Portugal. 10 surprises.

A country with only one neighbor, 2 languages and dozen of football players is hidden where Europe ends. Being one of the richest empires in the world in the past, it still has a lot of treasures to show. After all the discoveries it made, Portugal still left a lot to everyone. This country made me drunk with wine and exited with all the surprises it prepared for me. Here they are!

1. Miranda do Douro.

The entrance to the westernmost country in continental Europe remind me the gates to the wildest places of New Zealand. Even I wasn’t there, I have this picture after watched ‘Lord of the rings’, which was filmed there. From the road I see deep abyss, marked with unbelievable blue color of river Douro in its very bottom. One of the biggest rivers of Iberian peninsula starts it Spain and goes 900 km to Porto, where meet the Atlantic ocean. But this wild beauty on the easternmost part of the country is not lonely – on the very entrance of the country (from Spainish town Zamosa) there is a small town called Miranda do Douro. Houses here face Spain and impressive canyon, people here remind its neighbors. But if to notice, their language is much different from Spanish, also Portuguese. They call it Mirandese. Historically it was developed in isolation from the rest of the country, but with interconnection with Leonese language (today Castile and Leon, Spain). But the most funny thing is that it was recognized by the country as co-official with Portuguese language, even though only about 5 000 people use it.

2. Abounded houses.

The area nearby Douro river is very impressive, but also scary. I can imagine how it is difficult to leave on the slopes away from big towns, when you have bad roads and much colder weather than in coastal Portugal. But this area was inhabited for a long time. Fast river served as water way to the ocean, aslo prerequisite for trading. But even before, in the end of the Bronze Age (9 BC), here inhabited one unique culture called Castro. It is known for its stone shelters called ‘castrum’, which are still presented in northwest regions of Iberian peninsula. I was surprised to see so many stone houses in north Portugal, but even more I was surprised to see them totally abounded. We passed by empty villages, inhabited only with wild dogs, who tried to attack our car. Perhaps, this is the influence of economic crisis, also the harsh conditions for living in distinct environment, but those touching remains of life soon will stay only in history.

3. Guimaraes.

First it was surprising for me why this north Portuguese town was proclaimed as the European Capital of culture this year. But later I understood. It has a great historical value for the whole country, because it was a place where Portuguese Nationality was born when town was proclaimed the first capital of Portugal. It was here, where the first king of the country (Afonso I of Portugal) was born in 12th century. Curious to know, but there is another Guimaraes town in Brazil, brought there by Portuguese kings. Still today a lot of remains left from Medieval period, which UNESCO took under its heritage site. I will not site why New York Times listed the town in 41 best places to go, but I can tell for sure, that it is worth visiting, especially its castle, 14th century church and Castro Culture Museum, dedicated to the mysterious castro culture.

4. Green and port wine.

Truly saying, I don’t know how it is happened, that in my country port wine was always the cheapest and the worse wine in shops. Unofficially we called it ”student wine”, as it was fast and the most affordable way to get drunk. That is why I had controversial feelings about trying it in Porto – the most appropriate place for it. Looking at the menu I realized that this kind of wine is not as cheap, as it was in ex-USSR countries. My curiosity took me to a shop, where a real surprise was waiting for me. There were bottles for 100, 500 and even 1000 euro! When I took a sip in a cafe I realized how different is this port wine from what we use to try in Ukraine. There is a legend, which says that the name of wine gave the name to town of Porto. But in reality the old roman ‘Portus Cale’ (for the current Porto) later turns into the name of town, wine and the whole country. The wine from Porto today brings a good share in economy, but it was not always popular. Actually, sunny slopes of Douro river are historically famous for its wine yards, but the trade took place mostly between 2 neighboring countries. Only in 1679, when Great Britain banned export of french wine for 7 years, they noticed Portuguese one. Apart from port wine, there is another quite popular wine, called green. Despite its name, it is actually white, but because it is made of early grapes they call it young, so ‘Vinho Verde’.

5. Portuguese Venice.

Yes, actually it is true, Portugal also has own Venice. But its way smaller and called Aveiro. On the way from Porto to Coimbra this little town stands just few km from Atlantic ocean. There are not so many channels around, but still they give some charm to the town. Especially due to bright and long boats ‘moliceiros’ that remind Italian gondolas. In the past, when Aveiro was a coastal fishermen village, it produced salt, fish and seaweed. But one day, when a storm brought a lot of sand, the access to ocean was cut. Then inhabitants dig a channel – the one that hosts today those legendary boats with a low edge for gathering seaweed. When you look at them closer, you will notice funny paintings. Some of them illustrate habits of owner, some – profession. I liked the one boat with pictures of lady and photographer. Is that captain a womenizer or he just wanted to demonstrate his passion for making provocative photosessions? 

