corruption case in modern Portuguese history, Operation Marquês.

She painted a picture of a country which had been on the brink of bankruptcy and received a reprieve from an international rescue package of 78 billion euros in loans in 2011 and the boom in tourism. But she still fretted about Portugal’s longer-term future.

She touched on the theme of the continuing brain drain from western Europe’s poorest country. “German companies come here to recruit engineers,” she said. “The United Kingdom comes to look for nurses…Our country makes the effort to train good professionals, but afterwards it doesn’t get benefit from them. It lets them leave.”

Finally we touched on the phenomenon of Portugal’s falling population. Miliciano has her finger on the pulse of Tomar’s population since her newspaper publishes the births and deaths in the municipality. She said that every year about 500 people died in Tomar, while between 200 and 250 babies were born. She said couples were often reluctant to have children because of the cost.

“We earn money just to eat, to pay the rent,” she said. “We live day to day, we don’t build up a reserve.”

The number of people on Tomar’s electoral roll, she said, had dropped by about 3,000 since 2011. Tomar now has a population of about 35,000, divided equally between the town and the surrounding countryside.

It was sobering to listen to this downbeat assessment from Miliciano. Tomar, after all, is in a very fertile region, the Ribatejo, watered by the river Tejo.

I walked out from O Templário and into a local museum hosting an exhibition on the wildfires that ravaged Portugal in 2017, causing more than 100 deaths and burning about 520,000 hectares of forest. This represented nearly 60 percent of the forests burned in the entire European Union.

In the museum I talked to Filipe Martins, who had helped to take some of the photographs for the exhibition. He too was downbeat, echoing themes developed by Miliciano. “We are not producing anything. We are leaving our land abandoned,” said the 28-year-old studying photography in Tomar. On a scale of zero to 10, how did he gauge the economic and social well-being of Portugal? He gave the country a three. Would he stay in Portugal when he graduated? “I would like to stay in Portugal, but if I got a better opportunity than here I would probably go,” he said.

Seeing a welcoming Union Jack on the door of an estate agent’s office, I dropped in and talked to Patricia Henriques. It is an estate agent’s vocation to be upbeat and she was. From her perspective business was good, but she did note that foreigners accounted for between 30 and 35 percent of her clients. She had British, Brazilian, Australian and French buyers in particular. Without them, things would be quiet. “I joke that Portugal is being sold off to foreigners,” she said, hastening to add that this was better than houses falling down. She was more optimistic than the student about the state of her country, giving it six out of 10.

When I left Tomar centre and walked south out of the town I finally saw what Miliciano the newspaper director had stressed – the closure of industry. One big building after another was abandoned. At a former cement works a little south of Tomar there was still a table and two chairs in the reception office at the entrance. Economic decline is part of the ebb and flow of human affairs, but there is always something arresting about stillness where once there was bustle.


Overload at Fátima

I set off for Fátima on a misty morning, crossing a bridge over the Mondego river as cormorants swarmed over the waters just downstream. 

Right from the centre of Coimbra there were waymarks for Portugal’s leading shrine. This was the first time on my Portuguese journey I had followed a waymarked route. It is a different kind of journey – there is a feeling of being held somehow, of being part of an invisible crowd of pilgrims who have gone before. Fátima waymarks are blue. For the first couple of hours, to a village called Cernache, there was often a blue strip on the minor road I was following every 12 paces or so. 


A little later the pilgrim way went right past the ruined walls of Conímbriga, one of the biggest Roman settlements excavated in Portugal. Finally, in the afternoon, the waymarked route became a footpath wending its way through some gorgeous countryside, with wooded ravines and then a little brook running parallel to the path. What a joy to leave roads behind! One feature of the day was farmers harvesting olives.

After spending the night in a hostel in the town of Rabaçal I hit the trail again. Shortly before nine o’clock the guns started popping. It was a hunting day and men with their dogs were scattered over the countryside. “What are you after?” I asked one hunter standing by the path. “Partridge and rabbit,” he said. 

I had a cafe stop in the village of Alvorge and when the man tending the bar discovered I was British he told me with pride in his voice that the two retired couples at one table were also British. I went over to say hello. They all lived locally and one of the women had been born in Gwaelod-y-Garth near Cardiff. All seemed happy with their lot and had taken a deliberate decision to live away from the coast and its tourist crowds. Their presence in this part of Portugal seemed a sign of the relative vigour here of village life, compared with some dying communities I had seen further north.

After two more overnight stops, in Ansião and Caxarias, I finally drew close to Fátima. The last stretch, after night had fallen, was a long climbing hill road. I was very happy to arrive. From Coimbra it had been a four-day hike of about 113 km.

I settled into a Fátima cafe. Was I still in rural Portugal? At one table near me a young man worked on a laptop. Most of the customers were young women. The menu offered unheard of possibilities like guava milkshake and crepes with fruit. Normally, small town Portugal is not big on choice. Typically, in a restaurant, the waitress will come over and tell you that the choice is beef with potatoes or salt cod with potatoes. Everywhere there are the two standard beers, Sagres and Super Bock, and of course local wine. The median age in a small town cafe is over 50 and there is never a laptop in sight. I was all in favour of a young, cosmopolitan Fátima. It was just utterly different from the rural Portugal to which I had grown accustomed. Suddenly I was in another world. In my hotel the main language was Spanish and this too was a novelty. 

