Portugal – Its Stories and Legacy as a Historic Maritime Empire

After this, we’re heading straight to Porto — Let’s not keep our Airbnb host waiting, Anniqua says, glancing at her mobile phone. We’re both excited to start the second half of our vacation in Portugal. Our apartment, with its blue and white tiled façade, looks so inviting in the photos, but we’ve decided to take a short detour and visit a prehistoric monument on the way.

It’s a crisp Sunday morning and the sky is a clear electric blue, but the chill in the air reminds us that winter hasn’t quite left. We stroll towards the prehistoric monument, Cromlech of the Almendres, through the speckled light falling on a dirt road. The trees on either side have fresh young leaves of early spring so the warm sunshine takes up more space than the shadows.

These must be cork trees? I say, looking at the lower half of the trunks from where the outer bark has been removed. It is a deep dark red, the color of a badly scraped knee when you can see blood flowing through the innermost layers of skin. The upper section, though, has the brownish hue of a healthy tree. Anniqua, lost in thought, doesn’t hear me, so we walk in silence, leaving the conversation to the birds and the newly sprouted leaves fluttering in the cool breeze.

The megalithic circle of menhir appears before us like a glorious monument from the New Stone Age. Seven thousand years ago, prehistoric humans had cut and smoothed a hundred stones into semi-ellipsoidal shapes. The still undeciphered symbols carved into their surface mean nothing to us, but they must have meant something to our ancestors. 

This isn’t like Stonehenge in England, Anniqua says, standing at one end of the cluster of stones. Nor like the dolmens in Spain. Those are definitely funerary structures. But these? These must have served a purpose too.

On the information board at the entrance, it says that this is probably a sacred place because of its orientation, but that’s just speculation. We may never know the truth. But what we do know is that the people who constructed this megalithic complex must have thought it was important to carve out a hundred huge stones and place them in a circle like this. And, if I were to hazard a guess, these people were probably prehistoric men.

Anniqua smiles and completes my thought, because the women were too busy caring for babies and preparing food for the family.

Mmhmm, I agree. Then, I give a slight nod towards the parking lot, indicating that we should continue on to our next destination, Porto. 

A city on a hill, Porto is as picturesque as the images you see in tourist books. Buildings with brightly colored facades and multi-paned windows look out onto the River Douro. Anniqua’s guide in Lisbon had suggested we take a tour of the Douro Valley, so we book a boat ride up and down the river. Seagulls cry out as they fly over our boat. Are they just being friendly and welcoming us? or are they warning us to stay away from their food supply? It’s too late for the latter though. We’ve just finished a scrumptious lunch of grilled hake and seafood soup. And now, as we float down the River Douro, Anniqua confesses, I didn’t finish our reading assignment. I couldn’t. It was too dark and depressing.

The reading material we chose for this trip was, Take Six, Portuguese Women Writers, a book of short stories. I had done my homework, as I always do.

I read it all, cover to cover. And, phew… I go silent and shake my head. Did you read, So Many People, Mariana? The story by Maria Judite?

She hadn’t, so I continue. It’s hard to imagine that sort of pain in a country this beautiful. Judite shows us the loneliness of a young woman in a city full of people. We discover that Mariana is in the midst of a nervous breakdown after the death of her unborn child, the loss of her job and husband who had left her for another woman. She is engulfed in a pain so intense and unrelenting that the only release… 

Stop! Anniqua says, cutting me short. That was why I didn’t read the book. Just look at the cheerful buildings on either side of us. Enjoy the beauty of now.

Yes, I should focus on more pleasant things. Remind me to draw this riverside scene in my sketchbook when we get back. She’s right. It’s so easy to get pulled into pessimistic thoughts.

There’ll be many more subjects for your sketchbook during the walking tour tomorrow. She replies, happy with the change of tone in our conversation. Don’t forget to bring it with you. 

I won’t. I’m excited about the tour. Anniqua has filled me in on a few historical facts she picked up from the tour guide. The Portuguese Empire from the 15th to the 18th Century was the largest and wealthiest in Europe. The buildings in Portugal reflect that power. The majestic Jerónimos Monastery where sailors used to pray before they ventured out to sea, used to be a humble hermitage called Our Lady of Belém. This is where Vasco de Gama must have prayed before he set off in search of India. Vasco de Gama is one of the historical figures we studied at school. The fact that we are now standing on the soil of his homeland takes me back to my twelve year old self at Sacred Heart Convent, Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). How I wish I could share this with my former history teacher, Sister Angela. 

The walking tour around Porto is everything I expected and then some. The foyer of the São Bento Railway Station is breathtaking. The blue and white azulejo tiles that cover the walls on all sides show moments in the history of Portugal. Similar blue and white tiles decorate the façade of the Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls). These depict religious themes and are just as beautifully painted. Almost every building, from a simple residence to the Palácio da Bolsa (Porto Stock Exchange), is a work of art. I am particularly fascinated by a three-story high, one-meter wide, Casa Escondida (Hidden House) which stands between a Carmelite convent and the Igreja do Carmo for priests. One whole side of the building is covered in hand-painted blue and white azulejos with scenes of the founding of the Carmelite Order and Mount Carmel. There is nothing spectacular about the tiny house that stands between them, except for the fact that it was made to prevent fraternizing between the nuns and the priests. I want to know more about this story, so I tell Anniqua we should Google it when we stop for coffee.

What is that quote you’re always going on about? She says. The one about stories and atoms?

“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of stories.” I rattle it off without a moment’s hesitation. I truly believe that Muriel Rukeyser made an astute observation on the human condition. And these, I announce as I wave my arm towards the buildings, tell the story of the wealth and power of the Portuguese Empire, and of the navigation skills of their seafarers. 

To be more precise, they tell the story of Portuguese men, Anniqua says thoughtfully — like the megalithic circle of menhir we saw yesterday. But what are the stories of Portuguese Women?

They are the stories you found so hard to read — the assignment you couldn’t complete. Women’s stories are usually found in their words, the songs they sing, the tales they tell their children, and each other. Remember that Urdu literature course we did online? The story by Ismat Chughtai? Nanhi ki Naani? That was one of the stories of South Asian women. I was reminded of it when I read Grandmother and Grandson against Wind and Sand by Teolinda Gersão. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re Indian or Portuguese, the protective nature of a grandmother is quite similar.

Anniqua pauses to think for a bit. Then she says we need to look for more upbeat stories by modern Portuguese writers.  Not writers with roots in the deeply patriarchal dictatorship of Prime-minister Salazar’s Portugal. I tell her that we would have a bigger and better selection to choose from if we could understand the original text and not have to depend on translations.

We’ll keep looking, Anniqua says decisively, for upbeat, 21st Century female Portuguese writers. And that will be the reading assignment for our next trip to Portugal.

Agreed, I say cheerfully. Not that we need an excuse to return to this magnificent nation of adventurers.

Click here to read more about Selma‘s travels:  Toledo, Spain: the desire to experience its unique soul

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  1. I enjoyed reading this twice in fact. The content and illustrations are interesting and I enjoy the format. I feel the closeness of you and Anniqua and it adds to the narrative. Keep writing in this vein, it works well .Love from Elizabeth

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