Artillery Row

A salute to our oldest ally

There’s far more to Portugal than its reputation as one of Europe’s economic basket cases

“Because maybe / You’re gonna be the one that saves me / And after all / You’re my wonderwall,” the pink-haired Portuguese busker sang, channelling Oasis’s 1995 Britpop classic in the city of Porto shortly after Christmas Day. British pop songs seemed to dominate the playlist as those of us listening at the café tables opposite nibbled on Portugal’s fabled Pastel de Nata cream custard tarts, and masked Portuguese thronged the shopping thoroughfare of Rua Santa Catarina.

Never would I have thought that lyrics spun by the unruly Gallagher brothers could prove so moving and pertinent to our muddled times—”And all the roads we have to walk are winding / And all the lights that lead us there are blinding”—but neither had I expected to find myself taking refuge from the UK’s cycle of lockdowns and quashing of civil liberties on the Iberian Peninsula while hiking an ever-lengthening Camino pilgrimage. Though perhaps it isn’t such a surprise: Portugal is the UK’s oldest ally, after all.

The Portuguese deserve more credit of a different nature to the purely financial kind

The friendship between the two countries goes back to 1147, when English crusaders helped King Alfonso I to capture Lisbon from the invading Muslims. And as the actor Sean Bean aptly demonstrated playing the fictional British soldier Richard Sharpe in the 1990s television series based on the Bernard Cornwell novels, the Anglo-Portuguese alliance came to the fore during the Napoleonic Wars. Portugal, isolated in a Europe usurped by Napoleon, continued to trade with Britain despite French restrictions; and after Portugal finally was invaded, British fighting power helped it regain its sovereignty.

Since that dramatic rendition of Sharpe’s adventures, though, there’s been little to remind us of the historic connection between Portugal and the UK. For the past decade, most references to Portugal in the British press have focused on the country’s economic woes. During the Eurozone crisis that followed the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the acronym PIGS/PIIGS did the rounds, denoting the countries—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain—worst hit by the economic slump.

As Sharpie would surely attest, the Portuguese deserve more credit of a different nature to the purely financial kind that reflects the primary lens through which we seem to view other countries in our increasingly mercantile times. The underappreciated and deeper connection the UK has with Portugal goes some way to explain why so many Portuguese will respond to an English traveller getting tongue tied with all the “ng’s” and “sh’s” of Portuguese—pronounced Poortoogesh—with good humour, patience and often in polished English that doesn’t sound like it has much of a foreign accent.

There are many factors that makes Portugal an amiable refuge for someone from the British Isles

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep,” the proprietor of a large old family home converted into a hotel in the city of Tomar suddenly piped up as he cleared away the breakfast dishes, effortlessly quoting Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. We had nicknamed him The Count (a fellow pilgrim had been reading Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and made the connection). A rakish fellow of swarthy good looks, slicked-back black hair that was starting to thin and indeterminate age, he had told us around a blazing fire in a wood-panelled room with the family crest painted on the roof that he had had three wives and five daughters, and how he had once been a bit of a con man to survive after his family, exiled during Portugal’s political upheavals during the 1970s, hopped across various European countries.

“The English are not there for each other, but, even worse, they are not even there for themselves in their own hearts,” The Count commented, recalling attending a drinks party as an 11-year-old and seeing the cold formality with which the English guests greeted each other.

The Portuguese’s talent for the English language is but one of many factors that makes their country an amiable refuge for someone from the British Isles. The sweeping array of castles, cathedrals and historical sites helps too. Atop the hill overlooking Tomar, I explored stone corridors passing courtyards of orange trees in the fortified headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar, the legendary organization of devout Christians that during the medieval era strove to protect European travellers and pilgrims visiting holy sites, while also carrying out military operations in defence of their faith.

The Portuguese also have a nice artistic eye for detail. In cities and tiny villages across Portugal, residential buildings are decorated with intricate and colourful glazed ceramic “azulejos” tiles, inspired by the small, polished stones used in traditional Islamic mosaics. Entire frontages of churches are often emblazoned in the most popular blue and white azulejos-style, depicting dramatic scenes from the New Testament. Entering the terminal of Porto’s main train station, one is confronted with a riotous blue-and-white-tiled rendition of clashing Christian and Muslim armies (it was ever thus and ever shall be it seems).

A church frontage in Porto covered in ceramic “azulejos” tiles depicting various scenes from the New Testament such as the Sermon on the Mount. (Photo by James Jeffrey)

After all the exploring and walking, the hearty and affordable Portuguese cuisine is a big plus: it ranges from myriad fish dishes—there are said to be about 100 recipes for its Bacalhau salted cod staple alone—to the lorry-driver-friendly Francesinha, a type of sandwich jammed with wet-cured ham, fresh sausage, steak or roast meat, all covered with melted cheese and a hot thick spiced tomato and beer sauce.

The author taking shelter from the rain during the Camino in the grounds of an old monastery.

But following the Camino route that penetrates well beyond the typical tourist orbit means encountering the less showy side of modern Portugal, one that illustrates the human face of those negative economic headlines. Portugal is one of the most unequal countries in Europe, according to the Borgen Project, an American non-profit organisation addressing poverty and hunger in America and abroad. Out of a population of just over 10 million, it’s estimated that around 2.6 million people in Portugal live below the poverty line; the hourly wage for workers is extremely low compared to other countries in Europe, and people—especially parents—often have to work multiple jobs, while child labour is common in northern and central parts of Portugal. Often I have walked past the dilapidated houses many families have to live in, and I have seen how Portugal’s elderly citizens, one of the country’s largest demographics, are most likely to be living in poverty.

The situation of the have-nots is made all the starker by how better-off Portuguese tend to be particularly elegant, natty dressers. And there are already signs that the economic impact of Covid-19 will further exacerbate the inequality gap: food cues outside churches growing longer; desperate beggars with outstretched hands and exhausted faces in the cities. It’s an ominous intimation of how we in the UK could come to a ruder understanding of what it is like to be one of the PIGS if more of our own fall through the Covid-19 gaps being created.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so complacent about that old alliance

The finalisation of Brexit—for many, another rod made for our own backs—while I have been on the European mainland benefiting from the hospitality of our oldest ally has certainly given me pause: we must not let the failures of the European Union’s political body distract us from how the continent of Europe contains an astonishing array of countries and peoples that we would be mad to turn away from. The mutual support and friendship manifested in the likes of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance has served us before, and we must not be complacent about the need again, now, for such cooperation. Nor should we forget the ideals and values that have underpinned those alliances, especially with many Western countries apparently facing a new type of Bonapartist enlightened absolutism and imperialism—primarily in the form of a puritanical blend of far-left wokery mixed with Covid-19 strictures—squeezing the life, vitality and independent thought out of our societies.

Just nibbling on a tasty cream custard nata should serve as a reminder of the potential dangers of eager reforming forces. According to a tiled wall inscription inside the Porto café opposite the pink-haired busker, these tarts originally came from the bakeries of the country’s 17th-century monasteries and convents, most of which had to close in the aftermath of Portugal’s Liberal Revolution of 1820. Their giant looming structures remain prominent in the cities I have passed through—abandoned or in the process of being converted into a hotel, a striking indication of where human priorities now lie.

Two hundred years after that Portuguese liberal reckoning, another year dawns in a new age of remaking the world beyond Portugal’s previously welcoming borders—following reports of a new variant of the Covid-19 virus, the Portuguese government announced that travel to the country by UK nationals isn’t permitted, except for essential purposes. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so complacent about that old alliance.

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