All that gold in Portugal! So thick you might be tempted to chisel off a little and sell it, given today’s price. Portugal’s Gold fascinated me.
I’ve seen the death masks and ritualistic objects in Peru and Brazil, somehow undiscovered by the Portuguese and Spanish. Both plundered all they could to build their empires back in Europe, but with a slight difference. In Portugal, the gold was all about showing off, building the most lavish carriage, the royal barge with the most gold decoration. Ceilings, walls, altars, carvings, pulpits gleaming ornamentation drips with honey, letting the world know how wealthy the nation was. Spain used their gold for ornamentation, yes, but also for investment in infrastructure, leveraging its value in the market place.
Belo Portugal: Wine, History and Landscapes along the Douro River, the Road Scholar trip’s intention is to expose its participants to the World Heritage Sites and teach us the history. Guimaraes is a stellar example. One can follow the development from a medieval village to an important town between 950 and 1500 through the architecture. The building style shows up in Brazil, Goa, Mozambique, Angola—places were the Portuguese explorers staked their claim.
It is in a small coffee shop where I met a young man, running the place for the owner. His English was excellent. School children begin English in the 5th grade and in the 7th, choose between French, Spanish or German. While he had never travelled to the US, he had no interest in doing so. He is sure America is the most violent country on the planet and he would not be safe. When I asked where he got his information, he said “twitter”. He follows several twitter feeds about the US and challenged me to explain why our police weren’t doing a better job with the African American population. My reply was agreement that the situation was bad and that reforms and better training were underway or soon to be. I also suggested that one could visit the US and never see a gun toting person. I wonder at my naiveté and at a world in which many learn their narrow, unquestioned view from social media.
Coimbra—Town and University
Perhaps it is the educational nature of Road Scholar trips. Perhaps it is my own past association with universities that no longer play any kind of role in my life. Coimbra, like Salamanca, took my breath away. Birthplace of six kings, founded by the Romans, held by the Moors until AD 878, and finally and for all, freed from Moorish rule by Ferdinand the Great of Castile in 1064. This ancient university town lives in the hearts of the Portuguese. We heard it in the voice of Helena when we visited.
It was a day when the students graduating in law were in the university court yard having their picture taken. In the Sala Grande dos Actos, we watched a student practice her doctoral defense, slide projector and power point flashing. Our group of eighteen travelers stood in the second story windows, providing an excellent place to watch the proceedings. On the throne behind her, the University rector, or perhaps, her department of Medicine chairperson, would sit later that afternoon. We whispered our own anxiety for her. To each side of our watchful faces hung full sized portraits of all the kings of Portugal, most of whom were educated right here. They represent centuries of learning and seem to sit judgment. I relaxed a bit when I spotted the young professor, her long black hair falling across pouting ruby lips, her short black skirt, long legs, the one foot dangling a stiletto high-heeled shoe while she took notes on a pad in her lap. Younger than my own daughters, these two—professor and student—gave us a small glimpse into modern academia. Even in an ancient setting, today’s experience is repeated all over the world at this time of year. Still, my throat forced back bile as I anticipated her afternoon appearance in her academic gown. I prayed that her projector would work and her judges express genuine interest and kindness.
Walking down from the University to the town below, we took great care on the Calabra Costas. Broken Back street most likely represented many hapless experiences over the centuries.
We left the Douro River for our drive south to Lisbon early on Sunday morning. I was not prepared for our arrival in Lamego either emotionally or physically. Those languid days on the riverboat changed to a bus tour: everyone on board at such and such a time–everyone off again and pay attention to the guide. my anarchistic tendencies flared.
Bringing up the rear, I heard Marion call my name, Betsy, you have to have your picture taken in front of this shrine. You, the lady with the remedies in front of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedios.” The town of 29,000 people became Christian in the 7th century. Our Lady of Cures was built in the mid 18th C. Every year on 8 September, throngs of pilgrims arrive to seek help.
I longed to go to mass, so while our group of eighteen Road Scholars followed Helena, our learned, enthusiastic tour guide, to the museum, I slipped into the Cathedral just as the service was getting under way. Our Lady of the Assumption, built in 1129, was rocking. Families with children everywhere. A choir of teenagers and a band with flute, guitars, piano, clarinet and violin sang and played all the service music and hymns with gusto. I was grinning from ear to ear, following along even though I had no prayer book and didn’t understand Portuguese. I couldn’t follow the sermon, but the voice was kind and thoughtful, not strident as sermons can be in Central American and Mexican churches. As I took communion, I felt totally welcomed and at home. Children took up the offering, read the lessons, and were acolytes for the gospel procession. When mass was over, I asked if this were a special day. The answer surprised and thrilled me, Every Sunday is like this. Wow!
