|Explore Western Europe Portugal|
If youve ever dreamed of traveling to warm and sunny places in the Winter this is one of the best. Located at the south-west corner of Europe, sharing the Iberian Peninsula with the much larger Spain, Portugal is the land of sea, sun, and saudade. This unique word is something like a bitter-sweet nostalgia mixed with resignation -- a memory of, a longing for, and a pride in the lost glories of the past, with a touch of hope for the future.
Although centuries ago its explorers and traders created a far-flung empire, spreading their language and culture around the world, today only the mainland, Madeira, and the Azores remain. Yet even today, through its former empire, Portuguese is the fourth most widely spoken European language. Speaking of which Portuguese is NOT a dialect of Spanish; it is a separate Romance language. The spoken language is extremely hard to understand, because unlike Spanish its pronunciation is not invariable. However, if you can read French or Spanish youll probably be able to read Portuguese.
This tiny country was once the richest nation on earth, but by the time we first visited in 1986 in all Europe only Albania was poorer; yet Portugal was about to change. After an apocalyptic earthquake, the Napoleonic war, centuries of decline under a stagnating monarchy, a failed republican government, decades of mind-numbing dictatorship, and a period of political confusion, in 1986 it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) and held its first-ever democratic elections. Finally there was hope.
On the material side, in 1986 the countrys infrastructure was in tatters, highways were full of potholes, and Lisbon, once one of Europes most glittering cities, had become shabby and filled with graffiti. On the human side, though, the Portuguese remained reserved but gracious, polite, willing to attempt speaking English or French [but not Spanish], clean, pious, proud, and scrupulously honest.
Its a fascinating country, both historically and culturally, with great museums, magnificent churches both large and small, pristine mountain villages, rolling plains, fine seafood, a major Catholic shrine, universities dating back to the 1200s, and over a thousand miles of gold sandy beaches. There are marvelous castles and palaces, but also forlorn ruins, some of which are gradually being restored as funds become available. In the north there are also the vestiges of battles and important campaigns against the invading Spaniards and Napoleons occupation force.
What is probably most significant to travellers today is that nobody seems to have a grudge against Portugal, so its a very safe place to visit, much like North America in the 1950s. Subsequent articles will look at various aspects of this marvelous country, and perhaps arouse your interest in making it an interesting and inexpensive winter destination.
article published 9/18/2007