I am not a practising Christian and rather predictably I found I did not excel in the role of Fátima pilgrim. I am conscious that I need to tread carefully here. Over the decades millions of people have gone on pilgrimages to Fátima and I am sure have drawn nourishment from the journey. I personally experienced overload, intellectual and emotional, and I have tried to work out why.

I think the overload was partly due to the sheer physical size of the Shrine and partly to what I experienced in the moment as complex messaging. I found it impossible to apply my usual technique while travelling of trying to limit the amount of experience I had in one day. Fátima comes as one Big Experience package, rather like the Manhattan skyline. But whereas the Manhattan skyline, for me, is an uplifting celebration of human energy, Fátima is a celebration of God and I personally couldn’t find nourishment in the manner of celebrating the divine.


So, first the size of the place. It took my breath away when I first saw the great expanse of tarmac at the Shrine of Fátima, bigger than anything you would normally see outside of an international airport. There are basilicas at either end of this tarmac. The more recent of the two is the round modernist Basilica da Santissima Trinidade. I sat alone in this basilica which was built to accommodate 8,633 people. Does God really want places of worship as big as this? The other basilica, de Nossa Senhora do Rosário, is more modest in scale, a gracious white building with the tombs of the three children who saw the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Fátima back in 1917.

I see that in logic the scale of pilgrimage means that the site has to have big facilities. According to the information service of the Shrine of Fátima, about 10 million pilgrims arrived in 2017, the 100th anniversary of the apparitions, and in a normal year about six million come. I am talking here about my personal reaction to the scale of things.

Then there is the messaging, which raised so many questions that my mind started to spin. At one entrance to the Shrine there is a chunk of the Berlin Wall, with an inscription next to it quoting words uttered by Polish-born Pope John Paul II in Fátima in 1991. 

“Thank you, heavenly shepherd, for having guided the peoples to freedom with motherly affection.” (This is my translation of the Portuguese text: “Obrigado, celeste pastora por terdes guiado com carinho maternal os povos para a liberdade.”) 

As an agnostic unschooled in theology I found the twinning of these two themes, the Virgin Mary and the fall of the Berlin Wall, beyond my understanding. An old friend who is a Roman Catholic has since helped me with historical context so my Fátima visit has borne some fruit. I am now a little less ignorant. The connection apparently lies in the second of the three “secrets” or prophecies which the three children said the Virgin Mary gave them during the apparitions. These were written up by the eldest child many years later. The second “secret” was couched in oracular language but was taken to refer to communism in Russia. The children said they were told that if Russia was consecrated to the Virgin and a particular programme of prayers instituted, the evil in the end would be brought down. Pope Pius XII was very influenced by this and consecrated Russia to the Virgin in 1952. During the 1950s and 1960s Sunday mass in every Roman Catholic church in the world was concluded with prayers for the conversion of Russia. John Paul II, who was also deeply influenced by Fátima, carried out a second consecration to the Virgin in 1984.

John Paul II is psychically very present at Fátima. The bullet that nearly killed him in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981 – anniversary of the first Fátima apparition – is now part of the statue of Our Lady of Fátima at the very heart of this shrine, at the Capela das Apariçoes. The bullet has been inserted into Our Lady’s crown.

Fátima for me was a challenging experience. I felt very alone. Where had Portugal gone? Suddenly the language I was hearing most was Spanish, because in my hotel there were Spanish-speaking women pilgrims playing cards, loudly, for hour after hour.

Travellers need to be flexible and perhaps Fátima held up a mirror to show me the limits of my own flexibility. 

The first capital of Portugal

It is quite a while since Coimbra was the capital of Portugal – 763 years to be exact. But the visitor quickly picks up that this city, in its bones, doesn’t like playing second fiddle to anyone. Coimbra was the country’s first capital from 1131 to 1255, and memories in Portugal are long. 

It’s a city which I experienced as deeply feminine, like a Portuguese woman singing fado, soulful, sensual, rich in feeling. Seen from the other side of the Mondego river, so as viewed in the image above, the city looks to me like a painting by Claude Monet, with flow and colour and poetry. 

When I arrived there was a singular touch to the city’s fashionable shopping streets – Communist posters were everywhere, complete with an image of Lenin, advertising a dinner to commemorate Russia’s October Revolution of 1917. The moral seemed to be – expect the unexpected in Coimbra.

I learned a new tongue-twister when visiting this city – Conimbricense, so a native of Coimbra. The Conimbricenses are proud of their home town, as well they should be. It is a very comely city. It has the oldest university in the Portuguese-speaking world. It is the burial place of the country’s first two kings. It has been the cradle of much Portuguese art, in particular sculpture. It was even the scene of Portugal’s most famous love story and its terrible bloody end.

Like all of Portugal’s big cities, Coimbra was a major centre in Roman times. Its Machado de Castro National Museum is remarkable. The museum is built on top of the Roman forum which had to be supported by a complex cryptoportico of vaulting that enabled the forum to be flat on a hilly site. Visitors can walk through these profoundly atmospheric Roman galleries and that is an experience I have never had in any other museum.


One distinctive feature of the city is the architectural echo of the three centuries, from 714 to 1064 when Coimbra was ruled by the Moors. This eastern influence is part of its charm and a reminder of the period when the lands which now form Portugal were part of the Muslim world. Coimbra’s medieval Arco de Almedina looks so very Middle Eastern that it is easy to imagine a camel will appear at any moment to pass through the gate.