Modern Portugal is overwhelmingly secular in practice—openly gay couples are welcomed in society and can be legally married. Officially Catholic, some cathedrals and large churches conduct daily mass via tape recorder and there are fewer priests than positions. But here in Lamego, the cathedral’s family service at 10 a.m. is a force for the good, well attended and joyous.
Painted tiles Azulejos
I know this is what many are waiting to see in Portugal and the painted ceramic tiles are the finest anywhere. A heritage from the Moors, from the 16 c. onward, Portugal excelled in this decorative art form in a variety of designs and purposes. Helena, took us to two train stations with the blue and white designs of the Baroque era.
Another World Heritage Site, Sintra is home to a one-thousand year old royal palace. The tiles in the palace were the most alluring to me.
Built and decorated by the Moors, the kings of Portugal, beginning with Alfonso Enriques in 1147, clearly valued the Mudeja decorative style for their daily living spaces. The royal families made this palace the center of court life. Sintra is just outside Lisbon in a narrow, mountainous valley. How our Sergio managed to navigate the road, deposit us and find us again at the end of our visit is a little miracle. Our fine bus driver had nothing good to say about one or two bus drivers who couldn’t manage their enormous vehicles and had to back and forth over and over to avoid clipping a building or signpost. The Portuguese rulers gave fanciful names to the rooms based on the tiles.
Lisbon. We arrived with an hour to spare before dinner in our large, modern hotel right in the center of things. A visit to the castle on the mountain ridge above town was not on the schedule.
I went for it, finding signs, asking Onde esta o castelo Sao Jorge, where is the Saint George’s castle over and over. Up one flight of stairs after another. I wish I had counted steps. Surely 600 before I reached the entrance. The way took me past apartments where lower middle class families live, and along cobble stone streets with boutiques, restaurants, tourist items and finally a gated opening in the forecourt. Only 15 minutes to closing and the entrance fee wasn’t too steep, so I paid my money and went in. It was breathtaking. The view over Lisbon in the late afternoon sun; couples kissing, students reading, solo and small groups of tourists slowly taking in the scene. I didn’t explore the inner castle, contenting myself with imagining living there as a Moor, taking refuge when the Christians were running them out of the country. The trees in the close provide ample shade and must be several hundred years old.
The next day we toured all the important places. I was most struck by the presence of the British. All along the Tagus are perfect little and large English houses from the 19th and 20th century. One is reminded over and over of the bond between England and Portugal.
I mentioned Henry the Navigator in my first post, son of Phillipa of the English House of Lancaster and John I, the King credited with creating modern Portugal. The royal barge, oozing gold, was constructed 200 years ago for Prince Joao for the occasion of his betrothal to Infanta Carlota Joaquina from Spain. The last time the Royal Barge crossed the waters of the Tagus River, in 1957, it had aboard a very special guest – Queen Elizabeth II, on her official visit to Portugal. Today the barge resides in the Maritime Museum.
Tagus River Bridges
A bridge spans the Tagus, the 25th of April bridge, an nearly exact replica of the Golden Gate; same architect.
The Vasgo da Gama span is 11 miles long, also crossing the Tagus River. Does that trump every long span in the US? If you know the answer, please let me know.
There is a pub named for Lord Byron, the Romantic poet (one in Sintra, too).
Another blogger writes about Byron who spent a formative time of his youth in Sintra in 1809, and it features in the poem that established him as one of the greats of English literature, Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage. I know this because of the books about Byron available for customers to read in this cafe which has the beautifully evocative name Cantinho Lord Byron Snack Bar.
Our own Road Scholar artist, Louis set up his easel and paints, working in plein air.
Back in Seattle and in the media, I share travel stories and plans with my walking and hiking friends. Several plan to do El Camino. Others have walked portions of it already. If I ever make a walking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I will walk from Portugal going north. This wild mountainous region calls me back more than any other part. I wonder where Joan, my adventurous sister-in-law will organize me to travel next?