Impressions of Portugal, First Days

09IMG_0040_edited-1To get at even a modicum of what I wanted to know about Portugal, which I visited for the first time this March, would have required a good bit of research, preferably in the context of a university course. (I wondered, for example, what impact Portugal’s colonialist history and the Salazar dictatorship might have on its current collective mind.)

Aside from a Rough Guide of Portugal and the Time Out guide to Lisbon, I carried one novel: António Lobo Antunes’s The Splendor of Portugal. I’d read a bit of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry and prose, not by any means enough, and a couple of José Saramago novels. I knew nothing of Portuguese art or music and next to nothing about its history and culture. My grasp of the language is nonexistent—improved while there only to the extent of attaining some fluency with when and how to say “olá” and “obrigado/obrigada”—though as to the latter, I wasn’t able to discern the rules for correct usage. I suppose the only other thing to my “credit” is that I managed to remember names of places I visited well enough to offer a rough pronunciation, when required.

I recognize that at least some of my yawning gap in knowledge could have been corrected had I taken time beforehand to study up, but I resisted the temptation. This was, after all, to be a vacation for the primary purpose of R&R, so I decided not to plunge headlong into information-gathering, but rather to experiment with letting things come to me and discovering what landed and what fell away.

The Splendor of Portugal is a brilliant book, so brilliant I’m soon to seek out more of Antunes’s work. Here is a passage that speaks to the whole, including the Tracie Morris-like cadences and rhythms of its prose:

My father used to say that the thing we came in search of in Africa wasn’t wealth and power but black people with no wealth and power to speak of who could give us the illusion of wealth and power, and that even if we actually had those two things we wouldn’t really have them because we were merely tolerated, begrudgingly accepted in Portugal, looked down upon the same way we looked down upon the Bailundos who worked for us and thus in a way we were blacks to them the same way that blacks owned other blacks and those blacks owned other blacks still, in descending steps that led all the way down to the depths of misery, cripples, lepers, the slaves of slaved, dogs, my father used to explain that the thing we came in search of in Africa was to transform the revenge of ordering other people around into what we pretended was the dignity of ordering other people around, living in houses that aped European houses and which any European would despise, looking down on our houses the same way we in turn looked down on the straw huts, with the exact same repulsion and the exact same disdain, bought or built with money that was worth less than European money, money that was good for nothing except for the cruelty by which it was gained, money that for all intents and purposes was nothing more than seashells and colorful beads, because
as my father used to say [Splendor 338-9]

Needless to say, my selection of reading sat in an uneasy, often unbridgeable, juxtaposition to the touristic delights of our trip.

So there I was, arriving in Lisbon after a red-eye flight, dragging my suitcase and jet-lagged self into our first self-catering quarters. At that point, I had no thoughts at all, lofty or otherwise, except determination to have a nap, no matter the damage it might do to the adjustment of my internal clock.

“And where will you be visiting while in Portugal?” said the lovely Silvia after showing us around and drawing places on the tourist map which, in our jet-lagged state, we despaired of being able to take in. “I wish I could tell you where, after Lisbon, but the name evades me completely.” Abashed, I looked it up and showed her. “Zambujeira do Mar. You will love it.” There is something softly sibilant about Portuguese. Not what I expected, and like no language I’ve heard before. “If only I could pronounce it.” “You can. Just try.” I tried, and failed.

Lisbon, Day 1, Castelo de São Jorge

06IMG_0046_edited-2From our quarters in the Chiado district, we could glimpse the Castelo de São Jorge (named, in the 14th C, after the warrior-saint George). That was cause enough to hop on Tram 28 and let it carry us up to the castle for a look. In Lisboa, What the Tourist Should See, Fernando Pessoa wrote of it:

Almost in front of the Limoeiro is the Rua da Saudade, which leads to Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle). The tourist who has time to spare should not miss going up to this castle which is built on an eminence which commands a view of the Tagus and of a great part of the city. The castle has three chief doors, known as Trason, Martim Moniz, and São Jorge doors. The three are very ancient. The castle itself is remarkable enough. It was built by the Moors and formed, so it seems, part of the defences of Lisbon, with its thick walls, its battlements and its towers. There did kings dwell; and it was the scene of many a remarkable event in the political history of Portugal.

Nowadays, though surrounded and choked by a great number of houses, full of barracks, modified, spoilt and mutilated by earthquakes and misuse, it is still worth seeing for what it once was. The view from the castle is marvellous.

The barracks are no longer there, but the views certainly are.