A big part of Coimbra’s sense of identity comes from its university which has had a curious history. It began life in Lisbon in 1290 and then shuttled back and forth between Lisbon and Coimbra before it settled permanently in Coimbra in 1537. Today there is a highly cosmopolitan student body and students are a conspicuous part of city life.

The jewel in the university’s crown is arguably the Biblioteca Joanina, a remarkable 18th century library. The visitor enters the building on a floor below the books library and is directed first into prison cells where miscreant students were incarcerated. The university apparently had its own legal system, but after a liberal revolution in Portugal in 1834 the prison cells were used to store books. A visit to prison cells was a surreal, unexpected prelude to seeing the library, a magnificent structure with frescoed ceilings. The university is very proud of the library’s resident colony of bats which eat the insects which would otherwise devour the books. Apparently there is only one other library in the world with resident bats and that is the Mafra Palace Library, also in Portugal.

One day I crossed the Mondego river and went to a place called the Quinta das Lagrimas, the Estate of Tears, associated with the most celebrated love story in Portuguese history and its gruesome end. Today, rather incongruously, you walk past a golf academy to reach the place where, according to legend, noblewoman Inês de Castro was murdered in 1355. She certainly was killed in Coimbra and the murder was ordered by King Afonso because he disapproved of his son Pedro’s longstanding romance with her. After Pedro became king two years later he ordered that the assassins’ hearts be torn from their bodies. Operas and ballets, poems and plays have immortalised the tale, still well known to every Portuguese.

I tried to explore one broad social question connected with Coimbra’s history, namely what happened to all the Muslims when Moorish rule came to an end in 1064. But the answer remained elusive. I contacted Coimbra’s small modern mosque in a northern suburb and arranged to go and see members of the Muslim community. When I turned up I was kindly invited into Friday afternoon prayers. A teenage boy from Turkey, using sign language, gave me instructions on the necessary ablutions prior to entering the prayer room. It was the first time I had been admitted to a Muslim service. About 40 worshippers, all male, were in attendance.

After prayers I had a chance to talk to the mosque’s long-serving imam, Mamadou Saidou Diallo, from Guinea-Conakry. “What happened to all the Muslims in Coimbra after the Reconquista,” I asked. “I think they were all expelled, but I am not sure,” he said. Today’s Muslim community in Coimbra, he said, was about 100 strong and included people from the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and Africa.

There are comments written in Coimbra’s Old Cathedral which suggest to me that some Muslims remained. At the tomb of Sesnaldo Davides, the first governor of Coimbra after the Reconquista, there is a modern tribute to him. It reads: “With rare qualities as a diplomat and with a great capacity for dialogue, Sesnando established peace and respect between the Christian and Muslim communities of the region.”

Portugal’s long Reconquista of lands from the Moors carried on until 1249 when the last Moorish enclave (Faro in the Algarve) was finally taken.

In the words of historian A.R. Disney: “A grand experiment in inter-communal existence on European soil had finally ended in failure.” 


Gifts from the Portuguese


From the Douro, a prime Portuguese destination for visitors, I headed south through country that was off the tourist track. The flavour of travel was very different. 

The rationale for my route was that I wanted to pay my respects to the home town of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux who in 1940 helped thousands to flee Nazism by giving them visas in defiance of his government’s orders. This meant a swing through countryside with comparatively few hostelries before reaching the next major centre, Coimbra.

For me, big themes on this eight-day journey were the warmth and friendliness of people on my route and, yet again, the emptying of the countryside.

I set out from Peso da Régua on the Douro with no accommodation booked, trusting that at day’s end I would find somewhere. Walking through country still planted with vines, I arrived first at the old cathedral city of Lamego. Following the advice of a local on the shortest route, I walked up all the monumental steps of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remédios, a shrine that took one-and-a-half centuries to build. Having climbed to the top, I then promptly lost my way. I found the right track eventually, but this episode rather shortened my walking day.

With nightfall approaching, I went into a bar in the village of Penude and asked the man serving whether he knew of anywhere to lodge in those parts. He said Father Adriano in the parish social centre next door would sort me out. I went there and got no further than the receptionist, who said they had no room. She gave me the name of a restaurant a few kilometres further along and suggested I try there.

So, in the rain, I marched on. A woman on the other side of the road saw me, crossed over the road and thrust her umbrella into my hands. I was wearing waterproofs, top and bottom, but she  felt this was not enough. A few days earlier another woman had stretched her arm out of a car window and given me her floppy hat. This sort of kindness is touching and it definitely helps shape my attitude towards the Portuguese.

Still in the rain, a few kilometres further on, I spied another cafe and decided to make enquiries again. Now this is where the story of that evening gets messy. But if the traveller omits all instances of messiness and puts out a narrative reeking of tidiness, this distorts the truth.

So I went into the second cafe and the woman serving said she could sort out somewhere for me. She provided no details, but insisted on giving me a soup. After my soup, since nothing seemed to be happening, I asked her where she had in mind for my lodgings. The parish social centre in Penude, she said. I explained I had already been turned away by this establishment.

At this point another person stepped on stage, into this little playlet. I’ll call him Prizefighter. Now Prizefighter had been busy in the small bar making a nuisance of himself, going up to other men and loudly spoiling for a fight. He now decided to take up metaphorical cudgels on my behalf. He phoned the priest, whose social centre had sent me away. Although almost certainly drunk, Prizefighter was very well-mannered in his conversation with Father Adriano. He appealed to the priest’s humanity and painted a desperate picture of my plight. The priest held firm and Prizefighter conceded defeat. According to my benefactor’s account of the conversation, Father Adriano said he had rooms for pilgrims walking north to Santiago de Compostela, but it was not his job to help unknown quantities walking south. Prizefighter was not finished yet. He phoned the restaurant, a few kilometres ahead, which might have rooms. He got a “no” from them too. With his job done, he warmly bade us all goodnight and left.

