As long as I feel the fresh breeze in my hair And see the sun shining strong on the leaves, I will not ask for more. What better thing could destiny grant me? Other than the sensual passing of life in moments Of ignorance such as this one? – Ricardo Reis
The weather was forgiving; light sweaters were all I required. I had only one day of rain. My walking terrain was pastoral; I walked through picturesque villages where the countryside was waking and bursting with the energy of spring.
People were warm, open and engaging – even with my few words of Portuguese, I was welcomed.
I was smitten. As the poet said, “the fresh breeze in my hair, the sun shining on the leaves”. It was enthralling, more than enough for a walker like me: “the sensual passing of life in moments of ignorance” describes it perfectly.
Two years later I returned for a month. Curious, I wanted to see Portugal through a different lens; from my narrow focus on pilgrimage, I wanted to experience a more robust, complex, complete Portugal. It was a chance for a personal reappraisal, a chance to affirm or revise memories, a chance to see Portugal through the eyes of friends. Truthfully, it was also an opportunity to escape from a dreary month of clouds, rain and (shudder) snow to Lisbon, which has more sunlight hours and more sunny days than any other in Europe. I know – I was surprised too!
This trip was markedly different; I was amazed at the contrast. This time I returned with four friends, my aloneness had fled in alarm. Our group, sophisticated, worldly travelers of a certain age made sure I experienced a vastly different mode of travel. My basic needs are paleozoic; not now, with my group I am forced to be cosmopolitan – we chose a modern, well-appointed apartment in the Baixa-Chaido district of old Lisbon, luxurious by my standard.
Whereas before I had explored little off my pilgrim trail, choosing to save my energy and my feet for tomorrow’s trek; this time we rode the trolleys, explored the castles, marveled at churches, walked the cobblestoned back streets, poked into alleyways and searched out oddities.
We cheered on Benfica, our newly adopted Football team.
It was a cacophonous forced march of the sights and sites of Portugal, challenging my inner hermit.
My last trip required fuel, amply supplied by ham/cheese on a tasty Portuguese buns (highly addictive, be careful) and tortillas (think potato and chorizo frittatas); this time, after extensive discussion that thankfully did not deteriorate into fistfights, we dined and dined and dined. We tested local foods, sought out carefully curated culinary experiences and sampled anything that looked off-beat and epicurious.
We mastered the Portuguese train system, chugged our way to Porto for walking tours of their churches, monuments and history. We journeyed to the beautiful enclave of the Duoro Valley for wine and Port tastings. We whizzed in and out of the famous university at Coimbra, summited the Moorish ruins, whimsical castles and national palaces at Sintra, shopped our way through the carefully manicured castle at Obidos, the mournful, soulful Fado.
Since I was a tourist now, I had no excuse, no choice but to keep up. With five independent minds churning to explore EVERYTHING and with five different opinions on what was vital, it was a busy time.
Fernando Pessoa was a beloved turn of the century Portuguese poet and eccentric who died in 1935, leaving a wild untended garden of writings under other pseudonyms (heteronyms he called them – fully fleshed out personas that allowed him to take on distinct personalities). One of these was the above-noteed Ricardo Reis.
The best way to travel is to feel. To feel everything in every way. To feel everything excessively. Because all things are, in truth, excessive. And all reality is an excess, a violence. An extraordinarily vivid hallucination. – Fernando Pessoa
Reis and Pessoa offer cogent bookends for my two Portugals; that they are, in truth, the same person – Pessoa – is both instructive and serendipitous.
I’m grateful for my four intrepid guides/friends for introducing me to the abundant pleasures of this more complex, deeply textured Portugal.
I am, as always, deeply respectful of the generosity of spirit and kindness of strangers in a strange land. Their many tender mercies provide the most lasting memories. Jumbled and scrambled though they are, we’ve met and surpassed Pessoa’s admonition to “feel everything excessively”.
Portugal is abundantly excessive.