Lisbon, Day 2, Centro de Arte Moderna da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian

Lisbon, Day 2, Centro de Arte Moderna da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian

Lisbon, Day 2, Centro de Arte Moderna da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian

Out of our trip to Finland and Tallinn in Estonia, I’ve developed a notion that 20th C European art might hold a key to a country’s emergence out of more generalized European influences toward discovery of its individualized “modern” self. I’d hoped to test that theory on viewing contemporary art in Portugal. A critical museum for this purpose was under construction during our visit, but the Centro de Arte Moderna at the Gulbenkian Foundation had on display a selection of works, including Portuguese artists, that at least began to tell a tale. The current special exhibits, of work by German Hein Semke (1899-1995), who emigrated to Portugal after participating, at age eighteen, in the First World War, and Belgian Ana Torfs (b. 1963), who lives and works in Brussels, told powerful tales of their own.

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Links to painters represented in the slides:

Carlos Botelho, Lisbon (1899-1982)
Graça Pereira Coutinho, Lisbon (1949- )
Esperanza Huertas, Spain (1925-2014)
Leonor Antunes, Lisbon (1972- ); more here
Vasco Araújo, Lisbon (1975- )
Jorge Varanda (b. in Luanda, Angola, 1953-d. Lisbon, 2008)
Ana Vidigal, Lisbon (1960- )
Ana Vieira (b. Coimbra, 1940-d. Lisbon, 2016)


Credits: Sources for quotations are as linked in the text. A useful review of Antunes’s book may be found here. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

22 thoughts on “Impressions of Portugal, First Days

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Ray, thanks for the recommendation! Needless to say, as I began work on these posts, I thought of you, as indeed, I did while in Portugal. I’ll never forget my introduction to Pessoa, which came through you, and standing in that DC Metro station with the quote from his poem Occident:

      With two hands – Deed and Fate
      We have unveiled in the same gesture, one
      Raises the flickering and divine torch
      While the other draws the veil aside.

      Whether the hour was ripe or it owned
      The hand that tore the Western veil,
      Science was the soul and Audacity the body
      Of the hand that unveiled it.

      Whether the hand rose the glittering torch
      Out of Fortune, Will or Tempest,
      God was the soul and Portugal the body
      Of the hand that bore it.

      (I have yet to find the complete poem in English. The search continues . . .)

  1. George Mattingly

    Great post. You capture *so* perfectly the arrival of the jet-lagged. Great excerpts and slideshow. I’ve been to Brazil (not Portugal) and for anyone who knows the tiniest bit of Spanish, the relation of written Portuguese to spoken Portuguese is a real shock. (You captured that.) Okay when can we go to Portugal?!? Thanks for posting this.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      George: You’ve been to Brazil! Okay, when can we go there, too? I’m sure you and yours would love Portugal. We had a truly memorable time.

  2. larrymuffin

    How very nice, beautiful photos and nicely presented. I have never been to Portugal though visited Spain many times. Saramago is a great author and I do enjoy his books but I am not as familiar with Pessoa. On any trip I always read up a lot because I love history and also I do not want to be at the mercy of a guide or a guide book or worse wonder what is it I am looking at and discover later it is something significant. Your trip looks absolutely lovely and fun. Thank you for recommending all those books.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: We had a wonderful time. Saramago is indeed a great author, and vis-a-vis Pessoa, which I suspect you may know, Saramago’s book “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” the title character is one of the heteronyms Pessoa used. Antunes was new to me, and I’m really taken with his work. Have just placed orders at the library for two more of his novels. Meanwhile, as you sort through CDs, I am continuing to sort through photographs!

  3. T.

    Thank you for sharing your trip with us! I hope I get to visit Portugal someday. I lost touch with a friend who lives there (she’s in Porto), and it was always lovely to receive mail from her.


  4. David N

    Our first trip to Lisbon was not a great success: grotty mid-range hotel, so when we came back from Sintra, which of course was wonderful, we booked into a cheap one down by the harbour which turned out to be a brothel. And I had food poisoning from eels and was chucking up all night.

    Return two years ago to Portugal, to the fabulous music festival in Setubal, was a different experience. Such a friendly town, beautiful location, great people, amazing street art. Now I can’t wait to go back.

    Glad you had such a good time.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I wish we had been able to get to Setubal–it was on our list, but turned out to be a “bridge too far.” Should you venture to Lisbon again, we stayed in a self-catering place and a hotel, to both of which we give very high marks, so please don’t hesitate to check in should your travels take you that direction.

  5. hilarymb

    Hi Susan … lovely post – loved seeing the rooves … and then I can come back and pay attention to your Portuguese artists … clever way of finding your way into the Culture. I’ve only been in the North to Porto and we stayed with friends inland … but I need another time there at some stage … you’ve whetted my appetite though – though perhaps after some of the comments that’s not the brightest thing to say … cheers – and have a laugh! Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: I know what you mean about needing another time there at some point. Our trip was Lisbon and points south, so we didn’t get to Porto–and there are many other places we’d have loved to see. But we do find that if we keep running from place to place, we miss out in a different way. It’s nice to settle in and get to know an area a bit.