Meanwhile, it was still raining and night had fallen. There now followed a long conversation in the bar about my options. This ended with a man whom I’ll call Driver telling me to jump in his car and we would head south prospecting for lodgings. Another man from the bar came too, so we were a proper little expedition.

We drove about 10 km and Driver turned off the road into a hamlet called Bigorne. He parked opposite a restaurant and in we went. One man stood alone in the restaurant and I put him down as the owner. Driver sketched out my plight, including the “no” from Father Adriano. The man listened carefully. Of generous girth, he had eyes that were both warm and shrewd. It rapidly became clear that he was not going to turn me away. Before he left, Driver told me that the man offering me a room was a Roman Catholic priest. His name was Father Agostinho Ramalho Pereira.

Within no time I was seated at a family dinner, with Father Agostinho, his mother, his divorced sister Maria and her teenage daughter. Maria, it turned out, ran the restaurant next door, which explained Father Agostinho’s presence there earlier.

We tucked into a saucepanful of chestnuts boiled with salt. I was less nimble-fingered than my fellow diners and every now and again Father Agostinho would hand me a chestnut which he had extracted whole from its skin. I felt like an incompetent trainee. We washed the chestnuts down with some red wine from the Douro and eventually moved on to some chicken soup.

The conversation focused partly on pilgrimages and Father Agostinho said that many years earlier his mother and sister had walked the 200 km to the shrine of Fátima in five days. An average of 40 km a day! Since I have only occasionally managed 30 km in a day I was shaken by this news. Portuguese pilgrims move in the fast lane. They had done the pilgrimage in May when the days were long and on the first morning had set out at 6 a.m. Father Agostinho urged me to visit Fátima and I promised that I would. I asked him whether he had done the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. He had, he said, adding with a twinkle: “By car.” I savoured this quiet family dinner after the fraught start to the evening. We spoke in Portuguese, but after dinner I discovered that Father Agostinho’s niece spoke excellent English, learnt, she said, by watching interviews on YouTube.

After this enjoyable domestic interlude I hit the road again the next morning. When it came time to find a bed for the night my experience was a neat counterpoint to the preceding day. In the village of Ribolhos, the woman who took care of the hostel for Santiago pilgrims didn’t mind in the least  that I was in fact walking south. I took a bed in an otherwise empty hostel. 

The next day, after nightfall, I walked into Viseu, the first major centre on my route since leaving the Douro. Viseu had a big city feel about it, though strangely it had no train station. In Porto, the guide Viriato had said to me that Portugal was divided between Lisbon and “the border with Spain”, meaning that the capital paid little attention to the rest of the country. Contemplating a city of 47,000 people without a train station, it seemed to me that Viriato had a point.

I had one full day to see the city and it rained for much of that time. What do you do if you’re in the middle of a strange city, it’s raining and you’re hungry? I think the answer to this question these days depends largely on age. Being a pensioner, I got out my Lonely Planet guide to Portugal and discovered there was a recommended restaurant about 50 metres away. Doubtless a youngster would have whipped out a smartphone, but this bookish approach works for me. So in no time at all I was out of the rain and inside a very cosy eatery called O Hilário, named for a 19th century fado singer who was born in the same street. My hour or so inside the restaurant reminded me of one great gift from the Portuguese – they listen. Admittedly I was the only customer, but the man who served me told me about the fado singer and about his city and listened to what I had to say. The conversation was food for thought.

In 2017, 12.7 million foreign tourists spent holidays in Portugal and the tourism sector is now the country’s biggest employer. The country has great beaches, including the world’s highest surf, historic cities and reasonable prices. But I think one factor in this success story is what I found in O Hilario – the readiness to listen and to talk. I don’t know why the Portuguese are so good at listening, but they are. 

Well restored by lunch, I made for Viseu’s Grão Vasco museum, which has paintings by one of Portugal’s leading Renaissance artists, Fernando Vasco (c 1475-1542). Known as Grão Vasco (the Great Vasco) he made his reputation with art works for Viseu cathedral which stands next door. What gripped my attention was a painting with a different spin on the familiar theme of the Three Wise Men visiting Jesus. Balthazar, sometimes depicted as a black man, in this painting is shown as a Brazilian Indian with a headdress with feathers and a spear. The museum says this painting was done soon after the Portuguese “discovery” of Brazil in 1500 and is the first depiction of an Indian from the Americas in Western art. It is striking that in this very first appearance the indigenous American is thrust into the central narrative of Christendom.

From Viseu to Coimbra was a three-day walk, still off the beaten track. I hiked through country where some of the villages had been so sapped by emigration that they seemed to be holding on by their fingernails. In one village south of Viseu, Parada de Gonta, where there were derelict buildings in the centre, an artist had painted a simple blue tile decoration showing two couples with suitcases and boxes heading for a train. I found it poignant.

I did finally reach the old mansion of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, in the town of Cabanas de Viriato. It stood out in a sprawling residential district, amidst big houses and gardens with well-laden orange trees. There are plans to turn the house into a memorial museum about his life and achievements in sparing Jews and others from Nazi death camps.  The website says the restoration of the house is well under way, helped by a grant from the European Union.

