I have been reading a good book that outlines how a country that was once the most adventurous and entrepreneurial in the world fell into great malaise and enduring stagnation. It's a country whose immense ship-building skills gave its sailors tremendous advantage over the seas. The drive and ambition of its people to explore the world was fueled by clergy who wanted to convert savages; nobles and merchants who wanted to increase their wealth, and kings who wanted to increase power.
"Portugal, once an envied world power and, in the sixteenth century arguably the world's wealthiest nation, has become an unheralded land,'' write Barry Hatton in The Portuguese: A Modern History.
Much figured into Portugal's demise as a world power. "With the arrival of the Inquisition, established in Lisbon in 1536, the Church of Portugal, which had hitherto shown tolerance to the Muslims and Jews, hardened into a dogmatic and unyielding institution,'' Hatton writes.
The Dutch set their sights on Portugal's overseas assets as Portugal fell victim to power games between the Dutch, France and England. In 1755, the largest earthquake to ever hit Europe all but leveled Lisbon and all the rest of history conspired to leave Portugal in history's wake. Illiteracy, the lack of a strong middle class, little raw materials and especially coal: The Industrial Revolution did not take place in Portugal. In the 20th Century and now, even the poorest parts of Spain were still better off than Lisbon.
I'm not a student of European history, nor am I an avid world traveler, but Portugal is such a strikingly different kind of country that it begged me to try and square up the story behind what I saw and felt while I was there. Portugal's back story is one of heartbreak and failure, but the result is a place where the pace is accidentally human.
Portugal Is Personal
The wonder of life is that you can never exactly anticipate what event or experience will make you see yourself or the world in a new light, or anticipate how a person or place will forever alter the movie that plays in your mind.
Exactly two years ago I went to Portugal. It was my first visit to the country and it was a stroke of luck -- a gift within an already much-appreciated and cool work assignment.
I had been asked to cover the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team in advance of the 2015 Women's World Cup. Pretty great already, given the domestic travel I'd be taking for matches and then the eventual month-long trip to Canada. But in the middle of all that hum of work and travel and excitement, the U.S. team traveled to the Algarve coast in southern Portugal to play in a pretty good international tournament. I got to go, too.
From the moment I stepped off my easy, non-stop flight from Newark to Lisbon and started walking the narrow, dark, hilly, winding and stone tile-clad streets, I knew I was experiencing a city and country unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was magical not because it was fancy or "European" or foreign in some mysterious way, but because Lisbon is colorful but worn, enduring but not quite persistent, slow with a lazy sense of resignation.
It wasn't timeless like Paris or London, but fixed in the past -- decades behind countries like Spain or Italy or France. And the distinct impression is that Portugal is not lagging behind and is on course to catch up to the hectic, glitzy modernity that has draped so many cities and countries around the world. It will remain embedded in its own pocket of space, untied to the usual arc of history. It's a reality strikes you fast, and deep, and does so in the way the bright-colored tiles and paint are smudged with grime and dark edges of decay.
Portugal was suffering, perhaps, but resigned to its station. The language sounded more Bulgarian than romance, which relieved me of any notion of trying to decipher anything anyone was saying. The people in the markets, metro trains and squares were lively if not exactly jovial or extroverted. They didn't seem to notice me, but I didn't feel ignored or invisible. I found myself noticing how much the young people held hands and seemed uncomplicated and not neurotic, as if they had been reared outside the frenetic atmosphere of American and other strains of insidious pop culture.
Portugal was, simply, fascinatingly foreign while also not terribly intimidating. And I found myself hooked by Lisbon and the Algarve, where I explored old cities in Albufeira and Loule, where every tomato salad and dish of piri piri chicken induced another self-satisfied wave of emotion. Portugal was a place you could simply just BE.
Portugal As Internalized Motion Picture
It's been a vast, tumultuous, strange and loopy months here in America since that three-week trip I took to Portugal in March 2015. I suppose that maybe part of the reason Portugal has become an enduring star in the movie I play in my brain is because what I saw was like nothing I had quite seen before.
When I get sick and tired or downright alarmed by what has happened in the U.S. since that visit, I find myself turning to Portugal, extolling its magic and allure to friends and family, vowing to go back as soon as I can, contemplating retirement there or large chunks of time in the Algarve to wander the beaches and old cities and market places.
Lisbon's streets are serviced by trolleys you can pay one fare and ride all day. The art museums and culture are to linger over. The Algarve is a universe that the Swedes and Spanish and Germans and Brits have long made their warm-weather outpost. I met a gaggle of Canadian retirees who crowed about how good they had it for 3 months of the year, eating fresh foods for next to nothing under the Algarve sun.
Olives, fresh fish, cured meats, cheeses, fava beans and wine that costs four Euros for a delicious, deep red -- Portugal may have long fallen from economic grace, but the aftermath is antidote for me. It is a country now fixed in my mind's eye, sunlit, a slow-turning and hard-baked little planet that pulls me back.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.