Portugal

The ancestors on both side of my father’s family came from Sāo Miguel, the largest island in the Azores. The Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, is an archipelago comprised of nine volcanic islands situation in the North Atlantic Ocean about 1,400 km west of Portugal, and about 1,900 km southeast of Newfoundland. It enjoys a beautifully temperate climate due to the passing Gulf Stream, and its main industries are agriculture, fishing, and (in more recent years) tourism. I got the impression from my dad that the men on both sides of his family made their living as fishermen.

My father’s relatives all settled in Fall River, Massachusetts – a small city situated on the Taunton River about an hour south of Boston. Fall River was a booming industrial town at the time and the leading textile manufacturing centre in the United States for much of the 19th century. The town was full of Portuguese immigrants, many of whom worked in the local textile mills. My grandfather was a machinist, and my eldest aunts and uncle worked at the mill after school when they were children. They picked up the Portuguese that was being spoken all around them while they worked, but the younger children in the family never learned it. My grandfather refused to speak Portuguese at home, insisting they should only speak “American.” Thus my father spoke only English.

I am 50% Portuguese, so it was natural that I would be interested in visiting Portugal after Douglas and I left Spain. Portugal is located on the southwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Spain on the other. It has always been fiercely independent despite being mostly engulfed by a much larger country. Portugal is one of the oldest nation states in Europe, having maintained full autonomy since the 12th century. Portuguese explorers were some of the most daring and famous during the so called Age of Discovery – the period in the 15th and 16th centuries when various European countries began colonizing the new world. Tiny little Portugal established the first global maritime and commercial empire, and for decades monopolized the spice trade and divided the world into hemispheres of dominion with Castile (Spain). Portugal’s dominance began to fade in the 18th and 19th centuries due to a combination of factors including a massive earthquake which razed the capital city of Lisbon, the country’s occupation by Napoleon, the independence of Brazil, and the unstoppable juggernaut that was the British empire.

Douglas and I had previously arranged to meet up with my cousin Greg in the Algarve – the region occupying Portugal’s southern coast. We had no idea in what town or when, nor did when even know exactly where Greg was. It turned out that he and Douglas had both been in Pamplona the previous week, but we didn’t know that at the time. This was in 1989, meaning that we  had no way to contact Greg directly, and had therefore devised a cumbersome relay method of communication before leaving Canada. Greg would call my Aunt Carolyn in Boston with his location which she would pass on to my mother in Scarborough. Then I would call my mum for the information and Douglas and I would move forward based on what she said. It was circuitous, but it actually worked.

We had taken a train from San Sebastián in Spain to Lisbon and I made the call home from a phone office downtown. The line was terrible and my mother and I had to yell the entire time, but eventually I came to learn that Greg would be in a specific hotel in Faro in three days time. That gave Douglas and I time to explore Lisbon before our rendezvous. The greater Lisbon area is home to over five million people, meaning it is by far the county’s largest city. It is numbered amongst Europe’s major economic centres with a growing financial sector and one of the  largest ports on the continent’s Atlantic coast. It passed through many hands before finally becoming Portugal’s capital in 1147, and is the second oldest capital in Europe after Athens. 

One would think that Lisbon would be brimming with extremely old buildings given its great age, but unfortunately that is not the case. The city endured three minor earthquakes in the 17th century which destroyed several streets, and then in 1755 it was ravaged by a devastating earthquake with an estimated magnitude between 8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale. This horrifying catastrophe destroyed 85% of the city’s structures and initially killed as much as 20% of its population, with many more losing their lives in the tsunami that followed. Lisbon was of major importance in Europe at the time, and its devastation left the whole of the continent in shock. This natural disaster created such a deep impression that the poets Voltaire in France and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. way over in America wrote famous works commemorating the event.

I honestly don’t remember much about Lisbon except that there were a lot of stairs and the buildings were quite lovely. One thing that really stands out, however, is that many people  looked like they could be part of my father’s family. The Portuguese are not a terribly attractive race – they tend to be plain, swarthy, and hairy, and that’s just the women. Despite this there was a certain comfort in seeing so many seemingly familiar faces. The language was completely foreign to me – it features the jay sound in Jacques and lots of sh sounds, creating the impression that people are buzzing as much as talking. Yet despite my total lack of understanding I felt right at home in Portugal. It was highly reminiscent of my wonderful summertime trips to Fall River as a child.

Douglas and I made our way to Faro on the third day and found Greg exactly where he said he would be. Faro is a small city of about 120,000 souls on the southern coast of Portugal – an area known as the Algarve. It was just a small provincial city of not much importance until the tsunami which followed the 1755 earthquake destroyed almost every other city on the coastline. Faro remained standing since it was protected by a natural lagoon, and subsequently became the capital of the Algarve district when the previous capital of Lagos was washed away. It’s a nice town with a lovely beach we chose to visit right after we met up with Greg. 