It was perhaps eccentric of me to traipse through the Portuguese countryside to see this place,  which is not yet open to the public. But I learned from my visit that a statue of another rebel stands in the home town of Sousa Mendes, that of Viriato, the most important leader of the Lusitanians resisting the Romans in the second century BC. A bit of rebel DNA is good!



The amazing Douro valley

A while ago good friends from Canada crossed the Atlantic for a river cruise on the Douro and that was the first time I realised that the river was such an international draw. So I went to the Douro with high expectations and was very moved by what I found.

The Douro valley is truly amazing. It has breath-taking landscapes, including the terraced vineyards growing grapes for Port wine, a rich history and an invigorating challenge to keep its best minds busy.

To try to do justice to the Douro, I departed from my usual rule on this Portuguese journey of walking from town to town. I covered some of the valley on foot, but I also travelled by boat and train. That gave me a more rounded experience of the river.

I began with a five-hour boat cruise from Porto to the town of Peso da Régua. The river is undoubtedly more scenic further upstream but the cruise was lazy, hazy travelling and I did learn that the Douro is not only about vineyards. Sometimes forest clothed both river banks and I could fantasize about being in an unspoilt valley. But more often there were settlements in view, sometimes riverfront beaches with little boats, churches perched on a hill.

We day-trippers had a recorded commentary on board in four languages – Portuguese, English, French and Spanish – so there was no missing the main elements of the story. One thing I learned was that the Douro valley used to have a coal-mining industry. On our right, not long after leaving Porto, we saw the relics of the Pejão coalfield closed by the Portuguese government  in 1994 after more than a century of mining.

Closer to our destination and also on the southern bank, the commentary told us about a gentler activity – the growing of cherries around the town of Resende. Every year in May or early June the town hosts a two-day cherry festival and sells nearly five tonnes of the fruit to visitors. Locals say that their cherry harvest is the first of the year in Europe. 

Our destination, Peso da Régua, has a special place in the valley’s history. It was from here that the boats set out to Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto, with barrels of wine to be stored and fortified to make Port. 

The town has the excellent Douro Museum which tells the story of the Port wine business and more besides. When I dropped by, the museum had an exhibition of highly evocative black-and-white photographs by Carlos Cardoso of the Douros’s disused railway branch lines. But the main focus is wine and much of what follows I learned from the museum.

In the area that is now Portugal people were making wine well before the arrival of the Romans. In the Middle Ages wine production in the Douro received a boost from Cistercian monasteries and some of the religious houses even had their own boats to get their wine to market.

A traditional “rabelo” in front of the Douro Museum

The symbol of the Douro valley is the “rabelo”, the traditional flat-bottomed wooden boat perfect for negotiating the shallow waters of the river before the 20th century construction of dams. It was the rabelos which took the wine to Vila Nova de Gaia. The voyage downstream to the Atlantic coast took up to six days, while the journey home took on average about a month-and-a-half. The rabelos kept working until the 1960s.

It was, of course, the British in particular who developed a fondness for Port. I don’t know whether  “moderation” was in Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, but the word certainly didn’t apply to his drinking habits.  “I have drunk three bottles of Port without being the worse for it,” was his boastful comment on one occasion. In the 18th century drinking prodigious quantities of Port just seemed to go with the job of being an upper crust Brit.

The museum highlights several developments in that century which helped to establish the modern Port industry. The first was the Methuen Treaty of 1703 between England and Portugal which made Port wine and English woollens the basis of trade between the two countries. The treaty laid down that Portuguese wines imported into England would pay one third less duty than French ones.

The first “marco pombalino”

Another was the decision in 1756 by the Marquis de Pombal, chief minister and effective ruler of Portugal, to demarcate the boundaries of vineyards in the Douro valley. Pombal took this pioneering step nearly a century before Bordeaux did the same sort of thing and he is hailed even today in the wine business as a visionary who established an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). Granite pillars,  335 in all and called “marcos pombalinos”, were set up to mark the wine region’s limits. Pillar number one, erected in 1758, is on display in the Douro Museum. 

The museum also highlights the human sweat and toil that was part of the valley’s development. It says: “Douro was one of the rare examples of capitalist agriculture in Portugal: between the late 18th century and the early 19th century over 30,000 Galician and Portuguese labourers were busy building walls, pruning, grafting or harvesting, whether or not they had previous winegrowing experience.” One museum guide told me that at least in northern Portugal the phrase “to work like a Galician” is still used today.

After a night’s rest in Peso da Régua, I walked east on the road that follows the Douro upstream, on the southern side of the river. I was, finally, in the region where the Port wine grapes grow. The  famous terraced vineyards stretched up the hills, a beautiful golden brown. Night fell before I reached my destination, Pinhão, and a driver insisted on taking me the last few kilometres.

The small town of Pinhão is a favourite spot for tourist boats cruising the river to moor for a while. It is on a bend in the river and on all sides vineyards reach for the sky. I wouldn’t nominate Pinhão as the Best Portuguese High Street – it has too many shabby buildings. But the place does have a serenity, a quality of romance that definitely embraces the Douro. I remember the scent of oranges, ripening on the trees. I remember a brilliant moon.

