Portugal – A Crash Course

This isn’t very smart. I’m about to traverse two-thirds of the length of Portugal, a country about which I know very little. I’ve never set foot there before, but now I’m going to walk through it, so I’m giving myself a crash course.

I’m learning this: It’s one of Europe’s oldest nations, older, in fact, than its larger neighbor, Spain. True, the Iberian peninsula, on which both countries are located, was settled by various invaders, most notably the Romans who arrived two centuries BC. They referred to the area that we now know as Portugal as Lusitania. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, Germanic tribes, the Visigoths, took their place. Then the Moors from northern Africa, stormed their way onto the peninsula in the early 8th century, leaving deeply indelible marks on the culture of the area, especially to the south. Christian kingdoms from North Europe reconquered the region in the 11th century. Shortly thereafter, a small region referred to as Portucale forcefully gained its independence as a kingdom under its first King, Afonso Henriques.

In the ensuing centuries, Portugal’s rulers took advantage of their access to the sea, developing an unequaled maritime culture. Under the sponsorship of the country’s kings, Portuguese sailors pushed out into the Atlantic, reaching and exploring the African coast to the south, and beyond. Vasco da Gama reached India, by sailing around the treacherous southern tip of Africa, in 1498. Not long afterwards, another Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvares Cabral, landed on the eastern edge of central South America and colonized what we now know as Brazil. Although a small country, Portugal expanded its influence, culture and language far beyond its borders, and yielded great trade advantage, through its aggressive maritime activities. As such it created the world’s first global empire.

By the 16th century Spain had also become an independent kingdom, and with a long shared border, wars broke out between the two, resulting in Portugal losing its independence for half a century. Eventually it regained that and simultaneously became enormously wealthy from the discovery of gold in its massive South American colony, Brazil.

We may not think of modern Portugal as enormously wealthy, but it is economically strong, and its 10 million people earn a relatively high per capita income offering them a high standard of living. Resource-based outputs such as paper and wood products, cement and wind energy, as well as foodstuffs, dominate the production economy, while services, especially tourism, are also strong contributors.

The terrain through which I’ll be walking begins in a plateau (the Estremadura and Ribatejo) around one of the country’s two dominant rivers, the Tagus (aka: Tejo) and ends in a more mountainous region (the Minho). After that I’ll cross into the Spanish province of Galicia, the capital of which is Santiago de Compostela, the destination of this 400 mile long walk.

Stay tuned. I’m bound to learn a great deal in the coming four weeks, and if you follow, you might also pick up some things you didn’t know before.

4 thoughts on “Portugal – A Crash Course

  1. Thanks for sharing some insight into a country I just realized I knew so little about. I look forward to vicariously trekking along with you and enjoying your words and images.


  2. Tony, safe travels and soak up all that serenity and knowledge. I will look forward to every post. Via con dios.


  3. Tony, Great article. I really enjoy your writing. Knowing you so well, your written words are like me sitting across from you listening to you tell this story. I thoroughly enjoy it. Thanks for the effort you put into everything you write.

    Your mention of global empire reminded me of our visit to Portugal’s Maritime Museum in Lisbon. In the entry is this huge wall covered with the attached drawing which shows the direction of the prevailing winds with “arrows”.

    Being a sailor, as you and I are, it immediately became clear to me how the Portugese explorers figured out the ocean winds and discovered very efficient ways to sail to: 1) down the west coast of Africa “sailing on a run”, 2) turning left to round the western tip of Africa and sailing SE “adjusting the sails to the port side and reaching” until a encountering a headwind coming up from the southern tip of Africa, 3) turning SW and enjoying a :”broad reach” all the way to Brazil, 4) continuing on this “broad reach” then to almost a “run” which took them all the way across the south Atlantic to the south tip of Africa, 5) where they were forced to “tack into the winds” briefly before rounding the horn, 6) where they had to re-set the sails numerous times to earn their way past Madagascar and across to India.

    The return was much the same till Cape Horn, 7) then a super “run” directly up 2/3s the length of Africa to the western tip, 8) switching to a “broad reach” continuing way out into the Atlantic, 9) where they caught and “ran” with the easterly winds, 10) before another short “broad reach” on the starboud side into Lisbon.

    We learned in the museum, Portugal ruled these sailing routes from Portugal, to Brazil, to India and back for 300 years!

    I look forward to your travels. Thanks for sharing, and “Good Walking” to you!

    Best Regards,

    Bruce Larabee


    On Wed, Aug 23, 2017 at 9:11 AM, Short Thoughts on Long Walks wrote:

    > awolbrich posted: “This isn’t very smart. I’m about to traverse two-thirds > of the length of Portugal, a country about which I know very little. I’ve > never set foot there before, but now I’m going to walk through it, so I’m > giving myself a crash course. I’m learning this: I” >


    1. Wow, Bruce, a sailing lesson of the highest order. That museum is on my list as I’ll have two and a half days in Lisbon as a tourist before I start walking. Thanks!


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