The waves were enormous and it looked like great fun so we all jumped in. I have always loved swimming in the ocean and I was excited to body surf on such spectacular waves. I successfully surfed my first two waves, catching them at just the right moment and riding them all the way onto the beach, but the third wave proved my undoing. I don’t know if it was bigger or more ferocious than the others, or if I simply caught it at the wrong time, but it almost killed me. Everything was fine at the beginning – my extended body skated easily on the top of the wave, with the surge of water carrying me ever more quickly towards the shore. Then suddenly I was pulled under. The sound of crashing water pounded in my ears, and I couldn’t tell up from down or right from left as the raging surf spun me around like a dry leaf in the wind. Eventually, just as I felt that I would burst if I didn’t take a breathe, the wave spat me out on the shore, grinding the entire front of my body into the sand. I stood up as soon as I was fully on the beach, gasping for air and beginning to feel the stinging burn of scrapes on my face, arms and legs. Douglas and Greg came over to inquire if I was okay, and then immediately plunged back into the surf when I assured them that I was. I, on the other hand, chose to stay on the beach, feeling that one brush with death a day was quite enough for me. In the shower later that afternoon I found sand in places on my body I didn’t even know existed.

That evening at dinner we met an Australian couple who told us about a beautiful beach further west along the coast called Praia de Marinha (Navy Beach in English). They described an idyllic scene of pristine sand surrounded by breathtaking cliffs and rock formations which concealed a beautiful cove at their very centre. We were headed west anyway so we decided to spend a day at this beach along the way. I thought it would be nice to have lunch in the cove so I packed food and drink in my bag while Greg and Douglas put the towels, sunscreen, and their beach ball equipment in theirs. Beach ball is a sport that the two of them made up involving wooden paddles and a hard plastic ball. The rules and scoring were like volleyball, and one lost service or a point by letting the ball hit the sand. They would literally play this game for hours on the beach while I amused myself reading, bathing, or simply daydreaming as I gazed out at the waves.

We got to the beach late in the morning and after a quick swim made our way into the cove where two couples had already staked their claim – a young pair of unknown nationality who had set up on the farthest side and clearly wanted privacy, and a naked Norwegian couple who happily welcomed us as we lay out our towels. This couple was typical of the many Scandinavians we met on our travels in that they were completely unabashed about their bodies. I tried to be blasé as they came up and shook our hands, but I must admit that I was really uncomfortable. The man was uncircumcised so his penis was novel and odd looking to me, but I tried very hard not to look directly at it, although I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have cared if I had. Scandinavians just don’t view nakedness the same way we do, or perhaps it’s that they don’t view the human body the same way we do. For most cultures there is something inherently sexual and somewhat shameful about an unclad adult, whereas for Scandinavians there is no hidden agenda to nudity – it’s just the skin we’re in. 

Douglas, Greg, and I ate our lunch, then they began to play yet another interminable round of beach ball while I began to read. They finally took a break from their game after an hour or so and the three of us settled down for a pleasant afternoon nap. The sound of the surf seemed to have gotten much louder when I awoke some time later, and I sat up to see that the tide had rolled in while we slept. The water was at the very edge of our towels and the sandy walkway we had taken to enter the cove was submerged under several feet of water. I immediately woke up Douglas and Greg and we hurriedly packed up our stuff before it got washed away. We began to discuss how we were going to get out of the cove without everything we owned getting soaking wet. I am not a strong swimmer and was unsure I could get safely out under my own steam. Greg suggested that he and Douglas could put the bags on their backs and swim out, then one of them could stay with our possessions while the other came back and helped me. The water was rising very quickly now and I was feeling less than confident about staying behind when suddenly our new naked Norwegian friends came to our rescue. They had an inflatable one-man raft which they offered to let us use. In the end I got on top of the raft and held on to everything we and the Norwegians had brought into the cove while the four of them each manned a corner and kicked us to safety. It affirms one’s faith in human beings when virtual strangers are so helpful and kind.

We got on a bus heading west after our harrowing afternoon and reached Sagres just before nightfall. Sagres (pronounced Sagresh) is a small beach town on the southwestern most tip of Portugal. We secured a large room in someone’s house and then headed out to get some food and explore the town. It was the case when we visited Portugal that people would leave their houses and rent them out to tourists. I’m not sure where they went, but we almost always stayed in personal residences rather than hotels while we were there. I guess they were just ahead of the Airbandb curve.