Pinhão train station

For the full Douro experience, in Pinhão I boarded a train, for what has been hailed as one of the great train rides of Europe. The train station in Pinhão puts you in a good frame of mind before the journey even begins. It is decorated with winsome blue tiles showing traditional scenes from Douro life, such as women harvesting the grapes. The train follows the Douro as far as Pocinho, the eastern terminus of the line which starts in Porto’s São Bento station. 

Part of the charm on this one-hour ride was being so close to the river,  on a stretch where is no road. The ever-changing landscapes were a tonic for the eye. The classic terraced vineyards are there, of course, but the train also rattled past hillsides of bare rock, olive plantations, orange groves, posh houses and derelict buildings. The last time I so enjoyed a train journey was about quarter of a century ago, travelling from the Chilean coast through the Andes to the Bolivian capital La Paz.

After a coffee in Pocinho, it was back the same way to Pinhão. On both journeys there were few passengers, but it must be a different story in summer.

I wanted to talk to a winegrower and arranged to see Paulo Duarte, a small producer with a vineyard high above Pinhão in the village of Casal de Loivos. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I confess that images of a nut-brown peasant bent over his vines pruning did spring into my mind. Predictably, the man I met was a suave, confident businessman. During my visit he gave visitors a guided tour of his property in two foreign languages, English and French. I am guessing that not too many of the world’s farmers could match this. He was at pains to tell me that this was just part of his skill set. He also knew how to grow grapes and olives.

A wine tasting room with a view

Two young polyglot women worked for him, serving the visitors with wine and chatting. The tourists tasted their wine on a terrace with gorgeous views over the Douro valley and its vineyards.

Senhor Paulo talked to me after his visitors had left. I said I had been walking through country regions in northern Portugal where there was no one left under 60. How was it in his home valley? The Douro, he said, faced the identical problem – the young had left.

“There are no people, the villages are deserted,” said Paulo, adding that grapes were now mainly being harvested either by Portuguese from other regions or by foreigners from as far away as Romania.

“The shortage of manpower is going to be a problem for us here in the Douro,” said Paulo. “Is going to be a problem?” I asked, querying his use of the future tense. “It already is (a problem),” said Paulo. I asked what he saw as solutions  and he said that over the long term he foresaw greater mechanisation. Traditionally the Douro grapes have been picked by hand because the steep terraces make the use of machines impractical, but Paulo pinned his faith on new technologies, on smaller machines.

Right now, so during the 2018 season, lack of manpower, he said, had been one factor limiting his harvest and those of others in the valley. This had been a difficult year, partly because heavy rain in the summer contributed to the spread of mildew in the grapes. He said his harvest had dropped by about a third compared with the previous year and he thought this was also the general experience in the Douro.

After this conversation with Paulo I went back to the Douro Museum. According to museum guide Marco Barrados, most of the Douro grape crop was now picked by workers from just two countries, Romania and Ukraine. He said that many of the Douro women who still helped to bring in the harvest were now about 80 years old.  In this year of exceptional difficulties winegrowers had been obliged to put up their daily rates of pay to attract workers.

A soul Welshman in Porto

Every human settlement worth its salt needs good storytellers and in the wondrous city of Porto I was lucky to meet a master of the craft.

On a wet November morning dozens of us gathered for a free English-language tour organised by Porto Walkers, a group of locals passionate about their city. I joined about 20 people from four continents and our guide was a Porto native called Viriato Morais.

Leading a walking tour of a major European city in the rain might daunt some, but Viriato delivered a virtuoso performance. He is a wiry, energetic man, born one day after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution  of 25 April 1974 which brought to a close nearly half a century of authoritarian rule.

Our guide had one big thing helping him – the grandeur, the vitality of the historic Atlantic city that is Porto. After a period of stagnation in the 20th century, it has now found its mojo again.

“Hello everyone, welcome to Porto, welcome to Porto Walkers. My name is Vi… And who am I? Well, I am a local guy. I was born and raised in the city of Porto, although I lived a little bit around the world. I lived in Spain, in France, in Belgium, in England, in Germany, in Wales, in Ireland, in Scotland, in Mexico, in Angola, in Brazil, well a little bit around the world. The main reason for that, it’s because I am a professional actor.”

Viriato, it transpired, had spent several months living in Pembrokeshire and professed a love of Wales and the Welsh. More of that later, because the matter at hand right now is Porto.

Art lovers at the train station

The first highlight of the tour was São Bento station, an unusual terminus in that tourists snapping pictures of its hand-painted tiles often seem to outnumber the train passengers. The tiles, about 20,000 of them, were the work of artist Jorge Colaço. The monumental task of painting and putting up the blue tiles, depicting scenes from Portuguese history, lasted from 1905 to 1916.

Viriato said of Colaço: “He was a Portuguese man, although he was born in Tangier, and he found a rule that came from the Moors that used to say that perfection belongs to God, so that way the artist or the creator cannot make a perfect job, otherwise he will be defying or insulting God.”  Viriato said the artist deliberately changed the position of five tiles, visible in the lower part of a battle scene, to avoid offending God.

Subjects tackled by Viriato ranged from art, architecture and history to the more edgy topic of consumer advice, offered as we stood on Porto’s most important shopping thoroughfare, Rua Santa Catarina, 1.5 km long. Our guide focused on one historic cafe on the street, with very fancy prices, and offered his take on marketing practice there.

“You’re going to go inside and they will say ‘Welcome this is J.K. Rowling’s table, welcome this is J.K. Rowling’s table, welcome this is J.K. Rowling’s table. Well, all the tables are going to be J.K. Rowling tables. And all of that because J.K. lived in Portugal between ‘91 and ‘94. But if you want to know a little bit more about her join the afternoon tour where that story will be developed in detail.” 

