Memories of Portugal

In the geography of my mind, Portugal’s hills rise up beside deep blue Atlantic waters and are crowned by endless skies of the clearest, purest blue. My first impression is also the lasting one: what light; what beauty!

Our visit to Portugal came at Johnny and Suzanne’s urging: join them in Portugal so that we could come to know the country of Johnny’s heritage. This visit, which began as an obligation, ended in a love affair with that ancient, historically rich culture.

The bright purity of the air struck me immediately. Only in the desert Southwest have I seen such clear, open blue. Add to that bright purity the ancient walls of castles, cathedrals, and monasteries and the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean, in deep greens and blues that artists reflect in the lovely porcelains of Portugal.

Houses are multi-story, with steps of marble. Colorful tiles in rich blue and yellow designs adorn the houses. Flowers of great abundance and beauty soften the landscape and lend a fragrance that mixes deliciously in the salt air. From the open windows of the houses often hangs the family’s laundry. Neighbors can stand in an open window and visit with neighbors in the streets or across a garden patio.

The neighborhood grocery store, far from a supermarket, provides the necessaries to set a good table: fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, canned goods. Shoppers carry their purchases home in string bags, or they pay a few cents per bag for plastic bags in which to carry their groceries.

Every neighborhood has a bread store. Each morning, one of the early risers goes out and down the street to the bread store to purchase, for a pittance, delicious breads and rolls—all freshly baked. And they have cookies at the bread store, as well!

Every neighborhood has its Ola! Ice cream stand, as well. On a hot summer afternoon, a nearby Ola! provides a delicious treat.

I don’t think that I saw a bug in all of Portugal. No mosquito ever buzzed in my ear; no fly darted maddeningly around a room to annoy, and no wasps or bees flitted among the flowers.

I had imagined Portugal to have narrow, winding cowpaths of roads. Not true. Some of the best super highways to be found are found in Portugal. “Round abouts” in the city intersections make traffic lights unnecessary. Traffic moves at a rapid and orderly pace.

City streets, especially those in the old parts of Lisbon, are like I imagined the roads of Portugal to be: narrow, steep, and winding. One’s destination, it seems, is always somewhere uphill. We learned quickly that it takes great stamina to walk up those narrow, steep, winding streets.

Portugal is a beautiful blend of the old and the new. Lisbon features a modern subway system and a world-class aquarium. And within a short distance of the center of the city is an aqueduct built by the Romans. Ancient explorers set sail from the harbor over which huge jet planes now soar.

The countryside is dotted with windmills, groves of cork trees, an occasional castle, and well-preserved monasteries. The walled city of Obidos is particularly impressive. Rising above an already hilly terrain, this walled city encloses winding streets filled with shops and workshops. Flowers in dazzling purples, yellows, reds, and blue fill pots, hang from baskets and window boxes, and creep like shy children from the most seemingly impossible niches. Inside the city is a church still in use and a palace which today serves as a luxury hotel.

The seaside town of Nazare preserves many of the Portuguese customs, both in dress and cuisine. It is true that tractors now drag the nets from the sea, whereas oxen once performed that task. But the women still appear in the streets dressed in the traditional seven skirts topped with a sparkling white apron.

In the markets of Portugal, one can fine beautiful linens, lovely tiles, wines, and hand-painted porcelain. At a grotto market at Boca d’Inferno, we saw the ocean crashing into a crater no doubt formed by the power of the ocean. Just a few yards away, we could wander through the grotto shops to buy linens and hand-painted cork trivets and coasters.

And the food! UMMM. The soups, fresh vegetables, breads, and fruits are offered in mouth-watering presentation. In a home we visited, the host took us “out back” to see his garden. To our surprise, he was growing collards, as well as beans, tomatoes, onions, squash. And his chickens nestled into a coop at the very back of the garden.

Portuguese meals feature fresh vegetables and fruits, delicious rice dishes, seafoods of all varieties, delicious breads and desserts to die for. In the center of Lisbon, there is a bakery at which tempting custardy pastries have been made (from a secret recipe) and served for more than a century.

Everywhere we went, we saw miniscule cars—called “Smart Cars” nosed into the tiniest of parking spaces. Nowhere did we see gas-guzzling cars. Almost everything we saw was European. American cars were a rarity.

The people are warm and welcoming. Their friendliness is a warmth that rivals the sun that shines as a blessing on Portugal. From the glass blowers to the fishermen to the conductors on the trains, we found warm and friendly people. Truly, Portugal is a treasure—a treasure I’m glad we discovered.

Betty Cochrane, Washington, North Carolina







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  • Updated:
    November 18, 2011