When I first arrived to Portugal in 1998, Lisbon was displaying its charms to the world in the World Expo. Portugal had long been overshadowed by Spain by tourists, and was until then somewhat of a well kept secret. In the past 20 years however, tourism has exploded and it is not hard to see why. With over 1,700 km of coastline, the archipelago of the Açores and Madeira, mountains in the north and warm temperatures from April to September at least, Portugal is truly blessed.
Lisbon has been in the spotlight for a few years now. Its unique colourful style, harmonious without being uniform, has stood the test of time since it was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1755 (as told by Volaire in Candide) under the direction of the “Marques de Pombal“. Not only are constructions esthetically pleasing, but they had built-in innovative seismic resistant features that still stand today. Lisbon’s many hills provide breathtaking views of the city and it is one of the few cities where you can have a city break but also go to the beach in 30 minutes. The city is truly built outward, towards the Tagus River and the Atlantic.
The reason for this is Portugal’s sea faring past, which is nothing short of legendary, having conquered the Cape of Good Hope and reached India and China by sea before any other European countries. This was made possible by important innovations in the construction of caravels, and also by an unwavering will to explore the world. Portugal has the longest standing borders in Europe which have not changed in over 500 years: their only way to expand was towards the sea. This spirit is engrained in Portuguese culture, and Fernando Pessoa says it best in his poem “Portuguese sea”:
If the soul is not small.
This small country which conquered much of the known world a few centuries back lives in the shadow of these conquests and with the memory of men gone to sea and never coming back. This has resulted in a somewhat matriarchical society (children will bear the mother rather than the father’s name) and in the development of the uniquely portuguese feeling of “saudade“, described as: a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.
To me, Portugal’s irresistible charm stems not only from this heritage, but most of all from its people. Smaller countries often make humbler and more open citizens. This is particularly true for Portugal, which has been looking outward for the past 500 years. While Portugal is resolutely Catholic and traditional in many ways, the emigration and repatriation of many Portuguese people means that you will have no trouble finding someone who speaks English, French or Spanish, and there is a true appreciation of foreigners who are welcome with open arms. Don’t get me wrong, Portuguese people are quite proud of their country and they cannot seem to leave their love of national football teams behind (Benfica was until 2014 the football club with most paid members in the world!).
But do not take my word for it. Whether you are visiting Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve or touring the Douro’s wine regions, you will be amazed by the understated awesomeness Portugal has to offer. You do not however need to take a plane to discover the spirit of Portugal: head over to the Garcia or Forcado patisseries for some delicious pasteis de nata, to one of the many Portuguese restaurants in St Gilles or Ixelles for some generous portions of seafood, or to really feel in Portugal, to one of Benfica’s games at the Caramulo bar and restaurant. You will not be disappointed.