Viriato in full flow

By tackling a range of people and places with gusto and knowledge, Viriato held everyone’s attention – no mean feat for a tour of nearly three hours under grey skies and drizzle. 

We finished by walking down steep stone staircases to the quayside by the river Douro, where Porto’s priciest restaurants can be found. Viriato offered more consumer advice, useful for newcomers to Portugal. With total accuracy, he warned that many restaurants put bread, olives and other tidbits on the table when diners arrive. The unwary might think these are free, but they are not and can add considerably to the bill. Viriato said “Send it all back if you don’t want it.”

One message which came through strongly from our guide was that Porto’s success in attracting tourists makes it a very crowded place in summer. Viriato said that in the past summer (2018) there were nine tourists for every inhabitant in Porto, about twice the comparable figures for Barcelona (4:1) and London (5:1).

We met again after the tour and dug deeper into a few subjects. I said my understanding was that 20, 30 years ago Porto had gone through a bad patch. “In the 20th century, I would say, not only in the last 20 years…Porto, Portugal in general, with the wars, with our dictatorship, Porto was very much abandoned.”

Viriato then recounted a very personal story, bringing together his country’s own political renewal and his arrival in the world. “I was born on the 26th of April 1974, so the very first day of democracy in this country. So my Mum went to hospital on the 24th. I spent the 25th trying to come out and on the 26th I was out. A struggle for freedom, just like my country.”

When, I asked, did Porto hit bottom? “I would say the 80s. In the 80s Porto was a ghost town. In the 80s and 90s Porto was indeed a ghost town. Nothing was happening. I remember it was not safe at all to walk in the streets. Most of the neighbourhoods were not friendly…There was a big problem with drugs, drug addiction in Portugal, in the 80s and 90s.”

He said the shift from dictatorship to democracy and the big exodus of Portuguese people from Africa when the colonies finally won their independence all contributed then to social tensions.

When we discussed the recovery of the city, Viriato pinpointed 2001, when Porto was a European Capital of Culture, as a turning point and over the next few years transformation. “That was when you felt a massive change from the old city to the new city… Porto looked like a construction yard. We built the metro, we changed all the squares in the city.”

Today Porto is heaving with tourists, many of them from Asia, and to illustrate the speed and scale of change Viriato told a story of something that happened in 1999. He invited a Japanese friend to  stay with him in Porto and one day the Japanese friend got lost and did not appear for dinner. This was before mobile phones.

Viriato said: “I went to the main square and basically I screamed ‘anybody saw a Japanese?’ And funnily enough a guy came out of a bar and said ‘yes, I saw one’ and he pointed in this direction. So I went across the road and I screamed again and another guy came, ‘I saw one.’… He was the only Asian Japanese guy in town.” So the friend who was lost was found. “Can you imagine me asking that now in the city? That would be ridiculous today and we’re talking about 19 years.”

I asked Viriato if there were any downsides to the tourism boom for the people of Porto. “There are loads of downsides, loads of downsides, but at the end of the day I still consider it positive,” he said. One challenge now, with the crowded streets, was arriving on time for appointments. “Six years ago I could tell you “I’ll be there in 20 minutes,” because those were the 20 minutes taken for the last 20 years… In the last six years we don’t know. It can take 20 minutes, it can take half an hour, 45 minutes, one hour because a lot of traffic, people in the streets, groups of tourists made it totally impossible to calculate that sort of time.”

Another problem for locals has been steeply rising rents. “It is very difficult for the young generation to live in the city centre,” he said, adding that a small studio apartment in the centre cost at least 600 euros a month while the minimum wage was 570 euros.

The city’s population has haemorrhaged significantly in recent decades because of the poor living conditions in the late 20th century. Viriato said it had dropped from about 400,000 at the start of the 1980s to 216,000 today. “Now people are trying to return to the city,” he said.

He pinpointed the preservation of identity as the biggest struggle now faced by the people of Porto, which he said had historically been a “bubbling town” and a great trading centre with an independent spirit.

“What I felt in the last five years when we started getting the revenues, the tourists started arriving, the big fight now for the people of Porto is really to keep their identity and to teach that to the people who will come and are coming to stay in Porto, because we have loads of foreigners coming to live in Porto nowadays. In the last five years the amount of people that came on vacation and decided at some point to actually move over, it’s gigantic. So what we need – the obligation of the locals – is to pass that out to the people who are coming to stay in Porto. That passion that we have for the city, the spirit of the people of the city, yes our roughness, our foul mouth, our heart in the throat as we like to say, our not being afraid, but at the same time being family. So we are still very much a family here in town.”

During the walking tour, Viriato had said to me: “Wales is really my country. I am a Welshman inside.” So when we met for our one-on-one conversation I asked him to say more. In his twenties he had spent at least six months in Wales, invited by a friend to the Pembrokeshire village of Llawhaden near Narberth. He did a range of things there, from decorating to teaching circus skills to local children.

What did he like about Wales? “Oh, wow, everything really. I have learned a lot in Wales, funnily enough. I was really lucky to be with amazing people, the community around there, all of them were amazing people, very friendly. They taught me a lot about farming, fishing, construction, beekeeping…”

“I felt that the Welsh were very similar to the Portuguese….We have loads of things in common, I would say, the Portuguese and the Welsh. We are the quiet ones, we are the cool ones, you know…Let us enjoy the good things of life.”

