Spring Travel Issue: Portugal

Off the Charts

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, March 9, 2003

Now why would a place be closing at 20 minutes to 12, when the brochure describes it as "always open"?

Wondering this, my husband and I stood on a slender road outside the old quarter of Sintra, a luxuriant hillside town that's layered, wedding-cake style, along a mountain ridge near Lisbon. To one side of us, visible through the woods, were the plains of western Portugal. To the other side was the mountain and, terraced into it, a walled park called the Quinta da Regaleira. From where we stood we could see a squat, elaborately decorated castle; inside the park were more castles, mossy ruins, watery grottoes, terraces, fake chapels, statues of creatures like rampant lizards and birds with human breasts, and a spiral "initiation" staircase leading womblike into the earth, none of it genuinely old, just made to look old by a rich man who constructed the place based on what the brochure described as his "magical mythical dreams." As good a spot as any to spend a pellucid morning. Jan Bos, the proprietor of Lawrence's Hotel, where we were staying, had told us not to miss it.

"Just go over there and say, 'We're from Lawrence's!' " Bos had urged us, obviously having some experience with the erratic openings and closures. "Just make stupid gestures, and tell them you won't go away until they give you a tour!" Unfortunately, his technique wasn't working. The keeper of the garden pulled the gate closed with a string. Go away, he told us, and come back for an English-language tour at 2:30. When we came back, he told us, without explanation or apology, to go away and come back for an English-language tour at 3.

So we went away, and instead of returning we pressed on, driving farther into the mountains until we reached a place that was, if possible, more eccentric, genuinely old and -- an important quality -- open. It was a monastery, Capuchos Convent, built on a mountaintop amid oak and ancient woodland. This was the sort of mystical high ground where an American would immediately build an expensive bed-and-breakfast. Instead, 400 years ago, eight monks decided they would emulate Christ's suffering by shutting themselves up in tiny cells and forgoing all of life's pleasures.

"The cork, being the dead part of the tree, symbolized their chastity," said our tour guide, showing us through a series of claustrophobic cork-lined rooms, including not only sleeping rooms and an eating room and a room where the monks sat in judgment of one another but something dark and grim called the punishment room. "Don't worry!" the tour guide told us merrily, as she invited us to stand inside. "Each monk only went into the punishment room when he felt he needed to! Punishment was entirely voluntary."

Emerging, we continued through the mountains until we reached the sea, and with it the Cabo da Roca, a foggy promontory that is the westernmost part of continental Europe. We stood there a while shivering pleasantly above the Atlantic, then returned to jolly, warm, well-lit Lawrence's, where Bos, an ebullient Dutchman, told us the story of the hotel's renovation, a 10-year saga that involved lost financing and theft by the contractors and a lawsuit and a murdered witness and, at the conclusion, a splendid rehabilitation of the hotel, whose claim to fame is that Byron stayed there. All in all, it was a typically random, typically pleasant Portuguese traveling day. In Portugal, the way things work is: You don't get to see the garden of mythical dreams, but you do get to see the cork-lined punishment room. The thing you came for turns out to be inexplicably closed, but there's always something else that's inexplicably open and arguably better. Which is fine. We hadn't set out expecting to see either of them anyway, because, well, who knew what to expect from Portugal in the first place?

Of all the countries I've ever visited, Portugal is the one about which I had the fewest preconceived notions. Indeed, it's fair to say that my notions of Portugal were entirely unconceived, 100 percent contracepted. Part of this is doubtless my own fault, but part of it is the responsibility of Portugal, which in the course of human events has largely failed to insinuate itself into current-events classes. It has neglected to get the word out on itself; has not, in a long long time, contributed something sufficiently great or terrible to warrant world notice, or even a long article in the newspaper. Quick, name one Portuguese king or queen. Identify the current president. Guess whether Portugal is, or is not, a member of the European Union. Sketch the skyline of a single famous building! Someone I know who works in the intelligence business, and whose job these days involves spending grim hours reading transcripts of wiretapped conversations taking place all over the world, offered this: "Portugal never even shows up in the threat traffic."

