Portugal has had the same defined borders since 1139, making it the oldest country in Europe.
Five hundred years ago Portugal was enjoying its Golden Age — literally and figuratively. Most of Portugal’s wealth was a direct result of the skill of its navigators.
Terry and I visited Portugal for the first time this past November. Following a few days on our own in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, we joined a Road Scholar tour, starting in Lisbon and traveling north to Porto, the nation’s second most visited city. The photos on these pages give a small sample of Portugal’s diversity and beauty.
Although he never crossed the seas, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) is considered to be one of Portugal’s greatest rulers because of the way he assisted explorers to sail to the far reaches of the known and unknown world — with much loss of life but also with the rewards of incalculable treasure.
Prince Henry earned his title “the Navigator” because he sought out maritime experts to design new ships, maps and navigational instruments. He then funded expeditions to use this knowledge to explore and claim new lands, especially along the West African coast.
In addition to gold, silver and gems, human treasure — enslaved peoples — also brought Portugal great wealth.
Portugal was the world’s richest country when its colonial empire in Asia, Africa and South America was at its peak (the 1490s to the 1540s). The wealth was squandered through lavish lifestyles and ill-conceived wars.
Further economic harm was caused by the Inquisition (people who dared to stray from the church’s strict teachings and think on their own were tortured and killed) and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims.
Portugal gradually became one of western Europe’s poorest countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, but now, as a member of the European Union, it is on the upswing.
Today Portugal is known for its mild climate, beautiful scenery, low cost of living, Port wine, friendly people and spectacular coastline, attracting surfers and seafood lovers from around the world.
It is also known for its language. Because of Portugal’s many former colonies, Portuguese is the official language of nine countries. More than 236 million people around the world (but mostly in Brazil) speak Portuguese. It is ranked sixth among world languages in number of native speakers. The other top languages, based on number of native speakers, are Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic.
Fortunately for English-speaking visitors to Portugal, in Lisbon and Porto most of the people in the hospitality industry speak good English and, in general, communication is not a problem.
Although Portugal offers lovely seascapes, verdant vineyards and valleys, memorable architecture, vibrant markets and colorful tiles decorating the interior and exterior walls of homes and public buildings, I was most intrigued by the art under foot.
I began looking down not for the art but to help ensure I had stable footing. After a short while, I realized that looking down did more than keep me from falling down. I was treading on captivating designs. The mosaics made of black and white stone often fooled the eye into thinking the sidewalk was rolling surf or waves. Some of my favorite “art under foot” is on these pages.
I often asked about the sidewalks and I learned a few interesting facts. For example, most of them were designed and created more or less “free-hand” and sometimes by prisoners.
I hope they do not become a lost art because they are among my favorite memories of our time in Portugal.