A tale of two cities

The rivalry between Lisbon and Porto is legendary, but they are not the only Portuguese cities that love to hate one another (in a healthy way, of course).

Guimarães and Braga, the next two places of note on my itinerary, have a similar dynamic.

Sometimes a Braga native will readily admit that her city and Guimarães are ardent rivals. At other times what you get is a haughty curl of the lip and a refusal to admit that the good people of Braga waste any energy on Guimarães at all. Coarsely worded graffiti in Braga denouncing Guimarães tell their own tale.

I noticed the graffiti first and then observed another sign that perhaps these two cities do not always warm to one another. They are only 21 km apart, yet my map clearly shows that there is no rail link between them. Predictably enough, they are serious foes on the football field. One Braga native told me that the people of her city call residents of Guimarães Spaniards, while the Guimarães nickname for Braga folk is Moors. Neither epithet is meant to be complimentary.

Of course none of this affects the visitor in the slightest and both cities have much to offer. I walked into Guimarães first and checked into a hostel built in the mid-17th century. It was in one of the narrow cobbled streets in the old part of the city. 

The hostel owner, Fausto Araújo, was a gentle, round-faced man with the air of a professor, steeped in the city’s history. He told me first about his hostel, a granite structure with the biggest blocks of stone I have ever seen in a private building. He pointed out the heaviest stone, in the kitchen, which weighed six tonnes. Talk about the weight of history.

Soon in our conversation we were deep into the Napoleonic period. Fausto said that during the first Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, officers of the French army commanded by Marshal Soult insisted on being billeted in the best houses in Guimarães. Seven officers, he said, stayed in what is now his hostel. The natives were not friendly to them.

“When they stepped outside of the house after the first night they were ambushed and killed. The same happened to most of the other officers. The army became headless – no officers.” 

Talking to Fausto, it felt as if Napoleon’s invasions of Portugal happened yesterday. He spoke with great disdain for the French armies and with admiration for the British military leader opposing them, the Duke of Wellington.

“They stole everything we had,” he said of Napoleon’s forces. “If you go to French museums they are full of Portuguese things.”

The city’s marketing pitch to visitors focuses on a period much further back, the 12th century, when Portugal first became an independent kingdom. On a tall building in central Guimarães the words “AQUI NASCEU PORTUGAL” (Portugal was born here) are lit up at night.

Guimarães says the city was the birthplace of Afonso Henriques, first king of an independent Portugal, born to Henri of Burgundy and Dona Teresa, natural daughter of King Alfonso VI of León and Castile. In recent decades there has been a highly charged debate among historians over whether this truly was Afonso’s birthplace, but Guimarães’ sense of identity and its branding as a tourist destination are entwined with this central figure in Portugal’s foundation.

Schoolchildren are brought in droves to Guimarães castle, where this giant in Portuguese history is said to have been born.

What no one doubts is that a critical battle, with opposing forces led by mother and son, Teresa and Afonso, was fought near Guimarães, at São Mamede, in 1128. The son carried the day, defeating the soldiers of his mother and her Galician lover. This victory paved the way for Portugal’s separation from the Kingdom of León, which covered the northwest part of the Iberian peninsula.

Braga Cathedral, Portugal’s oldest

Braga muscles in just a bit on Portugal’s creation story because its cathedral, the oldest in Portugal, has the tombs of Teresa and Henri. I toured Braga cathedral with a guide. Surveying the tombs in the Capela dos Reis, the guide said of Afonso: “If he had lost the battle, today we would all be hablando español.” 

Braga and Guimarães are such different places. My sense was that Braga is more sure of itself, hardly surprising given its size. It has a population of about 180,000 which makes it the third biggest city in Portugal. While Lisbon and Porto, the two largest, now receive huge numbers of tourists, inland Braga is altogether quieter. Guimarães has a population of about 68,000.

Braga’s marketing pitch focuses on the great age of the city, founded by the Romans. Visitors are greeted by the sign “BRACARA AUGUSTA CIDADE BIMILENAR”. In other words Bracara Augusta, capital of the Roman province of Gallaecia, is 2000 years old.

Moorish-style designs in a Christian cathedral

But its crowning glory is medieval, the 11th century cathedral built before Portugal existed. Its treasures include a rusty iron cross said to have been used at the first Mass celebrated in Brazil in 1500. What caught my eye in the cathedral was a wall in the Capela da Glória covered with 16th century Moorish-style geometric designs, alongside a Christian human figure. My guide in the cathedral said that whereas Portugal had expelled Moorish warriors following the Reconquista, artists and farmers of Muslim origin remained in the country. 

The cathedral is very much a working building. On one Saturday when I was in town a society wedding took place inside. There were the usual women’s hats at crazy angles and a cream and black vintage car, a six-cylinder Humber Snipe, was parked in front of the cathedral waiting for the couple. It was all very elegant. A block or two away a busker played the violin, all verve and elbows. I warmed to Braga.

The city’s main thoroughfare is the Avenida Central, a very broad boulevard which was once elegant and is now distinctly faded. Tiles are missing on some of the buildings and the occasional roof has fallen in. Streets wax and wane and it would be foolish to carp about this disrepair. What upset me was the presence of a modern two-storey McDonald’s in a park area in the boulevard’s central reservation. How could the authorities have decided that this was in keeping with the heart of a historic Portuguese city?