Which was fine by us. That's what you want: a country that doesn't show up in the threat traffic, a country that exists in the common imagination as a benign, but interesting, cipher. The minute my husband said "Portugal," I felt curious to see it. We crafted an eight-day itinerary that would allow us to see as much of the country as possible, excluding the southern beaches -- the Algarve -- which would be teeming in high summer, and the far north, which we regretted missing but didn't have time to see. We started in Lisbon, except that we didn't, exactly. Our travel agent wisely headquartered us instead in Cascais, a swank little nearby fishing village that likes to call itself Portugal's answer to St-Tropez.

The one idea I did have about Portugal is that it's alleged to be cheap. That's less true than it used to be, but true enough that, for a price that was almost affordable, we spent three nights at the Albatroz, which is the best hotel I've ever stayed in, with the possible exception, a few days later, of Lawrence's. There's a cool, spacious lobby; a swimming pool overlooking an Atlantic grotto; and something I still dream about: a breakfast that includes not only meats and cheeses and pastries and fruit but, in tiny pots, vanilla pudding and rice pudding and -- why has no one else in the world thought of this as a breakfast food? -- chocolate mousse. Our room had butter-yellow walls and French windows and, below the balcony, a view of a street tiled in black and white. Beyond that was a boardwalk where men and women strolled in that unselfconscious, cigarette-smoking, bikini-clad, dangerously bronzed European way. Beyond that was the sea, where in the morning I watched as a line of preschoolers toddled out to the beach, holding hands and walking two-by-two, as preschoolers do around the world.

Cascais is a half-hour train ride from Lisbon, a violently hilly city that looks like San Francisco may look about a thousand years from now, if all development ceases immediately and the buildings are allowed to melt and fade into the pastel colors of disrepair. Doubtless there are parts of the city that are prosperous and new, but the parts we saw during two days of walking consisted only of old buildings. One of the striking things about Portugal is how haphazardly it is preserved and curated. There is a world-class art museum, the Gulbenkian (which, naturally, was closed the day we wanted to see it), yet to our surprise we found no museum commemorating the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the cataclysmic natural disaster that destroyed two-thirds of the city, creating human misery on a scale that prompted Voltaire to write Candide, and compelling a Portuguese statesman, the Marques de Pombal, to completely redesign the city.

This lack of preservation is typical, I think, of a curiously Portuguese attitude toward itself and its history. Maybe it's an inferiority complex, but the country has not done nearly as much as it could to celebrate itself, its landmarks and accomplishments, in anything resembling a systematic way. This is not just my point of view. One of the few Portuguese writers whose work has reached a worldwide audience, Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has written an idiosyncratic travelogue in which he traverses the country to capture its texture and nuance. In one passage of Journey to Portugal he's standing beside a bridge, frustrated because no one can tell him why each arch of that particular bridge over the River Tua is a different height. In another passage, inspecting a crumbling and neglected wayside chapel, he remarks: "Had the Italians a church like this they'd guard it like gold, maintain it in tip-top condition, while the Portuguese would travel to it from far and near, lamenting that something so rare should belong to a foreign country."

Such a casual approach to national treasures is not, from a traveler's point of view, entirely bad. You don't feel overwhelmed by the number of things you must see, you don't feel as if stuff is being marketed and packaged and shoved down your throat. And it lends a quality of serendipity to the traveling experience; you get used to losing some and winning some. One evening we had dinner in a neighborhood called the Bairro Alto, lingering afterward because we'd read in a guidebook that here you can hear fado, the melancholy Portuguese song that supposedly drifts spontaneously from street corners after evening has fallen. We lingered and lingered, but still no melancholy songs. Giving up, we took the train back to Cascais, where we walked down to the harbor to find a village celebration, complete with kids playing soccer on the beach, boats bobbing in the harbor, cotton candy and beer being sold, and, playing on a stage, a pounding, amplified band. "Is this fado?" I shouted hopefully at someone. "Musica cubano!" he shouted back. There was a smell of grilled meat in the air. Three dancers took the stage, the music ratcheted up even higher, the crowd responded by dancing so vigorously that it seemed, eventually, that the black-and-white tiles were themselves swaying.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company