Portugal is the land of my earliest memories. As I wrote in Land of My Birth, at age 4 my parents fled Angola (a Portuguese colony at that time) with me and as many possessions as they could ship out to Portugal, my father’s homeland. Having departed so young, I don’t have much in the way of memories of my birth country. My earliest childhood memories are actually of the little nation that was home to me from the age of four to the age of seven, until my parents packed up again and emigrated to the United States in search of a better life.
Portugal is the western-most European nation and one of its oldest, having previously been one of the Iberian kingdoms among the ranks of other kingdoms such as Castille, Aragon, and Navarre. Here in three brief paragraphs is some quick historic background:
The history of Portugal dates back to the Early Middle Ages. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal ascended to the status of a world power during Europe’s “Age of Discovery” as it built up a vast empire, including possessions in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Over the following two centuries, Portugal kept most of its colonies, but gradually lost much of its wealth and status as the Dutch, English, and French took an increasing share of the spice and slave trades by surrounding or conquering the widely scattered Portuguese trading posts and territories.
The country was further weakened by the destruction of much of its capital city in an earthquake in 1755, occupation during the Napoleonic Wars and the loss of its largest colony, Brazil, in 1822. From the middle of the 19th century to the late 1950s, nearly two million Portuguese left Portugal to live in Brazil and the United States.
In 1910, there was a revolution that deposed the monarchy. Amid corruption, repression of the church, and the near bankruptcy of the state, a military coup in 1926 installed a dictatorship that remained until another coup in 1974. The new government instituted sweeping democratic reforms and granted independence to all of Portugal’s African colonies in 1975. – Wikipedia
A nation’s politics have real and lasting impact upon people’s everyday lives. The events of the 1970s were the reason behind my parents’ decision to leave my birth country and to later leave Portugal. They had to start their lives three separate times, first in Angola as newlyweds, then in Portugal and finally in the United States. Thankfully, the third time was the charm!
Modern day Portugal is a geographically small nation of great beauty and diversity. It’s an amazing tourist destination offering breathtaking beaches, fabulous food and wine, historic castles and cathedrals, quaint villages, hilltop towns surrounded by medieval walls, scenic vistas, and the list just goes on and on! The capital Lisbon and Porto in the north are the two biggest cities. Port wine vineyards and the Douro River wine region are located in the north. Alentejo with its flat plains is home to the country’s breadbasket and where the cork industry is located. Algarve is the southern-most region well-known for its beaches and coastal beauty. I have more to share with you but first I hope you’ll enjoy this slideshow I prepared for you to get a peek at the beauty of Portugal for yourself:
(Sorry if slideshow does not work in the reader)
Now I’ll share some memories of the agricultural village of my father’s family. We lived with my widowed paternal grandmother, in a little place called Bunheiro, a parish of Murtosa in Aveiro, along the northern Silver Coast. Today it is a bit different from my memories of it in the 1970s.
Back then, it was almost like stepping back a hundred years in time. Many of the old farmhouses like my grandmother’s had no running water. There was a well to fetch water and an outhouse to take care of one’s business. My grandmother raised chickens and rabbits, adding eggs and meat to the largely fish-based local diet. She had fig and pear trees on her property as well as grapevines. She liked to cook simple Portuguese dishes over a fire in the “old kitchen”, which was separate from the main house. It was not very well-lit and always had the distinct scent of wood burning. My mom opted to stick with her gas stove in the main house, which mercifully had also been wired for electricity!
Open fields and patches of land were planted with corn, potatoes or couves, a type of cabbage. The streets were narrow, and hemmed in by primitive cement homes and barns in need of a fresh coat of paint. It was safe for children as young as five or six to walk about the local neighborhood unsupervised. There weren’t too many ways to get into trouble and the locals knew each other.There was little car traffic coming through. Transportation was mostly by bicycle, with the occasional motorizada, (a moped or light motorcycle). The quite familiar oxcarts pulled by what else but oxen, called bois, were also quite common to see hauling loads to and fro.
The older folk all dressed much the same, in dark clothing. The widows like my grandmother often in all black, or if they felt like brightening their wardrobe it rarely went beyond a brown or dark blue skirt with a blouse…at the very most it might be a white blouse on Sunday for Mass with their dark skirt and a dark printed head scarf.
My grandmother’s favorite pastime was her loom. She spent many hours on it creating simple but beautiful and resilient rugs and runners. Lengths of the loomed creations could be pieced together to create larger pieces to be used as bed covers. I cherish one of her runners that was in my boys’ room for many years and held up wonderfully. It’s still in fantastic shape but I prefer to keep it in storage now that we have a dog, just in case.
I also cherish the unusual memories I have of living in a more primitive environment. I know what it’s like to use an outhouse, to rely on a chamber pot for night time calls of nature and have to dispose of them in the morning, to pump cold water from a well and warm it on a stove for washing and bathing. These experiences have given me unique perspectives on life, on my blessings, on the plight of people in societies still living primitively or hit hard by war or natural disasters.
I’ve been back to Portugal many times in my youth, as a newlywed on my honeymoon and with my children. It holds a very special place in my heart. I’ve seen changes and modernization inevitably come even to the small rural village of my childhood memories. The old farmhouses have steadily been replaced or refurbished. The homes now have all the modern amenities. One thing I’ve noticed is the stars in the sky at night don’t look anywhere near as beautiful as they used to, thanks to all the bright lighting. Sigh, progress always comes at a cost.
My parents have retired and are enjoying their golden years back in Portugal. They opted to live in a seaside town on the Silver Coast, about an hour north of Lisbon and just about an hour south from Bunheiro. They come to my home for an extended Christmas visit each year and I love to visit them as well. From their home it’s less than a day’s drive to even the farthest of tourist attractions. The perks of a geographically small country are that you’re really within hours of pretty much anywhere!