6. +30 C in winter.

This was a pleasant February surprise, especially when in Ukraine we had -20C. But I get it not from the beginning of the trip. In the north of Portugal it was still cold and windy, even partly raining. But when it comes to the south coast, you are in the sunny lands of Algarve. When British found those places (interesting, was it after discovering port wine?) they invented resorts, where it is sunny all year round. Later the coast was listed in the best holiday destinations, which resulted in great demand and absence of free places on beaches. I think, that only in winter you will not meet almost any tourist, so it is the best time to drive around and find out that Algarve it is not only about sandy beaches. It is mostly about gorgeous stone banks and impressive tides.

7. Snow.

Yes, sunny Portugal has snow. I would say even more – it has a ski resort! Intriguing? Well, in the natural park Serra da Estrella there is the highest point of continental Portugal called Torre. Rising to 1993 m high it mostly always covered with snow, which give perfect conditions for skiing in Vodafone Ski Resort. For the second time in my life I tried my skiing skills and it was quite unusual, especially when you realize that few km downhill everything is green.

8. Church=Museum=Grave.

What a surprise! My favorite church in Lisbon is in reality a cemetery! Well, also a marine museum, but whom can you surprise with that? Jeronimos Monastery in Belem was a starting point for Vasco da Gama for his legendary expedition. Actually he spent a night here praying before the trip in 1497 and later he was buried in the lower choir of the monastery. The previous small church was turned into impressive building during 100 years (1501-1601) from treasures brought by Vasco da Gama after his great discovery. Impressive gray building became an example of Portuguese expansion and one of the main Manueline creatures. In addition, to this huge complex they added 2 museums: National Archeological and Maritime Museum. The last one will answer all question regarding Great Geographical discoveries an the role of Portuguese of the world division. 

9. The end of the world.

Everyone know (or at least should know) that the westernmost point of continental Europe is called Cabo da Roca. If to compare Portugal with a man’s face (it really looks like a face!), the cape mark the very tip of the nose. It has a sign proving that you are at the place, where Europe ends. Here you will face dramatic cliffs and heavy wind. But this is nothing to compare with cape of St. Vicente, which is some hundreds km to the south, at the very tip of imaginary chin of Portugal. Here you will have much less tourists, much stronger wind and the feeling that there is nothing else but raging sea. The long vertical 75 m high cliff marks the southwestern-most point of Portugal. The lighthouse on its tip was build in 16th century and later it was used for sail navigation, transformed into a guard of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Also St. Vincent Cape is well known for one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. It happened in 1755, on Saturday’ morning, when people just started to wake up or was in church, as it was All Saints’ Day. At 9:40 the land begun to shake. The magnitude in the range 8,5-9 partly destroyed southern and western coast, even if the epicenter took place 200 km to the south west of St. Vicente! After so-called Great Lisbon Earthquake came dramatic tsunami, which totally damaged Lisbon, also Lagos, where waves reached the top of the city walls. It is difficult to imagine the scale of the catastrophe, but the center of Portugal with the highest mountain was also affected! The other countries in Europe, Africa and Caribbeans also felt the effect. 20 m high waves swept the coast of North Africa, Ireland and England were also touched. Just imagine that Greenland, Finland and Barbados felt the damage too. 

10. Azulejo.

After the impact of the earthquake and tsunami, Lisbon and other affected cities had to be totally reconstructed. The tragedy brought economical difficulties, so they had to find a cheap way to recover. And here comes azulejo (literary ‘polished stone’)– a tilework, made from ceramic. Those decorations was erased to protect buildings against future disasters. By being competitively cheap, tiles raised on almost every house. And now bright azulejos made Portugal very special and unique due to such decorations. Tiles became as cult as graffiti in Berlin, but much more exquisite. Originally tilework came from Arab world via Spain. But after conquering Ceuta in 1415, Portugal got to know azulejo technique by themselves. They decorated churches and palaces with such ceramics, which contained hand-made pictures of biblical and historical scenes. I think the best example of such drawings can be seen on the railway station of Porto, in Sintra Palace, in Santa Maria Church in Covilha and everywhere in Lisbon. The mass production of tiles made Portugal a great exporter of azulejo, so don’t surprise finding those in Brazil or Mexico. Today they sell millions of tiles as souvenirs, both new and original. It was a shock for me when they told me that missed azulejos from public buildings are result of local bangs. They steal historical tiles and sell them as antiques. I just don’t understand why no one stop this crime? Azulejos are as essential part of Portugal’s history and culture, just like trams is Lisboa, fado or football. Shall that also be stolen? 

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