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Europe's Western Frontier

April 2006

Safely back from my trip around the homeland of Vasco da Gama and the humble sardine, it is time to put ‘pen to paper’ or rather, ‘fingers to keyboard’ whilst I retain the fresh memories.


Portugal has a pretty low population of around 10 million, of which 2 million live in Lisbon. It's the poorest country in Western Europe being a net receiver of large EU grants. These grants are being spent on prolific road and house building projects, every motorway is virtually brand new and devoid of traffic, unlike in England. The Portuguese also embarked on a massive football stadium project to accommodate the Euro 2004 tournament. We passed a few of these new grounds and they are mighty impressive ... eat your heart out Wembley. Our tour started with an overnight stay in Faro: Mecca for all you golfing wallahs out there. For the rest of mankind it’s where the airport is.


Portugal is one of the oldest established nations in Europe, its borders already defined as far back as the 13th century. It discovered the new world, gained an empire and lost an empire, lost its autonomy and then regained it.  Portugal endured decades of dictatorship that only ended as recently as 1974.

A Brief History

Early settlements have been traced back to the 2nd millennium BC. Such peoples were involved in raising animals and primitive agriculture. By the 9th century BC the Phoenicians had established trading settlements. By the 5th century BC, these were replaced by Greek ones. By the mid 1st century BC the country had been conquered by the mighty Romans, and Lusitania as it was then known, became the most westerly outpost of the Roman Empire. In the year 61 BC the country came under the governership of the Emperor, Julius Caesar. With the conversion of Rome to Christianity under the Emperor Constantine, Portugal fell under the influence of this new religion. The next major event occurred in 711 AD with the arrival of the Moors. Within a short space of time all of Portugal and much of neighbouring Spain was in Muslim hands. The Moors remained entrenched in Portugal until they were finally expelled in 1249. This re-conquest was achieved through promises of large land grants and wealth, thus convincing the Christian Crusaders that defeating the infidel had its reward on earth.


The beginning of the 15th century heralded the dawn of Portugal’s age of discoveries: its golden period of history. Perfecting the art of navigation was vital in propelling Portugal’s explorers and traders out into the brave new world. Prince Henry, more commonly known as Henry the Navigator, initiated journeys that opened up the North African coast. In 1415 he discovered Madeira, and in 1427 the Azores. These islands were vital in becoming staging posts for the ships that went on to discover the New World towards the end of the century. These voyages into the unknown were undertaken with the noblest of intentions: the attainment of knowledge; the glory of the Christian church and the benefit of the nation. Ultimately these intentions would give way to greed, exploitation, the accumulation of wealth, and the beginnings of the slave trade. Gold from Africa, spices and precious woods from the Orient, wine from Madeira, all helped to swell the Portuguese coffers and fund further expeditions. In 1494 amid intense competition between Portugal and Spain, the two countries signed a treaty, which divided up the world - known and still undiscovered - between those two pre-eminent empire builders of the day. By the early 16th century Portugal had established colonies as far afield as India and China in the east, and Brazil in the west.

Amid anarchy and with the country bankrupt, in 1910 the anti-monarchists assassinated the King and declared Portugal a republic. There then followed decades of military junta’s and dictatorships, until the country was returned to democracy in 1974.

The Journey

Our first point of call, heading north, was the Convento do Christo: a beautifully photogenic monastery of the Knight’s Templars Order. The Templars were a military order formed in 1119, initially their role was to fight for the true faith against the infidel in the Holy Crusade. However, the spoils of war and the accumulation of wealth soon overtook their religious zeal. The original Templar church was begun in 1162, with various additions being made down the centuries.


We then spent a couple of nights in the university town of Coimbra situated on the side of a hill. Coimbra can trace its roots back to Roman times, and from 1139 to 1385 it was the capital of Portugal. This is a wonderful little town with many alleyways to explore as well as some impressive neo classical university buildings and a couple of cathedrals. The Se Velha or Old Cathedral was built between 1162 and 1184. The intricate gilded wooden altar was created in the 15th century. The cathedral was the site of the coronation of several kings in the era when Coimbra was the capital of the country. Next stop was Lamego: a city conquered from the Moors by the legendary El Cid, or was it Charlton Heston? The most significant moment in the city’s history occurred in 1143 when it was the location from where the nobles declared Afonso 1, the first king of Portugal. Lamego has an amazing pilgrimage church of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. The first building was erected on this site in 1361, the present building was started in 1750 and later additions were completed as recently as the 1960’s. It’s a visually striking building with the most amazing baroque style staircase leading up to it. This massive 6oo step staircase has fountains, statues and pavilions decorating the various levels - needless to say my camera went into overdrive here.