Douglas and Greg got along very well – they enjoyed the friendly competition of beach ball, they shared a similar sense of humour, and they delighted in drinking to excess. I am allergic to alcohol and consequently do not drink. Douglas had found the dryness of Morocco onerous and drinking by himself in Spain lonely, so he was primed for getting completely blotto with Greg every night we were together. At first I didn’t mind so much – sometimes drunks can be pretty entertaining. By the time we got to Sagres, however, we had been together for several days and I was finding their nightly drinking tiresome, inconvenient, and annoying. The first night in Sagres we found a bar called A Shot in the Dark which was run by a Canadian expat. It was famous for creating shots with unique combinations of booze, and Douglas and Greg considered it a personal challenge to sample every last one. They were barely coherent by the end of the evening and Douglas couldn’t find the key when we returned to our place, so they lifted me up to a second floor window and I broke us in. That was somewhat amusing, but when they got sloshed and obnoxious the next night I simply returned to the room without them, knowing that they would wake me later when they came banging in despite their best efforts to be quiet. Stealth and drunkenness simply do not mix.

Greg became aware by our fourth day in Sagres that I was unhappy, something Douglas would simply never notice. As long as he was having a good time, all was right with the world. I’d needed to stay unnaturally close to him in Morocco for my own safety, and even though we had spent a few days apart in Spain, I was getting progressively more miserable in his company. Douglas was very controlling and hypercritical of me. I could take his abuse when we were at home because we spent a fair bit of time apart, but being with him day in and day out on an extended trip eventually took its toll on my mood and mental health. There was a big 65th birthday party planned for my Uncle Bill (Greg’s dad) in Boston in a couple of days’ time. Greg was heading back the next day to attend the party, and he suggested that perhaps I should come with him. Douglas wasn’t interested in accompanying us because he wanted to travel up the coast to the city of Porto. He planned to sample the various, world class ports for which the area is renowned (the fortified wine called port is actually named after this city). Greg and I got on a train to Paris the next day.

Our shared grandmother was a long time employee of American Airlines and thus got several free flight passes every year which could be used by any member of her family. Using one of these passes put you even lower than standby on the passenger list, but it allowed you to fly for free if there was a vacant seat anywhere on the plane. Greg and I waited impatiently as everyone boarded the Boston flight, biting our nails and wondering if we would even get out that day, when all of the sudden our names came over the loudspeaker. The attendant at the checkin desk informed us that there were two first class seats available, and we were escorted to an American Airlines food van which then rushed us to the plane just before takeoff. The people on board probably thought Greg and I were important. After all, we were personally driven to the plane by the airline at the last minute and had first class seats. Greg and I shared a quiet laugh at the thought of how annoyed they would be if they knew that we were actually just a couple of freeloaders cashing in on their grandmother’s years of hard work and dedication. A first class ticket is extremely expensive, but I can tell you from experience that it is worth every penny. We started with champagne (I gave Greg mine) and heated cashews, then were given warm, fragrant towels with which to wash up before digging into a delicious prime rib dinner with scrumptious sides, including light, steamy Yorkshire pudding, all lovingly served up on fine china. The pillows were fluffy, the blankets were soft and warm, and the ambience was quiet and calming. I highly recommend you splurge on a first class ticket at least once in your life. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

No one was expecting me at my aunt and uncle’s place in Boston. I hid when Greg knocked on his parents’ door which was promptly opened by our Nana. She embraced him and invited him in, but he hesitated in the doorway and said, “Wait a second, Nana. I brought something back from Portugal for you,” which of course was my cue to come out. I wish I’d had a camera to record the look of joy and surprise on Nana’s face when she saw me – a look which was repeated by Aunt Carolyn, Uncle Bill, and my parents when I made my way down to the living room. The party was a great success, and I went with my parents to visit my dad’s family in Fall River a few days later. Their reception was equally welcoming to the one I’d received in Boston, and they were all rapt as I described my experiences in Portugal. None of them had ever travelled to their ancestral homeland even though every single one of them was 100% Portuguese. I am determined one day to make it to Sāo Miguel as I hear the Azores are strikingly beautiful, and I would very much like to visit my paternal family’s place of origin.

7 thoughts on “Portugal

  1. That was a nice piece, Margaret. Esperança and I both really enjoyed it. One forgets how difficult it was to navigate travel, especially a rendezvous, in pre-Internet days. And yes, visit the Açores some day. The islands are glorious!

    Like

  2. Thank you for yet another escape from COVID-19 reality.
    You are a talented writer!
    I would also love to visit the Azores!

    Like

  3. Ah, to be travelling again. I really enjoyed that piece Margaret. Your last few pieces brought back memories of my own European adventure in 79 and this one, more recent trips to Portugal with John as well. You definitely should make it to Sao Miguel.

    Like

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