When I was a kid, I read a book in which one of the characters had the ability to see into the past. If she concentrated, she could watch everything that had ever happened in a certain place. I’ve often wished I could have that power, but never more so than when strolling the steep narrow streets of Portugal.
Portugal is a small country, often overlooked in the shadow of its more famous neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula— Spain. It has no iconic attractions like many other European countries; no Eiffel Tower, no Big Ben, no Colosseum. But it is rugged and beautiful, and the past is very much alive in every cobblestone step.
In Portugal, the young, the old and the ancient exist side by side, and often on top of each other. Concerts are held in the ruins of a gothic church in Lisbon, whose roof caved in from a massive earthquake in 1755.
In Évora, cars trundle beneath the arches of a Roman aqueduct, and a Roman bath house lies beneath the town hall, accidentally discovered during renovations.
Out in the grassy fields of the Alentejo region, Stonehenge-esque Neolithic structures still stand in their strange circular patterns among the cork tree farms.
In Portugal, I stood on the partially ruined parapets of a castle built by the Moors and watched mist spill down into the valley of Sintra. I walked on the pitched roof of a cathedral that looked over a medieval walled city and a Roman temple for the goddess Diana. I stopped mere steps from the edge of a cliff at the southwestern most point in Europe —what sailors once thought was the end of the world— and watched the gray sea thrash against the rocks hundreds of feet below.
America is a young country, too young to have grand, crumbling ruins of our own. And nobody builds castles or cathedrals anymore. But in Portugal, ruins, castles and cathedrals exist in abundance, and with them, more history than a fresh-faced American tourist such as myself can absorb.
There is a feeling the Portuguese know well, called saudade — a melancholy longing, a deep nostalgia, for something now lost. Portugal was once the seat of an empire. Now, its colonies are independent, its wealth is much diminished and its monarchy was overthrown long ago.
The country is still in the process of modernizing, and remains unpretentious and a bit rough around the edges, especially in its more remote towns. “Old World charm,” one might call it.
On the cliffs of Cape Sagres, you can still picture caravels piloted by students of Prince Henry the Navigator sailing out past the end of the world.
In the ruins of Conímbriga, walking past intact columns and still-vivid mosaics, you can imagine the Romans strolling through the forum and towards the bathhouse, beneath which lies the even older remnants of an indigenous settlement.
In the university town of Coimbra, you can watch students in traditional black capes go about their learning in one of the oldest universities in the world— just as they have since the 13th century— and listen to traditional melancholic fado music in darkened pubs.
In the terraced mountain wineries of the Douro region, you can smell generations of winemaking coming off the enormous wooden barrels piled up in cool dark rooms.
I spent two weeks in Portugal, visiting 13 cities in 14 days. I saw the beaches in the south, the mountains in the north, and the fields in between. I walked too many miles and ate too much food and saw too much history to comprehend. And even after a mere two weeks in Portugal, something of my heart still remains there, a touch of saudade awakening at the sound of women singing fado to their husbands gone to sea.