Our next stop via a few other minor sights was Porto. This is still quite a small town in comparison with Lisbon. It’s the financial centre of Portugal as well as the hub of the port wine trade. World famous port producers such as Taylors, Croft, and Sandeman have their lodges along the city waterfront. The city is clustered on hills overlooking the river Douro and the views from everywhere are spectacular: steep streets; lots of high bridges spanning the river including one designed by Gustave Eiffel who designed the tower in Paris. The city prospered greatly from the seafaring exploits during the great age of discoveries. Porto’s shipyards produced the ships that discovered the world, Henry the Navigator who initiated these voyages was born in the city. The main points of interest for me were the old stock exchange building - the Palacoi de Bolsa and a climb up the tallest tower in Portugal - the Torre dos Clerigos. The views from the top were beyond words. The art deco film theatre is also a great point of interest and is a monument to 1930s architecture. Finally, I enjoyed dinner in a waterfront restaurant whilst 'people watching' along the riverfront.

Onto a fascinating place called Fatima. This is a shrine of pilgrimage visited by over 2 million people a year. Fatima has been called the Lourdes of Portugal, and believers flock from all over the world to demonstrate their devotion. On this site on 13th May 1917, 3 small children had a vision of the Virgin. To commemorate this event, in 1953, the Basilica was built. In front of the Basilica is a vast open square bigger than St Peters in Rome and people supplicate themselves travelling the length of the square on their knees: it is quite a sight to behold.

Batalha, or to give its full name, Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitoria, is one of Portugal’s most beautiful monasterys. Constructed between 1388 and 1533, exquisite vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows adorn this world heritage site. The chapel contains the tomb of Henry the Navigator. After Batalha we reached Obidos. This is a picture postcard of a town with narrow jumbled streets. It retains its authenticity as no new building has been allowed. The town is surrounded by its original town walls, around which I walked. The whole circuit took about half an hour and afforded fantastic views. The top end of town is crowned by a 14th century castle.


Next port of call was the capital, Lisbon. There is loads to do and see here and getting around is a piece of cake as there is a metro which unlike London’s is clean, new, cheap, efficient and safe. Anyone contemplating a great destination for a long weekend should stick this destination high up on your travel list. The high points here are plentiful so this article is just a taster.


Most of the city’s architecture is post 1755 after the great earthquake. The hub of the city is the Praca do Comercio: a large square dominated by an aquestrian statue of Dom José I. Here you can relax and be entertained by street musicians, have your portrait sketched, or just people watch. The Castelo de Sao Jorge is fabulous and is perched high above the city. This well preserved monument affords great views over the whole of Lisbon. The picturesque castle fortifications, shaded gardens, fountains, and numerous cafes, make this the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of a hot day's touring. Lisbon also boasts a bridge that is a carbon copy of the Golden Gate in San Francisco - the Ponte25 de Abril bridge was completed in 1966: not surprising as it was designed by the same person. It also has a replica of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Jeniero. One of the most unusual buildings in Lisbon is the Casa dos Bicos, the House of the Pointed Stones. The facade of this 16th century building is covered in pyramidial shaped stones. Interestingly the lower storey is original and survived the 1755 earthquake that struck the city while the upper two storeys were reconstructed in the 1980’s. The overall effect is like a surreal piece of artwork.


To the west of the city centre in Belem are situated a number of monuments that pay homage to Portugal’s maritime history. The name Belem means Bethlehem, and is a reminder of the country’s association with the crusades. The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is a  good example of the Gothic style of church architecture. Built at the end of the 15th century, it commemorates the explorer Vasco da Gama’s extraordinary journey to India in 1498. Close by is the Torre de Belem: an enchanting 16th century Gothic style fortress. It stands on the site where Vasco da Gama and numerous other navigators set out on their voyages of discovery. The real highlight for me among these monuments was the Padrao dos Descobrimentos: the Monument of the Discoveries. Built in 1960 in the shape of a caravel - the type of vessel used by the explorers - it depicts Henry the Navigator at the forefront gazing out to sea with the leading figures of the age lined up behind him.


After a couple of wonderful days in Lisbon we were on the move again to the Roman walled town of Evora. This is surprisingly one of the very few places supporting Roman ruins of any substance, Portugal was the far western outpost of the Roman Empire. The oldest site in the town is the Temple of Diana. This Roman edifice dates from around the 2nd or 3rd century AD. The Corinthian columns and capitals stand in isolation aside the more modern buildings. Evora contains a bizarre and macabre secret: the chapel in the church of Sao Francisco, the Capela dos Ossos was created by a Franciscan monk in the 16th century: it has a room entirely lined and decorated with the bones of some 5000 people. The bones and skulls have been artistically arranged, there are also the corpses of a man and a child hanging from the walls.


Next, we passed through Beja: the warmest place in Portugal. The main attraction in this small town is the 13th century castle: the views from the walls are quite magnificent. This completed the circuit back to Faro. All that was left was to catch some rays of sun around the swimming pool for half a day, and then catch the flight back to London: the rain; the cold and … work!

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