  6. Steve Schwartzman

    Lisboa, light of my life, fire of my faraway first foray to Europe. My saudade, my soul. Lis-bo-a: the tip of the tongue taking a transition to the palate and then to burst, bilabial: oh, ah.

    Now that I’ve channeled Nabokov, let me explain that half a century ago this very year I spent the summer in Lisbon. I’d seen an ad in the Columbia Spectator in early 1965 for an introductory Portuguese course to be taught at Queens College that summer, which I attended, thanks to a grant from the same Gulbenkian Foundation you mentioned and that funds many programs and institutions that foster Portuguese culture. Your statement about the soft sibilance of the Portuguese language accords with my first impressions in class that summer: I kept thinking I was hearing Polish or some other Slavic language. After a couple of days things clicked and I was back in the familiar world of Romance languages, especially French, which also has nasal vowels. In any case, the Portuguese program continued in the summer of 1966 with my trip to Lisbon to take language courses for foreigners at the Universidade de Lisboa, likewise funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation.

    I’d love to go back so many years later, though I expect what I’d find would hardly accord with that I remember. I was there in the latter part of the Salazar dictatorship. Portugal was the first place I’d ever been where police (or soldiers, I can’t remember which) patrolled the streets with machine guns. The Ponte Salazar, now renamed the 25th of April Bridge, opened while I was in Lisbon, and I got stuck that day on a bus in a monstrous traffic jam of people who’d come out to ride across the new bridge. I could go on and on with memories, but let me stop.

    To answer your implied question, if I understand it correctly: the difference between obrigado and obrigada (literally ‘obliged’) is that the first form is said by someone male, the second by someone female. Like other Romance languages, Portuguese requires an adjective to agree with what it modifies, in this case the person saying ‘[I am] obliged [to you]’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve, well, this is the comment to beat all comments about Portugal. Thank you so much! Yes, we also thought, on first impression, that we were hearing a Slavic language, yet “on the page,” as George commented earlier, it’s more recognizable than one would have thought. Obrigada for the info, too! I did run across that, but then was totally confused when some women shopkeepers seemed to be using the “male” form (though that might well have been what my ears heard, not what they said).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: As with Ray, you were MUCH on my mind when in Lisbon, particularly when encountering things Pessoan. So interesting that you note the Varanda, too, as I thought of you and your work while viewing the Varandas and wondered what you might think. There were several small pieces of his on exhibit to which I was immediately drawn.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark, each time I “touched down” on a Pessoa space, I felt keenly I was not adequate to the task, as my knowledge of his work is as yet sparse, but I wanted very much to pay tribute, and not least of that had to do with your regard for him, as well as Ray’s.

  7. shoreacres

    Every time I read one of your travel posts, I have to sit myself down for a little lecture that can be condensed to a single admonition: “Stop whining. You can’t go.” Oh, it’s terrible when the travel juices start flowing!

    Clearly, your trip was wonderful, and there’s much here to enjoy. I read Saramago’s Small Memories, and greatly enjoyed it. One of my favorite Saramago quotations is, “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.” That makes me laugh, every time.

    Like Mark, I was taken with the Varanda. The piece in your slideshow (“Untitled” 1990) reminds me of Louise Nevelson’s work. And thanks to Steve’s wildflower blog, I’ll always remember crenels and merlons like those shown here at the castle. See?

    I smiled at your decision to forego heavy study prior to the trip. A little context is good, but as you say, sometimes vacation is enough. Now, on to see what other delights you have for us in your next post!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Love that Saramago quote, which reminds me of Alice Munro on the subject of NOT writing novels: “So why do I like to write short stories? Well, I certainly didn’t intend to. I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel.” As for heavy study, yes I’m glad I restrained myself, though of course now I’ve got something like 6-7 books at my side table, but then, that’s a good thing, as they are providing a wonderful, if eclectic, trip-extender, along with a focus, these days, on Portuguese wine.

  8. Mirela Petalli (Kapaj)

    I discovered Antunes last year, fell in love with his writing immediately. There is something magical about Portugal, Pessoa, Antunes, Portuguese language and music. It is on my wish list to visit someday.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mirela! Antunes is spectacular, isn’t he? I’m right now reading The Return of the Caravels. I don’t know how he does it, this ability to draw so many strands of kaleidoscopic detail–psychological, historical, cultural, every strand that makes up the consciousness of an individual and the experience of being Portuguese–into each sentence. I don’t know where I am a good bit of the time, but I don’t mind; indeed I’m sure that’s the point. I hope you do get to visit someday.

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