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.